TOURISM was doing a roaring trade in Northern Ireland until the Coronavirus came along. I don’t need statistics and charts to tell me because I could see it with my own eyes. In November 2019 I took a part-time job as a tour guide, chiefly to avoid idleness and to inflate my beer money account. The experience was an eye-opener and I met hundreds of people from all over the world who wanted to know more about our past and the people of Ireland.
Two days a week I toured round Belfast in an open-topped bus delivering a commentary which was a cross between a foundation lecture in Irish history and a stand-up comedy routine. It was a role that came relatively easy to me because I have never been short of things to say and have six decades experience of living and working in this complex society. Many people were kind enough to say they enjoyed my tours and for the first time in years I felt part of an important growth industry. The level of interest was quite astounding and I could see my birthplace in candlelight after years of cursing the darkness.
I was born in Belfast and spent most of my working life in the city, yet I have always felt closer to my family roots in the Seamus Heaney country of south Derry, between the Sperrins and Lough Neagh, which was my childhood playground and my escape from a troubled suburbia. My aunt Jean still lives there at the age of 94. It would appear the Neills first came to Ulster from Scotland in the 19th century to work in the whiskey and linen trades. Today my home and family are in the faded seaside resort of Bangor in county Down but I spend much of my leisure time at the southern end of the Sperrins, in the lakelands of the Fermanagh-Donegal border, where I am also lucky have a home, family and friends.
For much of my career Belfast was a grim place of steel security gates and barbed wire where customers were searched for incendiaries as they entered the shops. Peace walls separated the warring factions at so-called flashpoints between Protestant and Catholic ghettoes. British soldiers patrolled the streets by day and ruthless gunmen roamed after dark. As a newspaper reporter I spent many hours standing at corners waiting for bomb scares to be declared hoaxes. Not all security alerts turned out to be false alarms. The offices of all three of Belfast’s daily newspapers were damaged in explosions. People were murdered on an almost daily basis simply because their neighbours disagreed with their religious beliefs or politics.
At the height of the Troubles I remember attending a Press conference to launch the city’s regeneration plans. I couldn’t help thinking it was pie in the sky. But I was wrong. There were people who could see beyond the bombs and bullets to a time when the city would once again enjoy peace and prosperity. Like the Housing Executive, which took housing out of our toxic politics in the 70s, these planners had vision and made a vital contribution to the city. The industries which made Belfast a workshop of the British Empire in its Victorian heyday have all gone: heavy engineering, textiles and tobacco. Their ghosts still haunt the place: the empty space where the Sirocco Works once stood by the Lagan; the silent linen mills of the Falls Road and the redundant cranes of Harland and Wolff on Queen’s Island. But they are being replaced by the industries of tomorrow: film production, computer software and tourism.
Memorable feature films, made at Titanic Studios in Belfast, include City of Ember with Bill Murray and Saoirse Ronan in 2008 and the Lost City of Zed with Robert Pattinson and Sienna Millar in 2017. Television dramas include The Fall with Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson in 2013. They are planning a sixth series of the police drama Line of Duty with Adrian Dunbar and a new thriller called Bloodlands will star Jimmy Nesbitt. The million pound set of King’s Landing, from Game of Thrones, stands across the road from the studio where much of the epic drama was filmed. Northern Ireland Extras provides casual work for hundreds of people, including my four-year-old grandson Hugo who has appeared in a couple of TV dramas. My old friend Bob Miller sports a ferocious beard which he refuses to shave off in case he is called for a part in the prequel to Thrones. A further £45 million is set to be invested to make Belfast one of the biggest film studios in these islands. The enduring legacy of the Titanic disaster has an extraordinary fascination for people. The iconic Titanic Experience building attracted 900,000 people last year and made almost £5 million. There is something enduring and profound about the tale of the great liner and its doomed passengers that touches people all around the world.
The Queen’s University Computer Science Department is home to a rare Regius professorship which was bestowed by the Queen to recognise exceptional research work. The department undertakes pioneering studies in the field of cyber-security, artificial intelligence and wireless communication. The distinctive rainbow-coloured building churns out graduates who find jobs with nearby American software companies and the internet giant Google plans to open a cyber security centre in the city.
A billion pounds has been invested in new hotels in the last 20 years. A George Best hotel has received planning permission for the centre of the city, a second major Titanic hotel is planned for Queen’s Island. Charles Lanyon’s magnificent Crumlin Road courthouse awaits restoration and investment and hopefully will join the Merchant as a luxury hotel. Though the cruise ships sit idle in Belfast harbour, the tour buses have started again and there is a confidence in the air. Visiting the city in 1845 the British writer William Makepeace Thackeray described Belfast as ‘a hearty place, thriving, and prosperous – as if it had roast-beef for dinner.’
We will have roast beef for dinner once again.
© Maurice Neill 2020