“Belfast is a city which, while not forgetting its past, is living comfortably with its present and looking forward to its future.”
In July 1690, “The War of Two Kings” reached its decisive climax along the Boyne River Valley near the town of Drogheda. The conflict emerged following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Great Britain when the Catholic King James II was deposed by the Protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange. James initially retreated to France, where King Louis XIV offered military and financial support, which James then used to begin his campaign to restore the monarchy. In March 1689, James landed in Ireland with 6,000 French troops and was immediately embraced by the primarily Catholic population. His restoration campaign soon became heavily intertwined with a movement in Ireland toward home rule. Since James found himself leading a predominantly Irish Catholic movement, he reluctantly agreed to declare that the Parliament of England had no right to pass laws for Ireland. He also agreed, again reluctantly, to restore to Irish Catholics the that were lands confiscated from their families after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, by confiscating the lands of those (predominantly Protestants) who opposed him and supported William. This parliament was later named the Patriot Parliament by Irish nationalists. The supporters of James’s claim to the crown became known as the Jacobites.
In response to James’ activities in Ireland, William sent a flotilla of warships to blockade the Irish coast as he prepared for an invasion of the island. Though it took nearly a year to organize, in mid-June 1690, William finally arrived with a fleet of 300 ships at Belfast Lough with an army of 36,000 soldiers and marched on Dublin. The Jacobites then withdrew to the south bank of the Boyne where they took up a defensive position at the village of Drogheda. On 1 July (Julian Calendar; 12 July Gregorian), William attacked the Jacobites and forcing them to retreat in order to avoid being surrounded. Although the battle was not militarily decisive and casualties on both sides were not very high, it was enough for James to abandon Ireland, riding ahead of his army to back to his exile in France. Since he deserted his Irish supporters, James has since been known in Ireland as Séamus an Chaca or “James the shit.”
William’s victory at the Boyne, taken together with James’ flight, might have been the end of the war in Ireland. However, William published very harsh peace terms in the Declaration of Finglas, excluding the Jacobite officers and the Irish Catholic landed class from the pardon he offered to Jacobite foot-soldiers. As a result, Irish Jacobite leaders felt they had no choice but to fight until they received guarantees their lives, property, and civil and religious rights would be respected in a peace settlement. In some ways, this fight would continue on in some form or another for another 300 years. The partition of Ireland along Catholic and Protestant lines along with the harsh occupation imposed by William has led to a long history of tension, which was renewed with increased ferocity following the end of the Irish War of Independence in 1921. In the final months of the conflict over 1,000 British and Irish were killed and 4,500 republicans were imprisoned. The fighting was heavily concentrated in the south near County Cork, Dublin, and Belfast. The violence especially Belfast, was notable for it being highly sectarian and its high number of Catholic civilian victims. The conflict in Belfast became even more intense when the Government Act of Ireland was approved, granting home rule to the south and the retention of the north. The political disagreement over the terms of the treaty led to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. After the resolution of the war, there was a period of relative stability until a chain of events starting in 1969 led to the Northern Ireland Temporary Provisions Act of 1972, was an act on carried out by the British Parliament hat re-introduced direct rule in Northern Ireland and signaled the chain of events that led to a dramatic period in Belfast history remembered as “The Troubles.”
In my opinion two films that best highlight the upheavals of 1970s Belfast are two very fine Daniel Day Lewis performances from the 1990s: In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997). The subject matter of both films help to illustrate the progression of the deescalation of violence that began to take place in Belfast by the 1990s, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought peace to the city after nearly 30 years of unrelenting violence. In the Name of the Father tells the true life story of the Guildford Four, four people falsely convicted of the 1974 IRA‘s Guildford pub bombings, which killed four off-duty British soldiers and a civilian. director Jim Sheridan has perfectly evoked the backdrop against which Gerry Conlon’s (Daniel Day Lewis) story takes place. Though he lives within a political tinderbox, Gerry has no foresight and no native cunning. The film’s edgy, volatile atmosphere and Gerry’s pathetic naivete make his ordeal that much more monstrous as it unfolds. A better plot summary perhaps can come from an over-the-top 90s trailer narration from none other than the late great Don LaFontaine.
The fourteen year long odyssey of the Conlon’s to win their freedom, is an apt metaphor for the decade’s long struggle for peace in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile The Boxer, another fantastic Sheridan-Lewis collaboration, can be considered a sequel of sorts to In the Name of the Father. The film centers on the life of boxer and former Provisional IRA volunteer Danny Flynn, played by Lewis, who is trying to “go straight” after his release from a fourteen year long stint in prison. With reconciliation and the uneasy promise of peace on the horizon, the message of The Boxer is perhaps best summed up by a scene later in the film, where Lewis uncharacterisically seems to break character and address his audience directly. I couldn’t upload the scene but have the quote below:
”Fourteen years I was locked up, and my feelings were locked up inside of me. And now when I get back in the ring again, you can’t imagine what a relief it is to feel the pain, to be back in the world again.”
The pain on view in The Boxer intensifies with the effort to unite Protestants and Catholics in a nonsectarian boxing club, with unflagging hatred and suspicion of the police, with children like Maggie’s son growing up in an atmosphere of time-honored vengeance, and with the high toll that violence takes on its characters. In this interview on what appears to be a no-budget cable access show, Sheridan and Lewis further elaborate on their approach toward film’s hopeful and pragmatic tone.
I first watched both of these films in the late 1990s with my father (In the Name of the Father on home video and The Boxer in theaters), just as peace talks began to take hold. At that time Belfast seemed a far off and dangerous world of uncertainty both in terms of identity and safety. Yet I also felt drawn and fascinated to the idea of a community so clearly divided along ideological, political, and religious lines. My later interest in social justice documentary filmmaking and the need to chronicle divided communities was in part influenced by my early education on the situation in Northern Ireland by my father. My visit to Belfast in 2017, nearly twenty years after the end of the Troubles and my first encounter with the idea of a community divided certainly left me with much to reflect on. The most moving and powerful experience I had during my time in the city was walking along the Belfast Peace Wall. The first peace lines were built in 1969, following the outbreak of the 1969 Northern Ireland riots . They were built as temporary structures meant to last only six months, but due to their effective nature they have become wider, longer and more permanent. Originally few in number, they have multiplied over the years, from 18 in the early 1990s to 48 today; in total they stretch over 21 miles (34 km), with most located in Belfast. Much like the Berlin Wall, the division of the Catholic and Protestant communities have since been lifted, yet the legacy of the division still is clearly visible.
Belfast West historically been the most nationalist of Belfast’s four sections, though it is only in the last few decades that the votes for unionist parties have plunged to tiny levels. The constituency is largely made of a long, slender, belt along the Falls Road and its suburban extensions, with three of the five wards from the staunchly unionist Shankill area now something of a bolt-on, with the peace wall dividing them from the rest of the constituency. The community tensions are still quite visible and the militarized walls have yet to lose their teeth. Though walking through the remnants of such a heated separation, however a common point of connection can be found in the sense of civic pride that emerged from the work carried out during the city’s heyday as the shipbuilding capital of the world and the city’s connection to one of the most famous passenger liner in history: the RMS Titanic.
Today the former shipbuilder’s quarter, has been renamed “The Titanic Quarter” in the ship’s honor. The city’s connection to the Titanic has further been cemented with the completion of Titanic Belfast the “world’s largest Titanic Museum.” Although the popularity of the attraction is obviously fueled by the popularity of the film, the museum takes great effort to showcase aspects of Belfast daily life and the situation of those who went into building the ship itself. Additionally the building is an architectural marvel in its own right and one of the best instances of modern interactive exhibit design that I have ever come across.
The angular construction on the edge of the docks appears as a glittering shard of innovative design; an external facade clad with several thousand three-dimensional aluminum plates, of which two thousand are unique in size and shape, creating a startling textured effect. The four corners of the building represent the Titanic’s bow, jutting into the sky, at the same height as the original ship, giving you a feel for the true scale of the ocean liner. On an alternative take on the design, you could imagine the building to represent a looming iceberg, symbolic of nature’s dominance over the Titanic’s steel and engineering.
The exhibition starts with Belfast’s roots as an industrial center of the Victorian Era, when it was famed as the linen capital of the world, producing huge amounts, from the flax plant, right up to bed sheets for export. The city was so thriving, that its population was bigger than Belfast’s present day number. Setting the scene, superimposed life-size silhouettes are projected on to the walls, so you share the streets with the Victorian Belfast residents as they busy themselves with daily life: walking, talking, shopping, children running and playing – you’re immediately immersed in the era, before the Titanic looms into view. Walking from room to room, you are introduced to the men who designed the most luxurious ship of her time – the designers – their names, faces, backgrounds, wages, and eyewitness accounts of what they were like as managers.
The pride that must have existed in Belfast’s ship-building docks during the Titanic’s construction appears to have lasted a century – present in the museum’s care and attention in creating an exhibition that offers technical design detail, but never overwhelming the user, simply awe-inspiring at each step. Throughout the museum there are touch-screen animations guide you through the ship’s construction in bite-sized explanations, an immersive surround animation gives you a virtual tour through the decks of the ship, and screens beneath your feet take you on an underwater journey to the decaying remains in the Atlantic depths.
Forutnately the museum offers only a brief glimpse of Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio on one wall dedicated to the Art and Culture inspired by the Titanic over the decades and James Cameron is given only a passing mention. This bold and striking museum marks another new beginning for Belfast and is well-worth a visit for anyone intrigued by the fascinating story of the city and the world famous ship it gave birth to.
Following my visit to Titanic Belfast, I went to back to the city center and enjoyed a few drinks at the Crown Liquor Saloon, also the location of the 1947 James Mason film The Odd Man Out. The video below is a tour of this fascinating Victorian-era “Gin Palace”, featured in the 2008 documentary The Crown Jewel. The bar also has the unfortunate reputation of being the epicenter of the bombing campaigns between both the Irish Republican Army and Ulster Defense Volunteers.
The building had been built and rebuilt over a dozen times throughout the Troubles and ultimately the best metaphor of all for the tenacity of the people of Belfast can be found in the vibrancy of the Friday night crowd that comprises of students from Queens University, tourists, and former victims and participants of the Troubles have decided to put differences aside and order another pint.