There’s more to Belfast than peace walls

Arthur Magee - Ambassador of the humane to humanity

How could you not love a face like that? It’s playwright and tour guide Arthur Magee. He has a bee in his bonnet about the type of tourism that goes on in Belfast – sometimes called “terror tours”. You know the sort of thing – here’s the Falls Road, here’s the Shankill, here’s where he was shot and she was blown up.

Anything wrong with it? Maybe not. Can be educational, even respectful. And it’s clearly part of the history and undeniably internationally known. I’ve even done it myself in an informal way for foreign mates who, to my surprise, had studied Northern Ireland at college. Odd to think of yourself as a laboratory specimen.

But though Norn Irn’ers have been known to revel in their notoriety and believe – or demand – that the world revolves round them (“Never mind the fall of the Berlin Wall – what about the Apprentice Boys wanting to march across the Ormeau Bridge!?!) – you can imagine that it can become tiresome to feel that visitors see you solely in the context of the Troubles. A bit like being in a zoo too. In the cage.

Brendan Deeds - writer

Which is why Arthur Magee has come up with an alternative. And Brendan Deeds has written about it on the Culture Northern Ireland website. I liked it, so I’ve copied it here:

A few years ago a friend from out of town convinced me to join her on a bus tour of Belfast. In the company of wide-eyed visitors from Dayton Ohio, giggling Spanish teens and a polite Japanese couple, we were driven past gable walls, Peace walls and the docks, where the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic was built. Seeing visitors spoon fed these dated signifiers of Northern Ireland’s capital city was depressing. Belfast is much more than a synonym for conflict and tragedy… isn’t it?

Arthur Magee believes that Belfast and its visitors are being severely short changed. For the past couple of years he has trodden the sodden streets of the city with a walking tour that he insists introduces tourists to an unseen Belfast, one in which bullets, bigots and that all too sinkable ship are all but irrelevant.

Who needs the Taj Mahal when you have peace walls on the tourist trail?

Now he has adapted his award-winning walking tour for the stage in his one man show, There’s More to Belfast Than Walls. ‘The term Peace Wall is a piece of journalistic spin,’ Magee asserts. ‘The Peace Walls are monuments to hatred. One day I saw a coach load of tourists take photos of the Peace wall on the Shankill Road as if it was the Mona Lisa and that upset me. I thought, “There’s more to Belfast than this.” That is why I started the tour.

‘I’m not denying the problems in Belfast. We are prisoners of history here but there is so much vibrancy in the people and that is what is one of the city’s greatest assets. My walking tour doesn’t focus on the murals or conflict, mine is about bridging the divisions. It is as much about the people who come here as it is about the city itself.’

Magee has quite a history himself. During the height of the Manchester music scene in the 1980s, for instance, he was signed to the Ugly Man independent record label, worked with Martin Hannett, and can personally claim to have brought The Stones Roses to Northern Ireland.

Magee is proud of the fact that There’s More to Belfast Than Peace Walls isn’t funded by the Arts Council. And he is keeping the DIY spirit of punk alive and well in his show. ‘The Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street,’ he observes, ‘is arguably the most important building in Belfast, if not the whole island. There is a radicalism in that Presbyterian Church that is alive today. Its earliest members included Edward Harland and Thomas Andrews, not to mention Thomas McCabe, who opposed the formation of the Belfast Slave Ship Company. ‘It also part-funded the building of the first two Catholic churches in Belfast. It’s rare for certain religious denominations to fund others, but for that to happen in Belfast, a city known for its religious intolerance, is nothing short of a miracle.’

Anti-slavery activist & rebel - father & son

It is places such as the Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church that are often overlooked by the mainstream tourist trails. By focussing on these sites and landmarks, Magee encourages his audience to learn about and enjoy a wider narrative of Belfast’s history. Whilst highlighting some forgotten or less known aspects of the city’s past, Magee also tries to reinterpret the new Belfast developing and growing before our eyes.

Gone are the days when the only construction in Belfast centred around the re-building of oft-bombed Europa Hotel. These days, the cranes are never out of view. The Victoria Centre, the new Lyric Theatre, the Mac and Titanic Visitor’s Centre are symbols of a new dawn for the city that is so sorely scarred by the violence of its recent past.

‘I like some of it,‘ Magee comments, ‘but it’s almost like we had a catalogue called Make Yourself a Modern City and we thought, ‘What’s this, item 232? Spirit of Belfast? We’ll have one of those”. It’s alright, but there is so much more we could be doing, like building a more fair society with better hospitals and schools. ‘Belfast used to be called the Boston or Athens of the North, but what is it now?’

Magee answers his own question with a quote. ‘I’m always reminded of the line by George Bernard Shaw. ‘We are made wise not by the recollection of our past but by the responsibility of our future”.’ Each city is a palimpsest. It is as much a document written by a people than it is bricks and mortar. Each successive generation shapes the space, and their stories are written in its architecture. For too long our stories have been of division, but Belfast is changing.

Yes, tourists will always want to see the murals and the Peace Walls, says Magee, but there is now so much more to see. ‘Every time I go to a songwriters night in Belfast,’ says Magee, ‘there is someone who blows me away. I was in Manchester in the 80s and can say that there is more musical talent in Belfast now than there was in Manchester then. That is just the music. I am sure it’s the same in the other arts.’ But not the politics.

While Magee is proud of the passionate, creative spirit of the people in his home town, he is critical of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. ‘Our politics are like the Peace Walls, divisive. We need to engage with each other and invent a new tradition.’ So what about There’s More to Belfast Than Walls? Described by Magee as ‘the walking tour for people too lazy to walk’. It promises a look at the city’s past and present through stories, jokes and maybe even a song or two. ‘What I’ve realised this first opening weekend,’ says Magee, ‘is that the show is changing and evolving. Every night has been different so far and will probably keep going that way. People can expect to be engaged, to learn some interesting things, have some fun.’

Unfortunately this run of Arthur Magee’s stage show is over now. (I blame the appallingly slow pace of posting by the bloke who writes this blog.) But his tours are still going. And they sound jolly good. Here’s a wee film of Arthur…

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29 Comments

Filed under art, history

29 responses to “There’s more to Belfast than peace walls

  1. Well done. It is great when “good news” is actually news and not just pious spin.

    I was very struck by your reference to the Presbyterian church in Rosemary St. having part funded the building of two RC churches in Belfast way back. There is even an echo of this in my own area today with the RC church raising funds for the Anglican church of All Saints, originally build by Lord Ardilaun (Guinness), in Raheny in Dublin’s northside.
    http://photopol.blogspot.com/2011/04/king-jamess-thunder.html

    At the end of the last century (sounds impressive but it only means 1996-2000) I was involved in the EU sponsored Northern Ireland Peace Programme for which the European commitment had been forthcoming through the joint efforts of John Hume and Ian Paisley (both MEPs at the time). That programme had a very shaky start on
    the the ground but it financially underpinned a lot of
    community development both within the two communities
    and across sectarian lines. And it survived the breakdown
    of the ceasefire in 1996.

    There’s always hope.

    I

    • blackwatertown

      I did a project on some churches when I was at school, including St Mary’s Catholic church in the centre of Belfast – Chapel Lane I think, behind Primark at the side of Castle Court – that was the first Catholic church inside city limits when the restrictions on Catholic church building were eased in 1783 – and was part funded by Presbyterians – including the pulpit I think. Also detachments from two units of (the mainly Presbyterian)Volunteers attended the opening.
      Supportive days before the big split in the Irish Presbyterian church and the 1798 rising.

  2. Sounds like I could do with going on one of those tours!

  3. How very interesting and I’d no idea this tour existed. For Anna’s birthday this year I got a groupon deal and took her and a few friends on an Ulsterbus tour of Belfast- and I have to say they and I loved it. Although we drove up the Falls and down the Shankill it was only a small part of it. We saw Queens, Stormount, Titanic Quarter, City Hall and a good many other places-even Nuala with the Hula! Although it was prerecorded and we all wore headphones so it certainly wouldnt have the personality and warmth of Arthur Magee’s tour, it made me proud to be from Belfast! You’re right – the Toubles is unfortunately a huge part of our heritage and unique history but there’s so much more. Emma
    PS- my book arrived this morning- thank you very much- I look forward to reading it. You also write just like Uncle O- I’d no idea writing styles were genetic!

  4. I visited Belfast and Dublin in 1988. Yes, all of 23 years ago, when NI was a very different place than what I am told it is now. I enjoyed my brief two day visit to Belfast as I was escorted everywhere by a local colleague and what struck me most was the spirit and bonhomie of the local populace. Having come just then from London, the pace was different and more comfortable and I thoroughly enjoyed the visit. I look forward to revisiting soon as I now have some new friends who are die hard NIs, no big deal guessing who! This post just reinforces that desire. Thank you.

  5. I think I’ll join speccy on one of those tours. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  6. Reach out … build bridges … see people as they actually are, these words touched me.

  7. I agree with Polo — well done, indeed! This is some of the most refreshing I have read in a long time.

    And I very much resonated with what Maxi had to say: “reach out…build bridges…see people as they actually are.”

  8. Paul – This is the safest place I know to let you know that I didn’t send the Twitter message. My account has been hacked. I received the same message yesterday from author Susan Pohlman. He account had been hacked as well.

  9. That was a great, positive post. I read The Telegraph online everyday. NI looks like a very happening place, especially the nightlife. I’m hoping to make my first visit to IRE when Notre Dame plays Navy ( American college football) in Dublin next year.

    • blackwatertown

      I know it does – especially all the music and book stuff happening in connection with No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue in Belfast http://www.noalibis.com/
      Since I signed up to their email list I’ve been in a constant seethe of envy about what they have going on. And that can’t be right for someone living near London.

    • blackwatertown

      Oh – also – let me know more about the Dublin trip.

      • Will do, and I have been a subscriber to the No Alibis email newsletter for some time now. I get so bummed out reading about all the writers, who I follow and love reading, being at all the events. I would attend every one, if that pesky ocean wasn’t in the way.

  10. It’s interesting that he’s trying to create a new type of tour with less emphasis on conflict and disaster, but actually the tourist organisations are doing that already, pointing out 101 attractions all over Northern Ireland that have nothing to do with the Troubles or the Titanic. But I didn’t know about the radical tradition of the Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church. I must check out his tour one day.

    • blackwatertown

      I suppose one difference between the normal tourist board tours and his sort could be that they try to deny that the Troubles ever happened (I may be being unfair, though that used to be the approach) and Arthur Magee tries to show an alternative despite the Troubles… if that makes any sense. (Me, not him.)

  11. When I get to Belfast, I would like to take his well-balanced tour. Indeed, Belfast is more than Walls. That said, it is difficult to avoid them since some of the most beautiful and sad songs have been written about the troubles and have been sung in concerts by the Irish Tenors here in the States.
    The north-south division remains all of these years since the “war between the states” as southerners prefer to call it. Grammatically it should be war among the states anyway so I avoid the topic.” I had a customer on the phone the other day from Norfolk, Virginia. After listening to my introduction she said pointedly: I’d like to talk with someone from Virginia. I apologized and said “you have reached a national help desk. Should you hang up, you would perhaps be helped by someone from California.”

    • blackwatertown

      Now that is picky.
      She should have been happy to speak with someone in the USA and not India, the Philippines or South Africa (once they get their call centre act together).

  12. Hats off to Arthur Magee and the building of bridges! I appreciate the excellent way he has found to “encourage his audience to learn about and enjoy a wider narrative of Belfast’s history.” If I ever go to Belfast, taking his tour would be a priority… Enjoyed the video, too – thank you.

  13. Hi All

    It’s really heartening to read so many positive comments because it has been a struggle to get this up and going. The first thing to say is that the walking tour and one man show have finished for the winter. It will resume in the new year. I can be contacted at experiencebelfast@gmail.com and there is a Facebook page facebook.com/experiencebelfast. I’m also on twitter @experiencebelfast so if you have any queries please just ask. You can also read reviews of the tour on Trip Advisor just type in Experience Belfast. I’d like to point out that I do not shy away from the ‘troubles’ but I place them in a context. Part of the trouble here is that we are prisoners of history and often large sections of the population do not know our history. I look at the socio economic reasons that we are where we are today and relate them to the people who attend the show or tour. It sounds grand I know but I try to make it funny and good fun as well. Every other year I organise a ‘Good Vibes from Belfast’ gig that accents the positive here and last year’s celebrated Thomas McCabe. I hope to set up a charity, the Friends of Thomas McCabe later in the year to help modern day victims of slavery here. My background is eclectic, having played in an unpopular pop group in Manchester in the 80s so I’ve met one or 2 people and the tours are informed by this perspective. Anyway, thanks again, it’s really appreciated and if you want to get in touch now you know how.

    All the best

    Arthur

  14. Interesting article. That’s a very good idea.

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