Literary Tourism: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast is a conflicted, fascinating place. Surrounded by a horseshoe ridge of steep hills, the Northern Irish capital is hemmed by green. Derek Mahon’s Spring in Belfast, one of his many great poems about the place, captures the contrast between grey streets and the verdant ridges that hover above: “…keeping an eye on the hill/At the top of every street, for there it is/Eternally, if irrelevantly, visible”. EM Forster recognised this dissonance too, describing it as “unreal yet squalid”.

It is a place where culture and history is strong enough to warp and bend language. The turn of phrase used to describe the bloody sectarian conflict that marked the city is ‘The Troubles’, which impressively manages to be both a truism and a euphemism.

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Beauty and rubble. Faith and fatalism. Craic and conservatism. Belfast has all in abundance. With its well-trodden and knotted history, it is little wonder that it has produced so many great writers. C.S. Lewis, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon have all called it home. What better way to make sense of the sometimes senseless than to untangle thoughts on the page?

Thankfully a visit to the city is also good for the soul, not just for chin-stroking introspection. Since the ceasefires of the 1990s the city has lifted its eyes from its navel, seen how the rest of the world works, and decided it would like a bit of that.

So while you’re gorging on the city’s literary offerings, lift your own eyes and see the fantastic pubs, beautiful Victorian architecture, and revitalised city quarters. And don’t forget to chat to the brilliant locals – many of whom are probably members of my family.

The average taxi driver in Belfast is as good a yarn spinner as some of the city’s more famous sons and daughters. Plus they’re a great repository for Game of Thrones gossip. On that note, let’s get this literary tour on the road.

Through the wardrobe – On the trail of C.S. Lewis

Startling fact: the C.S. in his name stands for Clive Staples. It’s slightly jarring to know that the writer of one of the most beloved fantasy series sounds like the manager of an office supply chain. But then, his gift was to imbue the everyday with stardust. Did children believe wardrobes to be magical before Lewis?

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Lewis was born in east Belfast in 1898. He moved to Oxford in 1916, where he later would pen The Chronicles of Narnia. But his home town never forgot him. A wonderful statue of the writer was unveiled near the Holywood Arches to mark the centenary of his birth. It depicts Lewis getting out of his writing chair, turning and walking into a wardrobe.

Growing up near here, one of my teachers told our class about the Lewis family home. It still lay on the slopes of a Belfast hill, he would say in a hushed voice, and in one of the top rooms, under a dustsheet, was a magnificent wardrobe. Part of me has been searching for it ever since.

A special C.S. Lewis tour of Belfast is available for those who want to go wardrobe hunting too.

Winter is coming

Forget the Falls and the Shankhill – Belfast is home to even more notorious quarters. King’s Landing, Winterfell, and Castle Black all lie within its city limits. The Red Wedding happened here.

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Belfast, you see, is the main hub for HBO’s adaptation of the Game of Thrones series. A massive sound stage in an old dock, close to where the Titanic was built, is now home to George R.R. Martin’s iron throne. The majority of the interior shots are done here. The surrounding countryside is a surrogate Westeros. For those who watch the show, any exterior shots whose predominant colour scheme is either green or grey, that’s Northern Ireland.

Again, tours are available. Whether you do them atop a direwolf is unclear.

For the promotion of knowledge (and a cracking tray bake)

With the city hall at your back, cross the street, climb the thin staircase through the door marked Linen Hall Library and enter the city’s beating bookish heart. Founded in 1788 as the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, this handsome, wood-clad haven has been heralding the power of the written word for more than 200 years. It is the perfect place to lose yourself in books, literally and metaphorically. Those are some impressive book shelves. It does a great cuppa too.

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Poetry’s young guns

Queens University is the city’s brain. It was here in the 1960s that a gaggle of exciting young poets formed the Belfast Group. It’s counted Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon among the ranks that would support and eviscerate each other’s work. It was basically Fight Club for writers. The weekly gatherings were orchestrated by lecturer Philip Hobsbaum, who was British poetry’s Gandalf – he forged similar magical groups of poets in Glasgow, London and Cambridge.

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The following decades would make it seem that the city gave up on the questioning nature of these writers. But they never gave up on it. The Troubles and the city would be the bloodied muse for many of the Belfast Group’s finest work. When Belfast was at its darkest, its people wrote poetry.

Heaney would go on to win the Nobel Prize and be considered one of the finest poets of the last half century. Queen’s University now has a poetry centre dedicated to his name.

A poet, a pie and a pint

Pre-dating the Belfast Group poets was the writer John Hewitt, a man who stuck out like a sore thumb in Northern Ireland. He was a committed radical, a man of the left, and an activist in the Belfast Peace League. He also has one of the best pubs in the city named after him. The John Hewitt opened in 1999 and is a haven for writers, musicians and artists. Have a pint of Guinness under the bust of Hewitt (he’s the dude with the perma-pipe) while watching one of their regular live events like the annual reading to mark the main man’s birthday (pictured below), organised by the ace John Hewitt Society.

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Other great live literature events in the city include readings by The Lifeboat, Literary Lunchtimes at the Ulster Hall, and the ever-growing Belfast Book Festival. Also, don’t miss No Alibis, the country’s only book shop dedicated to crime.

A few minutes from The John Hewitt you’ll find Writer’s Square, where the flagstones underfoot quote some of the best words every written in by some of Belfast’s finest. Take the Belfast Literary Walking Tour to find out more.

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