Whenever I hear of Northern Ireland, I think of Ian Paisley. Sitting at home during my childhood, after ham, egg and chips for tea I would, due to father being back from work, be forced to watch the news. The city of Belfast is synonymous with the Troubles. I believe that this branding of what was a war to be a little blasé. Troubles are when the car won’t start, the council have forgotten to take your bins, or you find yourself at Sainsbury's on a Sunday at 10.30am with the option of browsing, not buying. In Ireland, the situation was not ‘troublesome’ but devastating, life-changing and society forming.

When I heard Paisley I would, hundreds of miles from the event, be scared witless, but not through anything he said. This was a bear of a man with the most domineering voice, in the middle of a firestorm that supposedly had no answer. It was only last year that I realised that all Belfastonions talk with such ferociously and intensity and that his chutzpah was not the exception, but the Northern Irish norm.

A mural in Belfast. Photo: Pixabay

A mural in Belfast. Photo: Pixabay

It was my first visit to Northern Ireland and one off the bucket list at the age of 40 something. I had been to all other nations of the UK, but this was my inaugural trip to Belfast. I was struck initially as to how much the Troubles weigh over the population. To me, any issues are in the past, although sadly the same can't be said for our government, who insisted in hanging our former servicemen out to dry recently, as the Rolling Thunder group will attest. These ‘troubles’ were not on my mind as we took a cab with a driver who claimed he knew George Best (as did every driver we met during the weekend). He told me he once lived opposite ‘Besty’, so he did, during this childhood, so it was, and used to play with him in the early years and drink with him in the latter.

He explained that Besty would play kerbie. Kerbie is a game where you would throw a ball from one side of the road to the corner of the paving stone on the other so it would bounce back, and you would catch it.

He claimed that Besty did this for 90 minutes solid once without making a mistake. Not only that, but he did not throw the ball, but kicked it. For those of us who have watched this extraordinary talent with awe, it is further proof as to how honing skills on the streets are more beneficial to a child than staring at Fortnite on a television screen.

The people were lovely, although during every conversation they felt they needed to address the Troubles time and again, despite it being on no one else’s minds. I would imagine it was like the Germans all the way up until the 1980s, apologising for their past, or the British now still belatedly feeling the need to address their forefathers' forefathers' colonial indiscretions.

A mural in Shankhill Road, Belfast. Photo: Pixabay

A mural in Shankhill Road, Belfast. Photo: Pixabay

Belfast is now ranked the second safest in Europe. The people, despite shouting and sounding like they want to chin you, are extremely friendly. Generally, when I ask for directions in a foreign land, they play ‘wind up the English’. Not here. It was like shopping in Marks and Sparks when they lead you to the quinoa super grain mix when all you need is general direction. Locals did the same thing, leading me 10 minutes out of their way to a kiss me quick gift shop in which to purchase leprechaun-branded tourist tat for my daughters.

The bars were fantastic, the weather pleasant, the restaurants a delight, as were the sights, including the Titanic museum and the tour of the Shankill Road.

Next time you are planning a romantic weekend away with the better half, stop hovering over Falmouth, Paris or Bilbao and take the plunge with Belfast. You could do a lot worse. Relax, feel safe and enjoy, and there’s not even any need to mention the troubles, as you know they will.

  • Brett Ellis is a teacher