By Jack Holland
BELFAST — Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, has been a boom town more than once. Back at the turn of the century it was the fastest-growing city in the British Isles, larger than Dublin, a bustling industrial center which boasted having the biggest shipbuilding yard in the world — a city of distilleries, linen, rope and engineering works. It was known as Linenopolis. Its self-confidence was reflected in the ornate marble of its City Hall, an Edwardian architectural extravaganza that has dominated the city center since 1906. Alas, another boom came to Belfast in the 1970s.
With its industries in decline, its center dying, and its population shifting to the outskirts, the city was hit both by economic recession and a wave of political violence which lasted for more than 20 years. Car bombs left whole stretches of the downtown area desolate and deserted. Hotels closed. Theaters and cinemas became things of the past. Restaurants, dance halls, and cafes all closed their doors. People stayed close to home. Only the Europa Hotel remained in the downtown area, towering over Gt. Victoria Street, defiantly offering the hope of a temporary escape in the form of a night out. And by 1977 the Europa had been bombed 28 times.
Under such circumstances, the idea of attracting tourists to Belfast was somewhat far-fetched. But now that has changed as the city undergoes yet another transformation, one as dramatic as either of the others.
By the late 1980s, the currents of city’s night life were flowing south, along Gt. Victoria Street, Botanic Avenue, Shaftsbury Square, and University Road. New restaurants such as the award-winning Roscoff’s sprang up as the first signs of revitalization began to appear. The area is still thriving, with new hotels opening such as Benedict’s in Bradbury Place near Shaftsbury Square. But a visit to Belfast reveals that what used to be the old hub of its social and entertainment activity — roughly speaking the area between the City Hall and the River Lagan — is now undergoing its own renaissance.
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The Belfast Waterfront Hall and Conference Center led the way when it first opened its doors in January 1997. Shaped rather like a huge flying saucer, it dominates the city’s riverside, the way the City Hall does the center. It has an enormous 2,235-seat auditorium, as well as bars and restaurants. In early July, as a sign of the new confidence that (in spite of the continuing political difficulties) the bad old days of political violence were gone, 600 members of the British Medical Association held their annual conference at the Waterfront Hall, returning to Belfast for the first time in 37 years. The Waterfront Hall investment has sparked a whole series of new riverside endeavors, the most ambitious of which is the Odyssey Project, just a few minutes’ drive from the hall across the Lagan.
According to Gareth White, the chief executive of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, the plan envisions "a 7,500-square-foot indoor area — including as basket ball court, an indoor running track and an ice hockey facility." Odyssey will have 100,000 square feet of bars and restaurants. The building is under way, covering what was a large, semi-abandoned area of 23 acres on the east shore of the river. Its estimated cost will be in the region of $150 million.
In years gone by, the riverside and docks region of the city was a lively place. During the day the carts trundled along its cobble-stoned thoroughfares ferrying goods from the docks to their destinations. At night, dozens of theaters, music halls and cinemas drew the crowds. Victoria Square, just off Victoria Street, was at the center of the city’s entertainment life in those days. Now all that remains of that period is the Kitchen Bar, which stands at the corner of Church Lane, opposite to where the old Empire Theater once stood. However, according to White, that could soon change if plans for a $125 million development of the square get started. They would include a large-scale retail and leisure complex, with a hotel, bars and restaurants.
Already, a new hotel has opened in Victoria Street. McCausland’s occupies what were once two 19th century seed warehouses, for some reason or other built by rival merchants side by side. The magnificent four-story Victorian structure is one of only 188 category "A" listed buildings in Northern Ireland and its facade has been preserved. Its gray stone is carved with reliefs of eagles, chicks in nests, squirrels and tortoise heads. Most striking of all, however, are the four carved faces representing the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceana and America. These remain, but the sounds of cart wheels trundling off with loads of seed is definitely a thing of the past.
It was an imaginative stroke to turn the building into a small luxury hotel, Belfast’s first, and a sister to the famous Hibernian Hotel in Dublin. McCausland’s opened in January 1999. It has 60 bedrooms and boasts a top-notch restaurant, Merchants, whose chef is Dubliner Eamonn O Cathain. O Cathain made his name in the Irish capital as the chef of Chez Beano. He also supervises the meals in the Marco Polo, the hotel’s bar-cafe, which means that it has some of the best pub food in the country, and at reasonable prices.
The redesign retained the old pillars and beams of the warehouse. Also remaining is something of the spirit of middle-class luxury and propriety of the Victorian era. The hotel is near the Albert Memorial — a clock tower which has stood since Victorian times at the foot of High Street. Slightly tilted, it is a sort of combination of Big Ben and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. One of the charming features of McCausland’s is that from the bedrooms one can hear the clock strike the hour, a reassuring sound that has resonated around the streets since 1867. The citizens of the city used to gather at the base of the tower on Dec. 31 and celebrate the first chimes of the New Year by hurling bottles at the clock face. None of them ever managed to strike their target, and the tradition died out in the late 1960s.
Whatever happens to the riverside developments, the new hotel boom continues in other parts of the city. According to White, in 15 months there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of hotel beds in Belfast, which now stand at 2,500. One of the most recently opened is Benedict’s, in Bradbury Place, on the city’s south side. This 36-room property is perhaps most famous for its neo-Gothic bar and restaurant, which can accommodate 1,000 people. It is an exotic environment in which to eat and drink, rather like being inside a 17th century church organ. Benedict’s is the brainchild of brothers Paddy and Edmund Simpson, from Donegal. The Simpsons already own several pubs in Donegal and two in Derry. Benedict’s is their first venture into Belfast and it already draws an enthusiastic crowd, attracted by the unique decor. This includes leather-upholstered high chairs and, behind the bar, an altar from a private chapel in the south of France. However, according to the brothers, the most important ingredient in Benedict’s success is the same as in old good pubs.
"The secret of the Irish bar is that its a social space," they said. And, they added, "You won’t go to a better party than you’ll get in Belfast."
A single room at McCausland’s, with full Irish breakfast, will cost £130 sterling. Telephone: 44-1232- 220200
A single room at Benedict’s costs £60 sterling, including full Irish breakfast. Telephone: 44-1232-591999.