“IS it just me or has everything turned red, white and blue?” We’re just a few metres down the famous Shankill Road in West Belfast where Union Jack flags are strewn from one side to the other as far as the eye can see causing me to come to an abrupt and startled stop.
We’ve been in Belfast a mere day and for once we’ve timed our arrival into a city with a significant event – in fact it’s none other than the 12th of July celebrations (otherwise known as “Orange Day”). Mere hours beforehand I’d struggled to admire the stunning Northern Irish scenery as shooting pains swept from my black and blue backside down my legs during the easy 50km cycle from Larne to Belfast but faced with the biggest annual day of the Protestant dominated region I quickly forget my aching buttocks.
As we stroll through the historical street that housed some of the most horrendous riots, bombings and turmoil of North Ireland’s “troubles” our hosts David and Frances (who are friends of friends and have offered to put us up for three days) talk us through the murals and heartbreaking tributes that line this road and what it means to be a Loyalist on the biggest day of the year.
Since arriving at their home – which sits just minutes from Shankill Rd – we’d been showered with tea, sandwiches and that wonderful Irish hospitality, but as the flags fluttered in the afternoon breeze they spoke sadly of the great divide that still existed in Belfast and the murals that depicted Protestant deaths at the hands of the IRA. While it’s been a long time since a bus or building was bombed in the poor battered city the flag protests continue and for a moment I wonder if these 12th of July celebrations will spell yet more trouble.
Just metres further down the road a handful of loyalists have built a bonfire to burn two Republican flags.
Despite the divide the air of festivity grows as we wander further down the road before stopping for a pint in the Duke of York which sits in a gorgeous cobble-stoned lane.
Following more feasts courtesy of the kind and warm David and Frances we head into the Titanic quarter the following day with pants considerably tighter and legs well rested after a glorious night in a warm and cozy bed.
This is the main reason tourists flock to the heart of Belfast and with Celine Dion’s warbling tune firmly in my head we wander around to check out where the famous ship was built while turning up our noses at the exhibition which costs a whopping £15 each to enter.
With a twinkle in their eyes the Irish will happily tell you the Titanic “was fine when it left” but jokes aside it’s phenomenal to check out the very beginnings of this troubled ship.
That night the Orange Day eve celebrations kick off with big concerts and the lighting of the bonfires (enormous pyramid-shaped towers made of stacked pallets) attracting everyone from locals to nearby Scots (who come over in boatloads) resulting in one hell of a party and one hell of a trashed town.
Saturday dawns in a haze of smoke from the still smoldering bonfires and we head into the city to watch the epic parades which hundreds march in from each of Belfasts’ districts alongside visiting bands from Scotland. A “wee” hangover hasn’t stopped most of them lining up to watch or to even participate in the march and a huge contingency of marching Scotsman stop right beside us knocking back cans of Fosters and dragging us over for hugs and photos while waving the blue cans in our face.
We don’t have the heart to tell them Fosters is far more popular in the UK than it ever will be in its “home” of Australia and soon we’re laughing hysterically at their outrageous stories before they reluctantly pick their drums back up to keep marching.
By the end of the day a solid drizzle has turned into steady rain marking the end of our blissful stay in Belfast as wonder how our pudgy bellies are going to squeeze back into the cycling shorts in preparation for the next leg – a wee wander down to County Clare in the Republic of Ireland.
This wild county sits over in the west of the island but for me the journey’s more than just about checking out the spectacular scenery. Much of my family has been traced back to this spot and while I’m almost sixth generation Australian I’m desperate to find out just where my roots were buried hundreds of years ago.