In a city scarred by the Troubles, the next generation is sweeping away the rubble and staying out all night
In central Belfast heaps of brick line the street, slabs of concrete rise from the ground, and gaping pits belch clouds of dust. The effect is unsettling, as if at any moment the pavement might give way. But the disorder, in a city made famous by decades of IRA bombings, speaks of a very different—and welcome—sort of explosion. The steel skeletons looming over Adelaide Street merely suggest what the signs at ground level proclaim: the arrival of luxury housing such as MARGARITA PLAZA—PRESTIGIOUS APARTMENTS IN THE HEART OF BELFAST.
"Ten years ago, nobody wanted to live here," says Eric Nonacs. Nonacs currently works in New York for Cooperation Ireland, a nonprofit organization that promotes exchange between Northern Ireland and the Republic. He has been involved with the peace process in one capacity or another since 1994 and has agreed to show me around. This is only my second trip here, but the progress made in little more than a year is remarkable. Everywhere we go, walls are being painted, tiles replaced, wood buffed to a high gloss.
EVEN SIX YEARS AGO, THE CENTER OF BELFAST WAS A GHOST TOWN AFTER-HOURS. Buildings sat unused, pubs were largely empty, and shops closed down in the afternoon. But now, even though the occasional military-style Royal Ulster Constabulary vehicle trolls the street, Belfast feels like any other city with a normal, thriving street life. (Avoid the height of Marching Season in July, when Protestants parade through Catholic neighborhoods in commemoration of their victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Predictably, there are often confrontations.) In the wake of the cease-fires that began in '94, an increase in international private investment and government funding has made Belfast something of a boomtown—no pun intended.
"In 1994, after the IRA and Loyalist cease-fires, people were still quite wary," Nonacs tells me. "But the political progress during the intervening period—despite the current impasse—has created a palpable sense of renewal and even tentative hope. You can see that in the scores of new bars and shops, restaurants and hotels."
Belfast is such a small city (about 450,000) that just a single new place—a juice bar, a hip body-care emporium, a foodie restaurant can spark a transformation. Most of these are clustered in three neighborhoods: the city center, which radiates from Donegall Square, with its Edwardian city hall; the University area; and the Laganside waterfront. But in a way, much of what is new in Belfast is still old, since renovation is an architectural specialty. The Spires Mall, for instance, is built in the shell of an old Gothic church and houses a Diesel outpost, a home-design store called Coppermoon, and a small bookshop. Just down the block is the Europa, the most frequently bombed hotel in Europe, which despite various efforts at rebuilding or perhaps because of them is something of an eyesore, with a concrete rotunda slapped on the front of a Soviet-style gray-and-teal tower.
Deane's, with a Michelin star, is probably the best restaurant in Belfast, and one of the anchors of this area's revitalization. Here, chef-owner Michael Deane, who doesn't like to be called a fusion chef, serves dishes that nonetheless fuse Thai, Indian, and Chinese flavors with Irish cuisine.
YET THE NEW BELFAST RESTS UNEASILY IN THE SHADOW OF THE OLD, most dramatically at the waterfront, five years ago the jagged edge of a divided city and now a testament to a cautious optimism. On one side of the Lagan River are restaurants and home improvement stores and a Hilton; just across, the yellow cranes of Harland & Wolff, which built the Titanic, punch up toward the sky. The two inverted L's are hulking reminders of an industry that is now itself something of a sinking ship.
Peter McKittrick, in his late twenties, is an earnest, upwardly mobile sort who spent time abroad before returning home to work first at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and now at the American Consulate. He predicts that, if the peace holds, within the next 10 years this area will rival Temple Bar, Dublin's cluster of stylish restaurants, bars, and hotels. "People feel safe going out," McKittrick says. "When I was eighteen, a pub was either Protestant or Catholic, but now people are going to pubs and socializing together."
One example of the type of place McKittrick is talking about is McHugh's. Carved out of an old brothel and an even older pub, it's one of several establishments owned by Jas Mooney, who, at 36, has become a kind of one-man urban-renewal juggernaut. Raised a Catholic on the Malone Road—"probably the more salubrious end of Belfast," he says, meaning one that didn't see much violence—Mooney is typical of the new entrepreneurs, and among the most successful. Well-traveled from an early age, he seems determined to help Belfast pull itself into a more cosmopolitan, secular, and decidedly European future. Beginning with the Botanic Inn, a pub that had been in his family for years, Mooney bought and renovated a succession of bars and hotels, including the Fly, Madison's Hotel, and the Rotterdam, in the University area and the Laganside, and he has two more in the works.
All of Mooney's bars are ragingly popular; come Saturday night, there are throngs of the young, affluent, and thirsty outside McHugh's vying to get in. But his first pub is still, in some ways, the best. Like a glowing, decadent temple, the Botanic Inn stands high on a crest of the Malone Road near Queen's University. Our friend Mark says the Bot, as it is fondly called, is his favorite bar because he always runs into people he knows. But it's also a good place to go if you want to feel instantly intimate with 200 strangers.
TO GET A SENSE OF WHY BELFAST, LONG SYNONYMOUS WITH VIOLENCE and hatred, is suddenly so vibrant, we stop in on Paul Arthur, professor of politics at the University of Ulster and one of the country's foremost commentators on the peace process. "For the first time in our history, people have said, 'We can control our own destiny.' It's not the politicians in the assembly who control it," says Arthur. "It's not Tony Blair, it's not Bertie Ahern [the Irish prime minister], it's not Bill Clinton. And therefore we feel that this is our peace. All those factors, I think, have been very important in inducing this sense of normality."
We are talking in the downstairs parlor of the quaint Victorian town house that Arthur, who runs the university's graduate program in peace and conflict studies, shares with his wife, Margaret, a printmaker, and Daniel, the youngest of their three children. The house is in Bangor, a charming seaside town 20 minutes outside Belfast. Less charming is the train ride past the working-class neighborhoods along the tracks, which offer a fleeting tableau of children surrounded by graffiti and murals dedicated to the greater glory of the Loyalist paramilitaries.
Here in Bangor, as in central Belfast, money has demonstrated its unerring ability to paper over difference. Even though it's easy to sidestep the conflict in Belfast, there are still areas ringing the city where it's clearly present. In the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road, perhaps the most historically sectarian communities in Belfast and the sites of some of the most horrific violence during the Troubles, some estimates put unemployment as high as 70 percent (Northern Ireland's rate as a whole hovers around 6 percent), and the educational standards are among the worst in Britain. "For the most part, the Troubles didn't strike the middle class directly," Arthur says. "People like me—lawyers, academics, journalists—oversaw the conflict from a distance."
Where the Troubles did strike, they struck hard, and you can't miss the signs: political murals on every corner, pub windows covered in wire grating, surveillance cameras on the rooftops, and a snaky network of peace walls—barriers that mark the borders of Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Since 1994, a company called Black Taxi Tours has been shuttling interested passengers around these neighborhoods, narrating their history. According to our guide, Paul, five new peace walls have gone up in Belfast in the past year, mostly in the north, where allegiances shift from street to street. "As long as the walls remain," Arthur says, "they will be a warning to us that in fact we don't have peace."
AT SHANKS—A MICHELIN-STARRED RESTAURANT ON THE GUINNESS ESTATE in Bangor—any sense of the Troubles, past, present, or future, couldn't be farther away. Upon entering, Eric Nonacs and I are led up to an airy, modernist lounge furnished in blond wood and jewel-toned velvet couches, where we meet our friends Dawn and Michael, two of many young progressives moving to the city center. In the dining room downstairs, the walls are lined with limited-edition Hockney prints owned by the Guinness family, and the nouvelle-continental food is, as Dawn, an event planner in her early thirties, puts it, "gorgeous."
By the time we return to our hotel in Laganside, a bouncer has ins- talled himself at the door, attempting to organize a crowd of revelers, some decked out in skimpy, spangly dresses and stiletto heels despite the damp chill. Most of the hotels have pubs with live music on weekends to help attract crowds during the low tourist seasons, and ours, the McCausland, is no different.
But the coolest new place in Belfast, at least for the moment, and the one that most evokes the spirit of Dublin or London, is BT1. The bar, which takes its name from central Belfast's postal code, sits underneath Robinson's, a lively pub on Great Victoria Street near the Europa, and has the feel of the basement rec room your aunt might have had if she'd been a Jetson. It is one of the few bars in Belfast with low lighting and consistently fabulous patrons. The walls are silver-painted brick, the furnishings—space-age retro—are close to the ground, the music is trancey ambient techno, and the wine list offers oddball descriptions such as this: "Faustino VII Rioja—the wee man with the beard!" And then there's the bathroom: unisex, with a kind of wacky Betsey Johnson aesthetic (animal prints, plastic spiders embedded in the toilet seats). Eddie, a stout bartender who also works upstairs at Robinson's, explains that he's half expecting the Free Presbyterians—Northern Ireland's equivalent of the Moral Majority—to try to shut the place down. "Ten years ago, when the bars opened on Sunday, they protested," he says, "and then again when the shops opened on Sunday. So now you'll probably get them down here—unisex toilets and all that."
Of course, it took a while for customers to adjust to the idea, but now it's no big deal, and to some, it's even a draw. As Eddie says with a laugh, in all his years of pub service, he has "never seen so many men washing their hands."
Diane Cardwell is a story editor at the New York Times Magazine and has written for Vogue and Elle.
McCausland Hotel 34-38 Victoria St.; 44-2890/220-200;doubles from $236.
BARS AND RESTAURANTS
Deane's 36-40 Howard St.; 44-2890/560-000; dinner for two $115.
Botanic Inn 23 Malone Rd.; 44-2890/660-460.
Café Aero 44 Bedford St.; 44-2890/244-844.
Shanks The Blackwood, Crawfordsburns Rd., Bangor; 44-2891/853-313; dinner for two $102.
BT1 38-40 Great Victoria St.; 44-2890/238-191.
SHOPS AND GALLERIES
Ormeau Baths Gallery 18A Ormeau Ave.; 44-2890/321-402.
Lush 7 Castle Lane; 44-2890/438-672.
Black Taxi Tours 44-2890/642-264; two-hour tours are $31 per couple.