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Monday, November 7, 2011

Northern Ireland: Giant steps forward

A celebratory programme of events for next year is planned, starting with the Titanic Light Show on April 7 and taking in the Land of Giants carnival in Belfast and the arrival in Londonderry of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

I started my exploration of a resurgent Northern Ireland with a walking tour of Belfast’s 180-acre, dockside regeneration area, joining Reg and a small group of so-called “Titanoracks”. The landmark Titanic Belfast museum, due to open on April 1, is the centrepiece of the project. Plans for its nine galleries include a CGI version of the Titanic on the slipway, a recreation of the first-class cabins and an audio-visual gallery devoted to the folklore that grew out of the Titanic story.

Later, I head across the city centre, a cosmopolitan mix of stately architecture and new boutiques, to the student-favourite Queen’s Quarter, where the Ulster Museum is currently the city’s biggest draw. Television images of Northern Ireland were part of my Seventies childhood but, as I make a beeline for the third-floor history section, I’m amazed how little I know about the area’s development and its culture. It feels like suddenly getting to know my next-door neighbour – and rather enjoying his company.

Next morning, I find the simple stone slab that marks the start of the 120-mile Causeway Coastal Route at Larne, just north of Belfast. The old Antrim coast road, built by the military engineer William Bald in 1832, will lead me through the rural heart of Northern Ireland en route to Londonderry. It’s a road of fire and ice, the limestone, sandstone and basalt cliffs forged long ago by glaciers and volcanoes.

I follow the arc of the coast, stopping at lost-in-time towns and communities: Glenarm, with its walled castle garden, Carnlough with its pretty harbour and Ballycastle with its views to the puffin community at Rathlin Island. The traditions and legends of rural Ireland are etched into the stone-forged, purple heather-hued landscape with tales of wailing banshees and the hardship of the 1845-50 famine commemorated along the way.

I stop in the village of Bushmills, dominated by a huge mural of Finn McCool, Northern Ireland’s mostly wily giant, for a spot of lunch and a whistle-stop look around the Bushmills Distillery, the only surviving whiskey distillery in Northern Ireland. Tour leader Peter Wilson invites me to sample some of Bushmills’ finest malts. “We don’t like ice in our whiskey here,” he deadpans as we prop up the bar, trickling drops of water into a 10-year-old malt aged in bourbon barrels. “I think it’s a Titanic thing.”

From Bushmills it’s just a short drive to the Giant’s Causeway, the Unesco-listed landform that consists of thousands of hexagonal, lava-forged rocks extending into the Atlantic. The angular new visitor centre, grass-roofed and glass-fronted, is taking shape. When complete, it will comprise retail, catering and an interpretation centre based around the landscape and characters of Northern Ireland’s greatest geological natural wonder.

“The north coast is stunning and the causeway is a particularly awe-inspiring sight,” says Max Bryant, the National Trust’s general manager, as we clamber over the basalt rocks. “Every time I come here I appreciate the changes with the light, the weather and the mist.”

The Causeway Coastal Route ends at Londonderry, which was recently named as the UK’s first City of Culture for 2013. Much like Liverpool in the build up to the European Capital of Culture 2008, Londonderry is currently a maze of construction sites, the first fruits of which will be revealed in June with the opening of the new Peace Bridge across the River Foyle. The bridge leads from Guildhall Square to the 26-acre Ebrington regeneration area on the river’s east bank.

1,522 people died aboard the Titanic, but 19 workers at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where it was built, died before it even set sail

This erstwhile Victorian army barracks is earmarked as the city’s new cultural hub, including a maritime museum, an archive, a gallery and a centre devoted to migration. One of the first events confirmed for the year-long cultural jamboree is a Turner Prize exhibition, which is coming to Ebrington in December 2013.

But can Londonderry convince the world it is a cultural powerhouse and finally throw off the shackles of its troubled past, notably Bloody Sunday in 1972? Niall McCaughan, the fast-talking general manager of the city’s Playhouse theatre, believes it can. “The city has a very active cluster of arts organisations, which had their incubation during The Troubles as an outlet for local people,” he explains. “Derry people today are very aware of their cultural identity.”

As the sun breaks through the clouds, I take a guided stroll around the well-preserved city walls, dating from 1614. We pass St Columb’s Cathedral, the Apprentice Boys Hall and look across to the Bogside area of the city, site of events on Bloody Sunday. Graffiti and elaborate murals along the route speak of 30 divided years.

“As a seven year-old, I used to walk to school with a packed lunch and a handkerchief soaked in vinegar for the CS gas,” says my walking guide, Nuala Griffiths. But Nuala was among the crowd in Guildhall Square in June last year when the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday gathered for the reading of the Saville Inquiry. When the thumbs-up sign came, she hugged the person next to her and cried. It felt, she says, like a weight being lifted from the city.

I feel it too. Walking through the Bogside without the slightest frisson of trepidation later that day, I find fledgling new galleries and cafés where once stood bombed-out shells and perennially closed shutters.

By the time we arrive in the Craft Village, a cluster of boutiques and a world-music café next to the living-history Tower Museum, I can almost feel the pace of change across Northern Ireland accelerating around me.

“I’m tired of telling my story,” admits Nuala as we shake hands and I promise to return to witness Londonderry’s phosphorescent moment in Europe’s cultural spotlight.

“Finally,” she smiles, “the time has come for fresh voices to talk about the future.”

Getting there

Belfast International airport is served by bmibaby (0905 828 2828; bmibaby.com), bmi (0844 848 4888; flybmi.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Jet2.com (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and Aer Lingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com). George Best Belfast City airport is closer to the city and has flights with Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com), Manx2 (0871 200 0440; manx2.com), bmibaby (as above) and CityJet (0871 663 3777; cityjet.com).

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) serves City of Londonderry airport from Stansted, Luton and regional airports; Flybe (as above) from Manchester, Norwich and Southampton; a taxi to the city costs £12.

For public transport information around Northern Ireland, contact Translink (028 9066 6630; translink.co.uk).

The inside track

The Ulster Museum (028 9044 0000; nmni.com/um) is free to visit and is a perfect way to fill in a rainy afternoon with something for all ages.

The Bushmills Distillery (028 207 33272; bushmills.com) offers a distillery tour followed by a glass of whiskey for £6, but it's worth trading up to the Premium Tasting (£15) to sample six whiskies, including rare, 21-year-old single malts.

Members of the National Trust (nationaltrust.org.uk/giantscauseway) have free parking to visit the Giant's Causeway; otherwise it costs £6.

For a pint of the black stuff and some live music in Londonderry, head to Waterloo Street. The pub Peadar O'Donnells (peadars-gweedorebar.com) has a traditional music session most nights, but it doesn't get going much before 10.30pm.

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