burning up the ship

Cruise liner, Duke of Lancaster

Three monkeys dressed in suits crouch on bulging sacks of money, striking the pose of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” At more than 30-feet tall, the giant gangsta chimps are the size of a three-story building and joined on all sides by similarly fantastic and macabre creatures, from skeleton divers to slobbering pigs. Welcome to the Duke of Lancaster, an abandoned ship on the Dee Estuary in north Wales, which has become a canvas for some of the most renowned graffiti artists in Europe, including France’s GOIN and Latvian KIWIE. At a whopping 450-feet long and seven stories tall, the former British passenger ferry – built in the same Belfast shipyard as Titanic – is a haunted, rusted out sight. Graffiti collective DuDug approached the ship’s owners with the clever idea of turning the abandoned vessel into an arts destination. With their approval, artists from across Europe began spray-painting the decrepit ship with surreal artworks of punk geishas and bandit businessmen, using cherry pickers to scale the towering walls. DuDug is now campaigning to have the site opened to the public as the centerpiece of an arts festival. At the least, it would be the largest open-air gallery in the UK. If the organizers don’t manage to get anywhere with the local arts council, perhaps they should give the folks at Carnival a call. An open sea gallery off the coast of Italy might make a fitting end to their Costa Concordia troubles.

Duke of Lancaster grafitti

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titanic town

Titanic Belfast is the city’s new “must see” attraction – and it’s a wonder how it took the city leaders so long to exploit the worldwide fascination with the most famous maritime disaster of all time. Rising on the slipways where both RMS Olympic and Titanic were built, the distinctive building takes obvious inspiration from both a ship’s prow and the refracted gleam of ice. Drawing together special effects, full-scale reconstructions, and innovative interactive features across nine galleries, the Titanic story is explored in a fresh and insightful way; from her conception in Belfast in the early 1900s, through her construction and launch, to her infamous maiden voyage and catastrophic demise. The journey goes beyond the aftermath of the sinking, too, to the discovery of the wreck and continues into the present day with a live undersea exploration centre. We all think we know the Titanic story but to a large extent we are well acquainted with only a very small sliver: the ill-fated maiden voyage. What I found most interesting at Titanic Belfast was context so often missing from any modern retellings: in the early 20th Century Belfast was enjoying the greatest boom in its history. The city was a global leader in engineering, ship-building and linen manufacturing, and Belfast’s Harland and Wolff had become the largest shipyard in the world. It was this thriving local industry along with innovations in design that led to the creation of RMS Titanic and it’s sister ship, Olympic. Special effects, animations and full-scale reconstructions bring to life the reality of shipbuilding in the early 1900’s: a superhuman undertaking of skilled labor, brute force, and engineering prowess.  Beyond that it delves into the ship’s launch - a large window overlooking the actual slipways is fitted with state-of-the-art glass containing electrodes that switch from the normal view to a superimposed image of the Titanic on the slipways for a unique perspective of how the ship would have appeared – custom fit-out, the sinking and the aftermath. It even finds time to explore the multitude of myths and legends surrounding Titanic’s story before depositing visitors in a gift shop burdened by extraordinarily bad taste. But no bother, Titanic Belfast isn’t so much a story of tragedy but one of triumph: after all, once upon a time Boomtown Belfast built the largest and most luxurious ship in the world.

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james street south

Opened by Niall and Joanne McKenna in an old linen mill close to ten years ago, James Street South Restaurant was at the forefront of marrying the best of Irish ingredients with classical French cooking methods and seasonal menus. My return found smartly renovated interiors and a menu which reminded me of just how far ahead of the curve the McKennas really were. Local smoked eel? Pork cheeks? Razor clams? It’s good to discover the city has caught up – and that a restaurant like this can not only thrive, but set the agenda, too.

 

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boom times

Look up: the city center is chokablok with one impeccable turn-of-the-century building next to another. It’s a testament to the early 20th century, when Belfast was enjoying boom times altogether different from those for which the city would later became, shall we say, infamous.

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st. george’s market

Stop me if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I can’t get over how things have changed. Today it’s St. George’s in central Belfast, where a Friday market has stood in one guise or another since 1604. I last wandered the late 19th-century red-brick structure maybe seven or eight years ago and was underwhelmed. The farm-to-table movement had yet to take firm root in Northern Ireland, so while the steel and glass interiors stood out as a well-preserved reminder of the great Age of Empire, the handful of sorry vegetable stalls and assorted tat sellers inside seemed remarkably out of time and place. What a difference a decade makes. Following a £4.5m refurbishment the market has become one of the most vibrant and colorful destinations this city has to offer. A raft of local producers trade in everything from Armagh beef, award-winning farmhouse cheeses, free range eggs from Limavady, venison, pheasant in season and organic vegetables from Culdrum and Millbrook Farms. The fish section alone contains 23 stalls and holds the reputation for being the leading retail fish market in Ireland. Plus, there’s live jazz and dozens of lunch options from freshly filled baps – the Belfast Bap is a floury sandwich roll and a source of local pride – and traditional French crepes to vegan Chana Masala and classic panini-style Cubans of roast pork, ham, and gherkins – dripping with swiss cheese. Dare I say this famously hermetic city seems to currently enjoy being just a bit worldly-wise?

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triumph of the will

Known as The Lady on the Lagan, the sculpture on Belfast’s arterial waterway was officially christened The Ring of Thanksgiving by Scottish artist Andy Scott. As boring as that sounds there is a logic to the overly earnest title: the 50-foot symbol is the anchor of Thanksgiving Square – the brainchild of Belfast woman Myrtle Smyth, who was inspired following a visit to the non-denominational Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas, Texas – a project with the express aim of creating a public space for the local community to come together and give thanks no matter their religion, color, or faith. For a city rent by years of civil strife this was no idle wish when the square was inaugurated in 2005. A static piece of steel, the artwork nevertheless radiates a powerful energy and sense of urgency; thrusting upwards, as if striving for something larger than itself. Coincidentally The Ring is a visual reminder of how the Olympics take flight tonight in London; moreover, the Games’ motto could just as easily be a watch cry for Belfast these days: Faster, Higher, Stronger.

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the stare on the square

Another revitalized area of Belfast’s city center city is Victoria Square, the site of a tasteful multi-story shopping mall. Parallel to the downtown shopping area it hasn’t so much supplanted Royal Avenue as the main drag as provided a high-end complement to the High Street. The structure is semi-enclosed, like a giant breezeway with levels of restaurants and movie theaters sandwiched between the retail raison d’etre. Crowned by a central geodesic dome the public spaces are flooded with the rarest of Irish commodities: natural light. That alone would be enough to warrant a round of applause yet the designers did something really clever with what could have easily been wasted negative space: utilizing the practical aesthetics of the dome toward a civic end. From the top-level of the shopping center the public can ascend a circular staircase to a sheltered viewing platform. And while Belfast doesn’t come close to having a skyline that warrants a Top of the Rock, the Stare on the Square – public monuments in Ireland requires a mellifluous moniker if you hadn’t heard; the sculpture at the entrance might officially be known as The Spirit of Belfast but to locals it will always be Onion Rings – is an ideal height for views out to the Harland & Wolf shipyards, where Titanic was built, and Napoleon’s Nose, the inspiration for Swift’s tales of Lilliput. Shopping, it seems, really can qualify as a cultural pursuit. Double-click the panoramic image at the bottom for greater detail.

 

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quarter potted and besotted

Stimulated by the revitalizing efforts of enterprises like the Merchant Hotel, Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter has shaken off its cobwebs to become the city’s up and coming cultural hotspot. The magnificent St. Anne’s Cathedral is a focal point but the cobbled streets are dotted with gems of all kinds: galleries like the Belfast Print Workshop, Catalyst Arts, and Belfast Exposed, which focuses on contemporary photography; music ranges from traditional sessions at the Duke of York to local emerging bands at the Front Page; plus there are pubs aplenty, including the smart Northern Whig, and The John Hewitt, known for its lunch, as well as for impromptu readings. Each May the Quarter hosts a cutting edge festival, too, with an emphasis on bringing arts to unorthodox places. If Belfast is slowly gaining a reputation as a smart destination for the cosmopolitan and culturally aware, much of the credit can be found in the Quarter. Then there’s the food, which in my humble opinion is as much a reflection of the change happening across the city as anything else: from pub grub with a locally sourced twist at The Morning Star in Pottinger’s Entry, one of the city’s oldest pubs; to the shabby chic global eclecticism of Made in Belfast, where you’re just as likely to find falafel with harissa as sinfully good beef fat chips; you can feast affordably inside Mourne Seafood Bar, where the fish and shellfish are impeccably fresh or splurge on the plush ritual of a proper afternoon tea in the Merchant’s Great Room. All the more impressive is how this hive of activity is evolving within the space of just a few square blocks. Another of the dining highlights is The Potted Hen, which remains one of the most talked about restaurants in the Quarter, though it opened almost 18 months ago. A bistro-style establishment on St. Anne’s Square, it’s modern and welcoming, chic yet comfortable. The menu is imaginative and wholly unpretentious, which goes a long way towards explaining its continued local popularity. Chicken liver is not an uncommon starter in Northern Ireland but at the Hen the house parfait melts in your mouth, like velvet, encased in a ribbon of buttery fat. (That it comes with a steak knife must be someone’s idea of a joke.) Piquant onion marmalade is made in-house and in place of the customary toast points, a freshly baked brioche loaf in miniature. Paired with a jammy glass of Malbec, it’s hedonistic heaven. Black pudding and celeriac puree accompany my entrée, a slow-cooked rondel of pork belly topped with a cool coupe of apple sorbet. Savory, sweet, hot and cold, the multiple textures and flavors coalesce in a delicious forkful, quickly subverting what could’ve easily turned into an overworked pork cliché. Another welcome surprise came in a featherweight version of sticky toffee pudding. (My fondness for the classic dessert is almost as well-known as my lack of self-control.) Dusted with crushed honeycomb it felt closer to a souffle than a pudding, which was more than fine by me. It allowed me to exit the boisterous dining room sated but not stuffed – and glad for a leisurely evening stroll through the Quarter, silently ruminating on how none of this could have been imagined – let alone lauded – less than a decade ago.

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pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag

I’m back at the sumptuous Merchant Hotel in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, site of a rather infamous party I threw almost three years ago. (let’s just say people are still talking about it, thank you very much.) It’s posh, for lack of a better word – meaning attentive, attractive, and very well-proportioned – with an Italianate sandstone facade of columns and capitals backed by carefully restored High Victorian interiors. In fact, the former Ulster Bank headquarters wouldn’t look out-of-place in London or Paris. For a city which ten years ago had but a single boutique hotel, the Merchant is a perfect example of how much in this city has changed. Even at the height of the property bust two years ago the hotel was able to build an Art Deco extension and more than double in size, adding rooms, a spa, and the city’s only authentic jazz bar. To call it a success would be an understatement. From the soaring grandeur of the Great Room Restaurant (where even the profiteroles are swan-necked), to the perfectly judged and beautifully friendly staff, to the overstuffed beds and ample marble bathrooms, the Merchant is an all-out triumph.

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the first fry (tastes the sweetest)

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back to belfast

It seems like I was just here about, oh, five minutes ago, but I am headed back to Belfast this weekend for the wedding of a friend and a few days of playing tourist. The city has undergone massive (mostly positive) changes in the fifteen years I’ve been coming here, so it is usually a pleasant surprise to see what the place has gotten up to in my absence. A new museum? Boutique hotel? Michelin-starred restaurant? Yeah, I pretty much expect I’ll chance upon at least two out of the three. And that – as the song goes – ain’t bad.

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obit (the dust) of the month: the neighbors, they adored him

In this new series of only-just-slightly-morbid, I thought it would be interesting to occasionally focus on the passing of men and women who once ignited a certain spark in the public imagination – even if never having necessarily achieved a star’s magnitude of infamy or indignity.  Alex Higgins, our first subject, certainly fits those parameters. My thanks go out to snooker fan Eamon Lynch, who recently quoted to me a string of Higgins’ epithets that sent me running in search of his obituary in the Guardian, copied below.

The snooker player Alex Higgins, who has died aged 61, led a life clouded by drunkenness, drug abuse, gambling, violence and tempestuous personal relationships. Yet for many of his fellow players and millions of fans, hooked on snooker with the advent of colour television, he will be forever viewed as a flawed sporting genius whose rock’n’roll lifestyle and brushes with officialdom made him all the more appealing, while a sometimes astonishing natural talent allowed him to brush aside more staid opponents and carried him to two world snooker titles.

He was a man who would bet on virtually anything, and frequently did. His prodigious thirst for alcohol took him into more scrapes than he would ever be able to recall, while friends and enemies alike spoke of his volcanic temper, irrational outbursts and dark mood swings as he struggled, in his declining years, to cope with the ravages of throat cancer that had left him an emaciated figure living out his final days where he began, in the snooker halls and bars of Belfast.

Yet most would prefer to remember Higgins as the one-time boy snooker hustler, nicknamed “Hurricane” because of the speed of his play, who became a sporting superstar. In his prime, whomever he might have been playing, he was able to command the spotlight in a manner no other snooker player has – Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan included. A waif-like figure, with his shirt left open-necked as he openly flouted the rules of the time that insisted bow ties should be worn, with a cigarette and strong drink invariably by his side, when Higgins began a break the nation seemed to collectively hold its breath in anticipation.

In 1986, when asked to take a drugs test during the UK Championship, Higgins headbutted the official who made the request, which earned him a £12,000 fine and five-tournament ban as well as a court appearance, where he was handed a £250 fine for assault and criminal damage. Money worries were escalating as Higgins’s gambling continued unchecked, and he was banned for an entire season after punching another official in the stomach in 1990 after losing a second-round match in the World Championship around the time he threatened to have his Northern Irish Catholic rival Dennis Taylor killed, saying: “I come from Shankill and you come from Coalisland, and the next time you are in Northern Ireland I will have you shot.”

Read the complete story HERE.

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