As wee drams of whiskey with an ‘e’ are raised Ulster-wide to Sir Kenneth’s Belfast the movie, up for seven Oscars at the time of going to press, explores the shiny Titanic city that grew up around the troubled streets of the director’s childhood.


As wee drams of whiskey with an ‘e’ are raised Ulster-wide to Sir Kenneth’s Belfast the movie, up for seven Oscars at the time of going to press, explores the shiny Titanic city that grew up around the troubled streets of the director’s childhood.


Belfast cab drivers didn’t used to get much call for Mountcollyer Street, a hotspot for sectarian violence during 30 years of ‘Troubles’. Half its row of terraced houses have been demnolished and weeds sprout from cracks in the pavement. But since the release of Branagh’s nostalgic homage to his native city, seen through the eyes of his nine-year-old self, tourists have been flocking to the derelict plot at number 96 where he grew up and the local cinema that inspired his film career, now a Tesco superstore.

Set in 1969 at the outbreak of The Troubles, the movie has been hailed ‘a tourism-boosting Valentine’s card to Belfast’ with its focus on neighbourly Protestants and Catholics, stoic Irish humour and the bright side of the road, with many nods to Van Morrison.
The city has changed so much since then that the movie was mostly filmed on a reconstructed set at Farnborough Airport in Hampshire.

Colour drone footage at the start of Branagh’s black-and-white film shows the extent of that renaissance, swooping over the modern metropolis on the River Lagan with its iconic yellow dockyard cranes, Samson and Goliath, and silver ship-shaped Titanic museum, symbols of old and new Belfast. Harland & Wolff shipyards where the doomed superliner was built once employed a workforce of 36,000. The cranes are part-timers these days and the old drawing offices and slipways lie under a fathom of concrete in the Titanic Quarter – one of the largest docklands regeneration projects in Europe that has transformed Belfast’s skyline and its fortunes.

As well as a museum that punches the tickets of over 800,000 visitors a year, the Ulster version of Canary Wharf has given the city a new marina, a Maritime Mile of swanky waterfront hotels, shops and riverside restaurants; the 10,000-seater SSE Arena concert hall, shared by the Belfast Giants ice hockey team; and a film studios that went on to produce all eight series of Game of Thrones. The HBO blockbuster is still the reason one in six overseas visitors choose Northern Ireland.

In its heyday, the North was better known for linen and Belfast was the world’s biggest producer, nicknamed Linenopolis. Thankfully, there are architectural reminders of those glory days all over this astonishingly elegant post-industrial city: the neo-Baroque City Hall, built in 1888 when Queen Victoria awarded Belfast city status; the art deco Palm House conservatory at the Botanic Gardens, its grounds a venue for summer rock concerts; the Grand Opera House, where everyone from Laurel and Hardy to Laurence Olivier and Branagh have topped the bill; Stormont Parliament Buildings, an impossibly extravagant White House lookalike with Grecian columns and manicured green lawns where you can picnic, jog and take afternoon tea; even the old red brick linen warehouses have survived as trendy galleries and restaurants in a reimagined Linen District.

What never changes is the warm Ulster welcome where all wee drams are large ones, encapsulated in Northern Ireland’s tourism slogan, Embrace the Giant Spirit. With a newly-minted Game of Thrones attraction and a Titanic anniversary to celebrate in 2022, on top of a few Oscars, Belfast could make you tipsy this year!

Van’s The Man

For Branagh there was only one musician evocative of the Belfast of his youth: Van Morrison. He’s all over the soundtrack which features eight classics and Oscar-nominated Down to Joy, written for the film.

Sir George Ivan Morrison OBE left Belfast for Europe and America long before The Troubles and was charting with Brown Eyed Girl two years before the movie is set. But he immortalised the city in his songs, growing up On Hyndford Street, a skip from Ian Paisley’s Cyprus Avenue and a couple of blocks from Branagh himself.

“He was already a legend back then,” says the director. “His hometown is in his work and to have his music in a film called Belfast seemed like a magical alliance and a real gift to this movie.”

The Troubles by Taxi

Belfast is still a city divided by barricades, which takes newcomers aback.
The ‘peace walls’ were put up at the start of The Troubles to separate Catholic/Republican and Protestant/Unionist trouble zones but they’ve multiplied in number since 1998’s Good Friday Agreement. Embellished with murals and messages of peace signed by Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama, they snake for 30 kilometres through north and west Belfast in the world’s longest outdoor art gallery.

Most arresting are the propaganda murals along the infamous Falls and Shankhill Roads, some of them 1969 originals, depicting balaclava-wearing gun-toting paramilitaries and political heroes of the time. One scene in the film features the artwork.

The government would like to do away with the peace walls but black cab ‘Troubles Tours’ around the murals, led by driver-guides who are comedians as well as eye-witness historians, have become unmissable.

In the film, look out for a striking ‘mural’ of Sailortown dockworkers, painted by Belfast artist Terry Bradley whom we profile in this month’s edition. His vibrant art is collected by the likes of Madonna, Bono, Michael Flatley and Ronan Keating.


It may be game over for the epic HBO series but the fantasy lives on! The world’s first Game of Thrones Studio Tour opened this spring at Linen Mill Studios, just outside Belfast, where epic scenes from the series were filmed. The interactive journey through the Seven Kingdoms brings visitors face to face with White Walkers and fire-breathing dragons on a trail that winds from Winterfell in the frozen north via Kings Landing, Dorne and Dragonstone to the iconic Throne Room. The sets feature many of the original costumes, props and prosthetics and share the secrets of the incredible visual effects used to bring the show from script to screen.

Northern Ireland also boasts 25 outdoor GoT locations, all doable on a daytrip from Belfast. The top tour takes in The Stormlands, The Dark Hedges and the country’s only Unesco World Heritage Site, Giant’s Causeway, reached along the breathtaking Antrim coast.
Round off the binge experience back in town on the Glass of Thrones Trail – six giant, stained glass windows along the Maritime Mile depicting iconic scenes from the series.

A Titanic Anniversary

It’s 110 years this month since the ‘unsinkable’ liner went down on her maiden voyage. And 10 years since the first visitors stepped aboard Titanic Belfast to virtually relive the worst cruise ship disaster in history.

Clad in 3,000 silver aluminium shards to emulate the bows of a ship slicing through frozen seas, the building looms 38 metres above the River Lagan, the same height as Titanic’s hull. It took three years to build, the same time as the ship. The locals call it The Iceberg and until you’ve taken a deep dive into its nine immersive galleries, you’ve only seen the tip.
Don’t miss the ‘wee tram’ ride to the dry dock to meet Samson and Goliath. Sunday Afternoon Tea in the Titanic Suite beside a replica of the liner’s Grand Staircase is the icing on the cake.

Pub Culture

“The Irish were born for leaving – otherwise the rest of the world would have no pubs.”  Quote from Belfast the movie.

Going to the pub is practically a religion in Belfast and The Crown Liquor Saloon is its oldest temple, complete with stained glass windows. This Victorian National Trust treasure has resisted all renovation so you can put up your pins on the heated footstools and sup your Guinness and Bushmills by gas light. Or make that a Yardsman Ale and a Jawbox Gin – the produce of Belfast’s burgeoning craft beer and spirits scene.

The Cathedral Quarter abounds with quaint pubs and cobblestones or, for the complete harps, fiddles and flutes experience, Fibber Magee on Victoria Street is one of several grand haunts for a hooley. Belfast is 2022’s Unesco City of Music. Check out its rock ‘n’ roll history at The Oh Yeah Music Centre where top local bands rehearse.

One enterprising couple rented a car in Marigot and drove to the Dutch side, while others complained it was sometimes a long walk from the dock into the port with no shuttles provided. Meanwhile the wind continued to blow, and terns entertained us with spectacular dives on to the white caps to catch flying fish. For us there was afternoon tea beautifully served in the Observation lounge, caviar anywhere, and living as good as it gets on any cruise ship. Next up was meant to be the new Rotterdam out of Ft Lauderdale, followed by a voyage back to Lisbon on the Regent Mariner, but the latter cruise had just been cancelled, prompting a rethink.
It was time to go home.

At press time the cruise industry was in pretty good shape. America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has backed off from earlier warnings not to cruise; most ships are now at sea with protocols superior to land-based facilities such as theme parks, hotels – and supermarkets, as the cruise industry has been saying for a long time. Shoreside, however, people continue to get infected from Covid, so it’s best to take care by avoiding areas with high casualty rates, and ships not given the best safety ratings. Start with a cruise specialist travel agent, and good luck!

Craic-ing Statues

Irish humour is in your face as soon as you enter the city where two giant spherical objects dubbed the Balls on the Falls have been welcoming visitors since 2011. Visible for miles above the M1 West, close to the Falls Road, Rise is Belfast’s largest public artwork symbolising the rising sun and hope for the future. And don’t the locals love to take the rise out of The Testes on the Westes, as they also call it… or The Westicles for short. But the craic doesn’t end there:

Nuala with the Hula in Thanksgiving Square is a 20-metre statue of a girl on a globe holding a hoop aloft. More properly known as The Beacon of Hope, that’s the Ring of Thanksgiving she’s holding.
The Leaning Tower of Ulster is Belfast’s wonky version of Big Ben. The Albert Memorial Clock is subsiding into its marshy foundations and tilted at a rakish four feet off the perpendicular.
The puzzling statue of a man walking into a wardrobe outside the Holywood Arches Library is C.S. Lewis, Belfast-born author of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Bronze statues of the lion, the witch and other Narnia characters are just down the road in C.S. Lewis Square.

If you should encounter a 10-metre ceramic salmon on the Lagan quayside that’s Big Fish, put there to welcome the return of the species to the river in 1999. Aka The Salmon of Knowledge, each scale tells a story about Belfast.