A new generation remakes Northern Ireland’s baddest goodest city
A Good City Guide to Belfast
A Michelin-starred chef, experimental arts collective and indie bookshop owner walked into a bar in Belfast. What happens next? Forget everything you know about the Northern Irish city. Meet the characters making it more radical and green
Some cities don’t need to encourage you to come visit. Their reputation precedes them. Technically, the same thing applies to Belfast, but not quite in the same way. Northern Ireland’s capital city is certainly a place with an outsized, albeit dubious reputation.
For years, political violence firmly placed the industrial city, and the beautiful natural landscape around it, on a black list for travellers. But in recent years, Northern Ireland and its capital have begun to carve out a new reputation as a must-see destination for a growing number of tourists and travellers on a hunt for hidden geographical gems.
Belfast has always had a glut of people who throw themselves headlong into subcultures.Stephen Connolly, founder of The Lifeboat poetry press
Many come to learn about the history, observe the political murals and take Black Taxi tours through some of the areas most deeply affected by three decades of The Troubles. This kind of conflict tourism, for all its flaws, has become a cottage industry of its own. However, it would be a slight on the beauty of Belfast as a multifaceted destination to say that conflict tourism is the only thing that brings people to visit.
That humour and energy is palpable on the streets of Belfast, particularly in the independent restaurants and bars in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, the studios and artistic spaces in the south of the city and the young people who are returning to claim the place as their own and remake it in their own image, after seeing it defined by violence and restriction for so long.
Along with the magical, almost prehistoric beauty of the north coast – which of course served as Westeros, bringing in its own wave of Game of Thrones superfans to Belfast – and the fabled treks of the Mourne Mountains and Belfast’s Cave Hill (which reportedly served as inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels), the city itself is cementing its status as a hub of culture for young creatives and upstarts. In recent months East Belfast GAA has made history, breaking down archaic religious boundaries as the first ever cross-community Gaelic games team in the North (and winning matches to boot). Hello “social football”. And in December 2021, Array Collective made history as the first Northern Irish artists to ever win the prestigious Turner Prize. Their entry? They turned a museum room into a síbín… an illegal Irish pub.
For this month’s TOPIA Good City Guide, we spoke to some faces from the most exciting creative spaces in Belfast to get their inside track on how the city is changing, their radical determination to carve out a new city, risen from the ashes, in their own image – and the good stuff that visitors on the Giant’s Causeway “tourist pipeline” might miss out on when they visit.
The star chef plating top-notch local fayre
Gareth McCaughey is the head chef and founder of The Muddlers Club, a Michelin-starred restaurant tucked away in the historic cobbled back streets of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. Named after a 200-year-old secret society of determined revolutionaries founded in Belfast, the restaurant is known for their tasting menu, with everything served championing local ingredients.
What does good local grub mean to The Muddlers Club?
Gareth: We are so lucky on the island of Ireland. As the city has been ever expanding and growing, we have everything we could ever need in abundance. We opened The Muddlers Club in 2015 as a welcoming space with punchy flavours using the best of Irish produce and high end dining without any of the pomp. Our local fish, meat and dairy is literally some of the best you’ll get in the world. Our local farmers that we use in the restaurant provide us with top-notch veggies on a daily basis that you just wouldn’t get elsewhere. Using local is key for not only quality but also its effect on the environment. Without having to transport goods across the globe, going green is the future and however small, we will do our best to do our bit too.
What do people visiting the city often miss?
This is my home from home. I’m from Donaghmore and have been settled here for many years. I knew that this was the place I wanted to open up my restaurant. Today I live near the foot of Cave Hill and climbing up there is something everyone would experience at least once. There’s not too many ways to detox the brain but looking out over the city really from the top helps to bring perspective and gives time to just stop, take a breath and relax. Not to mention there’s plenty of wild foraging to make the most of as well, if you’re looking for some real local produce.
So where’s best to forage for Guinness?
The nightlife scene in Belfast is electric. It’s impossible to go out on a night out and not enjoy its craic and warmth. And it’s hard to beat a good pint of the black stuff at Guinness in Willie Jack’s bar, the unofficial king of the Cathedral Quarter, or the Duke of York. There’s a great buzz and the people are genuinely friendly and helpful. And of course, eat at The Muddlers Club!
What does the future hold for The Muddlers Club?
Well it’s hard to say really isn’t it? Sometimes we have to look far into the future and see ahead of this pandemic. Although I’m optimistically hopeful that better days lie ahead and we will continue to see the growth of the economy and International investment continue to pour in. It’s been on the cards for a while but just delayed at the moment. The people of Belfast and Northern Ireland are resilient. We will come back stronger for our experiences as we have done in the past.
The experimental arts collective
The 343 is a feminist-led, volunteer-run queer arts collective based in East Belfast with a vibrant independent space that hosts open mic nights, drag shows, film screenings and experimental gigs. As a charity, it is dedicated to providing fully accessible studio and rehearsal spaces for young creatives and artists, and organises mutual aid for queer young people across the island of Ireland. They wanted their answers below to be attributed collectively.
Give me the 411 on The 343. How did it first come to life?
The 343: The manifesto of The 343 was a petition signed by 343 women in France who declared they had abortions in the 1970s while it was illegal to get them. None of the original members of the 343 are still in the organisation, and we lost a few members during the pandemic as people had to rejig their lives and priorities, so we are trying to find a lot of this out ourselves. We are starting an archive project that also involves recording the history of how Dawn and Sophie [Sophie Gwen Williams, a local artist and trans activist who sadly passed away in 2021] started The 343, because all we know is that they wanted a venue and some studios to queer East Belfast and have parties, but there was obviously so much more to it.
How has Belfast changed over the years since you launched in 2018?
The goths all came back, haha. But also the city feels more diverse, the art scene feels more active. There are lots of DIY events popping up all over the place and loads of new bands forming. It feels like things are on a good path. We would love for there to be more opportunities for queer artists to receive the acclaim and recognition that their peers do. A big problem in Belfast is that we lose so many young queer artists to Glasgow or Berlin, and like… fair enough. But to stay and make it better is also the only way it will actually get better. Our friendships and relationships are what make the community.
You just became an official charity. What does the future hold?
We recently moved to a new studio space and we’re in the process of publishing a photo book and starting up a more formal queer archive (with a focus on dyke history), to start collecting and organising material and hosting it online. Hopefully we will be able to get an artist-in-residence to work with this material as well, and produce new things from it. We are also going to continue our emergency aid fund and learn more about mutual aid and how to integrate this into our work. We have a very cool secret event planned for the summer and will be starting a new monthly get together for sick/disabled/ND queers to come together and eat and chat.
What are the most creative things about Belfast the people visiting the city might not know about?
PS Squared is one of the best art spaces; they take risks on people with non-traditional art backgrounds and invest in the local art community in a really special way. Anaka Women’s Collective (based out of human rights network PPR) is a group of women who are asylum seekers and refugees who get together to share skills and support each other. Plus, Peas Park in North Belfast, and all of the other community gardens around the city. Even when they look a bit overgrown and wintery, they’re still full of people who are trying to make things happen. Anyone who does something that merges creativity and community is really exciting to us.
The book rebel queering the green
Stephen Connolly is the founder of local poetry press The Lifeboat, and works at No Alibis, one of Belfast’s oldest and most well known (and loved) bookstores. The store has been based on Botanic Avenue, near the city’s iconic red brick, Queen’s University, for the past 25 years. Not just a community bookshop, the space is also a hub for the creative arts, and regularly hosts book launches, poetry readings, lectures and concerts.
What does Belfast mean to you?
Stephen: There’s a line in Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice [one of Ireland’s most treasured poets] where he says that in Ireland you can “see the end of a particular action” and that’s maybe a good way of thinking of Belfast. It’s a small enough city geographically for you to have a genuine sense of community, but large enough intellectually to feel like it has something to contribute to a culture far beyond its municipal boundaries. The city has produced a disproportionate number of incredible writers, artists and musicians.
Can you tell us a bit about No Alibis history?
No Alibis was founded in 1997 when David Torrans, then working for the Bookshop at Queen’s, decided that the south of the city needed a specialist crime fiction bookstore. The initial niche involved books by writers of hard-boiled crime like Lawrence Block, and over the years there have been many crime writers visiting. There’s still a substantial selection of crime fiction, but we’re not a specialist bookshop in the sense of only selling one genre. We obviously stock books by a lot of Irish writers, but that’s like saying a greengrocer sells fruit and veg.We’ve had all sorts of writers in the shop for events, signing books or just browsing: Anna Burns, Sally Rooney, Paul Muldoon, Kevin Barry (always a joy when he’s in). Jimmy Page walked in one day as I was shifting radiography textbooks into the store room.
How has the city has changed in the years since No Alibis opened its doors?
Apart from the obvious things in terms of ceasefires and peace and all the rest (not to be at all flippant about that), I don’t feel like there has been a huge culture shift. To my mind, Belfast has always had a glut of people who throw themselves headlong into subcultures: whether that was punk, skate culture, dance culture. It’s probably a response to the binary politics of the place and a huge will to forge identities in other terms, but it’s massively important. It’s more connected now, like everywhere is, thanks to cheap air travel and the internet, but it’s as full of characters as it ever has been.
What do you think about the future of Belfast as a city?
Personally speaking, I think the most important thing that should happen for Belfast to thrive as a city is the ending of religious segregation in schools. Bands always talk about the huge response from Belfast crowds when they play here: I think that enthusiasm carries over into other aspects of civic life. We’re a shrewd enough people, though, and have a low tolerance for nonsense (unless it’s nonsense of our own making). I think that this, in combination with the aforementioned glut of writers, artists and musicians, means that the cultural future of the city is safe: what shape that will take, I have no idea and that is exciting to me. Developers will probably continue to wreck the place at the same time.
What are your favourite tips that people visiting the city often miss?
Everyone knows about The Sunflower on Union Street, but the owner, Pedro Donald, spoke very well recently about the inhumane rules around asylum seekers being barred from working, so I’ll mention The Sunflower: the best pub in Belfast bar none. The music is as good as the pubs that have been here for centuries, the beer comes from a lot of great local breweries: Bullhouse and Boundary being two of the best. It’s also the home of things like The Lifeboat (a poetry thing that I help to run).
Fruit Shop is a café at the very top of the Ormeau Road run by an artist collective. Not only is their okonomiyaki one of my favourite things to eat, but I saw them perform a three-act drama about Garth Brooks at Croke Park which culminated in a drag performance of ‘Friends in Low Places’. Stop there before going for a walk in Belvoir Forest (the largest working forest in the world that exists inside a city’s limits) via the little-known entrance at the bottom of Galwally Avenue.
Do I get to mention something that I’m involved with again? I’m one half of the team behind The Lifeboat Press and we’ve recently published our first book: Queering the Green, an anthology of post-2000 queer Irish poetry edited by Paul Maddern. It’s a huge book and it feels like an important thing to be publishing. We also publish a series of poetry pamphlets and if pressed to recommend one that has a flavour of Belfast, it’s Curfuffle by Scott McKendry. You can buy them in No Alibis.
What’s so good about this?
Belfast’s new generation of creative minds have a unique opportunity – to create the city’s global reputation anew. And they’re doing that by rejecting the twee Irishness the world has always been sold, and championing new, modern values instead.
From sustainability and local produce, to independent retail and platforms for queer artists and performers, this lots is proving there’s more to the city than conflict and shamrock hats.
Meet the writer
Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London. She is currently Editor at i-D, and has also written for VICE, New Statesman, The Atlantic, The Fence, Perspective, and Prospect Magazine. She is the winner of the 2020 BPA Prize and was longlisted for the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize. You can follow her on @rosielanners.