For a weekend break away from Southampton, an area surrounded by the natural haven of the New Forest and the antique treats of Winchester, a city most famous for a ship that sank and a man that drank himself to death twice, does not immediately spring to mind. However, Northern Ireland’s capital, buzzing with remnants of a turbulent, yet passionate history and stuffed to the brim with drink enthusiasts that would put the best of us to shame, is a gem of a city not to be passed over.
Arriving at 9am in the aftermath of Paddy’s day was itself a lesson into customs of the Irish; Belfast was one colossal hangover. As girls stumbled towards me barefoot, their make-up smudged into their green face paint, I started to wonder just how I was going to survive five days amongst the world’s most notorious drinkers. When I arrived at my friend’s luxury student abode, I was allowed no more than ten minutes to be welcomed before I was handed a uniform pint and obliged to join the post-Paddy’s street party, and all this before I would usually be awake. One can have no qualms about Ireland’s reputation for being a friendly nation; by lunchtime half the street had joined the antics, including a lucky street-sweeper who was customarily handed a beer and affably invited to join the student party. The rest of the afternoon was resigned to drinking in the shy Belfast sun and joining in with spontaneous Irish folk songs.
Undoubtedly a statement of Belfast’s infamy for stodgy mornings, the city is not short of breakfast restaurants, ranging from the reserved bowl of muesli to the full fry up – possibly the only acceptably English commodity in Ireland – and naturally, the ‘bring your own’ option allows your breakfast to be accompanied by a lager of your choice. I was given a brutal introductory lesson into the Irishman’s outstanding ability to drink and by Paddy’s Day Four I was thanking God for my English blood and Southampton, which by this stage looked like a conservative tea party. The remarkable image of my friend’s laker of a housemate being carried to bed unable to support his own body weight, yet persistently yelling: ‘I can still party!’, for me embodies the irrepressible stamina of the Irish drinker.
Mandela hall, named after the university’s honorary South African graduate, is the focal point of the celebrated student union and a primary city venue attracting the likes of Slash, Mumford & Sons and Jessie J. Its big screens and multiple bars also make it a perfect venue to show big sports games, so the deciding match of the six nations can be watched (obligatory pint in hand) amidst an atmosphere that for eighty minutes brings to the fore centuries of political oppression. It is always wise to ensure, however, that England are not planning on crashing out 24-8 before painting the St. George on one’s face in stubborn paint.
Whereas Southampton is a picture of ugly sixties architecture, few scraps of history left by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Belfast is a city that reads like a history book. A must for any visitor is to take the city tour bus. This trip takes you through the Titanic shipyards, past the Stormont and the Crumlin, through the Holy Lands to see the political murals that plaster the bullet-scarred walls of the city, and finally to the monumental Belfast Peace wall, a chilling reminder of just how recently the city resonated with the terror of civil conflict.
A trip to Belfast is not for the faint-hearted (or faint-stomached). A love of drink is mandatory, a good ear for the thick, curse-embellished, Northern-Irish intonation is helpful, and a basic understanding of who’s who in religion and war is recommended for late night politics. However, Belfast is a city so vibrantly alive with volcanic passions, so rich in culture and tradition and so desperate to party, it is almost impossible to not have the experience of a lifetime.