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Belfast and Dublin - A tale of two cities but which narrative rings truer?

Published 09/03/2016

Belfast City Hall grounds in the summer
Belfast City Hall grounds in the summer
Crowded pubs and restaurants at the cathedral quarter
Titanic Building in Belfast
Trinity College architecture in Dublin
O’Connell Bridge in Dublin

Louis Walsh maintains 'boring' Belfast lacks Dublin's X Factor. We asked one writer from each capital who has lived in the other why they prefer their adopted city.

By Paul Hopkins (Born in Dublin, worked in Belfast)

Like Longfellow, I have affection for a great city. Having crossed four continents, I have known a few in my time. From that which is the biggest collection of villages in the world, New York, to the teeming humidity of Kuala Lumpur, the anonymity of London to the colourful chaos of Durban, to the compactness of Belfast, I feel at home in these neighbourhoods of man.

Belfast I have grown to love for myriad reasons: its sense, sometimes against great odds, of belief in a peaceful, prosperous and bus lane-free future; its rebuilding of the city from the artistic bustle of the Cathedral Quarter to the shop-till-you drop ambience of Victoria Square; its iconic pubs and inviting restaurants.

Louis Walsh claims the people in Dublin "are friendlier and more fun". Sorry, me old mucker, but, most of all, it has been the people of Belfast, of all colours and creeds, that I have found intoxicating, with a humour and wit that leaves my native Dubs in the ha'penny place.

A kind and friendly people, evident in the helpful smiles of shop attendants and the small banter and long patience of those who drive the city's buses and command its taxi fleets.

In my five years of living in Belfast I never felt alone, even when on my own, which was often. Never felt like the Aran Island poet Mairtin O Direain, who when he first came to Dublin, because the craggy rocked soil of his native home offered nothing by way of work, found himself alone in a city where no one ever said: "Dia dhuit, Mairtin. Conas ata tu?" He felt anonymous, adrift from the community of man.

I love the compactness of Belfast. I love getting lost in it, enveloped in its growing familiarity, like an old but comfortable overcoat.

And that's no time better achieved than at night. Cities are at their best at night. After nightfall a city becomes infinitely more secretive and shadowy, when neon defines the horizon.

A city can well be your oyster, but it can have its disadvantages. Life becomes more rapid in the city, impacting on our social interaction. Time becomes of the essence.

Like O Direain discovered of Dublin, nobody there has time to stop and chat and wax lyrical about the weather. Strangers still talk to you on Belfast buses - about the weather.

Bus lanes apart, the past few years there is ongoing revamping and rejuvenation of Belfast city, from York Street to Donegall Place and elsewhere. Such is always welcome when it truly improves a city and its quarters.

However, if I walk along High Street any given day and on down to the Victoria Centre and on out south Belfast to beyond Botanic and Queen's, I am ever-conscious of a tale of two cities.

I saw it happen in Dublin down the decades, where one half of the city benefited from the cash of the Celtic Tiger at the expense of the other half, left impoverished and to its own devices and the sordid sex shops and mobile phone huts and the rest that leaves one with an unpleasant sense of urban decay.

Plato said: "Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich. These are at war with one another." John F Kennedy said: "We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation."

Let's leave the last quip to actor Stephen Rea. "Belfast is like an ugly child - you love it the most."

By Henry McDonald (Born in Belfast, works in Dublin)

If you refuse to believe that Dublin is a far livelier, fun-filled city than Belfast, then try this experiment: spend two consecutive Sundays in either city and then tell us all which has more to offer.

In my native Belfast the pubs shut at 10 o'clock, many don't even bother to open, and the choice of eating out is extremely limited. Apart from a few venues, there are virtually no late nightclubs to frequent and you can't even spend Sunday afternoon watching a football match because the Irish League doesn't allow clubs to play on the Sabbath.

Two weekends ago, hanging around Dublin on Sunday waiting to link up with some political contacts for a briefing about the Irish general election results, the city centre was alive and kicking. Grafton Street was positively thronged with shoppers, while punters sat outside pubs and cafes enjoying the early spring sunshine.

Belfast fails the libertarian's 'Sabbath Test' and remains (despite some noble exceptions like the ever-excellent St George's Market) a drab, dreary place that must want to make the foreign tourists jump back into their minibuses and taxis to get back onto their cruise ships where at least they can eat and drink without any strictures.

Yes, there are drawbacks to living in Dublin, most notably the depressing vista of the city's living dead - the drug-addicted zombies roaming thoroughfares like O'Connell Street, each and every one of them moving monuments to the so-called (and failed) war on drugs.

Yet Dublin remains a stimulating, energising city, with far more of a European feel to it than my home.

I know this hymn to Dublin will enrage many of my friends, who will accuse me of betraying the city where I was born and bred.

I still love Belfast - especially institutions such as the holy ground of Solitude and John Bittles bar.

But Dublin is where it's at and where, on Sundays, you can do what you want to.

Five things Paul likes about Belfast

1: The Cathedral Quarter and dinner and jazz at Bert's in The Merchant.

2: Languishing on a summer's day in the grounds of City Hall and watching the pretty girls go by.

3: A family day out in the Titanic Quarter.

4: Traditional music session in the backroom of Robinsons pub in Great Victoria Street.

5: The leafy environs of south Belfast and a quiet meal at the Barking Dog on Malone Road.

Five things Henry likes about Dublin

1: It feels far more multi-cultural and polyethnic. Try walking down Moore Street at the back of the GPO and you will be in a globalised environment with a multiplicity of ethnic food on display.

2: You can get a late-night drink seven days a week. Dublin is still a good city for insomniacs and libertines.

3: There is a huge variety of restaurants and cafes, serving menus from all over the planet. Check out Capel Street, with its rows of ethnic eateries.

4: Trinity College, Dublin. A haven of peace, space and, of course, academic learning right in the heart of the city.

5: The pint of Guinness they serve in The Hut pub in the Phibsboro district of the Northside - creamy and perfectly poured.

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