When I am in Belfast these days I often take myself and the dog for a walk along the Lagan towpath. It’s a beautiful place, silent but for the sounds of birdlife and the river flowing in from the bog meadows.
Lighters used this canal way to take produce and material to and from Belfast’s harbour. The remains of this old transport system are still present here and there as a reminder of a previous way of life. Previous, that is, to the city's great industrial history, which has itself largely become a thing of the past.
As a boy growing up in the 1950s in north Belfast, the city was simply defined by its industrial life: the smells, the sirens, the shipping, the Scottish Gothic architecture of the insurance houses and banks. The commercial and manufacturing heart of the Belfast experience shaped everything from streetscape to skyline.
Yet country life in Belfast was never that far away – in the surrounding hills and meadows, in the proximity to the coastline and in the presence of the rivers like the Lagan. It was there in the parks, gardens and groves that are inscribed like pleasure grounds within the red brick avenues and busy thoroughfares.
30 years ago you wouldn’t have dared take a walk along those towpaths for fear of what you might come across. Belfast in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s was a city at war with itself and the damage those years caused to the ordinary people remains, not so visibly but inwardly.
The city itself has moved on because it had to. The young don’t look back and those in their middle years and older seem to have made a pact with themselves that the city can’t and won’t return to the bad old days of the Troubles. That is not to say that everything is right with the city. It isn’t.
The peace walls of steel girders that slice their way through local inner city neighbourhoods are dreadful physical reminders of the divisions within the community and of how people have accepted as best as anyone can that these ugly scars of sectarianism just haven’t gone away.
Nor can the moral and emotional turmoil of so much violence and damage simply be swept away in pious gestures. Listen to the talk shows. At some deep level the reality of what was done in the years of the Troubles has found no common civic understanding, because those involved still don’t really see the damage, and probably never will.
Unlike Dublin and many other cities in the Republic, Belfast survived the Celtic Tiger because it wasn’t centrally a part of it. Maybe the ostentatious displays of wealth sat less comfortably in a city that has known boom and bust over many generations of economic hardship and upturn.
The UK-subsidised economy of the North, and nowhere more so than in Belfast, has learnt how to steady itself with entrepreneurial and commercial nous. A trait that has often been caricatured as canny, when others might applaud it as cautious – but just look at what the disastrous alternative of giddy, gung-ho Irish bankers and property dealers brought upon all our heads.
Belfast is enjoying being itself again. The hotels and restaurants and bars, so far as one can ever tell, are doing well. The writers and musicians and artists are going about their business with unassuming diligence and success.
The art galleries, theatres and drama groups are active along with local publishers, and the festivals and concert venues are all producing first-rate events for their constituencies, while battling like everyone else on the sponsorship front. The streets are swept.
Only the other week I saw folks lying out in the sun on the lawns around the impressively refurbished City Hall as if it was the mid-60s all over again, except for the massive screen for transmitting concerts. And the school kids in their different uniforms head home at the same time as they’ve always done. And people look you straight in the eye as if you or they were about to ask a question.
And then there’s the big smile and the ‘geg’. In the morning before I head off along the Lagan past the wonderful new Lyric Theatre, the young ones are out jogging, no matter what the weather’s like. They run without fear. That, if it keeps going, is the real shape-changer after which everything possible in this fascinating city.