The Darker Side of Belfast

A macabre history lesson delivered on the cobbled streets of the Cathedral Quarter

Nazis, body snatchers, drunkards, lunatics, hangings, beheadings, slums, brothels, men killing rats with their bare teeth… No, it’s not a night on the town with Colin Farrell, but some of the horrors you will hear about on the Glenravel Local History Project’s walking tour The Darker Side of Old Belfast.

The tour takes in the streets in and around the Cathedral Quarter, or to give it its original name, 'the Half Bap'. Long before the Troubles, this place had its fair share of misery, and guides Joe Baker and Michael Liggett are dying to tell us about it.

We begin on the corner of Academy Street and Exchange Street West, behind St Anne’s Cathedral. None of the old buildings remain, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Luftwaffe and the paramilitaries, so Baker and Liggett encourage us to use our imaginations.

This area was home to the dirt-poor of Victorian Belfast, who lived – if you can call it 'living' – in overcrowded tenement blocks. Baker’s tales of disease, degradation and untimely death are disturbing, even to someone who has watched all seven Saw movies.

Also resident here were Belfast’s body snatchers. The 'resurrection men', as they were known, dug up corpses from Clifton Street Cemetery and shipped them out to medical schools in Edinburgh. When Baker explains that a single cadaver could earn the criminals the equivalent of three years’ wages, you can kind of understand why they did it.

(Before you get all moral, consider how much modern medical science owes to Burke and Hare and their ilk – we’d be 100 years behind if it weren’t for the grave robbers, reckons Baker).

Moving along through the cobbled streets, we stop in an alleyway behind the Duke of York bar and restaurant. Amidst the pigeon droppings and overflowing bins, Baker spills his guts on the dubious entertainment Victorian-era drinkers could enjoy in the shebeens around these parts. The story about the 'lunatics' (i.e., alcoholics) who would tear rats apart with their teeth for a wager will stay with me for some time.

As we head out onto Waring Street, Liggett takes over, relating strange incidents from Belfast’s past, such as the Mafia-style shooting in the 1930s of a Turkish circus giant, whose body was found naked save a pink bathing cap, and the Belfast News-Letter’s world exclusive publication in 1776 of news of the American Declaration of Independence.

To underline that the darker side wasn’t the only side old Belfast had, Liggett dispenses locally relevant factoids concerning Madame Tussaud and Jonathan Swift.

The tour ends outside Primark on Castle Place, near the scene of many of Belfast’s public hangings. We can’t get to the exact spot because a group of teenagers are drinking across from McDonald’s, but we’re close enough. ‘All our great-great-grandparents were probably standing right here, watching,’ grins Liggett. ‘That’s probably why we’re so wired-up today. It’s in our genes.’

The Darker Side of Old Belfast is a hugely enjoyable two and a half hours, delivered with trademark blacker-than-black Ulster humour by the endlessly knowledgeable Baker and Liggett. It’s not a ghost tour, more a macabre history lesson, though the guides do throw in a few supernatural titbits.

Being an atheist, I’m duty-bound not to believe in the likes of Galloper Thompson, Haddock’s Ghost or the Five Mary’s. But you never know: after all, the first draft of this review came to 666 words…

The Darker Side of Old Belfast walking tour (suitable for adults only) departs every Sunday at 6.30pm from St Anne’s Cathedral. For more information, visit www.toursofbelfast.com.

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