Photo by Catherine Falls Commercial
Artillery Row

Underselling Ulster

Northern Ireland should be bolder in promoting itself

George Bernard Shaw once said America and England are “two nations separated by a common language”. That may be so, but a more striking difference struck me whilst living on the East Coast of the US. I speak of the delicate matter of personal salesmanship. Selling oneself to others — especially in the workplace — is an American norm. If Europeans tend to lead with modesty, Americans go all in on marketing. Aliens to US shores can find these performances discombobulating. One fellow Irish colleague who spent time in North America summed up the situation thus: “We think they’re weird for bumming and blowing about themselves. But they think we’re weird because we don’t.”

I hazard that my fellow countrymen might be particularly susceptible to this culture shock since in Northern Ireland self-deprecation — “ripping the piss” out of yourself and others — is practically a way of life. Living in a place steeped in trauma, tragedy and twisted politics means that humour, no matter how dark, keeps you sane. Although this attitude has its charms (there is little tolerance for pretension), a vanity vacuum doesn’t work terribly well when it comes to selling our wares. Twenty-five years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s visitor numbers have grown. However, we still don’t welcome the volume of visitors reached by our compatriots in the Republic. Yanks go south to experience the pleasures of Dublin, Donegal and Connemara, but most of them still avoid the “black North” just miles away on this shared island. Whilst the South learned to sing for its Oirish supper, Ulster hasn’t yet found its U.S.P.

It’s not only ineptitude about selling ourselves that counts. When I was a kid growing up here, there was a ring of steel around Belfast city centre. Terrorism and shallow introspection have undoubtedly held Northern Ireland back. Combine that with international news media disseminating only the worst about the place, and tourism’s sluggishness comes as no surprise.

Still, there has been progress. People now mix in bars and restaurants, sipping cappuccinos in cafes as they would any other European city. Capitalism and the tourist pound have done a lot to open the country up to outsiders. This place, so often down on itself, has so much more potential, though. We must shoulder some of the blame for visitor shortcomings.

Tourism still tends to be focused on the “Troubles”, with partisan tours led by semi-literate guides. Agog tourists are driven around tribal murals — the more intimidating the artwork the better. It’s not all “Troubles”: we built the famous ship that sank, and the architecturally stunning “Titanic Belfast” opened in 2012. Nestled in the city’s dry docks (at one time Belfast was home to the largest shipbuilding yards in the world), the £101 million museum is certainly a welcome addition to the city. Currently, the province’s biggest selling point is Game of Thrones. Much of the hit TV series was filmed in Northern Ireland against a backdrop of some of Ireland’s most scenic and unspoiled locations.

Combined, this seems to suggest that all we have to offer is tragedy, death or brutal violence. Misery tourism sells Belfast woefully short. There is so much more to the province than fantasy history — whether perpetuated by captive minds, James Cameron or HBO TV producers.

Unfortunately, history in the province is too often refracted through a prism with two hues of light — green and orange. This means we miss out on a wider spectrum of historical nuance. For example, the slave trade never got a foothold in Belfast the way it did in other British cities such as Bristol, Liverpool or London. Credit for this moral censure goes to the city’s radical Presbyterians, who strongly upheld anti-slavery sentiments (”not a drop of blood on our sugar”). Back in 1786, an editorial in the Belfast News Letter — the world’s oldest English-language daily newspaper — urged, “That the Africans are an inferior link in the grand chain of nature is a prejudice, which has been indulged in and propagated by Europeans.” It would be wonderful for would-be tourists to know this.

Twenty-three US presidents’ ancestry can be traced to Ireland

Chinks of light suggest the city might be wakening up to what it has got. Last week saw the unveiling of a statue of Frederick Douglass, the celebrated American abolitionist, social reformer and orator. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1817 or 1818 (the dates are uncertain), he successfully escaped his owner in 1838, later touring and lecturing in Ireland, an experience Douglass described as transformative. On multiple occasions in the 1840s, at the invitation of Belfast Anti Slavery Society, he visited the city to rapturous applause. When he departed for a final time, Douglass said, “Whenever else I feel myself to be stranger, I will remember I have a home in Belfast.” Yet there is no fixed exhibition explaining this positive aspect of Belfast’s past.

Radical social reform and anti-slavery are not the only links that might tempt the historically-minded American tourist with deep pockets. An estimated 23 US presidents’ ancestry can be traced to Ireland, with a disproportionate 17 descending from emigrants from Ulster.

Even lesser known is the relationship between U.S. self-sovereignty and Ulster. Nowadays Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) is not a well-known name. Back in his day, the philosopher — born in Saintfield just outside Belfast — was a founding father of the Enlightenment and one of the most important influences in Western thinking. His moral philosophy directly influenced the Declaration of Independence. Signers of that document were not only students of Hutcheson’s work — flecked through the Declaration are instantly recognisable phrases such as “inalienable rights” and “all men are born equal”, words that come directly from his writing.

Dismayingly, there is no trace of this fascinating feature of American history in our visitor attractions. It is another missed chance to tempt tourists seeking out their own and their country’s roots, to say nothing of luring in lucrative US dollars. A longer historical lens and more imagination is needed amongst politicians, entrepreneurs and those responsible for marketing this small country.

To take another example, few Americans (or locals) know that the American War of Independence was fought in the Irish Sea, just a few miles east of Belfast. The first naval battle ever won by the newly formed American Continental Navy against the British took place off the Copeland Islands near the pretty coastal town of Donaghadee. I only discovered this myself after using the town’s public toilets. That’s right, the local tourist board thought it appropriate to shove some of our most fascinating facts onto a display inside a foul-smelling public convenience.

Sloane is credited with inventing the world’s most successful gustatory marriage

Aside from American connections, gourmands and gluttons alike owe this corner of the world a debt of gratitude. Chocolate is the most craved food on planet Earth. From Cadbury’s in Britain to Cailler and Lindt in Switzerland, even the humble Hershey’s in the States, they have Killyleagh man Hans Sloane (1660–1753) to thank for their existence. Sloane is credited with inventing the world’s most successful gustatory marriage: the mixing of milk with cocoa. More likely he picked up the idea on his travels in Jamaica, but Sloane was certainly the first to introduce milk chocolate to Europe. A hundred years later, master chocolatiers finesse the blend and forget entirely about its quirky origins.

Where did I learn the improbable fact that a son of Ulster paved the way to cocoa bean confection? Standing in a queue at Queen’s University’s Science Library, some twenty-odd years ago, out of sheer boredom I read an uninspiring glass display that yielded this astonishing revelation. Even if this dull display still exists, there is certainly no trace of these facts in any welcome centre or notable tourist haunt in Belfast — an astonishing fact in itself.

Northern Ireland also has an unexpectedly good restaurant scene with a glut of independent eateries and coffee shops. They are likely an artefact of the “Troubles”, when businesses and chains feared setting up here. We are also home to a wealth of new and old distilleries. Bushmills is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. Yet its locale — the quaint County Antrim village of the same name — remains a veritable Cinderella of a settlement that is still waiting to go to the tourism ball. Although it has all the raw materials to appeal to tourists, Bushmills is currently crammed with boarded-up houses and closed businesses. What a missed opportunity.

Bushmills is a mere six minute drive from the spectacular Giants Causeway — an arresting site of around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, hugging some of the most rugged and under-visited coastal paths in the British Isles. Yet even this has been subject to home-grown ridicule. Local counsellors successfully managed to lampoon their own heritage by insisting on a creationist interpretation of the 50 to 60-million-year-old geological formations at the new visitor centre. Subsequently, the international press focused on their anti-science ignorance, and the National Trust’s decision to kowtow to them, rather than on the breathtaking uniqueness of the site.

If one phrase sums up this place and its people, it is “catch yourself on”, meaning “get a grip”. Whilst groundedness is the sine qua non of Northern Ireland, the country needs to get past its self-deprecation and, dare I say it, “be more American”. As my wise Irish colleague told me, being factual about one’s accomplishments needn’t be embarrassing — even if it is a sales pitch.

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