The Olympic torch came through Belfast today on its way to London. This was the second time in my life I’ve gotten to see the torch. My grandmother took my sister, cousins and me to see the torch come down Main Street in my hometown on its way to Atlanta in 1996. I remember sitting on the sign in front of the University of South Carolina-Union to stay out of the sun and wait for the torch to pass.
This year, I didn’t have my organized grandmother to lead me to the torch route with plenty of time to spare, so I started walking from my dorm a little late and arrived at Dublin Road in city centre just in time to see the torch go past! I followed the torch route for a short way and got to watch the torch change hands from one bearer to the next. A lot of other people were chasing the torch as well, many of them families with young children.
2012 is a big year for Northern Ireland. In addition to celebrating the Olympics, Belfast has celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Titanic (opening a new museum in the harbour where the ship was built), the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens and the 60th year of the Queen’s reign.
Naturally, the last one on the list hasn’t been actively celebrated by all. Northern Irish folks with Nationalist or Republican leanings would tend not to care too much for the Queen, though plenty of folks on both sides seem perfectly indifferent or content enough with the royal hoopla.
Either way, the Diamond Jubilee was officially celebrated with a four day weekend and a huge international market at City Hall, and the point is that exciting things are happening in Belfast in 2012. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s slogan for this year is “NI 2012: Our Time, Our Place.” “Come to Northern Ireland” sorts of ads appear frequently on TV here and several Americans have told me they’ve heard the “Our Time, Our Place” ad on American radio. The ads send a clear message: It is safe to come to Northern Ireland now. Northern Ireland’s future is big, bright, and shiny brand new. Please come celebrate with us!
I’ve heard a few people say that the Troubles are not over, that tensions are merely simmering under the surface. Nerd that I am, I’m reminded of Hagrid’s early Voldemort theories (“Some say ‘e died. Codswallop in my opinion), and I’m certainly in no position to say definitively if “the Troubles” are “over” or not. The economy isn’t good, and that always has the potential for stress and conflict.
But I hope the “Our Time, Our Place” message does what it seems to be aiming to do: pump tourist income into the economy while restoring Belfast pride and solidarity.
The fact that children can run freely through the city centre after that great symbol of solidarity, the Olympic torch, shows Belfast has come a long way in a short time. There was a time, more recent than the time I saw the torch in my own hometown, when that would have been impossible here. I’m glad Belfast is celebrating.
I’ll be leaving Belfast early Saturday morning, but I’ll keep posting about my experiences before and after I go home. Start planning your own Northern Irish adventure at http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/