A chance encounter led to a brief and enjoyable visit to Belfast. I met Geraldine Connon, one of Northern Ireland’s leading designers, at a Commonwealth fashion event in Buckingham Palace. We kept in touch and a few months later Geraldine invited me to a fashion show and concert and I was delighted to accept.
As a journalist one tends to view Northern Ireland through the lens of the Troubles. My brief visit made me realize that behind the headlines normal life carries on. Geraldine is a woman with a passion for fashion and admits to not being very political. She introduced me to her friends in the fashion and music business who were deeply committed to passing on their expertise to the younger generation.
My visit began with a quick tour of the Northern Ireland parliament buildings in the splendid Stormont Estate the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly – the devolved legislature for the region. The Assembly has been suspended since January 2017 over differences among the political parties.
The lack of a functioning government does not seem to have had an impact on daily life. The imposing white building set in extensive, manicured lawns surrounded by tree-covered hills is one of the best known and striking pieces of architecture in Northern Ireland. Visitors get a chance to glimpse behind the scenes and gain an insight into its rich history. You can visit the splendid Great Hall, the Assembly Chamber (where members of the Assembly used to debate the important issues of the day) and the grand Senate Chamber with its many original features. Looking down onto the central hall is a statue of James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The statue is 6ft 7in which was his actual height. The absence of meetings means that visitors can view the halls, stately rooms and corridors uninterrupted and marvel at the ornate chandeliers, statues and paintings of historic events.
The tour of Stormont was followed by a drive through the mainly Protestant areas of Belfast. We passed neat rows of small houses, with Union Jacks fluttering across the roads. One could tell when one was in the more prosperous areas because the roads were wider and houses more spacious with well-tended gardens. It was difficult to associate these quiet streets with the unrest we used to see on TV when sectarian violence was at a peak.
Clandeboye Festival/Camerata Ireland
We soon arrived at Geraldine’s charming house in Larne on the outskirts of Belfast. The high point of my first day was attending the Clandeboye Festival, a celebration of the work of young musicians and fashion designers. The festival, hosted by Lady Dufferin, owner of Clandeboye Estate, was devoted to the music of Vienna, concentrating on the music of composers associated with the city such as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms. The program also included the great traditional music of Northern Ireland. Many of the musicians had trained at the Clandeboye Academy for Young Musicians. Among the young performers were Scottish musicians, Catriona McKay and Chris Stout, and the brilliant local flautist Eimear McGeown. The festival director, Barry Douglas, a highly accomplished and world renowned pianist, founded the chamber orchestra, Camerata Ireland, in 1999 to promote and nurture the best of young musicians from both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
The musicians accompanied the fashion show displaying the talent of established and young designers from Ireland. Models glided along the catwalk showcasing a vivid range of casual and formal wear. The range of design and fabrics was breathtaking. There were clothes which were wild and extravagant a riot of color like confectionery. Other designs were understated in autumnal colors, soft browns, rust and muted orange. The fabrics ranged from denim, linen to organza, cotton to silk in shimmering colors. The highlights were the exquisite creations of Geraldine Connon. The fashion show was created by Maureen Martin whose agency also supplied the models.
Until my visit I had not been aware that the ill-fated Titanic had been designed and built in Belfast. In fact a whole area of the city by the waterfront is devoted to the Titanic. One can tour a re-creation of the ship and see the office of Harland Woolf which designed the Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic. You are shown the rooms where the directors met and the telephone exchange through which the call came through that the Titanic was in distress.
The extent of the tragedy became more poignant when one learned that more than 30,000 people worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week on the ship. This was an ambitious undertaking and a source of pride for Belfast. Huge crowds had turned out to cheer the ship which set sail on April 2, 1912. One could just imagine how shattering the disaster was for the people of Belfast.
Larne, where Geraldine has her home, is largely Protestant. The east side of Belfast is home to that community. I was told that there are few signs of open discord these days. Geraldine, although born into the Catholic faith, comes from an extended family of mixed religions, inclusive of Scottish Presbyterians and Russian Jewish immigrants. With this diverse ancestry she chooses to avoid political opinion.
Larne is the main port crossing to Scotland , hence the strong Ulster Scots connection. Within minutes of driving out of Larne town , known as the Gateway to the Glens , we were journeying on the coastal route, flanked by the Irish Sea on our right side. With spectacular landscape views after passing numerous small seaside resorts we treated ourselves to a delicious lunch in the Glenarm Castle tea-rooms. Glenarm Village was deemed a conservation area by the Princes Trust 8 years ago , the decision marked with a Royal visit from Prince Charles and Camilla.
Our most enjoyable day was rounded off by a visit through the hills of Kilwaughter to Geraldine’s brother’s farmhouse set in the middle of lush green fields and even more spectacular countryside. It was fascinating hearing Geraldine, her mother, and brother talk about their family networks and colorful personalities from the past.
Orange Day Parade
My visit encapsulated the two extremes of tradition. On Saturday, Geraldine and I took the opportunity of a coffee morning in Drumalis Retreat House , run by nuns, to spend an hour or so chatting with local residents. Within minutes of leaving the convent we walked down to the town center to watch the Orange Day parade. Once again on TV at the height of the sectarian troubles one saw the parades being disrupted by violent protests. This time there was a festive air as hundreds of marchers, 80 bands, with their pipes and drums, young children, middle aged and elderly men all in their smart uniforms paraded through the center of Larne. I asked a few of the marchers and bystanders what the parades meant to them. They said they enjoyed the music and the carnival atmosphere. The political background was far too complicated for me to question the rights and wrongs of the occasion. It was just heartening to see the absence of open hostility, although deep-seated resentments continue to simmer below the surface.
On the final day of my brief visit, I was shown around a farm owned by Campbell and Isabel Tweed. Campbell was the youngest ever International President of the Farmers Union for two consecutive terms. The weather had turned with a light mist and drizzle as Campbell drove us around his extensive farm in his sturdy Land Rover. We came across various locations of great interest including an archeological site filmed by the TIME TEAM and dramatic terrain used in the filming of the multi-million dollar film series, Game of Thrones. Also on his land Campbell and Isobel have invested in a wind turbine which provides electricity for their home and generates electricity for the national grid. These turbines actually are now a new modern feature on the entire Northern Irish landscape. I learned that setting up of a turbine is not cheap, the cost could be approximately, £500,000. After our hairy drive over hill and dale, we were treated to a delicious breakfast prepared by Isobel. All the produce was from the farm, the eggs, bacon and sausages. Isobel even made the jam herself.
After one last drive along the coast Geraldine dropped me off at Belfast airport for the flight back to London. When she invited me Geraldine had said she had wanted me to experience the positive side of Northern Ireland. She certainly lived up to her promise. I came away from my brief visit with warm memories of the hospitality of the people I met and the realization that newspaper headlines do not reflect the concerns of ordinary people who just wish to get on with their lives without the tensions and hostility which characterize political life.
It is a year since I was in Northern Ireland and Geraldine, Maureen Martin and their dedicated teams are now in the throes of preparing for this year’s Camerata Festival in Clandeboye Estate. I am sorry not to be able to join them but wish them success in spreading awareness of the wealth of talent and creativity that exists in Northern Ireland as well as the warmth and vitality of the people.