In Belfast, music is around every corner. Singers, songwriters and acts populate the streets of the Northern Ireland capital. At Commercial Court, an alley dotted with an array of great Irish pubs and restaurants, crooners occupy the public space. As I walk through the alley, steeped in street art, I marvel at its murals. I stand facing Bono and diagonally opposite are Bob Dylan and John Lennon, looking at the animated banter — or craic, as the Irish call it — between Sinéad O’Connor, Gary Lightbody and a young Van Morrison. These murals are designed by celebrated muralists Danny Devenny, Mark Irvine and Marty Lyons.
A few steps away from these murals lies the famous Duke of York, a quintessential Irish pub. It was here that Snow Patrol performed their first live gig in 1998, a black plaque outside testifies. It is believed that the 30 odd people who attended the gig still get a Christmas card signed off by the band.
My destination the next day is EastSide in East Belfast, where songwriter Sir George Ivan Morrison, known to the world as Van Morrison, 73, was born. With his poetic lyrics and moody blues, Van the Man, as he is referred to in Ireland, made chartbusters like Brown Eyed Girl, Moondance and albums like Astral Weeks (1968). His music — a blend of rock, jazz, folk, rhythm and blues, and soul — was shaped by his homeland and its streets, and has won him a legion of admirers around the globe. On a dull, rainy day, I set out to explore the Mystic of the East: The Van Morrison Trail. It traces Morrison’s childhood years from his Elmgrove Primary School to Orangefield High School, places which were an essential part of his formative years. The characteristic red brick house on Hyndford Street, where Morrison was born and spent his initial years, has a brass plaque in the front which reads, “Singer Songwriter Van Morrison Lived Here”.
Next, I set out to search for “the hollow” which finds a mention in Brown Eyed Girl from Blowin’ Your Mind (1967). I felt a certain satisfaction having found the electricity pylons and, encouraged, pursue the Connswater River, locally known as Beechie, which Morrison personifies in his song, On Hyndford Street, from the album Hymns to the Silence (1991). My walk concludes on Cyprus Avenue. It is the street which found its way into Morrison’s track, Up on Cyprus Avenue in Astral Weeks: “Well, I’m caught one more time/ Up on Cyprus Avenue.”
Later in the evening, I find myself at Oh Yeah Music Centre, a creative hub which was set up in 2007 to promote new talents from Northern Ireland. With Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody as one of its founding members, the centre has live music space, recording studio, rehearsal venue and an exhibition. On a quest to “open doors to music”, it also runs several programmes and workshops featuring artistes.
Strolling back to my hotel, I cross the Ulster Hall on Bedford Street. This Victorian concert hall hosts the annual Sound of Belfast, apart from being the centre of arts and entertainment in the city since 1862. The venue has been a witness to Led Zeppelin’s first performance of Stairway to Heaven in 1971. Several other international musicians and bands, including U2, The Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay, Johnny Cash and Snow Patrol, have also performed here.
Snow Patrol’s soothing percussion and Lightbody’s velvet voice drew me to their music when I was in college. Their tracks, Chasing Cars and Open Your Eyes from the album Open Eyes (2006) and Run from Final Straw (2003), struck a chord with me. On my way to Portrush in County Antrim, I set out to explore Bushmills Distillery, where Snow Patrol performed in an exclusive Bushmills Live in 2012.
Along with international favourites like Sinéad O’Connor and The Cranberries, it is local artistes like Malojian and Bronagh Gallagher, who enrich Northern Ireland’s music scene. Gallagher is a familiar face because of her cameo in Pulp Fiction (1994) though her voice — vivid and powerful — is a better introduction. At a small gathering at Arcadia in Portrush, Gallagher says, “This has to be the most beautiful place I have performed in.” In my mind, I think hers is probably the most distinct voice I have heard in the last half decade. She sings Here We Go Again, Shortcut and Fool at Arcadia with utmost ease and equal intensity. My evening becomes an effervescent memory, with sparse blue skies above the Atlantic Ocean and a firsthand experience of Gallagher’s music.
Roe (or Roisin Donald), Malojian (or Stevie Scullion) and Catherine McGrath are some of the local upcoming artistes. While I know there is no dearth of inspiration or creative calibre in this part of the world, I wonder how I may keep up with all their music talents.
Where to find traditional Irish music in Belfast
Kelly’s Cellars on Bank Street
McHugh’s on Queen’s Square
Henry’s in Joy’s Entry
The Duke of York in Commercial Court
Robinson’s on Great Victoria St
The Points on Dublin Road
The John Hewitt Bar on Donegall Street
(Amrita Das is a travel blogger and freelance travel writer, currently based in Kolkata)