Last Sunday, I took advantage of European Heritage Open Day 2006 and went off to visit some of the north's greatest icons of British Imperialism.
The first stop was HMS Caroline, moored off Alexandra Dock in Belfast.
According to the brochure, HMS Caroline, a Royal Naval light cruiser, was launched at Birkenhead in 1914. It is now the sole survivor, worldwide, from the Battle of Jutland. Still in commission, the ship came to Belfast in 1924 to serve as headquarters for the Royal Naval Reserve in the six counties (the brochure says 'The Province' here). Our guide explained that the British Army recently occupied the ship and used the towering crow's nest as a watchtower to spy on the colonised people of Belfast. Everywhere, dull paint peeled from the hull, revealing spreading rust. The Union Jack hung limp from the ship's bow.
Next on the agenda was the former Harland and Wolff Headquarters on Queen's Road. It's a fine, three storey sandstone building, dating from 1919, although it has witnessed better days. The expansive interiors, containing the drawing offices, were in a sorry state of disrepair. According to a woman from the Titanic Society, surveyors have been examining the viability of restoring the building, although no plans exist to develop such an undertaking. The Titanic Society wants the space to be turned into a library. Other unnamed individuals want to see a hotel here. In its glory days, the building and its surrounding shipyards, stood as a symbol of Unionist might and anti-Catholic prejudice. Its ruination illustrates the current state of that former monolith.
After a trip to the rarely-open Friar's Bush Cemetery, I made for Hillsborough to investigate Hillsborough Castle. This 18th Century mansion was the residence of former colonial overlords and, since 1972, has been the home of a long list of British secretaries of state.
On entering, a rather fey footman gathered the crowds around him, and announced that he might sing us an aria while we assembled ourselves in the hallway. An elderly couple, standing directly in front of me, began speaking to the footman about the previous night's 'Proms in the Park' at Belfast City Hall. The conversation went something like this:
Old Man: We had plenty of arias last night at City Hall.
Footman: Oh, was it good?
Old Woman: It was very good, and the weather was great.
Footman: Of course, we're not allowed to take our flags down there.
Old Woman (defiantly): Well, we brought ours!
Footman: Good for you.
The dialogue was delivered with the kind of casual arrogance which assumed everyone in the room shared the same opinion.
We were ushered through several other rooms, all splendid with riches and treaures. The flag-waving pensioner and her associates cooed and bleated as guides revealed information about visiting royalty, displayed Queen Elizabeth's gowns - as designed by Norman Hartnell - and opened autograph books to display the signatures of Prince Charles, George Bush and Colin Powell. The old couple touched the seat where Queen Elizabeth once sat, as if expecting an amorphous exchange of energy to flood through their flabby frames.
The dining room glittered with expensive tableware, Tyrone crystal, elaborate menus and royal portraits. It was easy to imagine the colonial governors and their royal masters drink and make merry while their armed foot-soldiers wreaked havoc on Belfast's streets.
A further room demonstrated, via an accompanying photograph, the scene where Tony Blair, George Bush, Condaleeza Rice and others plotted the destruction of Iraq during their visit here on April 2003. The old woman mewed and made doe-eyes at the scene. There were no photographs of those who demonstrated outside.
The world of fresh air was never so welcome.