A City by Song: Van Morrison’s Belfast


Coming down from Downpatrick, stopping off at St. John’s Point, out all day birdwatching. And the craic was good… The words, drawn from his life, are Van Morrison’s but the experience can be anyone’s. What you might not know is that his song, an odyssey from the town to the coast with a loved one, takes in everything that’s great about the land here.

Don’t believe me? Take a listen to the track I’m talking about; ‘Coney Island.’ The beguiling lyrics are real adventures in real places. Our song tour took us to Downpatrick first, the birthplace of another band you’ll know. A bright, brilliant mural in the town introduces us to The Girl From Mars, whom local band Ash still love. It’s really only a short walk from there to Down Cathedral, the reputed birthplace of St Patrick. A decorative cross greets you before you move around the building, taking in views of the hills, to the ancient rock that marks Patrick’s grave. 

Those hills, or drumlins as they’re known, will be a constant feature as you tread Van’s steps. Formed by glaciers into elongated, rolling ridges and greeting you at each turn you take, they hide all kinds of surprises. As the ground grows more hilly we make a stop at Saul Church, a small, striking building with a conical tower which you are led to by a grove of yew trees.

Stopped off at Strangford Lough, early in the morning… and why wouldn’t Van have done this? The loch, or more accurately the ‘cuan’, joins the Irish Sea through a narrow channel and it’s not the only beautiful fishing village you’ll encounter retracing the steps of the song. Small boats bob on calm, blue water leading your eye to the other side where small cottages can be seen.

According to the lyrics, he drove through Shrigley, taking pictures and this can only be of the monument there, that sits at the mouth of the road to the mill. While striking in design, it’s in need of repair to bring it back up to scratch. At only £300k, surely someone can afford to do this. Do it for Van!

Killyleagh Castle (Photo by Peter Clarke, courtesy of Creative Commons)

And on to Killyleagh. Stopped off for Sunday papers at the Lecale District, just before Coney Island. Our guide stops us here. Using his ingenuity he thinks he pinpointed the exact shop that Morrison must have stopped at for the papers. He knows the man inside and out and is more than happy to answer questions about his life and music, sporting a tour jacket that is possibly the only one of its kind. Killyleagh Castle is here, resembling a french chateau, with its white towers and perfect lawns. Van has played here a few times, returning to the place that he once got his newspaper from, but this time with adoring fans in tow.

On and on, over the hill to Ardglass… for a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herring… On the coast of County Down, you can still buy mussels and herring, fresh from the Irish sea, where Van, close to Coney island now, stopped to stave off hunger pangs. There’s no doubt his companion and him would’ve sat overlooking the charming harbour and possible seen a seal or two as they are frequent visitors to the bay. 

You’re not far from Winterfell either – the home of the troubled Stark family from Game of Thrones. It’s here you might make another fun discovery. The trees-lined avenue they used as the entrance to Winterfell castle, known as The Dark Hedges, suffered greatly in storms a few years ago. The felled trees were used to make 10 ornate, carved wooden doors. You’ll find them in pubs around Northern Ireland and at each of those locations, you can get a stamp book to collect proof that you’ve seen each door.

Ardglass’s other claim to fame is that there are more small castles here than anywhere in Europe. From the vantage point of the bay, we could see 3 of them but, like the doors, there are many more to find.

If you’ve been singing along to Coney Island, you’ll know what our last port of call is. The clue’s in the name! 

On and on, over the hill and the craic is good, Heading towards Coney Island. Not to be confused with Brooklyn’s entertainment haven – Coney island is a small and perfectly formed area of outstanding beauty where tall grasses and flowers blow in the sea breeze next to white sands. The small village borders the beach where you can stand and look out at the small peninsula with the sun hitting the sea behind it. Coney means rabbit, by the way, and the song is so well remembered, that the village sign is often stolen by fans.

As the final line of the song goes: Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

As we’re talking music, let’s not forget that Belfast is a city built on music. Traditional music and dancing plays in most pubs at the weekend while a rich history of any other type of music you care to mention can be found all around the place.

Ulster Hall is a Victorian venue that has hosted names you’ll know and more you’ll wish you did. Built in 1862, its first big name is known to most as the rhyming slang for ‘curry’. Ruby Murray was a local singing legend deemed too sexy by far for most people and, while she enjoyed a loving fanbase, she was forced to move to London before touring the world. We also remember her as a record holder with 5 singles in the charts at one time.

In ’71, around the time of their album Led Zeppelin 4, the legendary band played the hall to perform Stairway to Heaven for the first time. The Clash were due to play here too, but when that concert had to be cancelled, four of the audience members went on to form Stiff Little Fingers. Everywhere you look, music finds a way. Buzzcocks, Pixies, Red Hot Chili Peppers and, of course, Van Morrison all played here. You won’t find the original Ulster Hall floor though. Jitterbugging US soldiers broke that in the 1940s.

City Hall is a newer, vibrant arts centre where music is often found nestled among art displays, cultural events and a coffee shop. In 2021 Belfast was awarded the title UNESCO City of Music and its patrons, Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol and Hannah Peel, the pioneering electronic music composer, helped win that bid. And given that music is everywhere here, it makes perfect sense that Belfast is recognised for its contribution to the world.

A visit to Oh Yeah studios confirms that new music has a place to rehearse and play, too. A chat with some of the dedicated staff reveals that the 3-storey hub was set up as a charity with a mission to bring in young talent and showcase music from Northern Ireland. It is also renowned for supporting and giving opportunities to women musicians with its Talent Development Programme and Women’s Work Festival. The foyer and adjoining room feature relics, timelines and wonderfully curated display cases which contain a thorough history of the musicians this city has given us. It’s a small organisation that does big work.

Still don’t think music is the heart and soul of Belfast? It has also produced such luminaries as David Holmes, who provided the music for the film Oceans 11 and won a BAFTA for the Killing Eve score. Electronic band Bicep recently headlined the AVA festival here in their home town while famous son James Galway came out of the marching band tradition to win worldwide acclaim. Terri Hooley is a massive presence in the punk scene, having won massive acclaim by putting out Teenage Kicks by The Undertones on his Good Vibrations label. It became a massive hit and the wonderful 2013 film, also called Good Vibrations, captures this as well as the record store he set up.

We end our visit to Belfast (which literally means ‘mouth of the sand-bank ford’) with a city-centre concert by the ubiquitous Van Morrison himself. As we stood, rapt, with old and new buildings around us and sunlight falling on the expectant crowd, it was a great reminder that music truly is at the core of this beguiling and multifaceted city.

Irish Heartbeat Tours offer walking tours of the places which have inspired many of Van the Man’s greatest hits. For more information, please visit www.visiteastside.com. Creative Belfast Music Tour offers escorted private walking tours of Belfast, of music and other cultural themes. For further information, please visit www.creativetoursbelfast.com.

For information about visiting Belfast, including details of things to see and do, what’s on, and to plan your trip, visit the official tourism website at www.visitbelfast.com.