Brendan Mulgrew: ‘I will never willingly punch down on my own city’

As Springsteen lamented the boarded up windows and empty streets of his hometown and urged its people to ‘rise up’. I say: ‘Come on Belfast, rise up!’

CGI impression of what the new McConnell's Distillery will look like.
Belfast Distillery Company has for a number of years been transforming the A wing of Crumlin Road Gaol into a working distillery in what will be a 'wow' of a visitor experience

Last week an event took place at City Hall which celebrated Belfast’s past; there was much discussion of the current state of our city and another event crept up which managed to nod to our past while laying the ground for a prosperous, shared future. If you stick with me for a few hundred words, I will explain.

First of all we had the unveiling, not before time, of two statues to female historical figures of Belfast’s past, Winifred Carney and Mary Ann McCracken.

McCracken is probably the better known of the two, sister of Henry Joy, she was a steadfast campaigner against slavery, friend of the oppressed and the poor and a successful businesswoman; setting a template for a fair and successful city which we surely all pursue.

I was keen since the statues were unveiled to find out more about Winifred Carney, who it turns out was suffragette, a trade unionist and an Irish republican. Born in Bangor, she was raised on the Falls Road - a remarkable woman.

There was widespread welcome for these additions to the grounds of City Hall and rightly so. When you travel overseas, what do you look for in a city as a tourist? Yes we want art, culture, sporting events - and Belfast has them all. But a portrait of our history is important too.

unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall
City Hall statues Charlotte McCurry dressed as suffragist and trade unionist Winifred Carney during the unveiling of a bronze statue in her memory at Belfast City Hall recently. Picture: Mal McCann (Mal McCann)

As a divided and shared city it is important that our public art reflects that shared past as well as a shared future. Of course, there are people for whom this agenda does not suit and last week we had some public dissent over the price of these new statues. The Oscar Wilde quote is brought to mind; “the cynics knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

In the midst of last week we also have a comedian grabbing more than a fair share of the media space to decry Belfast and dismiss our city as a derelict slum.

Well, to me that’s a joke that just isn’t funny anymore, especially when the author has made a virtue of not voting in any elections in recent years. If you opt of the democratic process in such a high profile way do you really have the moral authority to dismiss the councillors that ‘we elect?’

Taking pot shots is easy. Addressing the genuine difficulties faced by Belfast and saluting the progress being made is more realistic, but maybe doesn’t grab the headlines.

We have issues around the misnamed Tribeca project and more needs to be done to address homelessness and anti social behaviour. At the same time though there is exciting and significant investment being delivered in parts our capital city. We need more of that and we do need more incisive political leadership and I will be critical when criticism is warranted, but I will never willingly punch down on my own city.

Last weekend I had the privilege of getting a sneak peek behind what will become a major tourist attraction in north Belfast. As a matter of record, I have worked with Belfast Distillery Company for a number of years as they set about transforming the A wing of Crumlin Road gaol into a working distillery and a visitor experience; producing McConnells Whisky, eventually 4 million bottles a year, which is already sold in 50 countries across the world.

You remember the Biblical quote quote about beating ‘swords into ploughshares?’ This project is the living embodiment - the company is literally turning a place of conflict and division into a centre of investment, employment and hope.

Eventually 50 people will be employed on site and they aim to attract 100,000 visitors each year. The team from my company got a preview tour from an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide and, having worked with them through planning and other issues, having seen up close the building work taking place, this was actually quite an emotional experience.

It really is a ‘wow’ experience. You know the quote about change taking decades and then happening all at once; get yourself up to McConnell’s Distillery for a tour in the next few months and see change happening in your lifetime.

Brendan Mulgrew
Brendan Mulgrew Brendan Mulgrew

Your point of view on where we are as a city, as a region, probably dictates your attitude on where we can go in the future. Bruce Springsteen addressed the state of his home town Asbury Park in a little known song called My City of Ruins, in which he laments the ‘boarded up windows, the empty streets’.

The song ends with a defiant chant, ‘come on, rise up.’

That’s where are Belfast. Come on, rise up.

  • Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate ( Follow him on X at @brendanbelfast