Tag Archives: belfast

Irish Travel Journal, Day 3

This post is part of a series detailing my trip to Ireland. You can view the whole series here.

Breakfast at the hotel was wonderful. Fried eggs with runny yolks, sautéed mushrooms, tomatoes, and baked beans. Plus porridge with a little whiskey in it! I obeyed the signs direction to “Try some Bushmills Irish Whiskey with your porridge.” With cream, a little honey, and a generous splash of whiskey, porridge was delicious! Something to try at home.

Don't mind if I do!

Don’t mind if I do!

The day began with a bus tour of Belfast.

Along the way, we saw Divis Tower, the only remaining building of a block of flats that was occupied by the British army during The Troubles due to it’s siteline over the city (for more information about what Belfast was like during The Troubles – and the way that history continues to be felt today – check out this incredible long read in The New Yorker).

During The Troubles, fighting was so bad around the Divis Flats that the British Army could often only reach their outpost at the top of Divis Tower by helicopter.

During The Troubles, fighting was so bad around the Divis Flats that the British Army could often only reach their outpost at the top of Divis Tower by helicopter.

We also saw the peace wall on Divis Road (so named because its obstructing presence kept the peace between neighborhoods), which was full of murals, and reminded me a bit of the East Side Gallery in Berlin.

The driving tour eventually brought us out to the Titanic Museum (the Titanic was built in Belfast).

It was one of the best-designed museums I have seen in a very long time. It was similar to the Guggenheim in New York in that the architecture of the museum propelled you through the exhibits in order. The exhibits themselves were very hands-on, and designed to appeal to learners of all types – there were text panels, images, dioramas, video, objects, interactive touchscreens, quizzes, audio recordings – and even a Disney-style ride that took you through the experience of working in a Belfast shipyard (complete with heat from the furnaces).

The museum began with the greater context of the history of Belfast and the shipping industry, and then moved through the construction and furnishing of the Titanic, the lives of the passengers, their daily routines, and then finally to the sinking of the ship and its aftermath – the collection of the bodies, the experiences of the survivors, and finally depictions of the tragedy in popular culture and the search for the wreck itself.

After the Titanic Experience, we left Belfast for our next destination – the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. The views (and the wind!) were incredible.

From there, we hopped back on the bus and drove out to Giant’s Causeway, which was fascinating from both a geological and mythological perspective. The unusual hexagonal flat stones of the Causeway were formed when hot lava shot up from the bottom of the sea and cooled incredibly quickly, before the hexagonal columns had a chance to melt and lose their shape.

Possibly the only time I will ever be excited about basalt.

The only time I will ever be excited about basalt.

More interesting to me was the story that rose up to account for the geological oddity. The area is called Giant’s Causeway because, according to legend, it was once a bridge all the way from Ireland to Scotland. A Scottish giant, Benandonner, once used this bridge to walk over to Ireland, with the intention to fight the Irish giant, Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool). Knowing that he would not be able to defeat Benandonner in physical combat, Fionn asks his wife Oona for help. She advised him to dress as a baby and sit in a cradle. Then, when Benandonner arrives, Oona tells him that Fionn is out but will be back shortly. Eyeing the “baby” of considerable size before him, Benandonner reconsiders his ambition to fight the father, so he high-tailed it back across the causeway, breaking it up behind him so that Fionn couldn’t follow.

After spending some time exploring the beautiful, fascinating basalt formations and enjoying the sunny, breezy weather, we reluctantly headed back to the bus for the ride to our next stop, Derry.

A landscape with grandeur.

A landscape with grandeur.

On the way, we passed through the village of Bushmills, where Bushmills whiskey is distilled. Apparently, the word “whiskey” comes from the Irish words uisce beatha (“iska-bah”) meaning “water of life” – just like eau de vie or aqua vitae. In fact, it’s where the concept originally came from! Once Christianity – and with it, Latin – reached Ireland, the term was translated into the Latin, which then evolved into Italian, French, and so on.

Once in Derry, we checked into the hotel, ate dinner, and headed out into the town for our first evening out. Cigi and I spent the evening pub-hopping and talking to everyone we could. One of the most interesting conversations of the evening was with a bouncer outside of one of the pubs. When he asked where I was from and I said the US, he seemed surprised. “But you sound English!” he said. “No offense meant.” I was far from being offended by not being immediately perceived as American, but it was a fascinating cultural moment to understand that merely calling someone English on the Catholic (and therefore Republican) side of Derry could be an insult.

After that, Cigi and I wandered further afield to see what else was out there. Eventually, our wanderings took us deep into the Bogside (the neighborhood in Derry where Bloody Sunday occurred), and murals depicting scenes from The Troubles stared down at us.

The Bogside by night.

The Bogside by night.

It was a very different experience coming across them without context, in the middle of the night, than it was seeing them during the day as part of a tour group, as we would the next morning.

Continue on to Day 4

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Irish Travel Journal, Days 1-2

This post is the first installment of my Irish travel journal. You can view the whole series here.

I’m starting this journal on the plane from St. Louis to Newark, about to embark (or perhaps already having embarked) on my second FOCUS Ireland trip.

The morning began when I met up with the professors and students at Wash U. I was in charge of checking passports before letting people on the bus, and fortunately I took the role seriously – Dean Killen nearly left his behind in the copy machine! To thank me for saving the whole trip a lot of bother by realizing that before we got to the airport, he promised to buy me a really nice glass of whiskey once we got to Ireland.

At the airport, we herded the crew inside, wrote out baggage labels, and checked in. Despite the best efforts of the gate agents, we managed to get (at least) one set of boarding passes for everyone.

From there, it was off to Ireland.

The flights were mostly uneventful, although there was some excitement toward the end when my seatmate accidentally spilled all of the sticky syrup from a breakfast fruit cup right onto my pants. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long before I got my bag (and the rest of my clothes), at baggage claim. Unfortunately, I had only packed one pair of pants. This meant I got to make my victorious re-entry into Ireland in my pajamas.

Ireland in Pajamas

At least I brought cool pajamas?

This was somewhat fitting, since we arrived at approximately 6am Dublin time. By the time we made it through customs, recovered our bags, and drove up to Newgrange (a Stone Age tomb famous for the illumination of its interior chamber by the sun on the winter solstice), the Visitor’s Centre hadn’t even opened yet.

After watching the informational video, meandering through the exhibit and having a spot of breakfast (lunch? dinner?), we caught the bus out to Newgrange itself.

I call this one "Sunrise Over the Isle of Man."

I call this one “Sunrise Over the Isle of Man.”

IMG_3719Our tour guide at Newgrange looked and sounded exactly like a supervillain, from his black hood and monotone voice to his walking stick and dead-eyed stare. He was also incredibly knowledgeable about the site and its history, and gave an excellent tour. In fact, his supervillain ethos merely contributed to the aura of magic and mystery about the the area (especially once we entered the chamber within the mound).


After Newgrange, we got back on the bus for the long (by Irish standards) drive up to Belfast.

When we arrived, my roommate Cigi and I explored the city for a bit before stopping back by the hotel for a pint at an historic pub, The Crown. We even managed to snag a snug (small private room)!

The Crown Bar

The perfect place for a pint.

While there, our bus driver and tour guide Rory told us all about the sexist history of snugs. Apparently they were first created to keep women from drinking in the open bars with men, and that that system wasn’t entirely abolished until the 1960s. Yikes! But however they started out, snugs are a wonderfully cozy place to have a drink with a few friends.

Dinner at the hotel that night was delicious, but since we had all been awake for almost 48 hours, the conversation at the table was a little slow, and the time between the courses seemed very long indeed.

Continue on to Day 3

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