I know it’s been a while, sorry about that! My only excuse is that the Christmas holidays were really busy with friends coming to stay. I almost couldn’t believe that some of our favourite friends from New Zealand were really here with us in our new home. It was an amazing time and maybe I’ll be able to write about it here soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d fill you in on our last out-of-Glasgow adventure for 2014 – Belfast, Northern Ireland!
The trip was a 30th birthday present for Bernie. I had chosen Belfast mostly, I’m ashamed to say, because they were the most affordable tickets available that particular weekend, but I’m really glad we did. To begin with there’s the fact that our aim for this year was to get a good feel for the UK. We’ve seen a lot of Scotland and various parts of England (mostly where we have friends living it has to be said), Wales and Northern Ireland remained unexplored. Then there was our very own trip advisor, Meadhbh, who pretty much determined our entire itinerary with her excellent local knowledge of the best places to visit and eat.
I was curious to see this place after all that I’d heard as well. I vaguely remember the Troubles being in the news as a small child, and I’d got a pretty good grasp on the history, I thought, while studying Irish poetry under Peter Kuch. It was a frequent reference point for commentators on both sides of the Scottish referendum debate, and has come up a lot in my PhD research. Of course its scenery is legend so we’d arranged to spend one of our 2 and a half days travelling up the Antrim Coast to the Giant’s Causeway.
I faithfully swear all the above were the reasons for my choice, and that I genuinely forgot that Belfast was home to the shrine of my childhood obsession – the RMS Titanic.
An amused and forgiving Bernie and I went to Titanic Belfast first thing on the rainy Saturday morning. It’s an enormous centre dedicated to telling the many stories behind the Titanic, including two substantial sections on Belfast itself and the shipbuilding industry which, like Glasgow, defined the city until very recently. The Harland and Wolff shipyard which built the Titanic is still in operation and a dominant force of the city. One of my favourite aspects of the museum was the section where a window looking out onto the slipway where the Titanic was actually launched, gradually reveals an image of that day.
The way the museum is laid out, you climb up and up through the history of Belfast, the building of the great ship, the launch, the passengers who embarked at its various stops before heading for New York. Then you’re at the top of the building and you kind of forget that the whole thing sank just 5 days later. Then you start to go down the stairs and the story of the sinking is told, followed by the aftermath, enquiries and media storms. The pop culture interpretations, which date back to the same decade of the sinking, then finally the discovery of the wreck. It’s an incredible building, the exterior of which, in Bernie’s words, managed to look like a ship, the sea and an iceberg all at once.
There was something very strange about being surrounded again by all these facts and figures and people I hadn’t thought about since I was about 8 years old, but that were all so very familiar. It was a bit like being reunited with friends I hadn’t seen for years.
The rain eased up a bit in the afternoon, so we headed for the Falls Road and West Belfast, Meadhbh’s old stomping ground. We had lunch with live music in the background at An Culturlann, an excellent place to stop for good food, traditional music and books in Gaelic.
From there it was an easy walk to the famed Peace Walls. These were erected in an attempt to reduce the sectarian violence that ravaged the city during the Troubles, but their number has continued to increase since then. They are where you can see a lot of Belfast’s famous murals, designed to mark territory, remember the dead, promote peace or promote violence. It being December in the north, the light was already fading by this point, and the experience was pretty creepy. Having said that, I’m incredibly glad we went. I hadn’t really understood what a presence sectarianism still is in Northern Ireland, or appreciated just what Glasgow might have been like a few decades ago. I had laughed away arguments that bringing up Scottish independence might bring up ugly scars, but travelling between Union Jacks and Irish flags that have to be separated by huge barbed gates, that closed even as we drove away, blocking the path we thought we’d be able to retrace, I realised what a miracle the peace of September 2014 had been.
One particularly disturbing testament to the futile horror of colonialism and sectarianism, was this plaque in memory of an infant, killed in the name of differences she’d never grow old enough to understand.
But despite all of the violence and hatred many of the murals and walls evoke, a huge amount of them are beautiful testaments to peace, and a credit to the city. They embrace a wide range of humanitarian causes beyond Belfast, even climate change.
Heavy bit over, we hit the town, aiming for all the places Meadhbh had recommended, starting with a wonder through their huge Christmas market in front of the majestic City Hall, followed by a famous curry house and finally some beautiful pubs complete with friendly locals of ‘Norn Iron’ who were happy to educate us on their lovely city.
The following day we had dedicated to moving beyond the city to see some of Northern Ireland’s famed Antrim coast. It was not a dissapointment! It was absolutely freezing, so much so that we could barely stand to stay outside admiring Carrickfergus Castle (of song fame) for more than about 5 minutes, before diving back to our centrally heated rental car.
As we continued up the coast it only got crazier. At one point we had to stay in a carpark while huge hailstone pounded the car and stopped us going anywhere. That pretty effectively put paid to our plan to cross the rope bridge the carpark serviced! But the wild weather seemed perfect for that harsh coastline, and the breaks of sun brought us rainbow after rainbow against black skies and bright green outcrops.
Eventually we made it to the Giant’s Causeway, so called after a legend explaining the link between Norn Iron and Scotland.
It is apparently the windiest part of Ireland, and I can well believe it! It has gusts to rival a Wellington beach in October, creating this weird foam that gathers in the distinctive organ pipes.
The Visitor’s Centre gives a pretty good background in terms of geology, folklore, birdlife and conservation, and ticket prices include audio guides which are hilarious but informative. Most importantly however, it sells a really good Hot Chocolate for when you return with numb fingers from your adventure.
Being terrified of flying, all this wind was making me nervous for our journey home that night, but in fact it made our trip even shorter, with a grand total of 9 – yes, 9 – minutes between the completion of take off and the start of descent.
So there’s no excuses for not taking a weekend trip to Belfast! It has unique scenery right beside it, great nightlife, weirdly named but delicious local tray bake, great food in general, ships aplenty, and a living history that should be widely known. If you’re stuck, the locals are great so just stop and ask – assuming you can make out what they’re saying, for which I recommend this handy guide.
Until next time!