Most borders you cross in the U.K. you barely even notice. Stepping off the train in Belfast I could already tell it was a completely different place than Dublin. The busy streets were replaced by silent landscapes. Belfast was not the tourist town I had expected it to be. It had large attractions for tourists, yes, but it was easier to see the day to day lives and pathways of the locals. It took Mikal and I a great deal of time to figure out were the life of the city was but once we did it was a completely different city. Because we were staying 4 nights the Belfast International Youth Hostel was chosen as our accommodation. It was nothing to write home about but it got the job done. In case you are wondering about the title its a homage to the way the Irish pronounce ‘Northern Ireland.’ At times I couldn’t tell if the locals were speaking english or Celtic.
Day 1: The City of Belfast
Our first day we used to get accustomed to the city of Belfast and see the Titanic Museum. Belfast is the city in which the Titanic and many other great ships were and continue to be made. But we will get to that later.
Our Hostel was located in Queens Quarter which was a lively section of town that we ended up spending a lot of time. We found The Queens University of Belfast while exploring. It has a beautiful historic campus. Chartered in 1845 the university is very competitive to this day. On main destination being the Ulster Museum we were still happy to find small distractions along the way. The Belfast Botanic Gardens was one of those distractions.
The Ulster Museum was my first look into conflict that shaped Northern Ireland. The Museum houses exhibits from fine art to natural history. The 1916 Easter Rising exhibit we found the most impactful.
Easter week of 1916 during World War I an armed uprising took place in Dublin with the goal of casting out British Rule and establishing an independent Irish Republic. The uprising was suppressed by the British Army. The blood shed in the uprising would continue to influence events like the War of Independence and “the troubles” that would put into question the highly controversial division between republicans and loyalist s in Northern Ireland.
After exploring the Queens Quarter we hopped on a train to see the Titanic Belfast. We were greeted by the Samson and Goliath Cranes. A striking addition to the cities skyline, they stand 350 feet tall and are owned by Harland and Wolf, the same company that constructed RMS Titanic. The cranes were built in 1969 and 1974 and did not help construct the luxury ocean liner.
The Titanic Belfast is the built on the site of Titanic’s construction and is a marvel itself. The museum walks the patrons through the pride of construction to the devastating tragedy. I found the whole thing “riveting.” Permanently docked in front of the Museum sits the Nomadic which is the last surviving ship commissioned by the White Star Line. The ship was used to taxi 1st class passengers from the shore to the RMS Titanic before leaving for it’s maiden and final journey.
After I had soaked in all that I could it was Mikal’s turn to lead the discovery. Our next destination was Shankill Road. This particular area of Belfast is a border area of West Belfast predominantly inhabited by loyalists or people that support Northern Ireland belonging to the United Kingdom. Street art is a huge part of Irish Culture. Just walking down the road you see countless monuments and artistry all with a political lean. Just a few streets over stands the Peace Wall. This actual physical border separates the loyalists and a republican neighborhood. I thought a wall in such modernized country was an archaic and unnecessary but I was proved wrong. Where the wall falls down the holes are filled with trash and then burned. It’s a reminder of how division still exists to this day. The second you cross over from one side to the other the art changes its basis. I’ve included some of the best examples of the art below.
The area was extremely fascinating and well worth exploring. The next day we would go even further into history while visiting Londonderry. The day we were visiting Shankill Road just happened to be the Queen’s Birthday and like the loyalists we are we took a picture by one of the many murals dedicated to her to send our best wishes.
As of April 21, 2017 Queen Elizabeth II is 91 years of age and has reigned over 12 countries for 65 years. Long Live the Queen!
After we were satisfied with the exploration of West Belfast we headed to High Street to check out the night life. Originally not on our agenda, High Street was recommended to us by a kind cab driver. It turned out to be a great tip. The atmosphere rivaled and maybe even trumped the Temple Bar area in Dublin. Smaller, brighter and definitely more street art than Dublin the streets were a great addition of our trip. Unfortunately High Street and Temple Bar had price in common. We had a few and then headed to a Wetherspoons. Wetherspoons is a chain restaurant and pub in the U.K. and our saving grace because of price and convenience.
Day 2: Free Derry
On our second full day we took a short train ride to the second largest city in Northern Ireland, Londonderry. Derry has violent and patriotic past that makes it a center for culture, history and division. It’s name is officially Londonderry but because of the large republican population it is referred to as Derry. Republicans oppose Northern Ireland being apart of the United Kingdom and wish the state to rejoin the Republic of Ireland. It’s a common sight for road signs to have ‘london’ covered. Most people refer to it as Derry to avoid conflict. The town has a unique history. City Center is completed surrounded by walls that date back to 1613 and is the only city in all of Ireland with intact city walls. Outside of the walls is a predominant nationalist settlement that in 1969 and 1972 was home to the Battle of the Bogside and Bloody Sunday. These two events were horrific conflicts between nationalists and the British Army. It was only in 2010 that the victims of Bloody Sunday, protestors shot by divisions of the British Army, received justice. The Prime Minister at the Time, David Cameron, made a formal apology for the “unjustified” and “unjustifiable” acts of violence. The Free Derry Corner monument appeared at the bogside overnight in 1969 as an act of defiance. Now it is a symbol of Pride and place of remembrance for those that lost their lives. Through the years it continues to be painted as world events grasp the attention of Derry. It was painted in rainbow colors for gay pride, pink for breast cancer, and inscribed with quotes when world leaders pass away. I am not sure what the graffiti meant the day I visited it. Probably something to do with welfare reform in parliament.
I didn’t get to take very many pictures inside the museums dedicated to the conflicts because it would have been rude but they were excellent exhibits that presented the information and injustice as unbiased as they could. The city was an experience that I will never forget.
We spent the majority of the day exploring the museums dedicated to conflict. In the afternoon we ventured into the city center to see the new and ancient parts of the city. Derry is a beautiful city with a rich and tragic history.
After getting our fill we hopped back on the train to Belfast for another night on the town. Before you ask, yes we did end up at Wetherspoons.
Day 3: Exploring Westeros by Bus
When you go to Ireland you cannot stay in the city. That much was clear to me. The landscape of Northern Ireland is well worth the journey. I desperately wanted to see the Cliffs of Moher and Mikal desperately wanted to see the Giants Causeway. Having already ventured to the cliffs the causeway was our next excursion. In my planning I came across a Game of Thrones tours that covered Giants Causeway and a whole lot more. I mentioned it to Mikal in jest and suddenly there I was sword in hand in full costume exploring the Northern Coastline. Even if it was a it nerdy it was an excellent trip. Mikal had never seen the show and I don’t consider my self a super fan but I would fight for my Khaleesi’s honor if she asked me too. The bus tour took us around Northern Ireland showing us the natural beauty and specific places that were used in the filming of Game of Thrones. Our tour guide, who was every bit of a super nerd, played clips and brought pictures of scenes so we could easily see the exact spot someone lost their head or gave birth to a shadow baby in a cave. I would highly recommend it. I’m not gonna lie I enjoyed swinging the sword and shield around.
Here are a couple shots of the Northern Ireland Coastline I got from stop to stop.
My favorite stop besides the giant causeway was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge near Ballycastle. It has since been remade for safety but the original bridge was thought to be made for salmon fishers. The men would dock their fishing boats on the islands, unload the fish and then the women would carry it across bridges to be salted, stored or prepared. Chivalry is indeed dead. The Island was an amazing stop. The bridge only swayed a little upon crossing the rocks 98 feet below.
From there we visited a near by village, had lunch and then visited the sight used for the baptisms on the fictitious Iron Islands. It was here that our tour guide unloaded and passed out swords, shields and costumes. It was odd walking around normal people in full costume but at least Mikal and 20 other people were doing it with me.
The main event was next, The Giant’s Causeway. The causeway is the site of an ancient volcanic eruption. Over 40,000 Basalt columns protrude straight out of the ground at heights of 40ft. The hexagonal shape and unexplained origin of these columns continue to baffle geologists to this day. Call it a wonder of the world, call it some funky rocks, I call it damn cool.
The Legend of Giant’s Causeway
According to legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant. The story goes that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), from the Fenian Cycle of Gaelic mythology, was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. In one version of the story, Fionn defeats Benandonner. In another, Fionn hides from Benandonner when he realises that his foe is much bigger than he. Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, disguises Fionn as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the size of the ‘baby’, he reckons that its father, Fionn, must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn could not follow. Across the sea, there are identical basalt columns (a part of the same ancient lava flow) at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa, and it is possible that the story was influenced by this
After the Causeway we stopped for a photo opportunity of the ruins of Dunluce Castle. This castle was used for to build the ruins of Harrenhal in Game of Thrones.
Our last stop was the Dark Hedges. You have probably seen picture of this place even if you hadn’t watched the show.
Here’s a better picture I pulled off of google that’s more recognizable.
After the hedges we turned back to town. On our final night in Belfast I came down with some kind of stomach flu which made for an uneventful evening. It lasted through our plane and train travels back to Wales the next morning. On the positive side I can now say I’ve been sick on every form of transportation available. Car, bus, plane, train, and even horseback. Not a lot of people can say that now can they? Regardless of the less than ideal ending the trip was a major success. As quick as it began the trip was over and it was a short plane to train Journey back to our small coastal town of Aberystwyth.
Big thanks to my flatmates and friends for coming along on this unforgettable journey. Special thanks to Mikal for his friendship and love of Wetherspoons. As I was making my way through the train stations I came across a quote written on a ticket booth in Dundalk, Ireland that I found worth mentioning. It read: “You’ll never see the man again who sat across from you. Better to look away.” A rather odd quote but to me it hit home. You never know what someone is going through in their lives, where they have come from or what pain they have endured. Take the time today to smile at someone today. You never know what small impact you can make in this giant world by simply being kind to a stranger. So this is me, smiling at all of the people I’ve meet during my time abroad. Thank you for welcoming me and impacting my life for the better.