Belfast & Northern Ireland - February 10-11, 2007

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So a few weeks ago we decided to head for Brussels for the weekend. Instead we ended up in Belfast - ask Kathleen…

We’d (okay, I’d) been wanting to get to Belfast since we got to Ireland. It’s only about a 5.5 hour drive from Tramore, but we just hadn’t gotten to it until this unexpected trip. We headed up on a dreary, rainy Saturday morning and stayed until late Sunday afternoon. Though we did see some sun on Sunday, it turns out that “dreary” was an apt description for Belfast on the whole.

So why the interest in Belfast? Well, growing up in America in the 70’s, Belfast and Northern Ireland were what we saw of Ireland on TV. It was the height of “The Troubles,” and the violence that took place was often in the news. The history of the struggle is long and incredibly complicated, more than I can summarize here. A great introduction to the topic is the Wikipedia article on The Troubles.

The drive from Dublin up to Belfast is really quite a pretty drive. It’s kind of strange as you approach the border, because the border is now totally open, though that wasn’t the case just a few years ago. And it still feels like you’re approaching a border, lots of signs for currency exchange (Northern Ireland, being part of Great Britain, still uses pounds rather than Euros), touristy stuff. But you get to the border, and you can’t really tell where it is exactly. You do know you’ve crossed it, because the condition of the road deteriorates. But no sign, no announcement, nothing. And then the speed limit drops, to like 50. So we’re driving along at 50K, and people are blowing by us, and we recall that Britain still uses miles instead of kilometers - but no indication on any signs to that effect.

When we got to town, we started out with a wander in downtown Belfast. Did I mention it was dreary? It was mostly the weather, but Belfast is a city that’s clearly still in the pretty early stages of a recovery. Downtown was not nearly as active as we’ve gotten used to with other Irish cities. There’s some beautiful architecture, but there was also a lot of graffiti and a general run-down look about the place. With cameras everywhere and grating across many storefronts, the place had the feel of a city under siege, which I suppose it has been for much of the past 30 years.

Venturing out of the immediate downtown area, we discovered St. Anne’s Cathedral, or Belfast Cathedral, of the Church of Ireland. It was really quite a lovely building, but again eerily quiet. It’s also got one of the best web pages I’ve ever seen for a church - http://www.belfastcathedral.org/. Be sure to check out the Virtual Tour with the 3-D photo.

Next it was off to the Ulster Museum, only to discover it closed until Spring 2009 for a complete overhaul. However, the Museum is located in the heart of the Botanic Gardens, right next to Queen’s University, so we spent some time exploring those. The Palm House in the Botanic Gardens was putting on quite a show of flowers, and it was nice to be in a warm spot out of the rain for a bit. Since we were near a University, we had to find the university book store and spend a little time browsing. They had an incredible history section, but sadly with the exchange rate around $2US per English pound, things were pretty pricey for us.

Thanks to the Northern Ireland Tourist Office, we managed to find a B&B in the Queen’s University area. Saturday evening we went out to dinner and stumbled on a Pizza Hut. I had a craving, so we treated ourselves to some ridiculously expensive pizza. We considered going out to a pub for some live music, but Northern Ireland hasn’t gone smoke-free in pubs like the Republic of Ireland has (they will this summer), so we skipped that.

Sunday morning we were up bright and early to face another cloudy morning. Fortunately the clouds lifted and we did see some sun during the day. We wandered into Milltown Cemetery, which was almost as active as downtown Belfast had been on Saturday morning. (In our travels we do seem to see a lot of people visiting cemeteries on Sundays) While exploring the cemetery I shot one of my favorite photos ever, some ivy growing on a gravestone. The ivy had a bunch of small leaves that were heart-shaped, it was really quite striking. I was to learn later that Milltown Cemetery was the site of a massive attack as recently as 1988, when 3 mourners were shot dead during a funeral for members of the Irish Republican Army. Interestingly, the guy who carried out that attack was in the news last fall when he threw a backpack full of bombs into the Norhtern Ireland Parliament building.

Next we drove up the Falls Road, which would have been one of the hotspots during the Troubles. There are now a lot of murals along the Falls Road, commemorating events and people from Northern Ireland’s history, as well as commenting on current events worldwide. George Bush even makes an appearance. As I got out of the car several times to shoot pictures of various murals, I noticed that people on the street seemed to keep a pretty close eye on me. There was definitely a sense of distrust or uneasiness with a stranger around, a very strange feeling because we’ve mostly found people to be incredibly welcoming.

With the sun finally making an appearance, we headed up the hill to Belfast Castle, which has a great overlook on all of Belfast. We spent a little time exploring the Castle gardens and surrounding park, enjoying the sun while it lasted. Then we headed out to the Ulster Folk Museum, an outdoor museum recreating life in a 1900’s era town.

Finally, we had to make a stop at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Parliament building. This is a place that’s in the news quite a lot here as steps proceed to return some self-governance to Northern Ireland in the next few months. As you can imagine, not everyone is happy with the push towards power-sharing and peace, and there have been incidences of violence even since we’ve been in Ireland, as mentioned above. The grounds of Stormont are fairly well fortified, with no public traffic allowed within I’d say 12 mile of the building.

It’s been an exciting time to be in Ireland with the changes taking place in the North. These groups that have been at war really for centuries in one form or another are finally, maybe, going to find peace and manage to work together. There are people and groups on both sides of this that have been called, have in fact been, terrorists. While there are some who vow to never stop fighting, many others have found a path to their goal using words instead of bombs. I just can’t help but think that there are huge lessons here for the picking for anybody willing to look.

So, all in all, Belfast was quite a different experience than many of our other travels around Ireland. We agreed that we’ll come back at some point to do some more exploring, try to do some of the guided tours to get a little more out of the town. In the meantime, we’ll be watching developments on the evening news.

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