A Trip Up North
Well, with all the travelling that I’ve been doing, I can finally say that I’ve made it out of the country! Sure, you might not actually need a passport to go to Northern Ireland but once you get there, it becomes clear that the Republic and Northern are indeed two different countries. Last weekend, IFSA-Butler took us on the first of two program trips which means the majority of the things we got to do in Belfast and on the Antrim Coast was already paid for, which is always a plus! And it was really great because it was a trip for IFSA-Butler students all over Ireland, not just Dublin, so we got to meet people studying in Galway, Cork, Limerick, Maynooth and Northern Ireland. I even ran into another girl I know from Butler who is going to Queen’s University in Belfast!
It was a long weekend, which meant we left Thursday afternoon for the relatively short bus ride up to Belfast. Once again, IFSA-Butler put us up in a lovely hotel (Jurys Inn Belfast) right in the heart of the city. We had some time before dinner at the hotel, so even though it was raining a bit, we took a little stroll around town. It was very different than what I’m used to here in Dublin. The population of Dublin is about the same as the total population of Northern Ireland, so Belfast was obviously much smaller and quieter. And as my friend Bridget put it, the city is more “English” than Dublin is, which makes complete sense, given that Northern Ireland, unlike the Republic, is part of the UK. But that is not to say that Belfast is not beautiful! We spent most of our time walking around the City Hall grounds. City Hall stands right smack dab in the middle of Belfast and is surrounded by beautiful statues and monuments, dedicated to important people or events in Belfast and Northern Ireland’s history, the largest of which was the statue of Queen Victoria.
Friday was a very early morning, but the day’s events were well worth getting up with the sun! We took a bus trip up the beautiful Antrim coast with a lovely tour guide named Virginia. Virginia knew everything there was to know about Belfast and Northern Ireland. Did you know that Belfast is the linen making capital of the world? Or that the television show Game of Thrones was filmed in Northern Ireland? Some of the many things I learned from Virginia. We followed the coast line all the way up the country and made stops at The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Dunluce Castle and the amazing Giant’s Causeway! Now, Virginia had me a little nervous about the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a bridge between the mainland and a tiny island that was originally built by salmon fishers more than 300 years ago. Of course, the bridge has been rebuilt many times (most recently in 2000) so it is perfectly safe to use. But I had no idea what to expect from the bridge. How long was it? How high was it? How sturdy was it? Virginia’s helpful advice was “Hopefully, it’s too foggy to see how high above the water you really are.” Yikes. Thanks a lot, Virginia. The nerves grew as we made the mile long hike along the gorgeous coastline. The view was amazing. You could just barely make out Scotland in the distance! On a clearer day it would have been completely visible. And the water was unbelievable. If it hadn’t been cold and windy and surrounded by green cliffs rather than sand, I could have sworn I was looking at the blue-green sea around some Caribbean island. We finally made it to the bridge…and it was so not what I was expecting. It was only about 20 meters long (65 feet) and 23 meters high and it was very sturdy. It wouldn’t have been fun to fall off, of course, but it wasn’t nearly as treacherous as Virginia had led me to believe. But it was so incredibly cool to be suspended over the sea like that! We were lucky to have beautiful weather for most of the day so as the fog continued to clear up, the view got better and better.
After the rope bridge, we continued up the coast to the Dunluce Castle. The castle sits right on top of some cliffs, so close to the edge that a long time ago, some of the rocks gave away and the kitchen actually fell into the sea, with the cooks and dinner and all. Through the castle windows you could see more incredible views of the sea and the cliffs around it!
The final stop of the trip was the famous Giant’s Causeway, a unique rock formation featuring piles and piles of polygonal shaped stones. Some say they’re nature made but the Irish have another explanation. Legend has it that long ago, the Irish giant Fionn MacCool built the Causeway to connect Ireland and Scotland so he could make his way between the two countries more easily. But this didn’t sit all that well with the Scottish giant, Cuchulainn. He didn’t want another giant coming to his territory. So one day Cuchulainn decided to cross the Causeway himself to challenge Fionn to a battle. Cuchulainn was a bit larger than Fionn, so when Fionn heard about Cuchulainn’s plan, he knew that he had to come up with one of his own. So Fionn went home and formulated a plan with his wife. On the day Cuchulainn came to call, Fionn laid down in the baby’s crib and put on the baby’s bonnet. When Cuchulainn came to the door, Fionn’s wife answered and asked him to please keep his voice down so he wouldn’t wake the baby. Cuchulainn took a look in the crib and thought to himself “If Fionn MacCool’s baby is that big, then Fionn must be huge! There’s no way I can take him on.” And Cuchulainn high-tailed it out of there, back across the Causeway to Scotland, breaking it up and destroying the path along the way. There are still traces of the Causeway on the Scottish coast, it’s not as impressive as what you can see in Ireland. It’s laid out so perfectly that it’s too hard to believe that it could be nature made, so the story of Fionn MacCool and Cuchulainn must be true!
Anyway, the rocks were a little slippery because of the misty rain, so it was a little scary (especially since I had already slipped and fallen earlier in the day…oops) but I did climb right to the top! It was just amazing. I don’t even really have the words to describe it all!
Since we did so much exploring on Friday, Saturday was a bit more relaxed. We got to sleep in and have a late breakfast at the hotel and in the afternoon, we took a Black Taxi Tour through West Belfast to learn about the history of the tension and violence between the Protestants and Catholics, known as the Troubles. I was amazed to learn that things were still so tense between these two religious groups. The tour guides were very adamant about the fact that not everyone hates each other. But the tension is still there to the point that the gates between the Protestant part of town and the Catholic part of town are still closed and locked every Friday at 5pm and are not reopened until Monday morning. It’s just so hard to wrap my mind around, but it was definitely eye opening. I didn’t know a whole lot about the Troubles before and I’m so glad that I was able to learn more, as horrifying as some of the stories might be. We saw the famous murals in the Protestant area on Shankill Road, one of which disturbingly honored a man who was known and revered for murdering 14 Catholics in cold blood. Perhaps the most striking mural portrayed a UFF soldier (possibly the same man) looking down the barrel of his gun, which followed you and pointed at you no matter where you were standing.
We then went to the border between the two parts of town where the graffiti-covered peace wall stands. The wall is covered with street art and signatures and messages from people from all over the world, hoping and praying for peace between the two groups. Rihanna, who filmed part of her video for “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” in Northern Ireland, fittingly signed the wall and left the song title as her message. We continued on to the Catholic part of town and visited a memorial garden on Bombay Street dedicated to all the Catholics killed by UFF forces. Most of the names were from the ’70s and ’80s, but the most recent was a man in 2004. We also got to see some of the IRA murals, one of which was just painted 2 weeks before in support of 5 Cubans who were wrongly imprisoned eleven years ago in Miami. The Black Taxi Tour was a sobering event, but it was really good to learn more about the history of Belfast and the conflicts that still, unfortunately, plague the city today.
We had the rest of the afternoon free so some of us spent the rest of the day visiting the Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens and went to the Victoria Square mall to use the £10 vouchers IFSA-Butler had given us for dinner. One of the best (if not the most exciting) parts of the weekend was the fact that our hotel had cable television. Most of us don’t have TVs in our apartments at UCD, so after a few long days of exploring, it was really nice to just relax with some mindless television!
This week has been pretty relaxing here in Dublin. This weekend I did a little shopping in town and my roommate, Rorie, and I went to the Wax Museum! Rorie had been dying to go ever since we first got here, and I’d never been to a wax museum before. It had everything from early Irish history to modern pop culture. There was even a whole terrifying room dedicated to the Silence of the Lambs that pretty much gave me the creeps but it was definitely fun!
We’ve decided not to do any more weekend travelling for a bit because we’re starting to plan for Spring Break! Rorie and I are planning to do Paris and Rome during the first week and then my best friend Emily is coming to visit me from home for the second week and we’re going to London! I can’t wait to see her and to see some more of Europe, too. It amazes me how quickly the semester is going. We only have two more weeks of classes before I become a world traveler! I even have a couple midterm essays due at the end of this week. These six weeks have really flown by and I am loving every minute!