As related in a previous blog, my first trip to Ireland, a two-day adventure in Dublin, happened back in March of 2000.
In 2005, husband Jay and daughter Laura, then a 14-year-old, nabbed an incredibly low airfare to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are two different countries.) Older son Steve was not on this trip, but we toasted his birthday as we landed– early on St. Patrick’s Day. This time we arrived at our hotel before the parades started.
In fact, this marked the first year, since the end of the “Troubles,” in 1995 that Belfast even sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day parade. It wasn’t a huge event, some floats and bands, but the mood was electric and a feeling of unity filled the air.The concierge suggested we lunch upstairs at the Crown Liquor Saloon, so we walked over. Built in 1828, the National Trust of Northern Ireland maintains this pub which glows with a gas-light Victorian atmosphere: gilded mirrors, stained glass, old black and white photos, a tin ceiling, and walls that have heard it all.
We passed a seated group of laughing Scottish ladies from the Highlands. They explained that they gather annually to celebrate, always in a different Irish city. They were imbibing in grand style and had donned hats, supplied when “a drop of black,” or Guinness was ordered. Our waiter topped Laura with one, too. We ordered and devoured burger-like sandwiches served with “Champ,” a combination of mashed potatoes, cheese, and chive.
When we walked down the hall, I was stopped by a local woman who overheard my American accent. She made a point of welcoming me to Belfast. I liked that.
Then, we squeezed downstairs through cough producing smoke into a room crammed as tight as Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and just as noisy. Everyone turned toward a telly to cheer The Gold Cup horse race. The lengthy steeple chase race runs through mud filled ponds, over hedges and across grassy fields. Strangely (at least to me) the horse in the lead lost his jockey, but ran on. Rather wild compared to our Kentucky Derby. We hired a “black taxi” as suggested by a guidebook to see the West Belfast Political Wall Murals. First we drove to Shankill Road, the Protestant side. Here, the bricks of working class row-homes were painted with large symbolic scenes.
Our driver pointed out the Crumlin Road jail across from the courthouse, which required an underground tunnel for prisoners’ safe passage to trial. He said cases were heard by one judge, no jury, during these violent times. Then we cut over to the nearby Catholic area, Falls Road. We stopped as I photographed the mural of Bobby Sands, famous for his hunger strike to death. Although we tried to comprehend, our emotions were disquieted by these neighborhoods. I would find it difficult, to say the least, to live with all the reminders.
Our driver/guide spoke poignantly, recalling his childhood fear of bombs. He heeded warnings not to talk to certain children or adults, grasping that this division was reality. “Not a good way, he explained, “it simply was the way.”
Now, he was proud of his capital city, her economic growth and unification. He envisioned a happy future for his daughter in Belfast and with sincerity, thanked us for visiting and asked us to spread the word. We left feeling grateful for the opportunity.