After a somewhat uneventful night at the Newark airport and a slight flight delay, my group departed for Belfast, Northern Ireland around 10:00 pm. Within the group it seemed to be a unanimous combination of excitement, but also wanting to get some shut eye so we could take advantage of the first full day in Belfast, as we would be arriving at the airport around 9:00 am. I was thankful that I had a window seat as I would hopefully be able to take a quick nap at the very least, but I became even more amazed when we flew right above the Manhattan skyline. It wasn’t totally evident to me at first, but after I spotted the Statue of Liberty, my eyes followed the lights and was able to have a breathtaking aerial view of Times Square and Central Park. After leaving the states with a smile on my face, I turned on my mini headrest TV and proceeded to watch half of the Wolf of Wall Street before completely falling asleep.
I woke up about an hour later, surprisingly refreshed, to the sunrise streaming through the window across the aisle. I dozed on and off for the next few hours, but the 6 hour flight went by relatively fast and before I knew it I could spot the Irish pastures filled with sheep and cows as we landed. My group, composed of 13 students and 2 professors, had our passports stamped at customs and then met our on site coordinator Shane and drove to the hotel. Along the road I spotted a sign for Londonderry, Northern Ireland and that made me super excited, but we were mostly consumed with the fact that they drive on the “wrong” side of the road and use the passenger seat as the driver’s seat. Once we got to the hotel we had some time to check into our rooms and then about an hour later we met up with everyone to go over safety and security procedures before exchanging our money at the bus station across the street. Unfortunately I forgot that since Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom they use pounds, not euros, which I had a decent amount of, so I exchanged the last of my American dollars and got an abysmal 19 pounds and then headed to the pub for a group lunch.
From the list of cities I am traveling to in Ireland, Belfast was not one I was particularly excited for. Not that I wasn’t looking forward to experiencing the culture of Northern Ireland before departing to the Republic of Ireland, but from our class readings, Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular have had their fair share of political and religious conflicts through the years. In the 60’s and 70’s an era known as The Troubles was a violent time filled with protests and attacks between the loyalists and unionists. While Belfast is clearly much more than the history of these events, this was what my course had mainly focused on during the semester. Once we walked into Robinson’s Pub on Great Victoria Street though, my view was automatically changed. I had heard from many people that the Irish are extremely friendly and welcoming and this could not be more true. If you are willing to say hello and strike up a conversation, people will talk, and be genuinely interested in your story. This is definitely something lacking from the fast paced life of New York, especially with Marist being so close to the city. Once we ordered, my friend Sarah and I had a quick toast before digging into our delicious food and joining our other friend Allie, our professors and Shane for lunch.
After lunch, half of our group went to check out the pubs and the other half went to explore the city. We walked past the city hall which has this detailed gray architecture and green rooftop, making it impossible to miss. We then continued on to Victoria’s Square, which is the main shopping center, and went in some stores. From there, most of the group decided to go back to the hotel to nap, but my three friends and I decided we wanted to take advantage of the free afternoon and luckily our jet lag had not hit us so we decided to trek on. We took an elevator up to the viewing center in the middle of Victoria’s Square and were able to have panoramic views of the entire city. We walked back to city hall to see if they were offering tours, but unfortunately there are visiting politicians so there were none. Still having the majority of the afternoon, but having no idea of what to spend it doing, we ventured over to the visitor center and asked for some suggestions. Some of the places the man pointed out were sights that are on our itinerary for future days, so we decided to visit the Crumlin Road Gaol (pronounced the same as jail). The man told us it was about a 20 minute walk, so we decided instead of trying to figure out the confusing streets, our feet and minds would benefit from a taxi.
Once we arrived we took a guided tour and learned about the procedures and prisoners of Crumlin Road Gaol. Open from 1846-1996, the jail features an underground tunnel, which is apparently haunted but a young girl named Isabel, that connects the jailhouse to the court. We were able to tour the jail cells, execution rooms and walked by where the executioners were buried. The tour was very eyeopening and informative and was an interesting place to spend our first afternoon in Belfast.
After the tour we were a bit confused about how to get a taxi back to our hotel though. It seems as though in Belfast that you can’t hail a cab, but rather have to find either a parked taxi or a taxi service. Luckily there was a taxi service the building down from the jail and were able to tell them we needed a cab and wait for our driver. On the way home our driver was very talkative and it is something I find so different from American culture. Especially in the city, you get in a cab and get dropped off where you need to be. No words are exchanged other than an address and a polite thank you. It was so refreshing to have an actual conversation with a local who was interested in where we were from and what we were doing in Ireland. Another aspect of communication that I noticed is that if you listen closely, the locals have an Irish accent mixed with a little bit of a British accent. It’s not overly present, but if you listen closely, you can hear it in certain words.
I ended the day by going to dinner at Brennen’s Pub on Great Victoria Street with the majority of our group. After dinner around 8:45 I then joined my friends Kara, Kasey, Ann and Michelle for a quick walk around the city in search of a coffee shop. To our surprise, everything was closed, but we realized the sun doesn’t set until around 10:00 pm here so we decided to head back to the hotel.
I’m already incredibly thankful that the people here speak English as the culture is a barrier enough, but I’m sure we will catch on to the slang and at least some of the culture by the end of the trip. Even though it can be helpful for directions and connecting with friends I’m actually really happy that the only time I can use my phone is when I have wifi so that I can enjoy the slow pace of life without any distractions. No one here is nearly as connected to their phones as they are in American culture and I definitely am going to love being able to disconnect during the day. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a drop of rain during the first day so helpfully the pattern continues for tomorrow!
All photography by Emily Houston