Sunday, June 24, 2018

Heading home now

It was a bit lonely in the doss house last night, but I slept well thanks to the wine and Tylenol PM. Woke up around 1 am when the inmates in the next cell came in, but they weren't loud for long.

I got up early, showered, packed and was out the door at 9 for a walk around Griffith Park and up to the National Botanic Gardens. Both were lovely and quiet on this sunny Sunday.

We really lucked out with the weather this past week. Though it was grey and a bit chilly in Belfast, we only had rain one afternoon as we came back from our day's adventures. The past four days have been warm and bright ... and long, as we were here for the solstice and the sun has been setting around 10 pm.

I'm sitting at the gate at the airport now and we'll board soon.

€2.50 banana bread at the Botanic Gardens caff

13,386 steps, 5.79 miles (so far)

Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Flop House in Dublin

Friday (yesterday) we returned the rental car and got a morning bus from Belfast to Dublin, arriving at noon. It was an easy ten minute walk from the bus station to the hostel where we had reservations to stash our bags for the afternoon and then we were on our way to explore. The bag stash place is very close to the Dublin GPO, site of the rebel headquarters during the 1916 Easter Rising, so we stopped for a look around. Over 100 years on, the bullet holes are still evident on the portico and facade. Inside, it's a busy post office, nicely rebuilt after the interior burned during the fighting, with lots of wood and brass fittings. There's also a museum about the Easter Rising, but we skipped it as we needed to push on.

Next stop was the visitor info center where we bought our Leap visitor cards for the bus and tram and then made our way westward in search of food as we looked at this and that along the way -- a garden of remembrance for the dead of all Irish rebellions, the shiny brass plaque on the Sinn Fein national headquarters in Parnell Square, the bustling produce market, Jameson's Distillery, Victorian warehouses and worker housing, newly constructed office and housing blocks. We finally found sustenance in Smithfield Square at a trendy food market with lots of eat in/take out options including an excellent salad bar with Thai spice tuna salad, curry rice salad, and various combos of veg, feta, cous cous and quinoa.

On the itinerary for the afternoon was a guided walk about the Great Famine in Dublin, led by Fin Dwyer, the man behind the Irish History Podcast. Through sight and sound, he exposed us to the impact of the potato blight from 1846 to 1851 (which we usually think of as a rural calamity) on people living in urban Dublin. We learned that, throughout the years of the hunger, Ireland was exporting food to Britain and Europe. The blight may have sparked the famine, but it was the land tenancy system, along with British governmental policy and callous disregard for the suffering of the Irish people, that precipitated a food security catastrophe the likes of which has not been seen since. I'd highly recommend the walk to anyone coming to Dublin with an interest in Irish history.

After the walk, we popped into the Cobblestone to have a pint (Roger cider, me Guinness) and listen to some trad music, then reclaimed our bags and took the city bus north to the Drumcondra area to check in to our Airbnb. Drumcondra, like the Queen's Quarter where we stayed in Belfast, is an area of tree-lined streets of red brick Victorian terrace houses, populated by students, young families and senior citizens. Though we were feeling the good vibe of the neighborhood when we got off the bus, that disappeared when we opened the front door of the house where our Airbnb is. Turns out that the rather shabby house has been chopped up into ten tiny units. The dark hallway with worn carpet, steep stairway and hand-scrawled signs of instructions from our host awaited us inside. Our unit is small and dreary, but it's cheap, in a safe area and has good transport connections. We quickly dropped our stuff and headed out again.

In addition to booking these accommodations, Roger booked tickets for an a cappella showcase at a club near the Temple Bar area. We ate pizza, consumed wine and listened to music -- a nice way to wind down our day on the move. We wrapped it up with glasses of whiskey at Fagan's Pub (where Bertie Ahern took Bill Clinton for a drink in 1998) on our block in Drumcondra.

This morning we explored the Liberties, a very old part of Dublin between the massive Guinness factory on the west and Dublin Castle on the east. This doesn't seem to be an area that attracts tourists and I was happy to wander through a community garden with a pig located on wasteland, a tatty market and a Norman church without colliding with any teen tour groups. When we reached Dublin Castle, we spent a good amount of time seeing an exhibition called Coming Home: Art & the Great Hunger. It's a very powerful show, with a video intro, paintings and sculpture. Much of the works come from the collection of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut (who knew?) so local folks will get to see it when the art returns in 2019.

Roger then headed for the airport to go back to London, leaving me to travel solo until my flight on Sunday. I spent two hours at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Parnell Square. The permanent collection includes many impressionist and modern works by Irish artists. They also house the studio of Francis Bacon. It's his entire actual studio. After his death, the studio he had for over 30 years in a Kensington mews was dismantled and reconstructed, down to the piles of clutter and the smallest detail in this Dublin gallery. I'm not a fan of Bacon, but I thought the studio was so interesting -- it's rare to see the place where art is actually created.

I also walked along beautiful Georgian terrace streets, saw an iron bench being consumed by a tree at the King's Inn (a legal inn), visited Blessington Basin park (ducks, a swan, fairy houses and a sweet little lodge) and did my shopping for dinner. I'm back in the flop  house now. As soon as I finish writing this, I intend to sleep soundly and long.

Friday stats:
£3.50 final bus fare in Belfast
€19.50 for 72-hour bus pass in Dublin
€4.80 lunch
€17 famine walk
€3.40 pint of Guinness after the walk
€20 ticket to a cappella showcase
€12 pizza and wine

21,252 steps, 8.77 miles

Saturday stats:
€2.85 tuna & sweet corn sandwich from Tesco
€5.39 salad for dinner
€5.30 bread and wine

20,644 steps, 8.48 miles

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Coastal Route

We rented a car and drove north via an inland route and back to Belfast along the coast. Today is the longest day of the year and it was sun and blue skies the entire day, though temps never got out of the 50s and it was pretty breezy. I think this might be as good a day as we could possibly have had weather-wise in the north of Ireland in June.

We got turned around and lost numerous times, but Roger drove on the wrong side of the road only once and we didn't hit anything. There were a few times on the twisty narrow B roads that our hearts were in our throats, however.

I took a lot of photos on my camera, but only a couple of crap ones on the phone.

The Dark Hedges, a two hundred year old tunnel of beech trees seen in Game of Thrones:

Giant's Causeway, which is pretty spectacular:

When we got back into Belfast, we thought we'd drive over to the Shankill Road to look at the unionist murals. We made several attempts to get there via what looked on the map like through streets, only to encounter the barricades of the "peace wall." It might be that the gates had been closed at 6 or 7 pm, before we got there. It was a stark example of what local residents encounter as they try to get from one part of Belfast to another.

When we did reach the Shankill Road, we thought the area was creepy and the murals are very militaristic. During the Troubles, this was home turf for gangs who committed the most brutal sectarian violence, murdering scores of Catholics across Belfast. Now, the gangs have turned their enterprise to drug dealing. I didn't take any photos with my phone so you'll just have to wait for me to upload my proper photos to ipernity.

£3.50 top up bus pass
£2.75 sandwich and crisps in Bushmills
£11.50 entry fee for Giant's Causeway
£3.40 pint of Guinness in Cushendun
£3.50 soup and bread for dinner

15,786 steps, 6.58 miles

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

More on the Troubles and a big ship goes down

Today we got a different perspective on the Troubles and how they impacted ordinary citizens of Belfast, both Protestant and Catholic, and do so to this day. We did the walking tour about the history of the terror with DC Tours. 

Our guide Paul ( Donzo) took us through several seminal incidents that took place in Belfast city centre, incidents that illustrated the "parallel universes" that have been inhabited by people on the two sides of the conflict over the past four decades. He carefully showed how people on either side can have their own truth and their own trauma. I was particularly struck to hear him describe the ways in which a person's own experience in the years of terror can to this day impact that person's viewpoint, body language and behavior. Paul has taken part in a number of educational and reconciliation projects related to bringing peace to Northern Ireland. I wish I had been able to ask how young people who were born after the Good Friday Agreement experience their city. I'm really curious how they view the Troubles and to what extent -- given that something like 90% of primary and secondary schools are segregated by religion -- they are able to have normalized experiences that mix Protestant and Catholic kids.

After the conclusion of the walk at the waterfront, we took a look at the Salmon of Knowledge and then crossed the pedestrian bridge over the river and made our way towards the old ship yards. Our lunch stop was the DOCK Cafe. I can't remember how I heard about this place, but whatever it was made me put it on my spreadsheet as one of my Belfast destinations. In a cavernous space at the base of a new development next to Abercorn Basin, the caff serves up wholesome food on an honour system -- each customer puts whatever amount they think is fair price for their order into an honesty box. The caff also serves as a meeting space for local groups, with comfy donated furniture all around, an art gallery, a prayer garden and place for community volunteerism. On the recommendation of one of the volunteers, we each had the chicken soup and bread and it hit the spot.

Our next destination was the Titanic Experience, where we learned about the late c19 and early c20 industries in Belfast, the dockyards, the building of the Titanic and its sinking. It's an interactive, highly immersive place -- as opposed to a museum proper. Lots of moving images, sounds, buttons to push. I enjoyed both the bits about the industrial history and seeing how the ship was outfitted with furnishings, woodworking, china, linen, etc., most of which was made in Ireland. 

It was wicked easy to catch a bus back to the city centre from Queen's Island. We stopped in a pub -- pint of cider for Roger and pint of Guinness for me -- before catching another bus back to the Queen's University quarter where we are staying. For dinner, we went back to Slim's Healthy Kitchen where we had eaten two nights before and it was just as good the second time around.

£3 to top up bus pass
£1.90 for scone for breakfast eaten on the bus
£15 for History of the Terror walk with DC Tours
£3 lunch
£15 Titanic Experience
£4.40 pint of Guinness
£15 dinner and wine

14,392 steps, 6.08 miles

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A lesson in history and lunch at the Felons Club

Two of the reasons for this trip to Belfast were to see the political murals and learn more about the Troubles. We did both today on a walking tour of west Belfast, organized by a group called Coiste that supports former IRA prisoners. Advertised as a three-hour tour, we actually spent well over four hours with our guide Peadar Whelan, who put the murals and the individuals depicted on them into context. Woven through the walk were the history of the political, social and economic conditions that gave rise to armed resistance to British rule as well as Peadar's own personal history in prison. The tour is not on unbiased view of the conflict and doesn't pretend to be. It's all about the IRA's fight for a united Ireland free from British rule.

While there are dozens of murals to be seen on both sides of the conflict, we saw only a handful of them. At first I wished we'd pick the pace and wondered if we'd run out of time before I'd seen enough. It wasn't until we were a couple hours into the walk, when Peadar told us his own story of serving 16 years of a life sentence in the Maze prison (part of that time with Bobby Sands), that it clicked for me. I thought I knew a fair amount about the Troubles but my knowledge was certainly augmented by Peadar's insights. What I had no previous exposure to was the personal narrative of imprisonment. But for this to have come earlier in the walk would have been premature. It seemed right that Peadar tell his story on his own terms at whatever time works for him. I won't retell it here, but suffice to say it gave me a new perspective on the reality of imprisonment, the brutality of the British government and the organized campaign of resistance that the IRA waged within the prisons.

The official end of the walk was at the Milltown Cemetery where many IRA members, including Bobby Sands, are buried. But the real end was just down the road at the Felons Club, a membership club like the Elks for former IRA prisoners. We were invited to the bar for a glass of Guinness and we stayed to order sandwiches for a late lunch. I wanted to take a photo of the outside after as proof positive that I was there, but it was stonking raining when we left so you'll have to take my word for it.

We hopped the bus back into town and then got another bus down towards Queen's University and the neighborhood where we are staying. Sadly, it was too late to go to the Ulster Museum. We then tried unsuccessfully to get into the Palm House and the Tropical Ravine in the Botanic Garden, but those had just closed as well. So we trudged home in the rain, dried off a bit, went out for nearby takeaway from the Thai Tanic (cheap, edible, nothing to write home about) and came back to the flat to eat and crash.

£3 to top up bus pass
£8 for walking tour
£5.50 chicken sandwich for lunch
£6.95 Pad Thai for dinner

21,302 steps, 8.88 miles