Ireland Part III – Northern Ireland

It was a pretty crazy thing driving from Ireland to Northern Ireland. I was (and still am) fairly ignorant about the conflict and the history between the two, and couldn’t believe that one minute we were following speed limits in kilometres, seeing petrol stations advertising in Euros and having fun attempting to read the street signs in Gaelic, and the next thing we knew we had crossed into Northern Ireland and were operating in miles, pounds and strictly English. Very bizarre.

Our trusty hire car took us to the Premier Inn in Belfast, where we had about 5 minutes to go up to our room, slam my iPad (our equivalent of a DSLR) into a charger and head back down to commence our Black Cab tour of Belfast which had been recommended to us by the bride and groom from Part II of our Irish adventure, and was such a brilliant experience. Our driver, a lovely Northern Irelander named Joe, had a huge breadth of knowledge and was happy to answer any questions at all. We felt a little awkward about what questions we could ask (given the half-joking-but-we-couldn’t-quite-tell warning to wear a bullet proof vest in Belfast, and not to wear particular colours in particular streets) but Joe was really happy to answer whatever came his way. We never found out for sure whether he was on the Catholic or the Protestant side of the fence but he was fairly unbiased in terms of both his responses and the tour itself.

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Firstly, Belfast is beautiful. It reminded me of London, but more peaceful and spread out. After driving through the city with some great sights pointed out, we first stopped off on the Protestant side of the Peace Wall (which I will get to in a second!), parked the cab and stepped out for 45 mins of so of wandering around. Our guide showed us some of the more significant murals which have been painted onto the sides of houses. The area is adorned with union jacks, signs, the colours of their football teams, and it’s impossible not to feel slightly intimated by the passion and strength in beliefs.

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Some of the murals were quite intense, such as this one, with a gun pointing directly at a tall Catholic church, with a steeple just in view.

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Next we drove around to the Peace Line. It was built in 1969 and has been built up and extended over the year. It was built originally to stop violence by literally separating the two groups. They would often find ways to get around it and violence and deaths continued to occur, but the wall helped somewhat. The concept seems flawed to me; building a wall to separate two communities in order to promote peace? Something about that doesn’t quite sit right. But, it’s still incredible driving the length of this massive wall which has thousands and thousands of signatures and messages written across it. Blake and I signed our names too.

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Next we visited the Catholic side which noticeably less aggressive but still very much adorned with Irish flags, colours, signs and murals. We visited a memorial site, saw the headquarter’s where Blake’s grandfather’s football team began and learnt a lot about the area and its history.

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I can’t recommend this tour enough. Joe dropped us off at a local pub for lunch, and we then walked through Belfast back to our hotel. Conveniently, ‘A Belfast Story’ had just been released and obviously we can’t be staying in Belfast and not see A Belfast Story, so we saw a late session at the local cinema. It had some terrible reviews, but I didn’t think it was too bad personally. It was interesting to get further insight into the history and community in the form of a film!

The only setback of the night was that even though it was about 11pm on a Saturday night when we left the cinema, there was nothing open, and we hadn’t had dinner. Woe! We wandered around looking for even a convenience store for a nutritious dinner of Doritos and salsa, or MAYBE even macaroni and cheese if we were lucky, but there was nothing anywhere in the vicinity. We did, however, find the Titanic quarter and took some photos of the fancy buildings, then went back to our hotel and ate dinner from the vending machine. Quite a different experience to the meals at Kilronan Castle the previous day!

We woke up early and left to head to Dublin (which we had to limit ourselves to 2 hours free time in due to wanting to make our flight back to London!). I would love to spend more time in Dublin as I’m sure there is a smorgasbord of amazing things to do there. But we had to pick just one, and upon recommendation from my grandparents we headed to Trinity College and saw the Book of Kells.

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The campus was stunning, and it was fascinating to see the book and learn about its history. The Long Room library was also very, very impressive. You know the bookshop that Belle frequents in Beauty and the Beast, and the bookshop guy comes swooping in on one of those cool ladders on wheels? Yep, I was imagining that and then had the ‘Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour bonjour bonjour!’ song in my head for the rest of the day. I’ve since seen The Long Room pop up on various blogs about amazing libraries (nerd alert) online several times since visiting, and it’s always a thrill (nerd alert) to see it mentioned.

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And so ends our Irish Extravaganza. We’ll try to make it back at some stage whilst we’re living over here, I loved the experience so very much and can’t wait to see more of it. Although our list of countries we want to visit is growing faster than we can save (and we are moving into a new apartment soon!) so we’ll have to see…

Ireland… Part II

So it turns out that staying for 4 nights in a castle in Ireland is every bit as glamorous as it sounds. I literally felt like a princess, and may have requested that Blake refer to me as so a few times in the five days. Well, it was the closest I will ever be to one!

Kilronan Castle

Kilronan Castle

We checked into Kilronan quite late after a slight struggle finding the place after our drive from Newgrange, but were delighted to join the wedding party on the tail end of their dinner over a glass or two of wine, and caught up with extended family who I had been missing very much. Our room was huge and very luxurious, we had a beautiful view out over the grounds, and the whole place was decked out like a scene from a Disney movie. In a good way.

Two gigantic fancy beds. Why not.

Two gigantic fancy beds. Why not.

The castle itself was huge too, and everything you would expect of an Irish castle complete with old stone, turrets, flags, velvet, gold tassels everywhere, the whole shebang. It was pretty great.

After a lazy breakfast the following morning, we slowly got ready to drive 5 mins away to the local parish for the actual wedding ceremony. Emma was an absolute stunner of a bride and her dashing husband-to-be scrubbed up very nicely himself.

Walking down the aisle

It was wonderful for me to watch one of my childhood babysitters marry the man she loves! And Gracie was also a pretty adorable flowergirl. It was a perfect ceremony and we felt honoured to be welcomed as guests.

A very beautiful bride

A very beautiful bride

The best flowergirl ever!

The best flowergirl ever!

There were many, many photos taken outside the castle, courtesy of the amazing lake and expanse of green (Ireland is full of that colour!), followed by a great reception celebrating the matrimony of two fabulous people. Many excellent memories were forged that night, including some father-of-the-bride tabletop dancing which was widely featured on Snapchat that night, lots of smiles and lots and looooots of dancing the night away. As seems to be our style at weddings, we found ourselves sitting cross-legged on the dance floor chatting at 2am.

Outside the church

Outside the church

Wedding party, reception guests and Kilronan Castle from afar

Wedding party, reception guests and Kilronan Castle from afar

The next few days involved lots of chatting over breakfast time (the breakfasts were amazing, for anyone who cares to know. Smoked salmon, pastries, eggs, tomatoes, bacon, croissants, yoghurt, fresh fruit, beautiful cheeses, etc, etc, etc…)

A long walk around the castle grounds with Blake

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A fancy dinner with our own private waiter with some of the wedding guests.

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A night spent singing and smiling around the castle’s grand piano courtesy of Maestro Spud. Lots more delicious food, and in Blake’s case fancy drinks at silly times of the morning. Lots more generally sitting around and enjoying each other’s company in the castle.

It was a lovely few days filled with lovely faces and memories. Thank you Shane and Emma for getting married at a fairytale castle in Ireland!

Ireland, Part I – Newgrange

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We were humbled and excited to be invited to our lovely friends’ Emma and Shane’s Irish Wedding Extravaganza in September, and jumped at the chance to attend as we knew we would be in the UK by then. There’s nothing like a wedding as an excuse for international travel (in fact, the Canadian wedding we were attending was the catalyst for our move to London in the first place!).  We booked with Ryan Air which I had heard mixed reviews about, but found it to be a fantastic experience for our non-lux needs. As long as you stick to the baggage allowance and don’t expect any food/entertainment (most Ryan Air flights would be 2 hours max, so seems over the top anyway), the cheap prices far outweigh any inconveniences.

We hired a car which we picked up from Dublin airport, Blake lost his headphones (hehe hi Blake!), the man at the hire car desk warned us to wear bullet proof vests if driving to Belfast, it was all very exciting.

We had a reservation awaiting us at Kilronan Castle, which was the most amazing place I have ever stayed at in my life, but as we had arrived early in the morning decided to take the day to do a bit of driving and exploring en route to Co. Roscommon, where the wedding festivities would be held the following day. Shane and Emma had told us around a year before the trip about a place that sounded too good to be true to us – Newgrange {link}. After a lovely 2-3ish hour drive through the Irish countryside we arrived at Newgrange, which has officially taken first place in the vote of Most Incredible Thing We Have Ever Seen. We were totally blown away. Words, pictures, descriptions do not do the place justice. After arriving at the main office, you jump on a shuttle bus and drive for about 10 minutes to the actual site, which is away from any main roads and actually situated between private properties. Understandably there is no public access to the site which is beneficial not only in minimal disturbances to neighbours but also minimal disturbances to the landmark itself.

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What is more amazing in this world than a 5300 year old (older than the pyramids!) tomb structure that was only fully excavated 50 years ago, has remained pretty much intact for 5,300 years? And is constructed in such a specific way and facing such a specific direction that on the winter solstice every year the sunrise light penetrates through a tiny window and completely illuminates the inside of the tomb, but ONLY on the winter solstice? ‘Pretty much nothing’, is the answer to that rhetorical question. Not bad, humans, for figuring that out 5,300 years ago. The ingenuity and brilliance required in figuring that out before modern technology blows me away.

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This is a must-see in life, really. You can wander inside the tomb in small groups where they simulate the display that occurs naturally on dawn/dusk of the winter solstice and explain the various features inside the monument. One thing that particularly left me flabbergasted was that the tomb is completely watertight – in 5000 + years of Irish weather, being buried under layers of soil and rock and who knows what else, not a drop of water infiltrated the architecture. Amazing, huh? You can walk all the way around the outside of it and admire the incredible rock-carvings that feature on its walls. There is much speculation about the rock-carvings’ origins and meanings, with no real answer. It is an important, special, spiritual place that really makes you stop and think. I can’t recommend this highly enough and am so glad we were able to check it out.

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I would have loved to have spent the whole day there but we had a castle to go to, so off we drove for another hour or so after some sporadic texts from other wedding guests warning us not to go the way that we were in the process of going, as it involved dirt tracks rather than roads, dubious street signs and generally feeling like we were driving into a scene of a horror movie. But, we made it, and so part two begins…