Wandering utterly lost through residential West Belfast, it struck me again how completely unfamiliar I was with this incredible city. Shamefully unfamiliar, for someone who lives just an hour away. I had only ever visited Belfast a handful of times, and even then it was a purely functional trip to apply to the university. And this is true of many of the fascinating attractions of North-East Ireland. But thanks to a visiting Australian friend, I now had the opportunity to properly explore the part of the world I have inhabited for eighteen years, with the adventurous spirit of the traveller, a knowledgeable father just a phone call away, and a wonderfully enthusiastic companion.
I live in Dundalk, a fairly dull town equidistant from Dublin and Belfast, which makes an ideal base for exploring the east coast of Ireland. And exploring is exactly what this week turned out to be. We had a rough plan for each day, but by far the most enjoyable element, for both of us, was the meandering exploration. This was not a tour guide and tourist sort of trip. In fact, due to a lack of planning and map-reading on the part of the guide, we both ended up as rather clueless, but determined, adventurers.
Our first destination was Newgrange, a Neolithic passage tomb in Co. Meath, older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza. The monument is aligned with the rising of the midwinter sun so that every year on 21st December, the inner chamber is flooded with light. Newgrange is a truly spectacular place; a testament to the intelligence, creativity, and deep spirituality of ancient peoples.
Choosing the ‘scenic’ route home proved interesting, and was the introduction to a theme of getting lost which recurred alarmingly often during our week-long adventure. My companion’s frequent exclamations of ‘Wow, it’s so green!’ did however open my eyes to the real scenic beauty of Ireland, and miraculously, the sun came out and stayed for longer than ten minutes.
The next few days were filled with hiking in the Cooley Mountains, just outside the pretty medieval village of Carlingford, and a trip to the Giant’s Causeway on the North Antrim coast. This World Heritage Site is made up of striking formations of hexagonal basalt columns, sticking out into the sea. We followed this awe-inspiring sight up with a picnic by the sea, a quick nap in the sun, and a visit to the windswept and precarious Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Every day, deviation from the prescribed paths led to some of our most enjoyable moments. It may involve getting covered in mud, but not following the crowd is nearly always worth it.
Next on our list was Belfast. Once my companion got over her confusion about the change of currency, we took a relaxing stroll through the picturesque Queen’s University and Botanic Gardens. Belfast turned out to be great for art galleries; we saw two fantastic exhibitions, ‘The Art of the Troubles’ at the Ulster Museum and ‘We are Exceedingly Proud to Present an Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress’ at the MAC. City Hall is undeniably impressive, but we also enjoyed exploring the Falls Road area, with its striking murals and thriving Irish language cultural centre. We certainly got a rich insight into Belfast’s complex history, something that could only be achieved by an overview – admittedly, a realistic one – of all of the contrasting elements of the city, and a lot of walking.
Fortunately, I am more familiar with Dublin. We saw most of the major attractions: the Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin Castle, the National Museum, Temple Bar, Christ Church Cathedral and St. Stephen’s Green, as well as some lesser known spots such as the Dublin Writers Museum, the Chester Beatty Library and the Science Gallery. The ‘bog bodies’, human remains which had been preserved in peat bogs for thousands of years, were a definite highlight, as was the Temple Bar area (the nightlife is both over-rated and over-priced, but there are lots of great quirky shops and galleries). Here our wanderings uncovered wonderful street art and talented buskers, plenty of vintage clothes shops, ‘traditional’ Irish pubs and parks filled with spring flowers. It turns out that Dublin is a vibrant city, not the gloomy hubbub of perpetual road works I had always thought it to be, although maybe this was just because the sun was shining for once. Finishing off a day of discoveries with Owen McCafferty’s superb play ‘Quietly’ at the Abbey left us with a high opinion of Dublin’s cultural scene.
Nowadays, we don’t often take the time to explore. Even while travelling, we tend to have set destinations, meticulously researched and scheduled, leaving little room for new discoveries. At home, there is a natural tendency towards the slightly arrogant belief that we’ve seen all there is to see and done all there is to do. I suppose I always thought of tourism in Ireland as consisting of over-priced pints of Guinness, awful trad music, and rain. But if we could introduce a little enthusiasm for adventure, the true spirit of travelling, and the open-mindedness of the responsible tourist into our lives every now and then, there’s a chance that even our home towns might just surprise us.
Photograph: Rebecca Duke