Belfast, Northern Ireland was our home base for a week in 2019 for my sister-in-law’s wedding. We’d been to the Republic of Ireland a handful of times, spending nights in Dublin, Galway, and Killarney, but Northern Ireland wasn’t on our radar until the wedding invite. Which is too bad, because it has all the charm and beauty of its southern counterpart with just a fraction of the tourists.
Belfast reminded me of Dublin, which means that it reminded me of my home city of Boston. Belfast, though, felt less touristy, so I felt a greater, more authentic connection to it. Christine and I started each morning walking through the Botanical Gardens and passing Queens University on our way to the Cuban Sandwich Factory for coffee and perhaps pastry. We loved this funky place, with its creaking floorboards and inviting display of treats, its creative coffees. It became our go-to for the week, “our place,” something that only really happens when you get to spend a week or more in one location. So much of our European travel these days consists of two and three-day hits, so these kinds of connections are becoming rarer. I loved the multi-colored tables so much that I recreated the look when we got home, stripping the finish off our kitchen pub table and restaining the boards with three colors: white, gray, and green. We think of that cool little bistro every time we sit down for dinner.
Christine and I are often on our own when we travel abroad. There are some exceptions: when I taught in San Sebastian, Spain with my colleague and friend, Julian, whose wife, Katie, joined us, as well as another friend of ours, Eric. We also met up with friends who were celebrating their honeymoon in Barcelona. But these are exceptions, not the rule. Belfast, then, took on a more celebratory feel than most places, because we were there for a wedding and therefore surrounded by family and friends, so that we felt both home and away at the same time.
One day, my sister-in-law, Carolyn, and her husband-to-be, Declan, reserved us a private van tour to visit the sites to the north, the almost-mythical Antrim Coast. Christine and I had joined many crowded van and bus tours over the years, so it was nice to be able to share this particular experience with just our own crew, a dozen of us in our own van, just the family—a unique opportunity to have a collective experience so full of once-in-a-lifetime wonder.
They filmed the TV series Game of Thrones up here, all along the green expanse of the Antrim Coast, its hills and cliffs butting against the churning Irish Sea. They were prepping for the British Open on this day, so from a distance we viewed the staging and towers being constructed for the event, the manicured greens juxtaposed against the blue ocean behind them. The small town for Portrush was being used as the home base for the event, but I struggled to imagine that many people infiltrating this tiny, coastal village. We got out of the van to stretch our legs and get coffee. A Ferris wheel was partially constructed. I wouldn’t see it complete until I put the TV on the following weekend and saw shots of the town in between holes of the Open.
After strolling the harbor town, we drove south along the coast to Giant’s Causeway, the five-miles scenic stretch that is the highlight and epicenter of the Antrim Coast. We passed the ruins of the ancient Dunluce Castle, decayed and crumbled on the dramatic cliffs above the sea. Later, we pulled into a parking lot so we could hike the snaking footpaths of the Causeway, waves exploding below, low clouds wisping over the green hills above. Christine and I had previously spent time driving the beautiful Ring of Kerry on the western coast of Ireland, and we’d toured Wicklow and Glendalough just south of Dublin, both stunning in their own right, but neither matched the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland, which scored points for its epic scope and beauty but also for its comparatively small crowds. The Cliffs of Moher near Galway were spectacular, but the endless train of buses that lined the parking lot, the swarm of tourists clogging the viewpoints, deter from the experience. No matter how I’d framed my camera, it was impossible to crop them out, to secure the illusion that we were walking on unspoiled land. Up here, there were no such deceptions necessary. Point and shoot.
And shoot and shoot and shoot.
The next stop was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the 90-foot-tall footbridge spanning the chasm between the mainland and a small but stunning island, originally used by fishermen traveling across the divide. It’s an intimidating sight, especially up close. It reminded me of the rope bridge Indiana Jones crosses in Temple of Doom, although he doesn’t actually cross it since, wielding his machete, he chops the ropes in half so that the bad guys plunge to their deaths. Standing on the rocky edge one small but daring step from the first wood plank of the bridge is a gut-check. It takes courage to make that first move. A true leap of faith. The bridge sways with each step you take. Your hands slide along the rope handles. One woman ahead of us misstepped and her right leg went right through the open space between planks. If the bridge hadn’t had ropy guardrails there would have been nothing to stop her from the unforgiving rocks beneath her. Her friend helped her back up and she continued on, a little slower this time, her hands a little tighter on the ropes. Out on the bridge the wind seemed to pick up out of nowhere, thrashing us violently. I looked down to the churning surf far below, knees buckling, then, gripping the ropes, stole a look at my 360-degree surroundings, making sure I was taking it all in before the moment was gone. I glanced at the people waiting far behind me, made sure nobody was holding a machete.
* * *
By wedding day the following Saturday we’d been in Belfast nearly a full week. There was much to talk about with the merging families: the spectacle of the Antrim Coast, of course, but also the new and impressive Titanic Museum along the harbor (the Titanic was constructed in the shipyard here), and most significantly the scars and still sore wounds of The Troubles, which we’d been learning more about all week, some of whose victims were here, at the wedding, generously sharing their stories with us, the naïve Americans. The brother-in-law of the groom, Paul, visited with us in the picturesque courtyard of the Hilden Brewery just outside Belfast and opened up about his family’s past, the brutal death of his father during those years of violence, when a Catholic family like theirs couldn’t walk the streets safely in Protestant Belfast. We drank beers and listened, asked questions, retreated to the bar for refills, then listened some more. In 2019 there was unrest in the U.S., a political and cultural division that seemed only to be getting worse. It was impossible not to hear the underlying current running through Paul’s stories: this happened. And, yes, it can happen.
But the day was celebratory, this converging of families living at two ends of an ocean. We cherished the day: the joy, the connection, the music and dance. After this full week, we didn’t feel as much the outsiders as we had just days before. In this way it was a blessing that the wedding came at the end of our stay. It gave us some time to acclimate, to explore and learn, so that by the time we got to this day, laughing, talking, sharing pints with new family and new friends, we were ready. At its best, travel changes us, sometimes in unseen ways. But here, in this courtyard, clinking pint glasses, the changes were upfront and obvious. In adolescence, we hit these dramatic growth spurts—we see relatives at Thanksgiving and by Christmas they can’t believe we’ve jumped up another several inches. But in adulthood, the only way to replicate that is through meaningful travel.
* * *
On our last day Christine and I walked the neighborhood one more time, through the Botanical Gardens and around the Queens University campus, making a final visit at our favorite coffee shop. Sometime after dinner we found ourselves back at our rental house. Our bedroom was up on the fourth floor, and from up here we could hear muffled music. We determined after a minute or so that it was in fact live music, then wondered if the park down the street had a cover band playing. It sounded like a song by The Killers. I grabbed my phone and did some quick googling and saw that The Killers were headlining the Belsonic Music Festival over in Ormeau Park a mile or so away, on the other side of the river. “Let’s go catch the end of it,” I suggested, even though we’d been readying ourselves for bed. It had been a long week and we were tired and sore, our bodies weary from the exuberant wedding the day before. We quick-changed, stepped into our sneakers, and fled the house.
The concert was nearing its end, the night growing late, but we hurried up and down neighborhood streets, my hand in hers, crossing the main road and then the river, moving against the scattered crowd leaving early. We found a site-line from the back of the park, the stage aglow in pulsing light, the sea of spectators moving in one roiling wave, a single entity. The band broke into their finale, “Mr. Brightside,” but the crowd between us and the stage were so loud, so unified, that they were all we could hear, belting out the song in a wall of sound and drowning out the band. Christine and I jumped to life, popping up and down like pistons, arms up in surrender to the night. We sang, or screamed, or a little bit of both, becoming one with the band and the audience and this city. Our bodies were slick with sweat from the speed-walk across town, already out of breath before we’d even started dancing. We pushed through. When lead singer Brandon Flowers climbed atop a towering amplifier and bellowed into the mic, “Bel-faaaast!”, Christine and I both tilted our heads back to the clear night sky and called our refrain to the stars: “Belfaaast!”