We survived our first hostel, which is quite a feat considering how much I didn't like the place. I will say, though, the bathrooms were very clean! The bedroom however…let's just move on. For the money, our stay at the Salmon Weir Hostel in Galway was a pretty good deal. Our Ireland Adventure continues… We started our longest drive through Ireland early so we could have plenty of time for a midday hike through Connemara, a national park. Since Jake and I frequently hiked all over the Bay and got to Yosemite and Mineral King as often as we could, we're no stranger to a national park. We expected to find a large trail head, complete with maps outlining all of the hundreds of miles of trails in every direction. What we got was a beautiful visitor center next to a pristine playground (with really great teeter-totters!), and a picture of the 3 trails we could take. We had the time, so we took the long one, a 2 hour loop around the property while climbing up and down the only mountain around, Diamond Hill. On our way up the mountain we could see the weather blowing across the black lakes of the Connemara; the rain was coming! We kicked it into high gear and climbed to the top of the mountain as fast as we could. The minute Jake touched the highest point, we felt the raindrops on our faces. Big, fat rain drops accompanied us on our trot back down the mountain. We jumped into the car and blasted the air to dry off as we made our way north into our next country.
We piled back into our tiny car for a bit of a longer excursion- we were headed to Derry, Northern Ireland, by way of Connemara. In the National Park, we took some time to climb to the top of a mountain (by San Francisco standards, a large hill), about a 1500 ft climb. Halfway to the top, we could see rain clouds blowing in over the lakes and our leisurely climb turned into a race against the rain. We touched the top before the drops fell, but did get a bit wet on the way down. The view was worth it!
Jake and I didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in Derry. We'd done a bit of research, an episode of Rick Steves, a few Google searches. We couldn't even tell where we crossed the boarder from Ireland to Northern Ireland- all of a sudden the road signs were in miles and gas was advertised in pounds instead of euros. When we arrived at our hostel it was dark out, seemingly random people were walking around the neighborhood, and we had no idea where the city center was with respect to the location of our new temporary home. In short, we were wondering why we thought we should stay in this town for 2 nights instead of just 1. Little did we know that Derry would become our favorite stop so far!
Turns out those seemingly random people walking around were our neighbors and they were very nice! We had trouble finding the doorbell and a nice man stopped to help us. We checked in to our hostel, Fairman House, to find a lovely manager named Stella, a clean and comfortable room with 2 twin beds, and clean bathrooms. Stella made us feel welcome from the start. Since it was pretty late, instead of taking off to explore the town, we hit they hay.
The next morning we drove an hour up the coast to have breakfast with our friends Robert and Felicia (who also happen to be our incredible wedding photographers) who were on a trip with their niece! How serendipitous that we could meet up half way around the world! We had a delicious breakfast and spent the morning exploring the Giant's Causeway in Bushmills. After a great time with our friends (how nice to see familiar faces!), Jake and I headed back into Derry to see what this little town was all about.
In the daylight, we discovered this town is actually quite pretty- it sits along the river, and the original walls of the city still stand. We walked all over the city and learned about the sad and violent history of this place. We had known that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and that The Troubles between the British Protestants, the Unionists, and the Irish Catholics, thee Nationalists, had placed a dark shadow over Derry in the recent past. We just didn't know how dark this shadow was. On our walk through town, we first visited Bogside to see the famous murals that the wall that states "You are now entering Free Derry".
Thanks to many plaques around the neighborhood, we learned that we were standing in the place where "Bloody Sunday" took place, something I had only really heard about from a U2 song. In 1972, the Nationalists were peacefully marching in the streets of the Bogside neighborhood, protesting the Protestant British rule. All of a sudden, the British army opened fire on the crowd, sending people fleeing, killing 13, and wounding 13 others. The march turned into a riot, and the murals on the walls of buildings around the neighborhood document the violence of that day. And now, 40 years later, while the violence has settled and both sides are maintaining a peaceful ceasefire, we can still feel the tension in the air. Recent graffiti that reads "End British Internment" confirms that, though there is peace, the Irish who live there would rather they have control over the whole of the island.
After standing in a place where so much ruthless violence occurred, Jake and I didn't know what to say or do, so we just kept walking around town. We walked on top of the original walls that make a 1 mile circle, we walked along the river, and talked about how learning about "Bloody Sunday" made us feel. The two biggest thoughts we shared were these:
- If we are this moved by standing in a place where 13 people lost their lives largely for their religious beliefs, how will we ever prepare ourselves for the overwhelming grief we will, no doubt, feel as we walk through places like the Ann Frank House and Auschwitz?
- While I realize that, for thousands of years, religion defined more than just someone's beliefs in God, it defined who was in power, I don't understand how something that is supposed to teach people how to love and respect one another, something that is supposed to bring people together, so often tears the world apart. And in Derry, the Troubles of 40 years ago were Christians versus Christians! It just doesn't make sense to me, and that's probably because I had the privilege of living in a land where you are free to practice whatever religion you want. Can't we all just get along?
After our deep philosophical discussions, we decided we needed to wash down all of it with a pint. So we popped into the most happening pub we could find, Peader O'Connells. Within minutes of bellying up to the bar we made new friends, the Meenan brothers! John and his brother (I never could understand his name through his thick accent) chatted with us for hours, and even bought us a round of beers! They both were wearing Easter Lily pins, signifying their political views (strong Nationalists), and told us about being young teens during the Troubles, and how things are around town now. John explained that while all of the violence happened fairly recently, "no one cares about that now." He said the people live peacefully, and will help each other when they can. "If you ask a Catholic where the Protestant church is, he'll even walk you there himself." John said that everyone is a friend on the street and in the pub. Like pubs have found for many many years, everyone can come together over a good pint.
After two hearty pints, Jake and I realized we needed to eat some dinner! We headed off to a great place called Fitzroy's to grab a bite. We were so excited about the new friends we had made (hi guys!!) and were thrilled with how friendly this fascinating town is, that we decided we needed to experience more. We wandered into another pub called Dungloe and experienced the younger Derry drinkers in their element. Inside, a local crooner was impressing everyone with his great voice. Outside, a slightly drunker crowd sang along with the band on stage the songs that my friends and I would sing in dueling piano bars- the hilarious and inappropriate bar songs that everyone loves, just this time they were all about Irish people. There were birthday parties and bachelor parties, people that had clearly been "overserved" and people who where on their way there. It was the most lively place we'd been in (save St. Patrick's Day), and we loved every minute! Jake new the words to one of the songs and sang along with the crowd in the covered patio as the rain provided percussion on the roof.
We finished off our pints and walked home in the rain. The streets were brightly lit, the yellow street lamps reflecting in all of the puddles on the ground. We had fallen in love with Derry- the people are friendly and welcoming, the history is fascinating, the food is great, and the town is quite pretty. The next morning we made breakfast, ate with some fellow boarders at the hostel and headed off to Belfast. What a hidden gem this was!
We only had one night booked in Belfast because our researched told us that there wasn't much to do there After checking into our great hostel, Vagabonds (seriously this place was awesome!), we walked around for a few hours. Belfast is a much bigger city than Derry, and feels like it. While safe now, it, too, experienced the Troubles, and looks more industrial. And it probably should- it's most well known for it's shipyards. This is where the Titanic was built.
Jake and I spent a little bit of time walking around, hoping we would get the same experience we did in Derry taking in the history of the area. Unfortunately the city was much bigger and less walkable, and my feet were very sore (I'm still getting used to all the daily mileage), so we turned back and relaxed at the hostel for awhile. We had seen the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods of Derry, we didn't really need to see it all again in Belfast, and I didn't want to get a stress fracture in my feet.
For dinner we headed to Lavery's, an institution in Belfast! This place was huge- 3 stories, each with a different personality. The ground floor had 3 separate bars (we spend some time in the "public bar" before heading into the "back bar" to have dinner. The 2nd floor is a pool hall, and the 3rd is a dance club! Something for everyone at this place! Towards the end of our meal the couple sitting next to us noticed our accent. "Oh are you Americans?" they asked. That simple question lead to each of us buying more rounds of beers, telling jokes and sharing stories. Ryan and Stevie were great fun to talk to and we only wish we could have spent more time with them! Fun fact- they're from Derry! Of COURSE we would love them! They were supposed to pick a date for their wedding that night, but decided to hang out with us instead! I hope that, if they ever visit the US when we're back, they swing through our future home!
Northern Ireland treated us very well. We loved it WAY more than we expected to! I am so happy that we got to spend time here. The experience we had here, a place we knew little about and expected even less from, makes me even more excited about the places we're going in the future. Who knows who we'll meet or what history we'll learn!
For now, we're back to Dublin for a couple of days to go to the Guinness Storehouse and see what it's like when it's not St. Patrick's Day (we've been here 6 hours and it's still just as touristy!), and then we'll end our Irish Adventure and head to Scotland!
Thanks for the good times, Ireland and Northern Ireland! We will certainly be back!