in which your author meets good Irish theatrefolk and finds out Ireland serves more than Guinness
27.07.2016 - 28.07.2016 70 °F
Day 5 began in similar fashion to its immediate predecessor, as I sleep in somewhat late. (Three sleepy cheers for solo travel. Maybe yawns.) But this would be a day of some ambition, traveling to Belfast, where I had popped in briefly on my last trip, but hadn’t at all explored. Before we leave his area, Mark drives us to the area of the McCool (technically “McCoole”) homestead – the original inspiration for my visit to this town in 2014 – and we speak with a wizened old chap named Robin, owner of the farm on which the homestead lies, and as it turns out, brother of the short fellow we met two years ago – who gives me the green light (so to speak) to check out the old buildings the next day. It’s gorgeous and sunshiny, which is a rarity in these parts, but since I’m anxious to get to Belfast, I tell him I’ll be back in the morning and we head to the city.
Though Mark is running late for work, his position as Ireland’s Greatest Tour Guide demands that he takes the time to drive me around the murals painted in honor of the massive sectarian violence that devastated so many during the 1970s and 80s. Apparently only ten years ago, the roads we’re driving on would have been cordoned off to keep the Catholics and Protestants away from each other. It’s striking how many houses are flying Union Jacks in the Protestant area. Without weighing in too heavily here, it seems odd to me that the Protestant Royalist sympathizers can’t also sympathize with people who want their country to be independent from a foreign power who has a very troubling and violent history of oppression toward them. (I think immediately of the callous British indifference which created the Potato Famine, but there are many other examples.) I understand Royalists don’t see England as foreign, but as part of a unified whole, but technically there’s a big ocean separating the lands. Identity is a complicated issue. (How’s that for the understatement of my blogging career?) It will be interesting to see how all this shakes out in the wake of Brexit, which everyone here seems slightly skittish about. After stopping at a few of the murals for both sides – it's particularly moving to see a shoutout to #WeAreOrlando – we pop into the Sinn Fein shop, where I pick up a 1916 magnet and a pamphlet on Kevin Barry, the young man whose 1920 martydom inspired one of my favorite Irish songs. Pretty sure the woman in the shop undercharges me when she realizes I’m from America.
Belfast is a city I’ve spent a fair amount of time with on an artistic plane, having acted in Solas Nua’s Scenes from the Big Picture in DC in 2007 plus directing the same show in Boston in 2014, plus a number of other plays including directing readings of This Other City in both cities. (There’s a moment in that show where the female character Maria, a prostitute trafficked from Moldavia, is asked her name and she responds “Europa,” which comes from Hotel Europa, a massive landmark adjacent to the bus/train station.) My last trip here was really a brief pit-stop, so I’m looking forward to seeing a bit more.
Mark drops me off in the city center and I start walking around, popping briefly into neighborhood landmark St. George’s Church, where I light a prayer candle for the election of Hillary Clinton.
My first major stop is connected to my Irish arts background – to Tinderbox Theatre, with whom I’d had some lovely interactions with via Solas Nua in the past. We produced a number of scripts that came out of their development program. Hanna Slatne is their powerhouse dramaturg and theatre advocate, and she welcomes me with a cup of tea and a copy of a recent work they developed, and introduces me to new Tinderbox Artistic Director Patrick O’Reilly. The three of us sit and chat for about an hour, discussing some shared challenges of working in the arts, particularly the unending battle for funding. (I write this on the road from Madrid to Lisbon, and I just saw over Facebook that the Mass Senate overturned Gov. Charlie Baker’s dastardly cuts to the MassCultural program. Three cheers for the power of social media political advocacy!) Like every single European I’ve spoken with about this, Hanna and Patrick are utterly horrified at the potential of a Donald Trump presidency. Especially given the shocking nature of Brexit, anything seems possible, no matter how horrifying. We discuss the possibility of their touring a show to the US, and I promise to connect them with culturefolk in Boston who might be able to help. Even though I’m not as heavily immersed in Irish arts these days, I could foresee a return in the near future. So great to meet these guys and hope to work with them at some point down the line!
Hanna recommends a visit to a culture space called The MAC, about a 10-15 minute walk away. Along the way I pass by some visually stunning uses of urban design; clearly Belfast is leveraging the power of ambitious artists and thinkers to modernize neighborhoods like this.
The MAC itself – a combination theatre space/art gallery/fully stocked café/community hangout spot – is a really impressive place. (As Hanna stated, “When the MAC was built I felt like I worked in a neighborhood built for grownups.”) I sit in the café with some small plates and a local amber ale and catch up with the blog, writing Day 3. After an hour or so I explore the art galleries, which are well designed. There’s a palpable buzz in the place, with families wandering around and conversations in the café. The MAC is a testament to what happens when a city builds an arts space – it becomes a place for a community to realize itself.
Reversing my prior walk, my next stop is the extremely posh Merchants Hotel, a spot I’d been advised to check out for serious cocktails. The reputation was well deserved, and I feel at home with the bartenders, who are creative and passionate. The level of service is also astoundingly high – when I leave, the head bartender walks me all the way down and out to the street to point out which direction I should head in. I have a few delicious, complex drinks there including an original, off-menu concoction by one young bartender using dark rum, vanilla, and molasses. I spend much of the time writing a letter – it’s so nice to sit and relax and think – and assumedly having watched me photograph my drinks, as he walks me out, the head bartender asks me if I’m writing an article! (My response: sort of? But not really.) I pick up a cocktail recipe book and he generously tosses in their spirits guide. Merchants is a fantastic, comfortable place – get a load of the dining room, which looks like one of the rooms in the Titanic – that is such my speed, it ends up eating up much of any remaining time I might have had to explore Belfast.
I end up wasting about 45 minutes searching for food – one place is no longer serving, and another place where I order some pasta is taking forever for the food to come out. Mark video messages me on Facebook and says there’s a 9:30 bus to Magherafelt, so I cancel my order and dash out to try to get to the bus station in time. Thankfully, I grab a veggie burrito on the way, at a place whose name I don’t remember but was obviously the Irish version of Chipotle.
I make it to the bus with three minutes to spare (!), passing by the Crown Bar – the most bombed bar in Europe, I believe – which sadly I don’t have enough time to visit. (Had the same thing happen last time I was here! Next time in Belfast it’s a must-see.) The sun going down over Northern Ireland is stunning.
Mark’s father Leo – a fine, salt of the earth man who escorted us around in the pouring rain while hunting for old McCools graves in County Derry during our trip here in 2014 – picks me up at the bus dropoff, and leaves me at the Flax Inn, where Mark has completed his shift. It’s wild to be back inside this place that factored in so greatly into my last trip, and kicked off this friendship! I check out the second floor and the clock that runs backwards, and wave hi to Danny, Amy and Graci, my former travel companions. Long like the Flax 4!
Mark and I pop over to Mary’s for one last drink but it’s late and we’re both exhausted, so we call it a night. Knowing this will be my last Guinness in Ireland for a while, I leave it 1/3 full, as a rejoinder to myself to come back. (The Irish version of tossing a coin over your shoulder at the Trevi Fountain?) I actually get to sleep at a reasonable hour that night, sadly missing the DNC speech by personal political hero and badass Vice President Joe Biden, which I’ll have to watch later and lament his premature exit from American politics. Anyway. Great to spend at least a bit of time in Belfast!
PS – I wrote most of this entry in a car with three strangers driving the semi-mountainous dry lands from Madrid to Lisbon. I’m four days behind in posting, ugh! Going to try to catch up on this trip!