A Travellerspoint blog

Day 6: The Luck of the Irish Tourists

in which your author sleeps in, almost sees belfast, makes good new friends, and makes his irish pub singing debut!

semi-overcast 45 °F

It’s never a good sign when the first two words out of your mouth on a given day are “Ahhh CRAP.” Up til 3am finishing a blog post, I sailed past my ambitious 9:30am alarm and woke up at 12:30pm, putting us pretty significantly behind schedule for what was penciled in (on the printed-out itinerary?) as “Genealogy Day” in Donegal. The others wake, grab quick showers, and pack up; Romy has left on the local radio and Danny and I hear some good tunes played by a singer of a local band who is guest hosting the show.

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We also wanted to pick up some cider for Romy in thanks for her hospitality, and at least drive around to see a bit of Belfast. Considering we don’t get out the door at about 2:30pm, the first half of the day was already spoken for. Trying to stay positive, I tell the others that the keyword of the day is “serendipity” – we don’t know what’s going to happen or what adventures we’re going to find, but we just need to stay open to the possibility!

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We amble into town (“toyun”) and grab some coffees (yay Starbucks), pastries and Mexican food, breeze past the famous Crown Bar and Hotel Europa (described to us earlier in the week as "the most bombed hotel in Europe") and naturally, get very, very lost trying to get out of Belfast. We can’t figure out how to put in town names on our rental GPS and we don’t figure out how to reach the highway until stopping in a residential neighborhood and asking for directions. Amy and Graci compliment the companion of the kindly direction-giver on her haircut.

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I’m frustrated it’s so late in the day – by the time we get on the highway out of Belfast, the sun is setting. We eventually get out on the big road toward Central Northern Ireland, driving through County Derry, heading toward my first stop, the tiny town of Magherafelt, about halfway between Belfast and Derry.

I’d come across lots of references to a branch of the McCool name called the “Toberhead” McCools, along with references to an old homestead that dated back to the early 1700s, all centered around this small town.

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As we roll up into Magherafelt, Danny spots a pub called “The Flax Inn” and we decide to pop in to hopefully make a phone call and start our search for McCools.

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We’re greeted by a young chap wearing a sports jersey setting up the bar; we're the first patrons of the night. Danny and I order pints of Guinness and Graci settles in by the fire.

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The friendly bartender, Mark, lets me use the office phone to call a fellow named Tommy Mccoole, whose contact info I received from Charles McCool, expert travel guru, overall nice guy and possible distant cousin. (Charles and I met up for lunch in DC last year, and he’s traveled extensively through this area doing quite extensive genealogy work.) I get Tommy on the phone, introduce myself, and ask him about visiting the homestead. Unfortunately, he lives about 30 minutes to the north in Coleraine, and because the homestead is located on a private farm, explains how permission to visit must be secured from the farm owners beforehand. Tommy invites us up to Coleraine but the logistics seem too difficult to manage. Further, the Couchsurfing place Danny has booked for us is hours away in upper northwest Donegal (possibly surrounded by storms), probably 2-3 hours driving away on windy, dark roads. That seems too far to reach given our present state of exhaustion. I try to book us an Airbnb in Derry while we shoot darts and get to know a few of the locals who have filed into the pub.

Slowly, everyone starts to loosen up and that familiar Irish craic starts to flow. Graci learns to pour a proper pint of Guinness, and is made honorary head bartender of "The Flax."

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Mark makes us an offer we can’t refuse – we'll stay at the house he lives in with his Dad, just up the road! I ask him about hearing good local music – a pretty big request on a random Sunday night in January – and as he gets off at 7pm, says he’ll take us out to the perfect spot. Serendipity seems to be extending us a big hand! We decide first to go to a local Indian restaurant Mark recommends (he wasn't wrong) and we stuff ourselves with the first sit-down restaurant meal we’ve experienced on the trip.

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We drop our bags at Mark’s house – first thing we see walking into the house is a piece of art with the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, so Danny feels at home – and Mark puts us in a cab he has thoughtfully called ahead to reserve.

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The cab, driven by a cheerful older fellow named Robert, takes us to Bryson’s Bar, where music and fun await. The place has only 5 or 6 patrons when we walk in, and we're greeted with handshakes and helloseveryone seems friendly. This is your typical small town Irish bar]], big enough to only fit about 25 people, a place where stories and good times past seem to seep from the walls. The band playing – we later find out they’re called Altagore – is quite good, and they start to tailor their set toward “our American guests.” Danny goes up to sing with the band, and decides on “Dirty Old Town.” He’s still sick so doesn’t have his usual vocal chops, but it’s fun to see him rocking out in a real Irish pub. Graci also takes a shot behind the guitar.

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I approach the bandleader about singing Raglan Road, my go-to Irish pub song which I first heard all over the country during my first Ireland trip in 2008. It’s one of the most popular Irish pub songs, so I’m a bit intimidated to sing it in a real Irish pub, especially as an American tourist, but the atmosphere is festive and relaxed and supportive. It went better than I could have hoped – I remembered all four verses without a problem, which was a bit of a first – and I found out afterward that Amy had captured it all (save for the first or so 10 seconds) on video! So happy to have documentation of this, as its easily one of my trip highlights and something I’m sure to remember well into the future, even more so given my potential ancestral connection to the town. As I’m leaving later that night, both Tom the Postman (who I attempt to accompany on the Dubliners’ hilarious “Seven Drunken Nights”) AND one of the band members tell me separately that it’s their favorite song and they had never heard it done better. Could I be any more ecstatic about how this went over? (Note: can't seem to get the video to auto-load below. Here it is.)

Our cab driver Robert arrives at 12:30 to take us back to Mark’s place, but we’re not ready to leave! Mark invites him to join us in the bar, where he dances with Graci and sings a song. (File under: things that would never, ever happen in America.)

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After what is easily our most spontaneous and serendipitous night in Ireland, hours of dancing and singing and loads of craic, we leave the pub and are escorted back to our Mark’s cozy house. We can see about a billion stars in the sky. If a roving band of Americans had a professional tour company put together a tailor-made evening out in an Irish pub, it wouldn't match the fun we had that night.

Amy and I greet Mark’s father in the kitchen, and he offers us tea and hears about our plans for the morning. As a former truck driver he knows the local roads and sights as well as anyone, so he offers to accompany us! We stay up even later talking about the area and genealogy and Irish history and so many other things.

After a few years experience as a traveler, I’ve come to realize the best, most memorable experiences, are the ones you don’t see coming. the excellent people you meet and the ways locals extend themselves to ensure visitors have what the folks around here would call a “grand time.” Like the stars above Magherafelt, it’s people are just brilliant!

Posted by coolmcjazz 18:23 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged belfast derry magherafelt

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