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Day 5: Scenes from the Big Belfast

in which your author meets good Irish theatrefolk and finds out Ireland serves more than Guinness

overcast 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

Posted by coolmcjazz 07:34 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged belfast Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)

Day 5: A Perfect Pint and Trip Up to Belfast

in which your author discovers untold powers of willingness to let an itinerary shift, almost certainly annoying his travel companions on the way!

semi-overcast 45 °F

Due to the previous evening’s shenanigans – is it appropriate to use clichéd Irish slang when describing things that occur in Ireland? – Day 5 began with its front end significantly lopped off. Dan and I walked down the Liffey to put change in the meter at 6:15am and he would venture out twice more over the course of the next six hours to add time. We’re not sure what getting a parking ticket with a rental car would entail, but we’d rather not find out.

Graci and Amy join us and we’re faced with our first daytime group decision – should we visit Kilmainham Gaol, Trinity College/Book of Kells, or the Guinness Storehouse? Give ya one guess.

We make the not insignificant walk to the factory, pausing for a few group shots along the way.

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I’d been to the Storehouse on my first visit in 2008, and as an amateur brewer myself am pretty familiar with the brewing process, so Dan and I whip through all floors fairly quickly while the two ladies relax in a cafe.

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We all meet up in the famous Gravity Bar at the very top, where one will find one of the finest views of the city of Dublin. (It’s even more impressive during the day.) We all enjoy a “perfect pint” – which somehow, is a true claim; the pints at the factory ARE perfect – and plot our next move.

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On the ground floor of the factory, Graci and Amy take mini-naps next to where the original 18th century lease for the building lies encased in glass.

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Our itinerary had us going to Belfast that afternoon and I push to keep this intact even though we’re behind where we wanted to be. As I drive us the 2 ½ hours north, the car resembles a mortuary – everyone is passed out in deep slumber and I supply music of gorgeous Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird as background. (I packed both CDs, an iPod, and an iPod cord, and all were used at various points. Yay for that!) The driving presents no difficulties on the highway, but navigating the numerous roundabouts (back home we call ‘em “rotaries!”) coming into Belfast are challenging and rather frightening. I'm beeped at at least four or five times, usually for driving too slow!

We arrive in Belfast at about 9:00pm, staying at a house owned by a woman named Romy whom Danny has found via the Couchsurfing site. As we drive in I play some Van Morrison, native son of Belfast. Romy greets us outside her house in a packed residential neighborhood and based on a claim on her profile, I shout out “Are you the Queen of Belfast?!”

Romy is a Belfast native of the town (pronounced here something like "toyun"), as is her fifteen-year old daughter Seren. She sets out a delicious feast of vegetarian stew, and though we’re all exhausted there’s a lively conversation at the table, comparing Irish and American school systems and hearing about what makes Belfast tick. In 2007, I performed in a Solas Nua-produced play set in Belfast called Scenes from the Big Picture – a production Peter Marks of the Washington Post called “One of the 10 Best Plays of the Decade” – and so I’m really interested to hear the distinctive Belfast upward twang we worked so hard on – and probably still never got perfect. The dipthing for the vowel sound in "house" and "town" is closer to how Americans would pronounce "ice" – Romy and Seren humor me by demonstrating a few of these sounds, which really don't exist in American English. All the while in Belfast, I'm reminded of Daniel Day-Lewis's magnificent performance as falsely accused Belfastian Gerry Conlon in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father.

Unfortunately we’re all too tired to go out and explore the city, so I write a bit and the others pack in to sleep at various locations around the ornately decorated house. We particularly fancy the “One Direction Sucks” scrawled on the living room wall.

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Probably our most crunched-in day overall due to our late start and ambitious travel plans, but we’ve met more good people and I’m excited to see at least a little bit of this city in the morning!

Posted by coolmcjazz 13:57 Archived in Ireland Tagged dublin guinness belfast Comments (0)

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