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Northern Ireland

and Dublin...

We came to Belfast to embark on the next chapter of our adventure, but as we wait for the pieces to fall into place, we are exploring Northern Ireland.  We opted to stay in an Airbnb just outside of Downpatrick which is about a 40-minute drive from Belfast.  It was an adorable place called The Shed and it had everything we needed and was a great place to explore from.

Quick history lesson, the island of Ireland is actually two separate countries.  Northern Ireland consists of the northeast corner, and it is part of the United Kingdom.  The remainder of the island makes up the Republic of Ireland and is part of the European Union.  While you can travel freely between the two you will notice that they use different currency, and one uses kilometers while the other uses miles.  The division stems in part because of where the Catholic and Protestant Populations lived.  As a whole the country has a turbulent past, but Northern Ireland experienced additional internal conflict given the large number who wanted to see a unified Ireland.

This is going to sound stupid, but my first impression of Northern Ireland was that it’s far more treed and overgrown that I imagined.  I know Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle, so obviously it’s going to be green and lush, but driving down the road you couldn’t really see anything past the trees and grass.  The grass is taller than the car and right up to and sometimes over the edge of the road.  It does open up in some areas, but I can’t count the number of treed tunnels we drove through.  We did see some signage for ‘No Mow May’ which was geared to improving bee populations, so that may have played a role.  They were mowing the grass next to the roads in some areas later in our stay.

On our first full day in Northern Ireland, we went into the town of Downpatrick and wandered through the Down County Museum located in the Gaol (Jail) of Down.  It was free and very informative.  There were Irish Alpine flowers growing on the walls in the courtyard.  Also known as Fairy Foxglove they bloom from April to May.  This is one of only 3 locations in Northern Ireland where the flowers thrive.

Of course we couldn’t visit Downpatrick without stopping in at Down Cathedral.  St. Patrick is buried just outside of the cathedral, St. Bridgid and St. Columcille are also buried here.  We were welcomed by a very lively gentleman who walked us through the cathedral and its history.  It has an unusual layout and has been beautifully restored.

On our next day we drove 2 hours out to the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO heritage site home to over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns.  It’s steeped in local lore and said to be home to the giant Finn McCool.  He built the causeway to get across the Irish Sea to face his Scottish rival Benandonner.  It’s said that Benandonner ripped up the causeway as he fled back to Scotland after their meeting.  There are matching basalt columns across the Sea on the Scottish coast.  It was a stunning site and the views from the cliffs were incredible.  We picked up the audio guide for our walk and it was interesting to hear about the scientific background of the natural area as well as the local legends.

Dunluce Castle is not far from Giant's Causeway, so this was our second stop of the day.  It was built in the 1500s and was the seat of power of the MacQuillans.  The castle ruins are perched on the rocks jutting out into the sea.  I would just like to say that we spent and an entire month travelling around Scotland, and not once did we come across someone playing the bagpipes.  On our second day in Ireland and at a castle no less, we heard bagpipes for the first time.  It turns out the Irish have their own version called Uilleann pipes.  They were setting up for some sort of event just across the way from the castle and we could hear them playing.

Our final stop for the day was The Dark Hedges.  In the eighteenth century the Stuart family planted an avenue of beech trees along the entrance to their mansion, Gracehill House.  Today they have become one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.  Unfortunately, Storm Isha brought down several of the trees in January of 2024.  It’s still stunning to see; although, Gracehill House was a little disappointing.

Of course, despite staying outside the city we did want to spend some time exploring Belfast.  We wandered through the Botanical Gardens, took advantage of the free Ulster Museum, and roamed around the main areas of the city.   

Belfast Castle sits perched on a hill at the edge of the city.  You can only wander through the lower level of the castle as the rest is used for functions, but it’s still a beautiful building.  There is a story about the tradition of the castle cat in which there is always a resident white cat at the castle.  They have placed cats throughout the gardens in keeping with this tradition.  After touring the castle, we hiked up the hill behind it for some epic views.

Titanic Belfast came highly recommended, and I must say they’ve done a pretty good job with the experience.  It is of course dedicated to the Titanic which was built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast.  It really gets you thinking about the construction and the amount of work that went into building these massive ships.  It is a very popular attraction, so there were a ton of people there, but it was still an interesting experience.  We were also able to tour through the last remaining White Star Line vessel the SS Nomadic.

My favourite stop by far has to be Tollymore Forest Park.  Originally built as a deer park, the walled 1200-acre park is now host to beautiful gardens and walking trails.  It sits at the base of the Mourne Mountains and gives off major fairy forest vibes.

On the way home from Tollymore we stopped in Newcastle for a walk on the Promenade. They have a sculpture called the Cone of Light and when you look through the gap it lines up with the top of Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland's highest peak.

Given that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are technically different countries we couldn’t resist driving down to Dublin.  It was a fairly long drive there and back, so we just spent a few hours wandering around.  Of course, we had to visit the Guinness Storehouse which was actually pretty cool. Despite being taught how to sample Guinness...I'm still not a fan and neither is Mike.

We also visited Londonderry to see the completely intact historic Walled City.  Guidehall was impressive and the walls were fun to explore.  We were a little disappointed at some of the modern architecture within the walled section of the city, but c’est la vie.