Sunny Days in Belfast

The quaint corner of Europe that includes Northern Ireland is notorious for gloom, clouds and rain, but Belfast has been blessed with some gorgeous sunny days over the past few weeks.  Good weather always puts me in a cheerful mood, and I’d like to catch you up on the many ways I’ve enjoyed the recent sunshine!

The last Friday in February, I walked to City Centre for some shopping, stopping along the way to play guitars in a guitar store.  I’m really missing my guitar, since it wasn’t worth the hassle of plane transport to bring it along, and I was thinking about buying a cheap one and then selling it in June.  While I was trying out the guitars, I got into conversation with an English man who was in Belfast to play in the Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival.   Familiar with the bluegrass/country/folk music scene in the North Carolina mountains, he was delighted to learn of my Carolina roots and also thought it was cool that I studied Drama.  He advised me to follow my dreams and to always buy the most expensive guitar I could afford.  It was a quirky little interaction.

I later met up with my friends at Maggie Mays Belfast Cafe, a classic Queens student haunt, for a quick dinner before going to one of the Festival concerts.  The Four of Us were playing in the Black Box, a music venue in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast.  Brendan and Declan Murphy are two brothers originally from Newry, I believe, who gained Northern Irish popularity in the 80s and 90s.  Their music is a mix of country, pop, Irish and American folk, and they are quite a pair!  Older brother Brendan did the singing and the talking while Declan smiled and made funny faces and tapped his foot, which made for an entertaining dynamic.  My friends and I were a bit young compared to the rest of the crowd, but we really enjoyed the performance, and the Black Box is quite a class venue.

Last weekend, we had a small Agnes Scott reunion in Belfast, with Anna Cabe visiting from Glasgow for the weekend and Kathryn riding the train from Coleraine on Saturday.  The three of us had a delicious brunch on Saturday, visited Linen Hall Library and toured City Hall.  We also spent some time in the bustling and beautiful St. George’s Market, as I mentioned in a previous post.  For dinner, we went to The Crown Bar, one of the oldest pubs in Belfast, founded in 1849.  The elaborate Victorian design is reason enough to visit The Crown, but it turns out they have delicious food as well.  I can’t remember what my meat-eating friends had, but I really enjoyed my champ (mashed potatoes with scallions, butter and cream) and vegetarian sausages, with a glass of red wine.  The leisurely nature of our meal caused Kathryn to miss the train she’d planned on taking back to Coleraine, but this gave us a good excuse to chat for longer while we waited another couple of hours for the next train.

After Kathryn caught the 9 pm train, Anna and I stayed out a little longer to hear some Irish traditional music at the John Hewitt, another old pub.  We started talking to an older couple there and soon found out that their daughter Lynn had studied abroad at Agnes Scott two years ago!  We couldn’t believe it. They were very nice, and not just because the honorary Scottie’s dad bought us drinks.

Sunday, Anna and I visited the Troubles exhibit in The Ulster Museum, along with some of the history and applied art exhibits.  Anna didn’t know a lot about the Troubles, so some of the information in the exhibit was shocking for her.  It pretty much just picks up the facts about the tensions, politics, bombings, hunger strikes, etc, and plops them in your lap, so it can be overwhelming, especially considering how recently these things occurred.  This was my third visit to the Troubles exhibit, but it’s the kind of intense information you benefit from hearing more than once, so you can process it little by little.  More about all that will appear in later posts.

Since it was still not raining, we walked around the Botanic Gardens, which hug the edge of Queen’s main campus, and toured the many charity shops and vintage shops on Botanic Avenue.  Overall, it was a very pleasant visit, and Anna got up to catch the ferry back to Glasgow before the sun had risen Monday morning.

And of course, St. Patrick’s Day was gorgeous and sunny, even hot, which was perfect for the festivities of that very Irish holiday.  You probably know St. Patrick as the missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland and thus the island’s patron saint.

St. Patrick’s Day is particularly important for Irish Catholics here.  Though going to mass is now only one piece of the holiday’s traditions, St. Paddy’s is an opportunity for Catholics to loudly display their religious identity in historically sectarian Belfast.  This occasionally leads to drunken rioting, which is why my Northern Irish friends told me which parts of the city to avoid on Saturday, but overall there’s a good deal of family friendly fun, religious and secular.

I took the bus to City Centre to catch some of the parade, which left from City Hall and wound its way north to stop at St. Anne’s Cathedral.  Being short, I didn’t get any good pictures of the parade, but it was rife with elaborate costumes and rousing pipes and drums.  One vivid green float that caught my eye held a man dressed as a leprechaun, gleefully juggling torches.   There were also papier mache masks galore, including some really cool, under-the-sea themed octopus-y ones.

After the parade, I went to St. George’s Market with my friends for the Irish traditional music and dancing.  For lunch, my friend Jess and I had macaroni and cheese from the Finn McVeg vegetarian food stand in St. George’s.  My friends moved on and I wandered through the market for a little while, then went to the pub next door to hear more live music.  I also had a wee half pint of Guinness because, after all, it was St. Patrick’s Day, and I was in Ireland.  And no, the Guinness was not green.  Green beer was being advertised in some places, to be fair to those who may have wondered.

That was about the extent of my St. Patrick’s day partying, because I flew to London Saturday afternoon!  I decided to take advantage of the holiday from classes on Monday the 19th to do some traveling.  More about my sunny days in London in the next post!

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