For as long as I can remember, Ireland has been the locus of all my Romantic ideas of travel. Even before I had heard of St Andrews, I was hoping that whatever university I went to in the States would have a study abroad program in Ireland so that I may finally get the chance to visit the land of rolling green hills and castle ruins that had consumed my imagination.
Myself and two friends from the cross country team, Kate and Kim, traveled to Northern Ireland to spend the week with our friend Lauren as the second part of my spring holiday. With the North Sea to the front and the Mourne Mountains behind, I cannot even put into words how incredible Lauren’s home was. I am always so awed by the places my peers call home, me being from such a humble town whose most scenic feature is a corn field. My younger self would perhaps be terribly envious of the lives my friends lead when they go home from university. Yet now, I think I am okay with the fact that I have had such a humble upbringing, because it makes me appreciate the fact that I do get to travel to such incredible places, ultimately lending to this immense aura of magic and majesty I see when I have the fortune to travel to places such as Northern Ireland.
One of the main sights on our agenda was the famed Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. According to legend, a giant (or a hero with magical abilities, depending on the myth) named Fionn mac Cumhaill built the causeway out of these columns of stone. The causeway would take Fionn to Scotland in order to answer the challenge of a Scottish giant named Benandonner. The formation we see today is the remnant of that causeway, a thread to a mystical past so tightly bound to the British Isles. For my part, I have never seen a rock formation as distinctive as the causeway; and how the stones have formed, as if they simply slip off into the sea, was certainly an impressive sight. With the sea dashing madly against the stones, I felt as though a giant would suddenly rise up from the sea and stride off into the distance before our eyes. Once again I felt as though I could feel the ancient magic of such a place coming to life.
Further along the road from the causeway was our second destination, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. While Kim and Kate crossed with trepidation, I eagerly tramped across, hanging over the side to glimpse the mysterious caves below. The bridge led to a small rocky island used by salmon fisherman over 300 years ago. In fact, still standing on the wee island is a small cottage and rowboat, perhaps a remnant of this past. My companions joked that they could see me living in such a remote and sea-battered place. It seems as though I am finding so many potential housing situations in these two weeks of travel! From the island one is met with an impressive sight as well: not only can you see the Causeway Coast, but Rathlin Island and, on a clear day, Scotland itself.
While we were exhausted from our hike to the causeway and Carrick-a-Rede, Lauren kindly made sure we stop at Dunluce Castle, just for me. All of my friends are well aware of my “Castle Bucket List,” as one of my primary objectives in my four years at university is to visit as many castles on the British Isles as possible. Fully functioning, crumbling slightly, or in complete ruins makes no difference to me: a castle is a castle, and I never tire of the history that permeates the stones. Dunluce Castle, like Urquhart Castle and St Andrews Castle, is located right on the very edge of the land, exposed to the harsh spray of the sea and swirling winds. First built in the 13th century, rumor has it that this ancient ruin was used as inspiration for C.S. Lewis’s Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia. Predictably, this bit of trivia delights me immensely, and the memory of Dunluce may inspire many of my fanciful writings, much like C.S. Lewis.
As Kate, Kim, and Lauren are keen outdoors-women (almost a given since they are cross country mainstays), our holiday would not be complete without a nice and vigorous hike. While I enjoy the hill walking I have done since coming to Scotland, I certainly find them challenging as the Midwest has no comparison. In fact, many Scottish and British folks laugh at me when I call the Scottish hills “mountains,” yet I call them that simply because to me, anything higher than a gentle incline is mountainous. However, the Mourne Mountains, much like my Ben Nevis adventure last spring, proved a whole different ball game than the kind of hill walking I have grown (semi) used to.
Over the course of about six hours we trudged up peak after peak in the Mourne Mountain range that backs up to Lauren’s house. After this venture, I have come to believe that Lauren herself is part mountain goat, as she bounded up the inclines with ease. I envy the fact that she walked these mountains nearly every day since the spring holiday began, for being a successful hill walker is a whole new level of fitness I hadn’t seen until I came to Scotland. I think I found this hike particularly difficult because I was feeling slightly ill, but I was determined to not be left behind as each peak we ascended was followed immediately followed by a “Let’s climb that one too!” uttered by either Kim, Kate, or Lauren. While I was tiring quickly, I am glad I stuck with it and kept up fairly well. The vistas we beheld as we climbed each new peak were even more majestic than the last. I felt as though I needed some ancient and weatherbeaten map in my hand and a desperate purpose in my heart, for these are some mountains that could most definitely harbor a quest or two!
On one of our last full days in Northern Ireland Lauren brought us to Belfast to take in the sights. Unfortunately, I was not entirely impressed with Dublin when we arrived there days earlier. While I am not much of a city person in general, I have come to really enjoy the city of Edinburgh; visiting Dublin after being so familiar Edinburgh is a bit of a letdown. Yet Belfast proved the contrary, and definitely makes its way onto my “Favorite Cities” list. With quaint wee alleys strung with fairy lights between the streets and an incredible botanical garden, Belfast certainly has some hidden gems that lend it its own unique brand of charm. Pictured above is Queen’s University, whose architecture is absolutely stunning. I found myself saying, “How cool would that building be as your home?” as Queen’s certainly looks like one of the austere and enigmatic mansions of my imagination.
Our main destination in Belfast was the Titanic Center, as the infamous White Star ocean liner was built at its docks beginning in 1909. The Titanic Center was incredibly informative, as it detailed the social and economic conditions in Belfast leading up to the 20th century that made it an ideal place to house such a great industry as ship building. What also made the Titanic Center so intriguing were the accounts of Titanic survivors scattered throughout the exhibits, from humble heroes to the figures, like “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, that have become pop culture mainstays. While I confess to being slightly in love with the Hollywood film, which spurred my desire to visit the center, it was really interesting to see all that went into not just Titanic itself, but shipbuilding in general. A final aspect of the center that made it one of the most unique and informative museums I have been to was a giant theatre with actual footage of exploring the Titanic shipwreck. To see all of those long-forgotten relics lying on the ocean floor, blanketed by darkness and over one hundred years of history, was both fascinating and haunting.
What could possibly be left to tie together all of these great threads of adventure and memory, not only on the quest that was my spring holiday, but on this great narrative that is my time abroad? I admit that some of the dreams I want to fulfill are a bit whimsical, as the actions or aesthetics of them seem more fitting in a novel or film. Yet to me, what is life if not your own great story? So even if my little dreams seem silly or fanciful, I chase them anyway, for I want to live a life with as many stories as possible. One thing I have always promised myself I would do when I went to Ireland was visit a tiny, local pub (preferably the haunt of fishermen) and have a pint. So, much to my delight, we did just that!
Going to this pub was definitely like a scene out of a movie: the four of us young women entered the pub and all the merry conversation skipped a beat as the old men stared at us. Upon hearing our accents (Scottish Kim, British Kate, and American me) they grew even more confused, for what a motley little bunch we made! Yet as we settled in to the corner booth with our pints, the atmosphere turned merry once again. The patrons of this pub were so welcoming, and the nautical theme of the pub definitely made my heart sing with the kitsch of it all. Yes, it may sound a little P.S. I Love You, four young women of different backgrounds on holiday trying to get the “local flavor” in the pub, but the warm glow of the fire and simply the happiness of the place did much to make me smile.
While I have fallen pretty firmly in love with Scotland, this time spent in Northern Ireland has made me hungry to explore even more of the “Emerald Isle” and see what secrets it has to tell. I think perhaps because I have seen much more of Scotland I have seen its heart, whereas Ireland still remains a bit of a mystery waiting to be discovered. It is my hope that this trip was but the prelude to many more grand adventures to be had in Ireland, and I can only hope that one day I get to share such a beautiful place with my family. So as I boarded the ferry to return back to Scotland, I looked back at the Irish coast in anticipation of when I would see it again.
Originally written 2 May 2015