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NORTHERN IRELAND

During our 25th anniversary weekend in November of 1996 we spent a few hours in Northern Ireland. Let me rephrase that---we probably only spent about 90 minutes in Belfast itself. The rest of the time we were on the train from Dublin.

The train ride is great. You follow along the North Sea and get some great views. We only had enough time to get a brief taxi tour of Belfast, catch a fish and chips lunch, head back to the station and head back to Dublin. We would have stayed longer in Belfast but there was a big rugby match back in Dublin between Ireland and Australia and the trains were hectic and short on reservations.  

Entering Northern Ireland was interesting. As I looked out to the left heading up there I saw a compound with, sadly, some very familiar vehicles sitting in there. They were the big, gray, tank-like vehicles with the water cannons that are used to put down violence between Catholics and Protestants or Protestants and Catholics--I dare not even hint of taking one side or the other. It was strange seeing them in person because I had seen them so many times on the news.

There was plenty of IRA scribbling action on walls and an equal ration of PIRA ramblings. IRA stands for Irish Republican Army and PIRA is short for Provisional Irish Republican Army.

When we asked Dubliners whether it was safe to travel to Belfast they assured us that it was. In fact a lot of Irish people go up there to shop because prices are much lower. And beer prices are so low in Northern Ireland that many flock up there to stock up on cheap suds.

Strangely, the Irish Pound (also called the Punt) is not on a par with the Northern Ireland Pound Sterling so you’ve got to get some money changed, which is difficult since there was no money changing facility at the train station. Actually it's not strange that the currencies are different because after all, Ireland and Northern Ireland are two separate countries.

Fortunately we wound up with a real “character” of a cab driver at the train station who offered to change some money for us. He stopped at a “plain” building, dashed inside with our Irish Punts and returned mysteriously with Northern Ireland Pounds. He did not charge us anything for doing it so who knows what the deal was? Perhaps a black market exchange?  But if so, why?

The cabbie lectured us on the Belfast area and waited in the car while we wolfed down our fish and chips luncheon which came at a casual place called Harry Ramsden's (web site here).  We were not disappointed. It was deee-licious and supplied us with at least a week's worth of grease.  But hey, once in a while, right?

On the way back to the train station our colorful cabbie took a little detour and showed us some of the sights including the new hotel and arena complex which was under construction. He boasted that with new cease fires in the works, Belfast was a comeback city. The new hotel/arena complex was due to open in March of 1997 with John Denver being the first act booked there.

After an interesting and quick day it was back on the train and a late afternoon /early evening journey back to Dublin. It was really quite romantic. As we chugged along the full moon was reflecting off the North Sea outside the left window.

We'll definitely return to Northern Ireland again in the future and enjoy much more of what Belfast has to offer.  A stroll along the banks of the river Lagan sounds appealing.  Other possibilities might include visits to their Botanic Gardens and Ulster Museum, St. Anne's Cathedral, the Opera House, Belfast Castle and Heritage Center, the Belfast Zoo and a place called "Giant's Ring," which is a prehistoric monument.

Currency in Northern Ireland is the Northern Irish Pound. Driving is on the left. You’ll need a passport but no VISA. (And as we were advised by locals from both Ireland and Northern Ireland---chat with the folks but do not get sucked into talking religion or politics. It could get you into a fight in Ireland and it could get you killed in Belfast!)