Belfast & Dublin, October 2019

It was a pleasure to be invited to our friends wedding in County Slane, Ireland. Booking the trip endured a bit of guesswork as the location was in the middle of nowhere, and Ireland doesn’t make use of postcodes, making the trip itinerary that little more intricate.We did initially intend of going to Venice for our week off prior to that Saturday celebration but a mix of luggage, spiralling costs and a little bit of brexit uncertainty resulted in a really satisfying trip to Northern Ireland and Dublin.

Day One – Belfast

I was fortunate to visit Belfast in 2013 for a stag do so was able to be a poor quality tour guide to Mikayla. Our 8am flight from Bristol took just 50 minutes to arrive in Dublin, and a two hour coach meant we checked in to our hotel just past midday.

This allowed us to have a wander around the city, stopping at Victoria Square shopping centre and the rooftop dome giving panoramic views of the city and famous shipyards, the centrepiece being two huge cranes called Samson and Goliath.Whilst our pursuit for lunch was futile, we did end up walking past the Albert Memorial clock tower and McHughs bar where I consumed a significant amount of alcohol six years prior. The clock tower interestingly slopes 4 feet off perpendicular due to the nearby river upsetting it’s foundations.

You really have to look twice to question the uprightness of the structure and I soon gave up taking a photo that didn’t look equally as puzzling.We were heading to Titanic Belfast, at the scene where the famous doomed ship was built and now the set for its own museum.

The thing I love about Belfast is the amount of small bits of interest around every corner. Within our first hour we had come across the City Hall, Beacon of Hope sculpture, the “Big Fish” that gives you wisdom if you kiss it (I didn’t, sigh), the home of the ice hockey Belfast Giant’s (my local Cardiff Devils nemesis) and the now-defunct set of the King’s Landing gate from Game of Thrones tucked away near the expansive docks area.

This Belfast part of the blog post will feature Game of Thrones (GoT) a lot so please bear with me if you have yet to take interest in one of the most popular TV series of all time.

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the Titanic museum and paid our £19 entry fee. Our unguided tour was spent roughly 80% learning how the unsinkable ship was built by Harland and Wolff, 10% focusing on the posh interior, class of passengers and sailing route, and finally around 10% of the ships demise.

The tour was actually rather disappointing – I’m sure it was more interesting the first time around. It didn’t help half way through; my realisation that there’s a museum built to honour a sunken boat!

The windy walk back in to town was thankfully interrupted by some relatively newer reasons why Belfast is on the map, in the shape of six standalone stained glass windows depicting many scenes from Game of Thrones. We followed the trail and as you can see from the photo below they are wonderful! I didn’t have chance to master camera angles but you can find our more by searching for #glassofthrones or chucking “Glass of Thrones” in to your preferred search engine.

Once we had snapped the sixth and final frame back at city hall, we weren’t far from the hotel so had dinner and a deserved early night.

Day Two – Game of Thrones Tour

The top thing that is likely to be on anyone’s list when visiting Northern Ireland will be to visit Giant’s Causeway, in my eyes one of the natural (i.e. not made by man) wonders of the world.

As the attraction is a good few hours away from the City we initially intended to look at local transport but thought I would have a gander at a Game of Thrones themed trip, just out of interest as neither the Causeway or the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge features in the series. For my previous trip we had enough to hire a taxi along the coast but this was just as the unknown Targaryn’s and Lannister’s and the gang set foot in NI. I came across the Irish Tour Tickets website and once I seen the very reasonable cost of €39 per person and that included the two sights listed above, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I was apprehensive as to how good the GoT element of the trip would be, but within minutes of boarding the comfortable coach and having a good craic with the tour guide and driver I could tell it the decision was a good one.

Game of Thrones is worth £30 million per year to the NI economy and it would good to know our custom was contributing to this.

Throughout the trip we were entertained by clips and interviews with the cast, fun facts about the show and lesser known sights of the country… the tour guide himself had a few cameos in a number of episodes.

Our first stop after passing Carrickfergus Castle and a very small impose of Castle Black, was a small coastal village of Carnlough. A sleepy town you would quickly drive past if not in the know, for a few weeks during Season 6 filming a small set of steps took centre stage. During one episode, Arya Stark got stabbed by the Waif and even though the bridge she jumped off to escape was in Spain, she rose to shore in Carnlough! There was a poster in the local Spar shop showing more of the filming… quite incredible the amount of work that went in to a scene that lasted a minute or two!

A short ride along the coast followed for our next stop at Cushenden. Stopping off at a narrow layby there didn’t seem to be any caves in sight, but after a small walk around the corner of the coast we were heading in to a cave that was the setting for Melissandre giving birth to the shadow assassin, and around another corner of the same cave the scene where Jamie Lannister killed off Euron Greyjoy.

The latter did feel like you were actually part of the set, albeit with fellow tourists taking selfies where a character was last seen spread over a rock bleeding to death!

So far so good. It is important to note that we hardly expected to have a wander through Winterfell or Kings Landing… as you can imagine most of the inside filming was shot in a warehouse (interestingly next door to the Titanic Museum back in Belfast), and other outside locations for the programme include Croatia, Spain, Malta, Morocco and Iceland!

A further drive through the narrow roads flirting with the coast resulted in us arriving at the Causeway Visitor Centre around midday. I should mention that our €39 ticket also included queue-skipping entrance to the two chargeable attractions that would have otherwise cost us a total of €21.

From the visitor centre to the 40,000 hexagonal stones is a bit of a trek so the free audio guide was a welcome addition, giving encouragement to the myth that it was created by a giant called Finn Macool, but sadly it is more likely that a volcanic reaction forced tectonic plates to break and sprout up lava. Still, no idea about the hexagon shape… something I really should have found out before writing!

Somewhat of a dangerous playground, the scene it perfect for a numerous photos and the safety staff are hands off should you wish to climb the structures in any direction you feel fit.

Stop number four was lunch in the Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy, between the Causeway and the next stop Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Lunch was discounted to trip members and for under a tenner I enjoyed a hearty Steak and Guinness pie and chips. The pub also had a Game of Thrones themed room where you could dress up and sit on their own Iron Throne. A good fun way to spend lunch and an opportunity to have a chat with other tourists who travelled as far as China and South Africa.

I should also note the pub had one of ten Game of Thrones doors produced and donated by the producers, I’ll cover these a bit later.

Appetite satisfied we made our way to stop five and what is likely to be the second main sight to see in the country outside of Belfast. The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was first installed some 350 years ago so that fishermen could hop on to the island and be at an ideal spot for salmon fishing. Thankfully it has been renewed and updated a few times since then considering it allows up to half a million people to cross every year.

What they don’t tell you on the advertisement is that the bridge is over a kilometre walk from the car park featuring a number of declines and hills. This is not something that should ever put you off however, as the views along the coast are stunning.

Sadly my attempt to take decent photos of the bridge didn’t come to fruition, and it didn’t help a bloke a few places in front of me got an absolute bollocking from the staff for not holding on the the railings with both hands. The Carrickarede island is nothing special, some manmade steps leading to a grassy mount. At this point I remembered a photo that I took during my first visit in 2013 and trying to recreate it fell straight on my arse to the delight of Mikayla and probably a few others.

I miss those pink Vans so much. Anyway. The long, slow walk back was aided by the sun setting and as we headed to our final destination, the Dark Hedges, I was slightly concerned whether we would be able to see it in daylight, although hoping the dusk setting would in fact provide the perfect ambience.

The Hedges is still a public road but due to the narrowness and popularity coaches had to park in the nearby hotel, another establishment that has benefited from the show. After a small walk the hedges were a tad underwhelming, perhaps due to the number of other people around but it provided a calm end to the tour. A final chance of a toilet stop inside the hotel, we were greeted by another opportunity to have a photo with an Iron Throne, and to walk through the second door, the first I mentioned earlier.

The doors have a significant meaning. When a storm hit the Dark Hedges during filming two of the trees were fell. Following this the production team decided to comission the “dead wood” in to ten carved themed doors that can be seen throughout Northern Ireland, each depicting an episode during season six of the show. These were then donated to local businesses to further encourage the local economy. Nice touch.

As darkness arrived it was time to make the 90 minute ride back to Belfast, during which the clevererer one of us (Kay FYI) won a GoT quiz much to our delight.

To conclude. It was such a nice day. I don’t often book something I think may just be ‘ok’, however when the decision turns out to be much better than expected is a real bonus. The tour host Peter and driver Tony made the trip that extra bit special and their ‘craic’ was priceless… I recommend it to everyone and will share this with the company as my own form of positive feedback.

Day Three – Belfast on to Dublin

So today was our trip back from Northern Ireland to The Republic.

We made the most of the daylight to jump on the sightseeing bus around Belfast. As the hotel was a stop half way around, we didn’t do things in the order that would be recommended. The bus driving through nationalist and republican areas would usually come after a few City centre sights but for us, bar a drive past the national football stadium it was our first port of call.

One could easily write a blog on the area with its countless murals, gardens and commemorations each side of the divide.

The divide being a big 20 foot wall, in which I think the gates are still closed every night to seperate those waving either the Irish green white and orange or the Union Jack.

This was the second time I’ve visited the area and I find it as strange today as I did 6 years ago, you wouldn’t believe it to be on the outskirts of a major city in the United Kingdom. Religion eh?

After the stretch viewed with wide eyes, we headed on to Stormont, the equivalent of what the Senedd is to Wales and Holyrood is to Scotland. At the time parliament had been suspended for 3 years due to policy disagreements between its power-sharing leadership and only sorted themselves out in January 2020. Just get on with each other FFS.

On a lighter note the trip then passed Campbell College. A very well regarded private institution but one that’s considerably cheaper than across the Irish sea. An interesting story from this… Wetherspoons Brexit obsessed owner Tim Martin studied here, once being told by a teacher that he’d never make anything of himself. That teacher, was indeed called…. Mr Wetherspoon.

Back towards the centre to visit the Titanic quarter with some additional Game of Thrones fandom, but most of which I’ve kinda covered unless you’re interested in when Queen Victoria once visited (I wasn’t). We departed the tour once back at the hotel.

After a quick lunch we made our way to our coach that would take us back to Dublin airport and then on to the city itself. The bus picked up near the Europa hotel (The most bombed hotel in the world during The Troubles”) and The Crown Liqueur Saloon. An old Victorian pub that’s undoubtedly the most famous in NI and owned by the National Trust! Always had them down as secret Alcoholics.

We arrived in Dublin, by the Spire to catch the last of daylight and made our way to our Ripley Court Hotel, absolute luxury compared to the ETAP box room in Belfast with a banging breakfast to boot.

We were in Dublin for less than 24 hours so went straight to the sights… Belfast Castle, Temple Bar, Trinity College, and of course the Forbidden Planet store.

I gave Kay an overview of the Castle (you can read about that from my blog in October 2018) much to her delight and walked passed the nightlife that Temple Bar offered and on to Ha’penny bridge.

A rather quick tickbox exercise but given that we had already had a hectic few days we were content in grabbing some fast food and an early night.

Day Four – Dublin on to Drogheda

Making most of the breakfast plus a quick snooze to help it go down, we didn’t leave the hotel until gone 10am, although one reason for this was to try and get resale tickets to Kilmainham Gaol later in the day, in which we were successful. As Mikayla entered Trinity College to have a gander at the Book of Kells, one of the world’s oldest books, I decided to hang around in Starbucks to catch Wales rugby get stuffed by New Zealand in the World Cup bronze match. You wouldn’t see that in the footy!

Once Kay reappeared we made our way to the aforementioned gaol (Irish for Jail) via a brief visit to the Irish Museum of Modern Art opposite and met up with a few pals who were also cramming in the sights (and no doubt Guinness). Sadly our ticket times differed but in our fortune had an icreble tour guide that offered so much passion in his job, if it was an act he should be on Broadway.

Kilmainham Goal is a closed jail renowned for its dreadful living conditions especially during Ireland’s famine and it’s role in Irish independence.

It housed many republicans who fought (and subsequently died) for the Ireland you know of today away from British rule.

The tour took us through the miniscule cells that housed more people than floorspace should allow, the area that the Brits used for their firing squad and where the used to commence public hangings, should anyone else get the idea that living in extreme poverty was wrong.

Without undoubtedly knowing the full story of those times, it wasn’t my proudest moment to be British, yet blessed I don’t think we’ll ever witness anything like it again, within Europe anyway.

That’s kind of it for Dublin. I had already done the Guinness tour but if you go please consider half a day roaming Phoenix Park.

We hurried back to the hotel to pick up our bags and catch a teatime transport to Drogheda, about an hour north of Dublin, or two hours using a public bus in rush hour. As we arrived in Drogheda the groom and I’s mutual friend, and my Wales football companion Peter picked us up to take us to our digs for the night in a place called Donore.

Waiting for us was a collection at Daly’s Inn, a sweet independent pub/hotel, was a bunch of friends who caught the ferry over from Newport that day and we enjoyed a good knees up, but too much food put me in a coma with little room left for cider late in to the night. I dare say the pint before said food in amongst the annual pheasant shooting presentation was enough to turn me vegetarian as I’m writing this in 2020!

Day Five – The Reason

Wedding Day. It’s not my place to commentate on my mates wedding day but what an incredible day it was. Having started on the beer at midday and ending up lobbing 45 euro to one-too-many rum and coke well after midnight, you can tell it was an absolute banger.

The bride and groom have okayed this picture so I can show how lush they are. And you haven’t yet met the groom’s Mum!

To see so many of my friends, so many of my mates (the groom’s) friends, in one place, in a foreign country was such an incredible occasion.

Day Six – Back Across the Irish Sea

Final day! I expected nothing less than to sleep in during breakfast prior to be dropped back in to Drogheda to catch a coach back to the airport. More tired than hungover, we meandered the airport and drove back home, just in time for a kip before work the next morning! Not much more to say to be honest!

Having been to Ireland 3 times in 3 years, and in no real rush to revisit Northern Ireland, it was so pleasing to have SUCH a good trip, with Mikayla accompanying me this time, and one that’ll live long in the memory. To Jack and Eimear! X