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Dublin | Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland — Belfast / Magherafelt

After spending a few days exploring Dublin and its coast, we rented a car and drove up to Northern Ireland for Easter. We pulled into the driveway in the small town of Magherafelt, and were greeted at the door by not only by our friends, but by their mothers too! It was like coming home, and we just about melted into their open arms.

We stayed with Brian Kerr and his fiancé Lynne. Brian is an old college rugby teammate of Jon Kennedy (he's a hulking man with a heart of gold), and we've had the pleasure of his company in the states during some very memorable visits over the years. For the next week, Brian and Lynne and their family were our gracious hosts.

Brian Went a Courtin' and We Did Ride…Fast.

Magherafelt is a small town in the countryside outside of Belfast. Brian, a bit of a car nut and a fantastically fast driver, gave us the driving tour. He raced down the narrow, stone-walled lanes of the countryside pointing out his favorite "courtin' spots" in the fields of his youth, while we gripped the car door handles. We drove up the coast to see geological attractions like the Giant's Causeway, and more must-see cultural stops like the Bushmills distillery and various cozy pubs in Brian and Lynne's hometowns. Jon Kennedy and Helen appeared one night and there was a lively reunion.

Easter at Rosie's

We have been tremendously lucky on this trip to be able to spend our holidays away from home with the most gracious families, who made us feel like family. We were just as blessed to spend Easter in Magherafelt. Brian's mother Rosie invited us to join the family for dinner. It was a glorious feast that could very well displace Will's beloved Thanksgiving for meal-of-the-year honors. But, amazing food aside, the real joy was to feel so much like you're among family that you're at ease enough to stretch out on the sitting room floor and listen happily to the stories being tossed around the room (including everyone's attempts to get Brian's two-year-old niece to say "schauschages" one more time).

Belfast — Titanic and The Troubles

Belfast is a fascinating contrast of past, present and uncertain future.

Belfast's sprawling shipyards are all but closed. These are the yards that built the Titanic, a fact that the Belfast celebrates with a "The Titanic was Built in Belfast" festival, which we attended at City Hall. For those diehard Titanic fans, the main staircase in Titanic is an exact reproduction of the stairs in Belfast City Hall.

Parliament is as eerily quiet as the shipyards. The gleaming white building sits empty atop Stormont, the hill overlooking Belfast, like a ship abandoned by the tide. The successes of the peace accords of 1998 had again given way to political infighting and parliament was declared suspended for the fourth time since it's creation in 1999. It is a delicate peace. The guards there allowed us in for a look around and, like the shipyards, the empty chambers and halls of parliament echoed with tragic history and questionable outlook.

Our last, and most striking, stop in Belfast was a driving tour of the Troubles. Brian drove us along the "Peace Line," a wall of steel, wood and barbed wire that divides Shankill and Falls Road, the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of West Belfast. We never truly felt unsafe anywhere in Northern Ireland, but as you pass the endless murals depicting the Troubles past, you find yourself a bit reluctant to stand out in West Belfast. So our camera stayed in its case while we passed along the striking sights of the peace line and the haunting mural-covered walls.

But aside from history, Belfast clearly has a vibrant present. New restaurants, bars and movieplexes are beginning to dot the waterfront. Downtown is vibrant. It is clear that Belfast is going somewhere, but it's only a question of how often it will stall along the way.

After a week up north, we reluctantly left Brian, Lynne, and Magherafelt and headed back to Dublin by way of Donegal. Brain and Lynne sent us on our way with our bellies (and our arteries) full of our first ulster fry — fried eggs, beans, ham, toast, mushrooms, and tomatoes — a veritable heart attack on a plate served by Lynne the cardiology nurse, no less!

Donegal, in the Northwest of Ireland, was the most beautiful stop of our Ireland tour. It is the Ireland you see in movies and read about; Striking vales of hillside sheep paddocks and thatched cottages; green pastures rolling into the sea. It was incredibly picturesque and deserved a longer stay, but we had a plane to catch back in Dublin. So with promises of a return to Donegal, we headed back to Dublin, had one last Guinness with Jon Kennedy, and flew to London.

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