Happy Saturday from Derry!

This morning we left Belfast and headed for the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (Irish name: Carraig a’ Ráid, translating to “rock of the casting”),   which was about an hour and fifteen minutes away. The original bridge was built several hundred years ago by salmon fisherman, who needed a way from the mainland to the Carrickarede Island to cast their fishing nets. The current bridge was built in 2008, is 20 metres (66 feet long), and stands 30 metres (98 feet) high over the water.

Carrick-a-Rede is part of the National Trust, a charity whose goal is to protect and preserve historic places in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and as such, we had to each pay a few pounds to cross the bridge. You actually have to park some distance away from the bridge, but the 1 km walk has some gorgeous views of the coast and the ocean.

View from Carrick-a-Rede

We also walked past grassy fields with sunny yellow wildflowers, and “Oreo” cows, which Lee loves, and are nick-named because of their black bodies with a thick white stripe in the middle. Walking across the bridge was exhilarating, and I actually wished it was much longer! Laura Douglass captured this photo of me with a huge, goofy grin on my face while crossing the bridge over to the island:

Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge!

Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge!

As you can see, the bridge is sturdy and is perfectly safe. I can understand someone hesitating from crossing if they are afraid of heights, and we heard that apparently some people make it over to the island, but are too afraid to walk back for whatever reason, and have to be taken off the island by boat. Dramatic! It was a bit cloudy and overcast this morning, but the views were spectacular, the seabirds noisy, the fresh air invigorating, and the entire experience inspiring.


On the walk back from the island to the mainland, I snapped a cool picture from the bridge:

View from the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Don’t look down!

Once we left Carrick-a-Rede, which is in County Antrim, we headed towards Giant’s Causeway, a short 20 minute drive. Lee first took us to a pub for lunch, where I had a fantastic Steak and Guinness pie, which is essentially a puff pastry filled with beef and vegetables and cooked in Guinness. Yum! On the drive, Lee told us the legend behind Giant’s Causeway, and the tale of the Irish giant named Fionn and the Scottish giant Benandonner. The story goes something like this: Benandonner challenged Fionn to a fight, which Fionn accepted. Fionn then built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet one another. But, once Fionn realized that Benandonner was much bigger than he was, he hid. Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, disguised him as a baby and lay him in a cradle, so when Benandonner saw the size of the ‘baby’, he assumed that its father, Fionn, must be the largest giant of them all. Benandonner fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn could not follow.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

The less exciting reality is that the causeway was formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, and is composed of 40,000 basalt columns of solidified lava. These columns have essentially formed stepping stairs that allow visitors to climb and explore, dip their toes in the ocean or tide pools, and enjoy the views of the Northern Atlantic Ocean.

Hanging out at Giant's Causeway!

Hanging out at Giant’s Causeway!

I had a blast exploring the causeway, and even climbed up some of the taller columns that the others wouldn’t. I’ve always loved to climb – and being tall gives me a distinct climbing advantage!

We left the causeway after a few hours, and finished the drive to Derry, which took just over an hour. On the way, Lee, as always, had a bit of a history lesson for us – Fun Fact: A surefire way to distinguish whether or not someone is a Loyalist or a Nationalist is by what they call Derry. The Protestant Loyalists call the town “Londonderry,” while the Irish Nationalists simply call it “Derry.” Lee arranged for us to take a walking tour of Derry. Derry is similar to Belfast in many ways, and has experienced violence and strife from The Troubles. We saw more murals and heard more heart-breaking stories, but also learned a great deal about the past and present of the city.

Mural in Derry

Unsurprisingly, the English Protestants and the Irish Catholics are very opinionated about the current conflict in Gaza.

One of the most simple and yet affecting sights we saw was the monument dedicated to the victims of Bloody Sunday – where 14 protestors and onlookers were killed in Derry by the British Army on January 30, 1972 during a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march. You may have heard U2’s popular political protest song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,”  which details The Troubles, and the horrors of Bloody Sunday…

And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters 
Torn apart

Bloody Sunday Memorial - Derry

Bloody Sunday Memorial – Derry

We have had a long day traveling about Northern Ireland and walking around Carrick-a-Rede, Giant’s Causeway, and Derry… So Lee decided to take us all to a pub in Derry called The Ice Wharf. Our group had a great time, eating, drinking, and chatting; some of the group then walked to a bar down the street, but it was extremely cramped, so the girls and I went back to The Ice Wharf to hangout and enjoy a few ciders. A DJ was entertaining the crowd, and it was so much fun to relax like a local and enjoy Derry. There were many “Hen Parties” present, which is the equivalent of an American Bachelorette Party, and those girls were highly amusing! All in all, it’s been yet another great day in Northern Ireland.

I will leave you with this bit of awesome graffiti that I encountered on our walking tour around Derry this afternoon:

Ain't no thang like a chicken wing graffiti in Derry

Ain’t no thang like a chicken wing.

I’ll write from Dublin tomorrow night!

Wishing you all sweet dreams and chicken wings,






Hello from Northern Ireland!

This morning we woke up in Dublin, and I’m now in Belfast. Crazy.

I again thought today would be disastrous, when I woke up experiencing my second heart episode in three mornings. Fortunately, I think I was able to force mind over matter, and it quit just before our alarm clocks started blaring. We sleepily got dressed, re-packed, and stumbled downstairs for some toast and cereal. Breakfast of champs! Before long, we loaded up on our Mercedes-Benz tour bus (yes, you read that correctly- we are traveling in style), and started on our journey.

Our tour group is composed of people doing various tours – we are on the 3 day tour, but are tagging along with a group on a 6 day tour of both Ireland and Northern Ireland; others in our group are from Australia, Spain, and Canada, and the U.S., among other places. Paddywagon Tours is a huge Irish tour company, with a fleet of buses, and lodging all across Ireland and Northern Ireland; though the logistics of traveling from place to place and coordinating different tours is a bit confusing, it’s clear that this company is professional and well-run. Our tour guide’s name is Lee (actually Young Lee, as there is an older tour guide also named Lee), and he’s only 24 – he’s also adorable, a native Irishman, and very smart.

We made a pit-stop on our way from Dublin to Belfast at a place called Monasterboice. The Irish term is Mainistir Bhuithe, but Lee explained to us that many Irish names (i.e. Monasterboice) were actually coined by the English – when they invaded Ireland, they had great difficulty in understanding Gaelic, and so often phonetically re-named people, places, and most terms in general.

Monasterboice was a monastery that was founded by Saint Buithe in the 5th century AD. It is probably most famous for its high crosses, or Celtic crosses, which date back to the 10th century, as well as its round tower. The grounds were both haunting and serene, and the ornate crosses were so simple and yet grand.

Graves at Monasterboice

Gravestones at Monasterboice

Monasterboice was a nice unexpected stop for us, but soon we continued the trek to Belfast, which was about a 2 hour drive. Jessica and I both suffer from motion-sickness, so we took the British equivalent of Dramamine this morning; between that and the lull of the bus ride, we kept falling asleep, but I did try to absorb as much of the views of the countryside as possible. I also noticed that when we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, there was no border control – it was interesting to me, since the two technically are separate countries. And given the history (and current events) between the British and the Irish, one would think there may be even a slight concern, which would prompt some form of governmental control or regulation. Hmm…

On the drive, Lee also talked to us about The Troubles. “The Troubles” are what the English and Irish refer to as the conflicts in Northern Ireland between the Protestants – who wish for the country to remain part of the United Kingdom – and the Irish nationalists, who want to reunite with Ireland. These conflicts began back in the 1960’s, and were effectively ended in 1998 with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, though there are bouts of tension and violence even today. When I studied abroad in London in 2007, we were required to read Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life by John Conroy, and I was both horrified and fascinated by the book. Listening to Lee talk made me realize that I have never heard the conflict between the English and Irish detailed from the perspective of an Irish person, and I felt immense heartbreak for the people of Ireland, and anger towards the British. Little did I know what was still to come in Belfast…

Lee arranged for all us to take a Black Cab Taxi Tour of Belfast; as soon as we arrived on our bus, we hopped off, and were quickly led into traditional black taxi cabs. Then the taxi drivers shuttled us around Belfast and gave us a comprehensive and unbiased narrative of the past and present happenings in the city.

We learned that 97% of the housing areas in Belfast are either 100% Catholic (Irish) or 100% Protestant (English). 97%. That figure alone is mind-boggling to me. Many people think that the conflict in Northern Ireland is religious in nature due to the fact that the Irish Nationalists are Catholic while the Loyalists are Protestant , but in fact it is a political clash. In the later decades of the 1900’s, violence was prominent in Northern Ireland, stemming from the Irish Republican Army, the Ulster Defence Association, and the British government and army. According to Wikipedia, 3,526 people were killed between 1969 and 2001 in Northern Ireland primarily due to bombings, murders, and hunger strikes, such as the one led by Bobby Sands. And there are still isolated incidences of violence even today.

The taxi drivers first took us into the Shankill area, a staunch Protestant section of Belfast. There we were told that the City Centre, or the business district, where we had been picked up, was considered the “neutral zone” of Belfast – in other words, every day, Protestants and Catholics alike work together in the City Centre, then head home in opposite directions. They cannot live together. Their children must attend separate schools. There is zero trust between these two groups of people, and the tension in Belfast is thick and palpable because of it. Though both Lee and the taxi drivers insisted that Belfast residents are as friendly as can be (except to each other), I couldn’t help but feel highly conspicuous and intrusive as we walked around the Shankill neighborhood.

My whole experience in Belfast is a bit surreal, and quite difficult to describe. Flying from every house and every flagpole in Shankill is the Union Jack flag, and the message is clear – we are staunch Loyalists, and we serve the British crown. At the end of every large building in the neighborhood are gigantic painted murals – many send serious political messages, while others detail either Protestant or Irish history, such as the Red Hand of Ulster, or a portrait of William of Orange. One mural in particular stood out to me and gave me chills:

Mural in Belfast


Nothing about us without us is for us…

The drivers then took us towards the Catholic area of Belfast, where we suddenly happened upon a wall and security gates; at night, the gates are locked, which separates the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. The wall was seemingly endless, several stories high, and both utterly terrifying and gut-wrenching. Though it’s called the “Peace Wall,” it feels anything but, and the idea of peace seems unattainable here. The one glimmer of hope is that people from all over the world write messages of love and wishes for peace for those in Northern Ireland. It’s a powerful statement, and one that brought me to tears. Messages such as “You’re all proud Irish – be One again,” “Give peace a chance,” and “We don’t understand” line the beautifully painted and graffitied wall.

Peace Wall - Belfast

Here are some facts from Wikipedia that I have to share:

– There were 18 peace walls throughout Northern Ireland in the 1990’s – today, there are 48.

– A study was released in 2012 revealing that 69% of Belfast residents believe the peace walls are still necessary because of the potential of violence

Just let the gravity of those numbers sink in for a moment.

My taxi cab driver explained that many call the Peace Wall the “Belfast Berlin Wall,” but the difference is that the people of Germany wanted their wall torn down… the people of Northern Ireland want their walls to remain. The conflict is still too fresh, too current, and still too much of a looming threat, like storm clouds in the distance, to warrant the removal of these 25 foot high walls or to unlock the security gates at night. Our driver explained to us that police only patrol the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Patrol, not control… because that is still done by terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army.

How can a girl who was born and raised in the United States in the late 20th century even begin to comprehend the daily life of the people of Belfast? My brief time here has felt like I was in the eye of a hurricane, and it is very unsettling. Granted, I have also felt completely safe, but my sense of security is uneasy, as though the tension may boil over at any moment like an unwatched pot on a hot stove. Imagine living that way every day.

Our tour around Belfast was intense, informative, affecting, and eye-opening. By the time we finished, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted, but we still had time to explore more of the city.

The girls and I walked around the Victoria Square Shopping Centre and ate lunch at a place called O’Briens, which is a bit like a fancy Irish Subway. The mall has a domed ceiling, which looks out over a fantastic view of Belfast, similar to the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse back in Dublin. At the recommendation of Lee, we then walked to the Botanic Gardens of Belfast, passing the Queen’s University on the way. The Botanic Gardens reminded me a lot of Kew Gardens, and were so enjoyable to walk around.

Botanic Gardens - Belfast

Botanic Gardens

Lee arranged for our group to eat at a place called Ryan’s (my little brother’s name – miss you, buddy!), where I ate some delicious chicken tempura and had the chance to chat with our new friends from the States and Australia. We were all tired after our long day of traveling and touring, so everyone returned to the hostel to relax. The Belfast hostel is the Ritz compared to our Dublin one – even though we’re staying in a larger co-ed room, I am so, so happy and relieved to take a normal shower. So far this trip has been great craic (fun!), as Lee would say.

Tomorrow we are traveling from Belfast to Derry and stopping at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and Giant’s Causeway. But tonight I will pause and reflect on everything I have learned today.

Wishing for peace everywhere,


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To the Motherland!

Hello from IRELAND, everyone!

This morning Laura Douglass, Jessica, and I made the trek from Edinburgh to Dublin, Ireland. Though I was sad to be leaving Edinburgh, I am THRILLED BEYOND WORDS to be in Ireland – you see, I am Irish (on both sides of my family), and it’s always been a dream of mine to travel here.

Our flight left at 8:05 am from the Edinburgh Airport, about a 30 minute taxi ride from our dorms at the University of Edinburgh; just to be safe, we left the dorms a little before 6 am – Jade even rode with us because she was picking up Chris, her husband, from the airport not too long after our flight left. We were exhausted from waking up so early, but fortunately everything was fairly uneventful at the airport. We flew on Ryanair, and the plane ride lasted just over an hour. Before I knew it, we were landing in Dublin!

My first view of Ireland!

My first view of Ireland!

The girls and I will be taking a tour of Northern Ireland through Paddywagon Tours, which is headquartered in Dublin. Tonight we’re actually staying in their hostel, so that all we’ll have to do is run downstairs when it’s time for our bus to leave in the morning. And, the tour company is nice enough to provide free transportation to and from the airport – which we fully intended on taking advantage of. However, once our flight landed, we obviously had to pass through Immigration (I now have a beautiful green stamp in my passport!), and by the time we did that, we had missed the Paddywagon shuttle. So, our two options were to either wait for a few hours for the next shuttle, or find our own way to the hostel – being the resourceful gals that we are, we hopped on the Airlink bus, which took us fairly close by our destination. It was too early to check-in, but we were allowed to leave our luggage, so we set off to explore Dublin!

Our first stop was to Trinity College, to visit their library and the Book of Kells. The college was founded back in 1592, under a charter of Queen Elizabeth I. You may remember me telling you before that Trinity College’s Library is one of the 6 legal deposit libraries in the UK and Ireland; because of this, the library has a sizable collection of approximately 3 million books stored in its eight storage facilities. I was very anxious to get to the Long Room – this room is 65 metres in length, and holds 200,000 of the oldest and rarest books in the library. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the Trinity College Library, it’s probably been of the Long Room. Visiting here has been on my bucket list for years – any time you see an article about the “best” and most “beautiful” libraries around the world, Trinity College always makes the list… like in this article from Architectural Digest: The Most Spectacular Libraries Around the World. This is why…

Long Room - Trinity College Library, Dublin

Long Room – Trinity College Library

Everything about the room is breathtaking – the high vaulted ceilings, the dark wood, the floor to ceiling book shelves… I could go on and on. It was probably without a doubt, the most beautiful library I’ve ever been in, and likely one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve seen,

Shelving - Trinity College Library

Shelving – Trinity College Library

period. I wanted to research in that room, sleep there, and stay forever! But I had to much look forward to at the Book of Kells exhibit.

The book is a manuscript written in Latin circa 800 AD, and was likely created by the monks of Iona on the western coast of Scotland. It contains the four Gospels of the New Testament, along with various other texts, and is lavishly and colorfully decorated and illustrated. Fun Fact: the book is based on the Latin Vulgate (a 4th century Latin translation of the Bible), which was translated by St. Jerome, who is the patron saint of libraries!

Understandably, no pictures could be taken in the exhibit, but I highly encourage you to visit Trinity College’s Digital Collections, where you can view and explore the entire book online. The vivid colors and illustrations alone are worth seeing, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to look at this historical treasure in person.

Here’s another Fun Fact about Dublin: nearly all signage is written in both English and Irish Gaelic (at the airport, street signs, etc.). Outside of Trinity, we discovered that the Gaelic word for library is “Leabharlann.” How cool!?

Leabharlann sign- Trinity College


After we thoroughly explored Trinity, we decided to walk to the Guinness Storehouse, which was a decent distance away. It was nice to have a chance to explore Dublin and take it all in – I have to say though, that it wasn’t initially what I expected. (And I’m not sure what my expectations were exactly). It’s hard to explain, but Dublin reminds me of London in many ways, though the city as a whole kind of has a darker vibe; the people are different, and the clothing styles/fashion/hair styles I saw seemed a little more “punk” than London, if you will. All in all, I feel like Dublin is much more raw and gritty than London could ever be. It was a bit disconcerting at first, but the more I walked around and processed the people and sights around me, the more that it struck me how UNsurprised I was at the atmosphere in Dublin. The Irish people have a pretty dark and raw history, and somehow the way Dublin made me feel seemed completely fitting. Dublin has that historical sense of London mixed with an underlying current of emotions (a sense of tension, perhaps?). I’m not sure, but all at once, I felt immense pride at being Irish.

Just when I felt that I could walk no further, I spied with my green eyes – the St. James’s Gate entrance to the Guinness brewery!

St. James Gate - Guinness Brewery

Once inside the Storehouse, which is 7 stories tall, you’re exposed to the fascinating world and history of Guinness! Fun Fact: The 9,000(!) year lease to the original brewery site is on display, which was signed by Arthur Guinness in 1759. The Storehouse building was a fermentation house when it opened back in 1904, so visitors have the chance to learn about the Guinness brewing process. Guinness is composed of 4 main ingredients – water, barley, hops, and yeast, and the Guinness Master Brewer guides you through step-by-step. Next, we had the chance to do the “Taste Experience,” where we were given a small glass of Guinness and taught a “new” way to drink it, which really brings out the various flavors. I am all about a taste test… particularly when Guinness is involved!

Other floors allowed you to look at the Guinness brand or learn how perfectly pour a Guinness Draught, Original, Foreign Extra Stout, or Black Lager. But I probably enjoyed the Gravity Bar the most, which was on the 7th level, and yielded an amazing 360 degree view of Dublin.

View from the Gravity Bar - Guinness Storehouse


Included in the admission price of your ticket is a free pint of Guinness, which people were happily enjoying in the Gravity Bar. It

Guinness at the Gravity Bar

A pint of Guinness in the Gravity Bar made me a happy Irish girl!

was crowded, but we eventually had the chance to sit, relax, and gaze out over the city. After a long day of traveling and walking, we were all pretty tired, so we decided to call it a day. We walked back to our hostel, Paddy’s Palace, and stopped to eat at Bobo’s Gourmet Irish Burgers on the way.

Now, I suppose I have to talk about our hostel experience! I have never stayed in a hostel, so that was one of the things I was most excited/nervous about on this entire study abroad trip. And granted, I have no basis of comparison, but let me just politely say that Paddy’s Palace in Dublin is not the ideal place to crash for a night…

It IS only 13 Euros per person, so that’s a plus, but doesn’t have much else going for it. The girls and I are staying in a 6 person room with 3 other women, which isn’t so bad; but there’s obviously no bathroom in the room. I decided to take a shower before we leave for Belfast in the morning, so I wandered down the hall to the bathroom. There, I quickly learned that the shower uses a push button(?!) – when you press the button, water pours out for about 3 seconds and then stops. So you push. And push. And push. And every time you push, the water gets hotter and hotter. By the end, I was exhausted and also convinced I was suffering from 3rd degree burns. Not a pleasant experience. I am fully on board with the idea of conserving water, but this seems a little extreme! Hey, it’s all in the name of adventure, right? Chalk it up to another life-experience, as my Mom would say. 

Hopefully I’ll be able to relax on my bunk-bed in this stifling hot room, and get some sleep before our journey begins in the morning!

Wish us luck (ha ha, get it?). But really, please do.