Alone in Ireland: Discovering Galway, Doolin, and Belfast

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So much art in Ireland. Even in the hostels.

I have a real fear of buses. Not of riding them, just of figuring them out. Bus schedules are nightmare inducing. Luckily, the bus from Dublin to Galway is common knowledge and I was able to find and board it without difficulty.

I knew the worst part about the lack of trains in Ireland would be the bathroom situation. Over two hours on a bus and I was bursting by the time I got to Galway. There was an “emergency” toilet on the bus, and I’d rather have peed in my pants than made a spectacle of myself by using it.

Luckily, I’m staying right across from the bus stop, so a bathroom isn’t far away. Bunk Boutique Hostel is the most expensive place I booked for this trip. No one else would let me book only one night on a weekend. I like this place already. The walls are all crisp and white and I kind of feel like I’m in a hospital that was converted into a hipster’s art studio. The best part of all: I have a single bed! Not a bunk bed, an actual normal bed on the ground with no bed on top of it. In addition to this, there’s a triple bunk bed in the room as well. I feel sorry for the poor girl that’ll have to climb to the top of that.

I attempt to take a shower, but the shower head only has one setting: “spray you in the face mercilessly for fifteen seconds and then shut off”. I give up and get dressed. The best part about hostels is there are no towels unless you rent them, so I stuff my freezing and wet body into my clothes after pathetically using my underwear to dry off. The weather’s turned very cold, so I layer my two tank tops and two shirts and end up looking bulkier than a stuffed bear. I look in a mirror and sigh. This is as good as it gets. I hang my underwear on my locker to dry and head out to explore Galway.

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Some lovely faces found in Galway.

When my mom and I came here on our famous trip, we loved the artsy vibe of the city. Years later, it still seems like a progressive place, with rainbow flags lining the main pedestrian street. I poke my head in the shops and even consider buying a scarf or a hat to combat the cold. But I decide it’s my own fault and I should have listened to Mischi, so I’ll suffer in silence.

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Out on the street I stop to watch a band that’s drawing a large crowd. I tell myself I won’t stay long, but before I know it I’ve been hypnotized and I take a seat against a shop’s wall. I think they’re singing mostly in Italian. The music is upbeat, the kind I’d dance to if I could dance. I see they have CDs for ten euros and I pick one up, justifying it because it’s flat and can fit in my backpack and it’s not a bad price for such good music. The CD tells me the band’s called Bianco Sporco, whatever that means.

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Bianco Sporco.

The frontman sings the words, “I haven’t seen you smile in so long” and makes eye contact with me for a few seconds. I find myself smiling like a child who’s just been told she’s pretty by a grown up. I could stay here all night, I think. But all too soon, the band finishes their set. I know I need to find a good spot for dinner (preferably not McDonald’s, although I gratefully use their bathroom).

I end up in a pub near my hostel where I have beef stew and a Bailey’s coffee. I distinctly recall warning myself to never drink one of those again after what happened in Scotland, but hey, I’m in Ireland and that means I’m invincible.

When I get back to the hostel, the woman at the front desk stops me and asks, “Do you wear boxers?”

“Um, what?”

“The other girls in your room checked in and they said there are boxers hanging up, and they’re worried there was a boy in there.”

“What…oh yeah I have boxers with the British flag on them. I just hung them up to dry.” The woman looks relieved. I try to hide my embarrassment when I get back to the room. My three Japanese bunkmates all make apologetic sounds as I try to explain the confusion. This is what I get for finding boy’s underwear more comfortable.

I decide that the girls are more embarrassed than I am, after all they made a fuss when there was nothing to worry about. I attempt to keep from laughing while I spread out my maps and bus timetables, planning for tomorrow.

***

I have a few hours this morning before I have to head to the Cliffs of Moher. I wander back to the pedestrian street. Remarkably, the same market my mom and I loved nine years ago is still here. It’s a lot smaller than I remember. But I find the woman my mom bought a necklace from, still selling her beautiful jewelry. She tells me she’s been doing this for twenty years. I think it’s fantastic. I wish I could find something I loved enough to stick with for that long.

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The craft market.

Another vendor is selling those necklaces where they twist thin pieces of metal into names. I look at the ones they’ve already made, and amongst many other traditional Irish names, I find “Saoirse”. I’m thrilled; this is the first time I’ve seen my name on anything. It’s cheap, so I buy it and walk away with a smile.

The rest of the morning, I walk to the different points of interest the woman at the hostel circled on my map. I want to enjoy myself, but the aimlessness is really getting to me. It’s starting to feel like isolation. I have no one to talk to. For a fleeting moment, I wish I wasn’t alone.

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Feeling more Irish than ever.

While I’m buying my ticket to the Cliffs of Moher, an employee at the bus station assists me at the machine. He’s an older man, maybe mid-fifties, with a delightfully incoherent Irish accent. We get to talking, and I feel much less lonely. 

“I can tell you’re one of us,” he says. I know he means Irish. “It’s your hair and your eyes.”

“Well I do have a bit of Irish in me, I’m sure.”

“Does that make you proud?” he asks.

“Of course,” I say. And it’s true. It really does.

He smiles. “You look like Saoirse Ronan. Might be her long lost twin sister,” he says. “You should move to the west coast of Ireland! It’s the best part of the country.” I laugh, appreciating the lightness of the conversation. When my bus arrives, I’m sorry to say goodbye to the man. I’m filled with a warmth which reminds me how happy I am to be in Ireland, a place where the people are friendly and everyone knows how to say my name.

***

The Cliffs of Moher haven’t changed since the last time I saw them. But I think my perspective has. In nine years, I’ve done a lot of traveling, seen some really incredible places. And I’m sad to find that this place I once thought had the most spectacular view in the world is much smaller and tamer than I remember. This doesn’t make the cliffs any less majestic, it just means I’m jaded.

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The Cliffs of Moher.

It really is a beautiful place, this gem of County Clare. The green cliffs form an imposing outline against the blue sky and grey sea. The only downside to the lovely view are the hordes of tourists all packed along the walls, trying to get a good look. It kills me to see gorgeous place that should be so peaceful taken over by shrieking kids and shouting families, teenagers making crude jokes and taking silly pictures.

I try not to let it get to me. I walk along the edge of the cliffs, to the part where there’s no wall and plenty of warning signs telling people not to go near the edge due to the possibility of the ground crumbling, dropping you onto the rocks below and killing you violently. I take my chances. I guess losing almost everything has made me more of a daredevil.

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The cliffs do not crumble and kill me, which I find a tad anticlimactic. It’s starting to rain so I hurry back to the visitor’s center and devour lasagna and cheesecake while waiting for the next bus to Doolin.

I feel like absolute shit by the time the “Paddy Wagon” arrives. For some reason, the contents of my stomach want out and I’m extremely dizzy. Because I like to catastrophize, I imagine this will mean I’ll have to go to an Irish hospital and possibly die there. But another anticlimax occurs when I feel much better by the time I reach Aille River Hostel.

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Aille River Hostel in Doolin.

I’m thrilled to find I have another single bed. I stay and talk to my bunkmate, Maddie, for a while. She’s from Seattle and she’s been backpacking since June. I feel rather foolish to have considered myself a backpacker just for making this tiny trip. Her pack is massive. She’s been traveling with no plan, just ending up wherever the wind takes her. I wonder if I’ll ever be that adventurous.

I ask the woman at the front desk if she knows anywhere I can hear traditional music and have a good meal. Apparently Doolin is considered the traditional music capital of Ireland, which is hard to believe with its tiny population of only five hundred people. For such a small village, it’s made quite a name for itself.

I brave the rain to walk to Gus O’Connor’s, one of the woman’s recommendations. It’s absolutely packed and my first instinct is to turn right around and head back into the rain, defeated. Instead I think suck it up, bitch (I like to heavily insult myself as a way to get motivated) and hold my head high as I walk through the pub. Then I desperately lurk at the crowded bar until a bartender says he’ll find me a table.

“You’re alone, are you?” he asks. I nod. “Its Ireland, you’ll make friends,” he says, smiling. “I’m Sean.” He reaches for my hand.

“Saoirse,” I say.

“Saoirse,” he repeats. It sounds right in his Irish mouth.

I sit down, peel off my wet top layer, and gorge myself on the most delicious seafood chowder I’ve ever had, a plate of garlic bread, a berry tart, and a half pint of Guinness. I try valiantly to eat it all, but I don’t think I’ve ever been this full before and I’m legitimately afraid my stomach will rupture. I forfeit, leaving a few bites of the tart on the plate and hating myself because it’s so tasty and deserves to be eaten.

I can hear the live music coming from the other room. When I finish eating, I stand by the bar and watch the band, mesmerized. The man singing has one leg, which I don’t notice until he’s done a few songs and shifts his weight on his cane. The musicians sit around a table in a booth. The bar looks full to capacity, crowded with smiling faces, resonating with the voices of everyone singing along to old Irish folk songs. I’m not surprised by the tears in my eyes. The singer’s voice takes me away until I’m lost in a dream about a life I might have had if I’d been born in Ireland a hundred years ago.

The spell is broken when the band finally takes a break. I go to the bathroom where I consider forcing myself to vomit just to stop the bulging pain in my stomach. Of course I can’t bring myself to do it, so I decide to leave, knowing a bed is the only cure for this.

Outside, I find myself in a category five hurricane. I can’t keep my umbrella open against the force of the wind. There’s no sidewalk and I realize how dangerous it is to be walking along the road in the dark. But I have no choice.

Out of the darkness, a car pulls up next to me. I can’t see the driver’s face over the glare of the headlights, but he asks if I need a ride. Apparently, I left my good judgement in England because I get in the car.

To my surprise, it’s Sean the bartender. “Thank you,” I say. “I’m just at the Aille River Hostel up the road.”

Sean laughs. “You can’t be going to bed this early, can you?”

“I’m going to Belfast in the morning,” I say.

He touches my leg and asks, “Did you get very wet in the rain?” I’m suddenly realizing what’s going on here. He wants me to go home with him. I can’t do it. But he’s Irish! I’ve always had a thing for Irish guys! Don’t do it.

I wouldn’t be much fun anyway with my stomach exploding. I’m afraid he might just drive past the hostel and kidnap me, but like a proper gentleman he pulls up right near the door to let me out. I try to get out of the car before he’s even parked because I know if I don’t do this quick, I’ll change my mind. I say thank you again and shut the car door behind me.

Had I been so inclined, I could have easily slept with an Irish guy tonight. Or I could have been murdered by one. Either way, a missed opportunity. But I’m still smiling. Before I go to bed, I vow to myself that one day when I have my head on straight, I’ll hop on the first plane back to Ireland to find Sean in Doolin.

***

I’m fully aware of how ridiculous I made this itinerary. I went from Dublin to Galway to Doolin, and back to Galway to get the bus to Dublin again. In Dublin, I caught a bus to Belfast. Today I’ve been on buses for over seven hours. But I’ve made it to Northern Ireland, a country I’ve never seen before, and I’m quite pleased about it.

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Always driving dangerously close to the edge.

The employee at Belfast International Youth Hostel recommended I go to West Belfast to check out the murals, so that’s what I’m doing. As soon as I got off the bus in this city, I felt something very different in the air. This is not a city that lives on tourism. This is a city that does its own thing, goes about its business, and doesn’t seem to care at all about entertaining visitors. I loved it immediately.

There’s a gritty, raw aura in Belfast. It reminds me strongly of an old movie set, like one that was used to film something set in the 1940s and then abandoned soon after. The streets here are nearly empty, a huge contrast to tourist-ridden Dublin.

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Perhaps because there aren’t as many people around, I feel less safe here than I have in most other cities. But that’s what makes it feel so real. My map leads me deep into a residential neighborhood, where I find entire buildings covered in beautiful murals, almost all of them with strong political messages. I’m deeply touched when I see that someone has painted the word “Orlando”, with the first O as a heart filled with a rainbow, and the last O as a peace sign. Underneath it they’ve written the date of the Pulse nightclub massacre, June 12th, 2016. I remember the fear when I heard about the shooting. It happened in the city where I worked, at a club where people I knew liked to go. Looking at this wall, I feel a sense of connection with the rest of the world. Someone all the way in Belfast cared enough about what happened in my home state to leave this homage here.

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As I continue to walk down the street, I see murals on almost every wall. The closer I get to the peace lines, or walls, that separate Protestant from Catholic neighborhoods, the more tension I feel from the murals. It’s hard to believe that these two groups of people still have trouble getting along, but it clearly remains a very real problem here in Northern Ireland, where some (Catholic nationalists) identify as Irish and others (Protestant unionists) identify as British. I don’t remember ever learning about Ireland’s issues in school, and I’m disappointed by this. Why does American education not focus more on the world outside our own country?

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A handwritten sign catches my eyes, and I’m excited to see my name on it. It says, “Cothaigh meon na saoirse. Nurture the spirit of freedom.” I know that my name has political connotations in Ireland because of its meaning of “freedom”. But I didn’t expect to see it on a wall. I turn around and see another mural with my name high up at the top, proud and beautiful. I try to take a picture with it and a boy driving down the street shouts, “Selfie!” from the window, a harsh reminder that some people don’t think about Ireland’s struggles or the meaning of freedom; they pass their time heckling people on the street.

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The heckling doesn’t stop as I walk briskly back to central Belfast, the sun setting a little too quickly. Teenage boys hoot and holler at me on the sidewalk. What are you meant to do in this situation? I keep my eyes down, thinking of how strange it is that I just have to pretend I can’t hear them. What makes this acceptable?

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I try to find a pub I heard about, but my phone tells me to go down all kinds of sneaky alleys, some of which have no outlet. Clearly the iPhone is not equipped to deal with Belfast’s complicated streets. Either that, or it’s trying to get me killed. When I finally reach the pub with my life intact, they tell me they don’t serve food at night. The band also won’t be starting for another hour. Dejected, I drink a lemonade and move on, stopping at Nando’s, a chain chicken joint for a lonely dinner. I text a friend and can tell he’d rather not talk. I will never understand boys. Or pubs with no food. Or anything, for that matter.

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***

Apparently, people in Belfast don’t come out until after dark. They might be vampires. The once empty streets filled with revelers by the time I got back to the hostel. Now, it’s well past midnight and these people think it’s acceptable to carry on loudly partying outside my window. I was the only one in my four-bed room for the longest time. But after I shut off the lights, a young man came in and excitedly called me out of a half-sleep to shake my hand. I’m not sure if it’s normal to shake someone’s hand when they’re clearly in bed with the lights off, but I guess anything goes in this city.

After some friendly conversation in which I fail to make it clear that my horizontal position and the lack of light means I’m trying to sleep, my roommate finally retires to his own bed. In addition to the screeching partiers outside, I now find it difficult to fall asleep because I’m incredibly aware that I am alone in a room with a man I’ve never met. To my distress, another man joins us and now I’m sure I don’t stand a chance if they team up to kill me.

***

I’m still alive in the morning, so I guess they were just normal guys after all. This is the day I’ve been looking forward to most on this trip. I’m taking a bus tour to the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast. I’ve wanted to see this for so long, I can’t believe it’s finally happening.

I can’t find a good seat on the bus so I sit near the back, moping about the lack of a decent view. Then the tour guide, Troy, asks if anyone is alone. I raise my hand. To my delight, he says, “I’ve got a special spot for you up here. You’ll be my co-worker for the day.” I hustle happily to the front of the bus, where I take my seat right next to Troy, who’s driving. I have the perfect view out of the massive windshield. I’m ready for this adventure.

“Where are you from?” Troy asks.

“Florida.”

“Ah, I’ve got a good story about a lady from Florida, just wait.” His accent is so strong I can hardly understand him, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

***

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Cows crossing!

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Before the Causeway, we stop at Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The bridge stretches from the mainland to a tiny island, with a hundred foot drop to the rocks and crashing waters below if you’re stupid enough to topple over the side. I had hoped it would be rickety and fantastically dangerous, but the bridge is very sturdy and I can’t help feeling disappointed as I shuffle along behind a large group of tourists. They should take down the safety hand rails and net, let only the recklessly brave cross the bridge! But to be honest, if there were no hand rails I wouldn’t be doing it, so I’d settle for a toothless old man giving the bridge a good shake every now and then just to keep us on our toes.

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The view from Carrickarede island is without a doubt worth the short trip across the bridge. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen water so spectacularly aqua before. I look back to the mainland. The crumpled hills terminate in stunning cliffs jutting out of the water. I frolic (this is actually the only word to describe it) around the small island, feeling like a child discovering a new playground. I could stay here for weeks. I resent having to return to the bus.

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My disappointment in leaving Carrickarede vanishes when I see the Giant’s Causeway. The pictures I’ve seen didn’t do it justice. It’s made of nearly 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. Most of the columns are hexagons. It’s baffling to think that this place, which looks like it was created by an obsessive compulsive geometry lover, is not man-made. It’s visually perfect. The columns stack higher and higher, forming stepping stones. I can’t believe that we’re allowed to climb all over this glorious wonderland.

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Have you ever seen such lovely basalt columns?

I’m so exhilarated, I don’t know what to do with myself. I scramble around on the rocks, shaking my head in wonder every few feet. This right here is what life’s all about, I think. This has got to be it. I don’t know what I mean by that, but I’m sure it’s true.

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I ask a reluctant man to take my picture at the top of a tall stack of columns. In my attempt to rush to the top and not inconvenience the man for too long, I lose my footing and completely bust ass, scraping up my palm pretty bad. I keep smiling, monumentally embarrassed. When it’s over, I fairly run away from the spot so no one can point and laugh.

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The famous picture taken right after I busted ass on the rocks.

I hate to leave this place, but Troy was serious about making it back to the bus at the correct time. I jog all the way to a gift shop and buy an ice cream cone, because I’m insane and I have no concept of priorities. I expertly use the restroom while holding the cone in one hand. I’ve nearly devoured the whole thing once I reach the bus, panting.

“Just in time, Florida,” Troy says.

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The best part about being in a bus on the Irish coast is the constant nagging feeling that you’re going to die horribly. The ride from Doolin to Galway was no different. This country was simply not built for buses, or cars for that matter. When you first look at the roads, you think surely they’re all one ways. But no, Irish people like to perilously cram two vehicles moving in opposite directions on roads hardly wide enough for a horse and carriage. It’s especially exciting when two tour buses try to pass each other. You look out the window and know that the only thing keeping you from toppling over the edge of the cliff is the skill of your driver, a person you’ve never met and who may be criminally insane.

Luckily, Troy knows what he’s doing. I’m sad to leave him at the end of the day. He really made me feel like I was part of something, his true co-worker. I’m happier than I’ve been in days and I wonder if it has something to do with being around people.

***

I’ve been on this kick of stuffing my face whenever I get the opportunity. So after dashing all around Belfast looking for a working ATM, I had dinner at a cash only place called Maggie May’s. I didn’t come close to finishing my food, so I brought it back to the hostel and awkwardly left it in the community fridge with a note saying, “PLEASE EAT.”

I was relieved to find that the boys in my room had left and been replaced by two girls who’d been on my tour. I slept much better on my second night in Belfast, and I even managed to find the correct bus to the ferry port this morning.

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Didn’t have time to visit the Titanic museum, but here’s a lovely memorial.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Belfast, and I think it’s because no one was trying to make me enjoy it. It’s the first big city I’ve been to that didn’t feel like a trap to get my money. I know I’ll be back one day. But now I have to get to Liverpool, and there’s nothing standing between me and eight hours of stomach pain on the rolling Irish Sea. Bring it on.

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