• Judson Blane

A Pedacito of My Journey to Belfast and Dublin, Ireland

Updated: Jun 19

Ireland was the second European country I ever visited and the first country I had ever spent more than a week in. In my freshman year of college, I was lucky enough to spend our “January term” in Tralee, a city in County Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland. Most Irish people who hear this ask “why the hell Tralee?”. For me though, at that point in my life, it was absolutely seminal and is without a doubt part of me always.


My class was on Irish history and culture, culminating in a 30-minute presentation. Mine was on the Druids, the mystical priests of the Celtic Religion. I know a lot about the druids now. We visited a lot of significant cultural sights during the week with class, and on the weekends we usually traveled to more exciting cities and towns than where we were living.

This is exactly what I have in mind as I prepare for my trip to Dublin, Ireland
This is exactly what I have in mind as I prepare for my trip to Dublin, Ireland

I have so many memories of that few weeks that stick with me deeply, and I won’t go into them here, but I will say the first time I walked down the street and heard an old man say “good evening lads,” to myself and a classmate will forever warm my heart.


So here I was heading back for the first time in over a decade. As I gazed back at a sun-lit Manhattan from 495 west, I was somehow overcome with emotion. I almost started to cry really, a good cry.


Life just felt really good, it had been a great few weeks, I was beyond excited for this trip and the people I would see and reunite with. I had just successfully sublet my apartment with no problems at all and I was on my way to board a plane to Dublin. This time I had a real Irish guide. I was excited about that too.

A view of Manhattan from the bus as I start my journey to Dublin, Ireland
A view of Manhattan from the bus as I start my journey to Dublin, Ireland

Norwegian Air has in recent years taken over a former air force base about an hour and a half north of New York City and for 20 bucks you can take a wifi-enabled bus directly there. They even tell you which bus to take based on your flight. I was wheeling my way there is a lot more comfort than a subway ride to JFK and everything was grand, I was even going to be a little early (a serious accomplishment for me).


I logged into the handy dandy app to check in and make sure I had the best seat available for maximum sleep comfort, but something wasn’t right. "Why won’t it let me check in," I thought. The error message I got said “check-in only available 24 hours before flight”.


It turns out I had made a small clerical error, I had based my entire plan on the arrival day of the flight and forgotten about the overnight date change with a red-eye flight. I was one whole day early. With a friend waiting for me and a very difficult to get Airbnb reservation fully booked and nonrefundable, this immediately threw me out of that good mood I had been savoring.

Arriving a day early to JFK airport in New York City on my way to Dublin, Ireland
Arriving a day early to JFK airport in New York City on my way to Dublin, Ireland

Okay, no problem, I’ll just change the flight to today, it can’t be totally full, It’s the middle of the week. It was, in fact, totally full. If I had been on my way to JFK or Newark airport there would likely be lots of options to solve my problem, but no such luck at Stewart.


Norwegian Air or bust. Okay, I thought, as long as I can get on a plane to any location in the British Isles or Northern Europe, I could get myself to Dublin by tomorrow night.


After a lot of searching, I bought myself a ticket to Edinburgh, it was not cheap, but I knew there was a 24-hour cancellation policy and I could get a refund if need be. I really hoped that was the case.


I was understandably anxious when I arrived. There were a good twelve people ahead of me. I heard a passenger at the counter said she was on the flight to Belfast. Something clicked. I hadn’t checked Belfast. I hadn’t even thought about Northern Ireland.


How far was Belfast from Dublin? I was planning on renting a car anyway. Turns out less than two hours according to google maps. I drive longer than that some days just from the Eastside to the Westside of LA and back.


I finally arrived at the counter and explained my story to the woman behind the counter, “why did you buy a ticket to Edinburgh?!” she looked at me like I should be in a straight jacket and refunded the purchase immediately. Okay, the Dublin flight was full, she told me, and after an extraordinary amount of typing, she didn’t have a solution for me. Not one that departed that day.

Frantically looking for a flight from Stewart Airport in New York to anywhere near Dublin, Ireland
Frantically looking for a flight from Stewart Airport in New York to anywhere near Dublin, Ireland

"What about Belfast?” I asked sheepishly. “It’s not that far,”. She checked. She smiled. “Yeah, I can get you on that flight, there’s plenty of room”. So much Relief. “Oh wait,” I said, “but can I get a window seat?”. I realize I may sound like a diva here, but this is so incredibly important for me as the only way I can get any modicum of sleep on a plane is if I’m in a window seat.


My broad shoulders and the aisle seat don’t get along and it’s hard to sleep with carts knocking into you. She gave me a slight wink: "I got you,” failing to explain further. Fair enough. “Great, so what do I owe you?”. She simply handed me a ticket and directed me to security. I really love Norwegian Air.


The terminal at Stewart airport is unlike any airport in The US that I’ve ever been to. You can walk around the Terminal with alcoholic beverages and literally no one is American; British, Irish, and Scottish folks everywhere. There was scarcely an American accent to be heard.

A Norwegian Air plane flying over Stewart, NY as I wait for my flight to Ireland
A Norwegian Air plane flying over Stewart, NY as I wait for my flight to Ireland

After killing a little time, having a beer or two, and changing my car rental reservation, I boarded my plane. The counter agent did “get me” indeed. I had an ENTIRE row to myself. I could hardly believe it. I kept waiting for the usual late stragglers to come in and ruin the party, but they never did. It was almost too much space. Almost, but not quite.


I slept for a good portion of the 5-hour flight and woke up just in time to see the ever-iconic green Irish landscape. To add insult to injury, it turned out the Dublin flight had been significantly delayed for some reason. I ended up arriving hours earlier than I would have and with likely more sleep at that. And what’s more, I’d get to see a new city I’d never seen before, in a country I’d never been to.

My view aboard Norwegian Air of Northern Ireland
My view aboard Norwegian Air of Northern Ireland

Upon arrival, I had a few questions I needed an answer to. Northern Ireland, of course, is a part of the UK, therefore being on the British pound, while the Republic of Ireland is on the Euro. My friend had told me to make sure to have proper change for the numerous tolls along the way. Did I need to get some British pounds for the 45-minute drive out of Northern Ireland? The internet didn’t seem to know.


As I approached the burly-looking bearded man at the information counter I wondered how I would refer to the Republic of Ireland to someone here in Northern Ireland, given the contentious relationship the two neighbors have had since Ireland’s Independence barely a century ago. I went for “I’m headed down south”.


I was later confirmed to have made the right choice by another Irish friend. After a long hearty laugh, the surprisingly delightful man’s response to my question was something along the lines of “oh, mate, you don’t have to worry about that, here in the UK we don’t have tolls”, and that was that.


No British pounds for me. As I also had a little time to kill as my friend in Dublin I would be staying with and later traveling with would be at work for the rest of the day and it was still only 9 am. So I asked the man what there was to see around there.


He only had one answer. “Oh, well you gotta see the museum, the Titanic Museum”. It turns out the ill-fated Titanic was built in a shipyard in Belfast. That’s their claim to fame. That and lots and lots of bombings. Thankfully those have calmed down over the past decades.


I headed to claim my rental car, the rental agents were very curious about my travels, one of them told me had some family down in the southwest where I would eventually be heading. I told him I had studied in Tralee, he too was puzzled by this and didn’t think I’d have such a great time revisiting it. This did not change my enthusiasm. We said our goodbyes and I headed to see where they built the Titanic. I wonder if there is a museum where the Hindenburg was built.

A half built ship in Dublin's Titanic Shipyard
A half built ship in Dublin's Titanic Shipyard
Another half built ship with the museum in the background
Another half built ship with the museum in the background

The museum wasn’t really much to see, though it was really interesting to see what early twentieth-century shipyards were like, there is still a lot of heavy machinery still sitting around collecting rust. The architecture of the museum itself was pretty spectacular though and really stood out against the rest of the city.


I have to imagine that without the James Cameron film, this museum would have existed; it had that vibe. Looking at the map the central part of the city didn’t seem like a far walk, in fact, it was just over a very long footbridge across the harbor. So I left the car in museum parking and hoofed it.

A footbridge to Belfast City
A footbridge to Belfast City
A government building in the Belfast harbor
A government building in the Belfast harbor

I have to say, walking around the bustling central area of Belfast, you can really feel that this city has been through some major trauma in the recent past, but now are coming out of its shell a bit, enjoying life a bit more, it was an energy I haven’t experienced before.


The streets were abuzz, a band of students was jamming out, playing music I could only describe as jazz-funk rock or something to that effect. They even gave you a choice on how to tip them. Help with tuition, or buy them beer. I stayed and listened for a while. They were good. I opted for the beer fund.

College students playing music in the streets of Belfast, Ireland
College students playing music in the streets of Belfast, Ireland
An incredible portrait painted on the side of an old building in Belfast, Ireland
An incredible portrait painted on the side of an old building in Belfast, Ireland

After walking around some shops and grabbing some tea, I was anxious to get on the road, so just like that, I was on my way “down south,” very careful to keep to the left side of the road. I would later in the trip, very briefly, slip up on this. The border I was speeding towards has, in the very recent past, been one of not the most contentious borders in Western Europe.


I have a thrift-store-bought guidebook from the 70s about cycling in Ireland. It gives tips on how to best handle the machine gun-toting border guards. I figured that was in the past, but more recently I had certainly been told (by an Irish person in fact) to be prepared with my passport at the border.


As it happened, the border never made itself even apparent to me. At some point, I realized I was now in the Republic of Ireland and simply no longer the UK, mostly from the mileage signs now only being displayed in kilometers. Come on guys, I was hoping for at the very least a huge sign that said “WELCOME TO IRELAND” or something like that. Maybe I missed it.


I had also being given outdated information about the toll booths, they all took credit cards and I never had to use the meticulous change I had made sure to have. It wasn’t long at all before I made it into Dublin. Amazingly I still had yet more time to kill before my friend was even off work, so I decided to walk around and take a little history tour.

A Dublin electrical box dressed up like R2D2
A Dublin electrical box dressed up like R2D2

Dublin’s origins are of a Viking settlement in fact, and being a little obsessed with the Vikings, I was keen to see some Viking stuff. I did not succeed in that. Upon entering the history museum, an overly eager tour guide was ready to answer any questions I had, thing was I was really really tired and couldn’t really think of any questions. He eventually gave up and handed me a map with all the key sites on it.


I made it to Dublin Castle, the city’s last medieval castle, and to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral before it began to rain (it is Ireland after all) and I settled into a coffee shop. I was crashing and needed coffee.

An Irish Flag outside Dublin Castle
An Irish Flag outside Dublin Castle