Are you curious about our weekend in Edinburgh? Last weekend? Go on, you are dying to know. Well, what with the snow we decided not to go. Desperate to get away and completely snowed in, we decided to get the train to Belfast. Despite my mother’s concerns about our safety (she is not really a believer in the peace dividend) the most exciting thing that happened was when someone threw a snowball at the restaurant window on Saturday night and everyone in the restaurant jumped and stopped talking. More so than they would have in Dublin, I think.
Growing up in Cork, I never met anyone from Northern Ireland except my mother’s friend from round the corner who was so integrated that I thought she was from Cork (a real achievement that). I thought that people from Northern Ireland were nasty, difficult people who either berated you for not caring about the North or berated you for having an opinion because “the Southern State was founded on violence”.
I remember when the Good Friday agreement was signed, I was working in Brussels. A Spanish colleague left a rose on another Irish colleague’s desk with the message “For peace in your beautiful country.” We both thought that this was mildly hilarious. Me particularly because I didn’t even think of it as my country.
And then over the years, I started to meet and make friends with people from Northern Ireland and my views tilted alarmingly. They were the only properly friendly Irish people left – the Celtic Tiger had ruined any Irish friendliness south of the border and it was only now available in the North. I still believe that a bit though [lengthy aside coming] a recent trip to Athlone in the midlands made me feel slightly differently as people were very friendly. Alarmingly so. In a deserted but very glossy shopping centre (almost certainly owned by NAMA), I think everybody I passed made a point of talking to me. It also allowed me to have the following conversation on the phone with my sister:
Me: I’m in Tommy Hilfiger in Athlone looking for a present for our esteemed brother, any thoughts?
Her: Hysterical laughter. Tommy Hilfiger IN ATHLONE? That’s where the boom went out of control, right there.
Anyway, never mind that. Belfast. The train journey up was uneventful. Belfast had that weirdness that all of Northern Ireland has for me. Irish: the weather; the people; the landscape; the accent. Foreign: the post boxes; the post office; the car number plates; the money.
So, anyhow, because of the snow and the anxiety to get away, we had booked ourselves into the last room in the rather pricey Merchant hotel in Belfast city centre. I felt slightly guilty and have promised myself that the children will get new wind proof windows in their rooms before we go away again. On Friday, I had lunch with a friend from Belfast who was giving me sightseeing tips and, as it turned out, the men at the table behind us were also from Belfast – a rather exciting part of the city – and weighed in, utterly unintelligibly to me, with further advice. When they asked where I was staying, I told them and their jaws dropped and they said words to the effect that I must have more money than sense (alas, no longer true).
So, the hotel was to be the jewel in the crown of our stay. And it was very nice. But the heating in our room did not work. We complained. We were told that there was a problem in all of the Victorian part of the hotel. We went for afternoon tea in our hotel. We went to the Christmas Market. We went for a cocktail (I am not a drinker, I had one cocktail and a nasty headache for the next 24 hours, alas, I am never touching alcohol again). We went for dinner. The nice concierge got us a booking in a nice restaurant for the following night and all was well with the world. But when we went to bed, the heat was still not working. Under the blankets, it was toasty but outside it was freezing. The corridor was warmer. At 12.30 and 1 am the alarm went off and at 6 am a steady dripping sound as of water entering a radiator woke us up. We were unhappy. We made further complaints. A bottle of champagne came (useless to me as I will never touch alcohol again) but the room was still cold. Even the information, imparted by the Irish Times over breakfast, that the Merchant hotel was the place to go in Belfast, although making us feel pleasantly zeitgeisty, failed to win us over completely.
After a trip to the delightful Linen Hall Library, Mr. Waffle returned to the hotel to tackle a man from maintenance and I went shopping. The man from maintenance arrived. He noticed the radiator filling noise. There were no radiators he pointed out sagely. He then pointed to the ceiling where an ominous bulge hung over our bed. Then, the hotel went into overdrive. We were moved to another, larger, room (apparently the hotel was no longer full) and told that we wouldn’t be charged for our stay. Can I tell you how delighted I was? The children can still have new windows.
On Sunday, before returning home, we went to mass in Saint Malachy’s church and I was completely charmed by the interior which was recently restored and beautifully bright. Not normally a feature of Irish churches.
To summarise: Visit Belfast. Stay at the Merchant. For a budget option, try to get a room where the heat isn’t working.
Inevitably, our flights to Edinburgh did in fact go out and come home on time. Oh well.