Niceness in Northern Ireland
9 Pages: Enjoy!
My good friend and soul sister Vibe from Copenhagen, Denmark swears that Belfast is her favorite city in the world and was so excited to hear I was heading that way. She was even more excited to have me meet and stay with her good friend Brid and her sister Una who she absolutely adored. So it’s always a nice treat to enter into a new country with a host waiting for you and even better if it’s a festive Friday night in Belfast.
I rode off the ferry and immediately felt a positive energy on the island. I found a few back roads to get me into downtown Belfast and traffic was light. As I entered the city I began chatting with the locals and the cool Irish accent, big smiles and willingness to help guide me to my meeting point with Brid. I got my final escort to a historic pub from a few local guys in cowboy outfits and saddled up for my very first Guinness in Ireland.
I took a seat next to two small dogs seated on bar stools to my right and knew I was in the right place. Yes, you read that right, two dogs on bar stools. The bar was one of the oldest in Belfast with dark hard woods, typical soft lighting and rich red walls and furniture. I grabbed my first pint of the black gold and struck up a conversation with a young chap Colim and the owner of the two dogs Seamus. I immediately felt at home as fun, lively and mostly gut busting laughter-filled conversations flowed for the next few hours.
The setting sun was casting the perfect light, the tandem was happily parked in the courtyard and Colim befriended a group of friendly local hair dressers so life was good. We were eventually joined by my host for the weekend Brid who had just come from her massage looking relaxed and ready for the weekend. Brid is good friends with my soul sister Vibe from Copenhagen and I was looking forward to meeting the character Vibe spoke so fondly of. She lived up to and really exceeded every expectation I had from the first second we met to our last goodbyes.
With our first Guinness together down Brid decided it would be a good idea to get the bike parked at her place before things got out of hand too early. Brid was a committed bicycle commuter so I did my best to keep up with her as she cooked on through the town towards her house. The bike found its back yard parking space, I set up camp in the living room where my couch was located, and we proceeded to get ready for a festive Friday evening in Belfast.
Vibe in Copenhagen raved about the lively spirit of the locals and the positive energy felt in the Belfast nightlife. Until about ten years ago the “Troubles” had kept the capital streets mostly off limits after dark as many choose to stay in rather than risk a bomb going off in the pub. But in August 2008 you would never know there was a war going on just over a decade before. After a huge meal we hit the town with Brid, her sister Una and their current housemate Andrew. And Vibe was right, Belfast rocks!
We hit one of Brid’s favorite pubs that had a few different areas—one more mellow without music but full of talking and another just pumping with guys, gals, loud music and tons of beer. We started in the more traditional section of this nightlife playground and forced a few heavy Guinness down that did not seem to find space after our huge meal. By the time we ventured over to the “other side” it was a shoulder to shoulder shindig with a pulsating energy. Here the next generation of Belfast young adults were coming together in peace—Protestants and Catholics tilting pints and having giggles without blinking an eye.
We decided not to have too wild a night and I hit the couch with a relatively clear head for a Friday night. The next morning I was excited about checking out the Saturday market where I was told lovely music, food and arts were waiting. Brid hopped on the tandem and Andrew met us down there for a lovely Saturday afternoon meeting the locals, catching some live music and sampling some yummy foods. From there it was off to meet another of Brid’s dear friends Austin at The Workshop.
The Workshop is an eclectic mix of artist studios near downtown Belfast with a run down yet historic feel. Austin runs a bicycle repair business here and I hit it off from the first moment we met. Turns out that Austin is a Peace Pedaler himself and was responsible for creating a cycling event that takes riders of religious and political views on a six mile ride through the former hot spots of the Falls and Shankill Roads. He is also working on a new project to help the healing process further using his bike workshop to bring Catholic and Protestant youth together to build bikes and plan a long expedition together as a team.
What I expected to be a quick stopover to meet a friend of Brid turned out to be several hours of inspiring conversations with Austin and one of the founders of the Workshop, Martin. Like most artists, Martin and Austin apparently lived quite simple lives void of lavish and posh material items. It was mostly about having quality time, a few basic essentials and good people and community. It was an afternoon well spent just listening to the various political and personal philosophies of folks who have seen Belfast and Northern Ireland go through many changes.
Brid managed to find us free tickets to the Jazz Festival going on that evening and I was expecting a friend Paula from Sweden who was in for a few days of fun in Belfast so Saturday evening was gearing up to be a winner. Brid cooked up a mean feast of real Irish goodness including bacon, sausages, cabbage, potatoes and other goodies which we washed down with some yummy wine with a full table of Andrew, Brid, Una and I. We were off to a great start and sprits were high.
The Jazz Festival exceeded all our expectations and we danced our tails off to some amazing talent from New York who were smooth as silk. After the festival we made our way out to yet another lively pub where the party was in full swing. Paula arrived at about midnight but was in a panic since her hostel had given her room up since she arrived too late. Fortunately, once Brid heard the story she invited Paula to crash at hers so we were all set. The rest of the evening was all about mingling with the locals, having great chats and cutting loose.
On Sunday Brid escorted Paula and I out to the Tow Road bike lane so we could do a short out and back tour of Northern Ireland. Paula and I rode a bit in Sweden but had to cut our ride short due to a massive storm so we were both excited to get a real ride together. The weather was on our side this lovely Sunday afternoon and the sunshine lit up the endless shades of green along the canals with our own private bike lane. I have done a lot of riding in my days but this tow road is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen.
We made our way through Lisburn and onto some small country roads with plenty of hills through charming villages. Paula is from Malmo, Sweden where she rides regularly but on totally flat terrain. The hills were a bit tough for her but she charged on through towards a small lake we found on the map to camp for the night. We landed a free lakeside campsite with complimentary visits from the local cow community included. The weather held out for us until about 4AM when the winds came howling over the lake for a natural alarm clock.
The ride back to town was windy and wild with a storm on the way but the stunning scenery continued and Paula was feeling stronger than the day before. We made it back to Belfast just in time to get Paula packed up and over to the bus station where we would continue her holiday in Scotland and England. Paula made me a cool Peace Pedalers yellow flag by hand and it’s still flying proud behind the bike now. Thanks Paula!
I was eager to dive into the local culture and head over and meet some of the locals in the Falls and Shankill Roads where the heart of the “Troubles” were. If you are not familiar with the history of violence in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles for a brief summary. As a Peace Pedaler I was curious to understand where the violence came from and, more importantly, how and why were they able to agree to lasting peace in the long run. With freshly renewed inspiration and commitment to my filming I hopped on the bike and rode my way over to Shackle road first.
I felt drawn to pub which elaborately decorated with the Northern Ireland and Union Jack flags and decided to stop in for an afternoon pint. As always, the tandem bike made it easy to strike up conversations and explain the reason for my visit. I met a few locals who shared their take on the Troubles but it was the bar owner Mark who I was told would be the man to talk to. I tracked him down and asked if he would simply educate me on the whole topic and he happily obliged and we took a seat on an outside table.
Over on the Shankill road is where the RUC, the more extreme loyalists to the British government, regularly gathered. It was also the area of many attacks from the IRA, from machine gun fire to bombs, were regularly reported. Mark had seen it all go down, and at one time his bar was covered in metal gates, locked and video cameras to the outside allowed only the most trusted to enter. Mark allowed me to run a camera while he shared his heart and, from what he told me, more than he ever shared with anyone else. “I am a peaceful man and don’t have any issues with anyone until they come in and try to impose their will on me. When somebody does this it can take a peaceful person and make them violent”, Mark commented.
You’ll have to wait until all this video footage gets edited and organized to really get the full picture, I’m afraid. But the guts of our dialogue were about the fact that he was happy that the peace was being kept, the city thriving again and the was optimistic about the future. Today he sends his kids to a public school where both Protestant and Catholics study and mingle together as he feels the next generation is the hope for continued peace in Ireland.
After my inspirational interview with Mark I rode through the “Peace Wall” over toward Falls Road to get another perspective. I met a chubby chap in a green shirt who I’ll call Patrick (to protect his identity on this sensitive issue) who was the first to invite me to join his group of friends. He treated me to a pint of Guinness and I told him I was just over at the Shankill Road talking to Mark. “Ahh, I hate Protestants! Bloody hate em! What the hell were you doing over there?” Mark exclaimed. This was the first person I had met in Northern Ireland who was till holding on to the hatred, anger and resentment that created the Troubles to begin with.
I innocently and curiously asked, “But why? Why do you hate a person because of the way they choose to celebrate their spirituality?” The answer I got back was pretty surprising, “I just hate em. Always have and always will”. I invited him to come out on a bike ride and explain a bit about this hatred and he was more than happy until he asked me where he wanted us to ride. I suggested we ride through the Peace Wall to the Shankill Road to try to instigate some healing on the matter. His eyes lit up in disgust and he immediately replied
“Hell no! Not a chance I’m going over there!”
I have never been face to face with someone who had taken another mans life, not to mention several of them. I got a sick feeling in my stomach and the conversation was over. I moved my attention to another former IRA Volunteer who I will call Sean (also to protect his identity). Sean, contrary to the blind hatred and anger of Patrick, was happy about the peace agreement and was doing his part to heal the past and move forward. In his spare time he took both Catholic and Protestant children out camping and playing soccer. He admitted that he was not happy about the current political situation, but agreed that violence was not the answer.
The sun was going down on the Falls road and I was determined to find a rider for the next day. I was giving some kids rides on the road and meeting some folks outside when I ran into a fellow handsome bald chap named Joe. Something drew us two together and we struck up a conversation. I did not get too much into his past or his level of involvement in the Troubles, I just knew we were meant to ride together. He just got a few job so could not do any long journeys but accepted an invitation to ride around Belfast during his lunch break the next day.
Before heading back to Brid’s I stopped by to meet up with Austin at the Workshop to invite him to accompany me out of town the following afternoon. Austin was working on some very progressive plans for peace and I wanted to get him on film and share a slice of life with him. He accepted the invitation for the following day so I was set for a packed Wednesday in Belfast. For my last evening in Belfast we had a yummy meal cooked up by Brid and Una’s guest Andrew and Brid’s house was feeling more and more like home. I was already getting sad to leave this lovely nest and my Irish sisters Brid and Una.
My last day in Belfast was a busy one with tons of tasks to do fixing my bike and gear, getting an article in the Belfast Telegraph, arranging my equipment and preparing to do cycling interviews with two different riders. It was busy, but it all flowed so nicely I knew it was right. The paper was excited to do the article and Joe showed up just in time for his ride. We met at the stunning city hall building and Joe admitted that he was quite nervous but excited.
Turns out that Joe has not been on a bike in decades and when we rode away he was tense as ever leaning all over the place and gripping the bars for dear life. We headed on up to the Falls road, his home turf, and we ran the cameras and he took me to a memorial and through his neighborhood as he shared his life with me and the world. I then challenged him to ride through the peace wall to the “other side” on Shankill Road. Joe had not been over to the Shankill Road for almost 40 years when he was a little boy and he was very scared, but knew he needed to do it. Just so nobody would recognize him we decked him out with some sunglasses, a helmet and he buttoned up his blue shirt to cover his shamrock medallion.
There are some distinct moments in Peace Pedalers history that I know I will never forget and this was one of them. When we rode through the peace wall to the other side I could feel Joe’s heart racing and the tension in his body. At the same time, it was a moment of healing he will never forget. We decided to ride lower Shankill Road since going up was too far out of this comfort zone but he admitted that the experience was one he will never forget. Joe had just finished doing some personal development work with The Forum and he was grateful for the opportunity to stretch himself and move even further along in his growth.
Joe was, at one time in his life, was a volunteer with the IRA and committed to its goals. But since he had a son 22 years ago he shifted his commitment to him. Now he said “I could not hurt a fly” and he shared with me how he is now excited to see so much positive progress towards peace in Belfast. Like the interview with Mark, you’ll have to wait to see the Belfast episode of the program to really get the guts of his message so I’ll leave a bit of juice for that special day. It will be a winner, I tell you that!
After I dropped Joe off I had to boogie back to Brid’s place, pack my bike up for my expedition west to Sligo, say goodbye to Andrew and ride on over to Austin’s place at the Workshop. Austin and I did a bit of filming in his shop to show the world his place in it’s current state of development towards realizing his dream of a bike shop where he would teach Catholic and Protestant youth to fix and prepare bikes for a cross cultural expedition. We rode off into a lovely setting sun peaking out of the clouds on a perfect Wednesday evening.
It was nice to have some strong pedal power behind me as Austin is a regular cyclist. We ran the cameras on the Tow Road as the sun light up the stunning colors of the trees and canal. Austin is a soulful and progressive man with a grand vision of continuing to be a leader in the healing process in Belfast. We rode and talked for about eight miles of picture perfect riding with the cameras capturing every second of our philosophical dialogues. As we rode into Lisburn about sunset the positive connection between Austin and I had grown so strong and we were both sad to say goodbye. But, like many of my closer connections on the road, it was more like, “until next time”. And I know there will be a next time since I plan to come back and document the growth of his project and ride on his expedition with his kids from the community. I’ll see you soon Austin!
The sun was down by the time I rode into Lisburn and I had no clue where I was going to sleep that night. The day had been so jam packed with filming, riding, preparation and media stuff that I got quite a late start to get out of town. I felt drawn to a certain fish and chips shop where I grabbed a massive meal at about 9PM and while I was waiting for it to cook decided to scope out the area and see if I could find a safe camping spot.
As my luck would have it there was a massive park just behind the restaurant and as I left the shop filled to the rim with greasy chips and fish I rode through a few soccer fields to a perfectly flat, grassy and relatively secluded spot behind the Lisburn Leisure Center. Aside from the group of teenage testosterone driven aspiring race car drivers in four cylinder cars racing in the nearby parking lot I had a very peaceful little free spot to call home for the night. My plan was to get nice nights sleep and tackle the longest day of solo riding in Peace Pedalers history the next morning to on an 85 mile ride to meet up with Brid and Una’s brother Neil in Enniskillen. The day would take me through Portadown, Armagh, Monahan, Rosslea and Lisnaskea.
I woke up to the sound of strong wind, but no rain. I prayed that the wind would be a tail wind but I guess God was not awake at 6AM yet as it was a dead on headwind. I hit the road at about 6:30 for the long day and the wind was indeed going to be a challenge as my pace was just over 10 miles per hour giving it all I had. But I had all day, was in no hurry and the Ipod was cranking out some winner tunes as I pedaled along from town to town on mildly busy roads.
I finally made it to the town of Armagh and was pretty exhausted at about the 40 mile mark. I met a friendly chap named Jim as I rested out of the wind and light rain and he ended up inviting me to his house for a cup of tea and to meet his family. He had a trailer behind his car so he tossed my gear in there and off we drove on the hilly back roads to his cute house. Turns out Jim had lived in the states for a while but decided Northern Ireland was his home and came back to start his life there raising dogs and building his house slowly himself as money came in. His two daughters and wife were lovely and they all decided to come with me as Jim took me back to the main road to continue my adventure. These are experiences I love about cycle touring—meeting locals, making new friends and random adventures that are never planned but always appreciated by all.
The next stop was a town called Monahan, which was officially in the Republic of Ireland on the map but you would never really know you crossed any border. I stopped there for a huge meal and met some charismatic local restaurant workers who let me eat my own grub in there out of the rain. They even set me up with a huge plate of free chips (French fries for all you yanks…). It was only about 3PM and I still had a lot of ground to cover but the meal gave me the energy I needed to keep rolling.
Ireland has no shortage of hills and they seemed to kick into full gear the further west I rode. Luckily the light rain kept me cool and the scenery just kept getting better and better. I rolled through charming town of Rosslea and eventually made it to Lisnaskea to take a much needed break. When I was sitting on the side of the market stretching a car drove up and two smiling faces came running over to me. Turns out there were two friends I met back in Glasgow, Scotland who recognized me and my bike and came over to reconnect! Small world, eh?
From Lisnaskea I only had about 7 miles to go but I was just about dead. I called Neil and confirmed that he was well stocked with meat and potatotes but had no beer for the evening or pasta to fuel the body for the next days ride. I stocked up with some goodies and made the last few painful but beautiful miles to Niel’s pad. As I stopped to take off the cameras from some filming I met a friendly gentleman Patrick outside his house. Turns out he knows Neil’s family and I invited him to stop on by for a cup of tea that evening.
Just as I was making the final turn into the Falconer’s driveway I saw a car coming down and the woman inside was so eager to talk to me. A cheery and bouncy woman Rosemany popped out of the car with a huge smile and greeted me like family. Rosemany is Brid, Una and Neil’s Aunt who actually raised them all single handedly after their parents died at a young age. She was full of life, love and goodness and I liked her right from the beginning. Now I see why the Falconer family is so amazing being raised by such a great woman!
I had heard their family house was truly stunning located on the top of a hill surrounded by lakes but nothing could prepare me for this. I rode up steep hill on a narrow and road as dozens of sheep grazed in fileds and the lakes came into view as you rode up higher. At the top of the hill there is a huge house that is indeed surrounded by lakes on every side. It’s a priceless location where several generations have lived and farmed in their family.
I had no idea what to expect meeting Neil. I had a good feeling he would be a cool guy considering his two sisters Brid and Una were such stellar gals. When I first made eye contact with him I felt like I was seeing an old friend after being apart for a long time rather than making first contact. I think he felt the same way as we immediately felt comfortable together cooking up a huge feast, drinking cold beers, sharing stories and building a solid friendship from the get go. It was not more than a few hours in each others presence when I dropped the invitation to ride with me the next day.
I could tell Neil was a bit hesitant, but at the same time quite curious. He was certainly not trained up and did not own a bike, but accepted right away for at least a short ride to Enniskillen, which was about 7 miles from his house. But by the time we were ready for bed several hours and a few more beers later it was clear that both of us wanted to spend more time together and we were talking about him coming to Sligo and spending the night camping and hitting the town together. Sligo was about 55 miles away, which would be a long ride for a guy who is not in shape, but we were both up for the challenge and excited for the next days adventure.
The next morning we got a slightly later start than planned but were able to fuel up on a big breakfast, make some sandwiches, do some filming and hit the road about lunchtime. For a guy who did not own a bike Neil had strong legs and I knew he would be just fine all the way to Sligo. Neil’s Aunt Rosemary had helped us set up an appointment with Enniskillen’s main newspaper the Impartial Reporter so we stopped by for the interview, met back up with Rosemary in town for some hugs, had a cup of tea a cool chap Pip and met the photographer for the newspaper on the way out of town for the article photos. It was time to ride!
The sun was out, we rode along the river by a funky castle and were soon on the green, curvey, mildly busy road west towards Sligo. Neil and I were as excited as ever. The conversation was practically non-stop and the bike was moving at a healtly pace of about 15 miles per hour (about 24 kph). I was wondering why we were moving so fast and then I realized what it was—we had a tail wind! Not only was the tail wind a good sign for riding but also very good for the waves up ahead in Sligo where nice swell was hitting the next day of about 8-10 feet with 14 second periods (don’t surf, don’t worry. Just know this is good, very good). It was turning out to be antoher magical day in the saddle and as we crossed from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland we were both so grateful for the opportunity to be together in our exact circumstances. We were stoked.
The road started to get busier as we made our way closer to Sligo so we opted for a back road that, according to my map, was not much longer in distance. What we did not plan for were the hills. The moment we left the main road we started climbing and it was no letting up. Neil’s butt was starting to give him trouble so every flat or downhill section we had to get up from the bike and stop pedaling to let the blood get moving again. Unfortunelty there were not many flat or downhill spots in this section so Neil had to really dig deep to keep moving. His legs were basically numb at one point, but he kept carrying his weight, and then some, so I have to commend this guy for his natural strength!
But what goes up must come down and we eventually hit the top of the long climb and it was worth every pedal stroke. The rich green mountains peaked out as we came around the other side with craggy, unique and totally stunning shapes that are typical in the west of Ireland. Glassy lakes passed by reflecting the picture perfect landscapes, the gentle downhill allowed both of us to let the butts rest and the smiles were massive on each others faces! Life was good in western Ireland!
The sun was starting to go down and we were riding some very hilly, challenging terrain. We got word from a local chap that we were just 6 miles from Sligo. It was time to break out the video cameras and do a riding interview the rest of the way. Neil was totally okay being on camera and I set him up with a mic, built up the rolling production and off we went! By this time, now over 50 miles into our ride, we were both filled with a plethora of endorphins and quite naturally high. Needless to say, the last part of our ride continued to amaze us both with curvy roads offering new visual delights around every turn including farms, lush forests, cute villages, mind blowing mountain vistas and countless shades of green in every direction.
We rolled into Sligo after the sun was down and the first drops of rain fell just as we entered the outskirts of town. Just as we rolled in a massive pack of crows flew just over our head and Neil shared that crows were his favorite bird. We were pretty jacked (that’s stoked, good, very good…). Just then we also got a call, just in time, from my Couchsurfing.com host Monica saying she was back from Portugal and would meet us at a bar called “Shoot the Crow” for a pint of Guinness just as hundreds of crows were flying over our head. Wow.
The Peace Pedalers rainbow was clearly in full force. We asked a nice woman where the bar was and she gave us quite clear directions with a smile. But, that was not good enough for this kind soul. She actually got in her car and followed us and gave us a full escort to make sure we made it! The rain held off to just a drop or two until the exact second we parked the tandem and the sky opened up and let loose all the rain it had saved up all day as we enjoyed sunshine and mixed clouds.
Now every Irishman will tell you that the Guinness is better in Ireland and I have to agree. But there is actually nothing better than a cold Guinness, in Ireland, after a 56 mile ride with a bad ass Irish brother on a tandem, consumed in Sligo’s most reliable pub for the perfect pint “Shoot the Crow”, on a lively Friday night surrounded by friendly locals and cute ladies! No, there is no better pint of Guinness than that, trust me.
These are the moments in life that I just know I won’t forget. Neil and I enjoyed every sip of our beers but still were not sure where we were going to sleep that night. The dumping rain and lack of daylight was not such a good sign for our planned camping mission. My Couchsurfing.com host was not expecting me to stay with her until Saturday night since she just got back from Portugal and wanted a day to regroup before hosting me. But we both knew we had nothing to worry about and sipped down the yummy black nectar, met tons of friendly locals and eventually were joined by Monica and her son Art.
Well, I’m on page 9 of this journal of Northern Ireland and I have to leave you in suspense a bit as we are officially in the Republic of Ireland and I’ll let you hear about the rest of the adventures of Neil, Jamie, Monica, Art and more when I carry on with the next journal. Just know the rainbow contined to follow me, luck of the Irish dripped over to this Italian-Swiss-Slovakian kid, and the happy good lovin’ make ya wanna travel to Ireland stories are just beginning…
Over n out from the North Sea between England and Netherlands. It’s Friday afternoon and I’m meeting up with my lovely Dutch Princesses I met in Swaziland, Africa for a festive weekend in Holland. Pinch me! Nope, not dreaming.
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