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This is an online diary of my latest trip to Ireland.
Dennis J. Ahern

Saturday, March 26th

I was up at 6:30 this morning, but the hostel cafe doesn't start serving until 7:30. I had meant to buy some more orange juice at the Centra next to the Botanic railway station last night, but it was closed by the time I got out of the movies. Unbeknownst to me, however, it seems this particular convenience store has a 24-hour "slot" where you can ask for anything in the store and the night attendant will get it for you and pass it to you through the sliding bin, in exchange for money, of course. Being informed of this by the staff member on the desk at the hostel I went over and got some orange juice and sat at a table nursing that until the kitchen opened for breakfast, whereupon I went through the line and got a pot of tea, some pats of butter and a couple of jam packets to spread on the leftover scone I had wrapped up in a serviette the night before. Waste not, want not. Or is that waist not?

There are notices around the hostel, in the elevator, for example, that tonight is when they turn the clocks ahead for daylight savings. It's a good thing they've posted these as I would otherwise be completely clueless as I've not been following the press closely or watching TV much of late. This is happening earlier here than back home, which isn't until some time in April. Let's see, "Spring Ahead - Fall Back", does that mean I would have missed the bus back to Dublin tomorrow, or would I have been an extra hour early? I've never understood how this works.

Today was a clean shirt day. Years ago I used to pack a change of underwear and a clean shirt for each day of the trip. Then I found it was easier to pack fewer days' worth of clothing changes and simply make use of launderette facilities where for a small fee you could leave a bag of laundry and pick it up the next day washed, dried and folded. The trick, of course, was finding a place that was not too far a walk from the hostel. The one in Dublin was about a 20-minute walk, but in the opposite direction from the City Centre so it was always an out-of-the-way trip, plus you had to plan on going back the next day or so to pick up your stuff, and if it wasn't ready as promised it meant another trip the next day. The launderette near the hostel in Cork was at least on the way to the city centre, but after a few trips I started using laundry facilities in the hostels. It was cheaper and you didn't really spend a lot more time than you would lugging everything down the street and back. The other practice I adopted was getting at least two days out of every shirt. As long as you were putting on a fresh T-shirt every day, it didn't really make sense to change every day. It's not like anyone was going to inspect you or sniff your armpits or anything. So long as you didn't spill any food. or at least anything of a color that didn't blend in, you were OK for another day.

The Revelations cybercafe around the corner not being open, I decided to try the Internet terminals in the hostel. It's 50 pence (£½) for 10 minutes. I quickly confirmed my expectation that there would be no telnet capability and thus, no access to my unix shell email account on world.std.com. It was worth it to check my alternate address on Yahoo, however, as there was a message from someone who was mentioned in my blog who wanted me to remove some personal details about their family. I was surprised by this, but assured them I would edit out the details as soon as I was able to access my unix account [and have since done so]. Some people are loathe to see themselves and their activities described in such a public forum. Some people have good reason, but that doesn't mean I will cover up what they did.

Unlike the Dublin hostel, this hostel uses keys instead of keycards. You get two keys when you check in; one for the door and one for a locker in the room. When you check in you give them your hostel pass and you don't get it back until you check out. They didn't use to do this because two or three trips ago, when my son was with me and we had a rental car, I checked out but somehow forgot to turn in the key. Luckily we came back through Belfast after spending the weekend in Cushendall and were able to stop by and drop off the key.

Off then to my new accommodations, having been able to book only the first two nights at the Donegall Road hostel. As I approached the Castle Court shopping centre I realized I could avoid the long walkaround by cutting through the parking garage in the middle of the complex. Ignoring the signs barring pedestrian through-traffic, I did just that and saved myself a bit of a hike, which is always preferable when burdened with baggage of any sort. I had booked the cheapest possible dorm room at the Linen House Hostel. The problem I soon discovered was that this rather large bunkroom was bereft of power points and I had specifically stated in my booking that I would require access to electricity. I went back down to the desk to explain to them that I couldn't use that particular room without risk of keeping everyone awake all night with my snoring. Instead I was given a key to a smaller room on the 1st (2nd) floor which had only eight beds and a bathroom en suite, which was nice. And I was able to grab a lower bunk adjacent to a wall outlet. There were no lockers, but a variety of cupboards and chiffarobes in which people could stow their bags. After making up my bed I threw my bags in one of these and headed off to City Hall to see the Titanic exhibit.
The Titanic, Made in Belfast exhibit was to run from March 26th to April 2nd and was organized by the Belfast Titanic Society. I arrived part way through the opening ceremonies. A crowd was assembled inside the main entrance hall of the Belfast City Hall. Someone was speaking from a podium at the foot of the grand staircase. Arrayed behind them were several people, including children, in period dress. After welcoming remarks and introductions, a choral group sang something I couldn't make out and then we were all welcomed to proceed to the exhibit area upstairs. The main body of exhibits was in the banquet hall. The last time I had been in this room was at a banquet given by the Lord Mayor to participants in the Ulster Historical Foundation Conference a few years ago. It's quite a grand room as is all of the interior of Belfast City Hall. The floor plan was laid out as a large oval within a rectangle with exhibits of various aspects of the Titanic arrayed along the outside walls and around both the interior and exterior of the oval. At the outside "corners" of the oval were tableaus that were at specific times inhabited by people in period dress who acted out some story relative to the building of the great ship. One that I caught was of a boy and girl delivering their da's lunchpail as he worked in an office alongside the ship. He and his workmate took the time to point out features of the construction, particularly the fourth funnel, which was a dummy used to provide ventilation to the engine room. As they pointed up at what was in reality a bit of cornice work in the plaster ceiling, you could visualize the great ship before them. Titanic Exhibit
In the Banquet Room of Belfast City Hall

In another room they had a video showing on a large screen. It ran about 30 minutes in a continuous loop and included footage that was found in a garden shed in England last year showing survivors arriving on the Carpathia in New York. Interestingly, it was only weeks before this exhibit opened that another piece of lost Titanic film was found, this time in an attic in Glasgow. Downstairs in the foyer they had an exhibit of art and writings by local school children in which they were asked to imagine themselves a passenger on the ship writing a letter to a friend telling them about their accommodations and food, and exploring the ship in the days before the sinking. There also were exhibits and activities to amuse children, including a morse code key which could signal from one side of the room to the other and sample messages like ". . . - - - . . ." for SOS. They also had a storyteller, for which you had to get tickets. I hadn't gotten a ticket beforehand so had to wait until they decided there was still room for more before I was let in. It turned out to be a disappointment. I had though the stories were going to be about the Titanic, but instead it was just some guy telling stories meant to appeal to pre-schoolers. The only adult in the room I found myself regretting having taken a seat on the opposite side of the room from the door. Unable to bear it any longer I got up and made my way out in the middle of yet another fanciful tale. I later caught up with the storyteller and apologized for having to leave in the middle of his show, but I had expected something other than what was presented. The Titanic is something I have spoken on several times to various groups and I was expecting something more on the lines of tales about the ship. I was even prepared, if it turned into a story swap, to tell some of my own stories, such as Caroline Lamson Brown, the last person to step off the deck of the Titanic into a lifeboat. She later became a trustee of the Acton Memorial Library, which is how I became interested in her story. I have lectured about her several times to various groups.

In one of the rooms there are tables set up by various organizations and societies with a local interest in the Titanic. Some of them have books and various souvenirs for sale. From The Lagan Boat Company table I bought a black T-shirt that had on the front “SHIP No. 401 TITANIC” and on the back “"She was alright when she left here...." ®”. The ® mark turns out to be significant. It seems someone in one of the local societies is credited with making that remark, but someone from the Lagan Boat Co. took it and used it and claimed a registry mark for it, causing some hard feelings. The slogan itself is indicative of a changed viewpoint on the Titanic in Belfast. It's only in recent years that there has been growing support for some sort of Titanic museum in the place where she was built. For most of the years since 1912, it seems many people preferred to forget about what some saw as a failure, unjustly so, for it was not the fault of her builders that she hit an iceberg. It was fate. In fact, the launching and maiden voyage of Titanic would have taken place weeks earlier if it were not for the fact that her sister ship, the Olympic, had been in a collision with a British warship, H.M.S. Hawk, off the Isle of Wight and had been brought back to Belfast for repairs. Completion of the Titanic was pushed back when workmen had to be shifted to repairing the Olympic.

Having sated my appetite for things Titanic, and the day still young, I went across to the Northern Ireland Tourist Office to see if I could find some museum or other cultural site of interest to occupy my afternoon, the Libraries all being closed for Easter Saturday. The office was quite busy with four people behind the counter, waiting on the people in line who had already taken a number from the dispenser. Every so often the public address system would call out "number 87, number 87..." I wandered around looking at brochures, sorted by locality, but didn't find much of interest that was within Belfast proper except for some War Museum that I'd never heard of before. I decided that would be worth an hour at least and was only a few blocks away. While I was perusing the offerings, I was approached by a woman with a clipboard who asked if I was willing to answer a customer survey. The answer to the first question was "Boston" but then I qualified it by saying "actually, not IN Boston, but a town NEAR Boston" which upon my further elaboration of "Acton" she said "Oh, I know Acton. They have a nice Library." I told her I was a trustee of that Library and were quite proud of the addition that was completed several years ago. It turns out her sister lives in Boxborough, which is the next town over and she had visited her recently. A lot of Boxborough residents use the Acton Library because it is bigger and has a better collection than the Boxborough Library, though that may change now that Boxborough has completed a new building of their own. I continue to be amazed at what a small world this is. It had not dawned on me that this woman did not have a Belfast accent. She explained that she was an American married to a Belfast man.

I wandered off to find the War Memorial Museum in Waring Street, but finding it was also closed for the Easter holiday, I decided to find something to eat instead. On a street that had a variety of small shops I noticed in the window of a butcher some barbecued baby-back ribs that looked rather tempting and I bought a half-pound for about a pound. From there I ambled off towards the Lagan in search of a picnic spot with a view of the harbor. I found a bench near the float for the Lagan Boat Company tours (the ones I bought the Titanic T-shirt from) and sat and watched the passing scene as I nibbled my way through a plastic bag of nicely flavored pork ribs. As I arrived a boat tour was just getting ready to depart and I contemplated joining it, but it would have meant waiting an hour or more before getting to my feed so I passed. I did watch them pull away and observed that the small boat pitched and rolled rather heavily in the chop. Just up the quay from where I had sat was a tourist attraction called the Lagan Lookout which looked rather like an oversized Martello Tower with an observation deck on the upper level. I went in with thoughts of using the facilities to wash my hands, but discovered there was an admission fee, so I gave it a miss.

Walking back towards the city centre I passed a pub called the Lifeboat and recalled going there in '93 in company with a DEC employee who had offered to show me around on my first visit to Belfast. I recall it as a rather dull and dark place and I think we had a pint before I pressed my erstwhile guide to take me to a pub I had heard about that was supposed to be good for traditional music. It was a goodly walk across town to get there and it was a disappointment. The interior was appealing with a peat fire on the grate, but there were only a few old gents nursing their pints and not a musical instrument in sight. We had a pint and left to return to Chichester Street where my companion telephoned for a cab to pick us up. It was from this that I learned even the cabs in Belfast got religion. You see, there are two kinds of cabs in Belfast. The obvious ones are the black taxis that looked like they just drove over from London. The others are smaller, modern cars. The former can only pick up passengers at designated stands at curbside. You cannot flag them down. They go to Catholic neighborhoods. The Protestant taxis are radio-dispatched and do not go to Catholic neighborhoods. The black taxis date from the 1970s when public busses stopped going to Catholic neighborhoods because they were at risk of being disabled and set on fire to be used for barricades. As this meant Catholics had no way to get home with their bundles from shopping in the city centre, some entrepreneurs went over to London and bought second-hand black taxis and brought them back on the ferry. They would pick up as many people as they could at a time and drive them home. Now that the "troubles" are over, or at least dormant, public transportation has been restored and the black taxis make a lot of their profit from guiding tourists around town to see wall murals and other sites of Republican interests. The wall murals, by the way, are a fascinating bit of local culture, where gable ends of buildings are taken over by larger-than-life portraits of one side or another's heroes and other patriotic symbols. I also learned, after the fact, that the second pub we visited that night was one that my guide was quite fearful of entering as it was in a "bad" neighborhood. Unbeknownst to me, pubs that featured traditional music were targets of Loyalist terrorists because such music was "Irish" and not "British". One can only hope that such attitudes will some day become ancient history.

My plan for Saturday night included some movies at the cineplex in Dublin Road, but the afternoon was still young so I walked back to Shaftesbury Square and settled in at the Revelations cybercafe for a coffee Americain and email. Then I went over to the hostel I had checked out of that morning and sat in the dining room writing up a draft of my blog until it was time for to get something to eat before the movies. I elected to try out the Tao Noodle Bar at 29 Dublin Road, across the street from the cineplex. They had a very nice selection and I chose a ramen noodle soup with roast pork and duck for £6.50 which I gave up using chopsticks on and settled for a big spoon.

The cineplex was laid out similar to most American movie emporiums with a large number of screens. Once you buy a ticket and get past the gatekeepers, there is very little control over which theater you actually enter. In the States this is how a lot of pre-teens get into R-rated movies. You buy a ticket for "Finding Nemo" and sneak into "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". In my case, I tend to see more than one film on one ticket. I've been known to spend all of an afternoon and a good part of the evening and see all or part of a half a dozen or more movies. Between screenings I make a pit stop in the men's room or swing by the concession stand for a free refill on my giant bucket of popcorn. In the case of the Dublin Road cineplex I managed to catch the first 15 minutes of "The Incredibles" which was the part I missed when I saw the rest of it back home the month before. Then I watched the first hour or so of "Mickybo and Me" which had a much bigger audience than opening night at the Queen's Film Theatre. Not only was the audience bigger, but they were made up of a more general populace than what usually is seated at the QFT and in this case they were quite vocal in their reaction whenever they saw a street or building they recognized. Usually I get very annoyed when people talk during a movie, but in this case it added to the enjoyment of seeing something that was obviously close to all their hearts. Again, I hope this film makes it to the States. Checking my pocket travel alarm clock (the alarm of which still did not work) I managed to slip out in time to catch the beginning of "Hotel Rwanda" which I had missed at home. Don Cheadle is very good in this as the hotel manager who reluctantly harbors an ever growing crowd of refugees from the genocide that is the by-product of a vicious civil war.

It was late when I arrived back at the Linen House Hostel and when I got to the room I found it was now fully occupied. The lights were still on and in the upper berth of my bunk lay either a girl or a very pretty boy reading a book. I couldn't determine the gender without staring, but I did observe that the book was in German. I made sure to reset my clock for daylight savings time and hanging my towel so as to block the light from shining on my face, hooked up my face mask and went to sleep. I'm At 4:00 a.m. I was awakened by some figures stumbling around in the dim light from outside. A pair of hands was feeling about to see if my berth was occupied and I put up a hand to push back and the intruders withdrew. I liked it better in the hostels where you had a lock on the door that only those in the room had a key for.

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