My daughter Lily looked at me with disbelief and, if I was not mistaken, with pity. I had taken her back to the town of my childhood, Dungannon, County Tyrone, and she was extravagant and unimpressed.
“How come so much happened in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and yet your life was so small and weird?” she wondered rhetorically.
Apparently “the piece of wasteland where we threw the potato that the healer used to cure my warts” was not (currently) on Trip Advisor.
But things accelerated when I cheekily pulled up outside the red brick house where my four sisters and I were born, rang the bell and asked if we could visit the back garden.
“Go ahead,” said the old occupant, as if it were the most normal of requests, then he closed the door and let us go.
It was a real shock to see that the rhubarb patch was gone. The “frizzy shavings” tree? Beaten down. And there was a big glowing extension where we used to sunbathe until we had blistered, pale Celtic bodies smeared in baby oil.
Yeah, I know honey, but that’s how it was in the ’70s. No seat belts. Parents who chain smoke. Armed soldiers in the streets.
Back to my roots
My daughter, Lily, is 20 years old. Before she joined Generation Rent and got the key to the door (from the owner), I wanted to take her back to my roots.
But luckily for her, anyway, Dungannon was just a pit stop on our big tour – although we did have a gluten-free brunch. “Gluten-free? In Northern Ireland? I cried in amazement as we ordered. She thought I was being ironic.
Honestly, I wanted to show my daughter the glamorous new province, a place where people drink cocktails, where Game of Thrones was filmed, and where fabulously bizarre passenger pedal party buses cruise the streets every weekend, broadcasting pop classics.
But I didn’t know where to start, having done it at university in Scotland in 1984 – 14 years before the Good Friday Agreement. My Gen Z-er was out of phase: “Siri, what’s the fanciest hotel in Belfast?” Lo and behold, we found ourselves in the five-star Fitzwilliam right in the heart of the city – sleek modern style but warm atmosphere, with welcoming, not stuffy staff who were happy to chat.
In the living room, afternoon tea (in Northern Ireland?) was served as we perched on white sofas with Instagrammable glamour. Heroically generous, we ate so many sandwiches and fancies that we couldn’t manage another bite before breakfast.
But there was a lot to cram before that. To say Belfast has been transformed is an understatement; the peace dividend brought high street shopping, bustling restaurants and the Titanic experience, a world-class attraction that tells the wondrous and terrible story of the world’s largest ship and those who embarked on its journey fateful inaugural in a living and heartbreaking life.
Then we felt very emotionally drained – so we went to the pub, obviously. It’s the Irish Way, my child. The first stop was the city’s most iconic pub and the former Victorian Gin Palace. Grade A listed and National Trust owned, The Crown Bar is a vision of mosaic floor and carved ceiling, mahogany cubicles, etched stained glass and original 1820s gas lamps.
But it was live music we were looking for, so we headed to Madden (google it, seriously – after all the revelry, I don’t know where it is). Upstairs – where a group of traditional musicians were playing at full throttle – we sat comfortably when a group offered to regroup and launched into a surprisingly energetic conversation about Game of Thrones, even if we didn’t. had never seen.
The white wine was terrible; nothing but individual bottles of Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio, I followed it up with the rose, which was arguably worse. I have been assured that every pub serves it as standard. That’s enough to drive a girl to Guinness.
Later, we drifted to Kelly’s Cellars, where there was a singer singing country crossovers and the wine was – ah but you’re way ahead of me. Lily sampled her first harp before a nightcap (and more live music) at the Fitzwilliam’s bar.
There, as everywhere, we had a friendly chat with visitors and locals – and there was Albarino! Maybe a little too much, actually, but crack (only outsiders insist on renaming it ‘craic’) was awesome.
Luckily the beds were like sleeping on clouds, which alleviated any hangovers – so the next morning we took a political Black Taxi tour through Belfast’s most notorious hotspots. Our driver showed us murals on Catholic Falls Road and gruesome memorials to the Protestant Shankill.
He attempted to be impartial, but his account was skewed by the long surgical scar resulting from a British Army rubber bullet which ricocheted off a wall and hit him in the head while he was lying. teenager. A brief coma and a few metal plates later, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.
We stopped to sign the ‘peace’ wall – one of about 40 walls in the city that have been erected to separate loyalist and nationalist communities. We were both shocked to find that the gates to West Belfast are still locked every night; a bitter legacy of the divisions that still exist on the furthest fringes, even as ordinary people have moved on with gratitude.
Our driver asked if we would like a photo near the doors. It didn’t fit, so we hesitated – Lily is appalled that in 2022, more than 20 years after the end of The Troubles, part of the UK is indeed living under a curfew.
Calm and cocooning
Once back downtown, we strolled to St George’s Market, where we browsed the arts and crafts stalls, bought some wonderfully unusual jewelery from local silversmiths Banshee and picked up some lovely – and, at £15 each, beautifully affordable – woodcuts as first Christmas presents.
And then off we went to visit my sister in Carrickfergus – home to the imposing Norman castle built in 1177, recently visited by the new Prince and Princess of Wales. From there, we took the scenic route to our final destination: the four-star Galgorm Resort and Spa in Ballymena, set in 163 acres of parkland with the River Maine tumbling down the chic outdoor hot tubs and heated cabins on its banks. .
“Fancy outdoor spas? In Northern Ireland? I shouted. “It’s amazing. So lush. And tasteful. Other than that big plastic heron on the rock. Yuck. Kinda cheesy, don’t you think?”
My daughter chose a dignified silence as the heron strode away, flew away, and haughtily walked away. My fault.
Galgorm turned out spectacular; beautiful, ingenious landscaping, century-old apple trees laden with late autumn fruit in the walled garden, outdoor hot tubs and hidden saunas that you come across as you walk around.
Our lodge was a stone’s throw from the thermal garden – and yes, I have reached the age where I must say; the bed was fabulous too. I don’t know what’s going on with the wine, but Northern Ireland can’t be beaten when it comes to mattresses.
My signature rebalancing massage – on a bed of warm quartz sand, with bamboo rollers added to a meditative soundscape, no less – was among the best I’ve had. Could it be because the oil was infused with CBD or cannabidiol, an active ingredient present in cannabis (but not the psychoactive one)? I think probably.
For the record, Lily and I managed to tear ourselves away for the short trip to the famous Dark Hedges, a 20 minute drive away. It was far too sunny for there to be any sense of menace, but the strong wind blowing through the canopy of crackling leaves gave it a differently unsettling (i.e. hugely satisfying) atmosphere.
Then it was back to the luxury of lounging on heated waterbeds. There was live music in the bar every night from 10pm, but that was way too late for us. Instead, we noted that the absolutely authentic heron had returned as we settled into the palm grove for El Dorado cocktails at dusk.
Once upon a time, I might have shouted “Sophisticated sunsets? In Northern Ireland?” – but my daughter suggests a more verbal, less awkward update to reflect a place that has truly changed.
“Sophisticated aperitifs? Of course, it’s Northern Ireland.
Judith and Lily were guests of the Fitzwilliam Hotel (fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com), where a two-night City Escape package costs from £600, and Galgorm (028 2588 1001; galgorm.com), which offers breaks from two nights from £675. for two; the price includes a spa treatment, access to the spa village, afternoon tea and dinner.