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Phespirit goes to Northern Ireland
Belfast     July 2010

Phespirit's philosophy for the past fifteen years has been to enjoy as much foreign travel in as many different countries as possible. His apparent neglect of destinations in the U.K. has been strategic, his reasoning being that home holidays would be better left to later years when a downturn in health and/or finances might curtail trips abroad. Thankfully the process of his decline has not yet accelerated to tipping point. Rather it has been steadily overtaken by a yearning to see more of his own isles. Earlier in the year he went by train to northwest England for a weekend of art and football in Manchester, Salford and Rochdale. His next trip northwest was across the Irish Sea.

As Phespirit's flight descended towards George Best Belfast City Airport he was pleased to recognise the Northern Ireland he'd seen in pictures: grey towns and villages in a richly green landscape beneath a thick white sky. Belfast is much the same, but with the modern trappings of regeneration and grand echoes of commerce and industry. Phespirit explored the usual mix of galleries, churches and monuments, but he devoted most time to visiting four areas: Belfast Castle set in Cave Hill National Park; the divided communities of West Belfast; Ulster Museum in the university quarter; and the coastal road to the Giant's Causeway.

Belfast Castle and Cave Hill National Park offered Phespirit history and hiking. The current building was completed in 1870 but castles have stood on its site since the 12th century. Phespirit wasted several minutes trying to find the nine cat motifs set in the castle gardens (he only found eight) before setting off on the long looping Cavehill Trail that leads up and over the rocky ridge which towers above the castle and all of Belfast. Both the scenery and the view make the effort worthwhile.

In more troubled times, Phespirit's walk around West Belfast would have been unthinkable. Even now he was hesitant about revealing his English accent. Having taken a bus to the east end of the Peace Wall on Cepar Way, he walked west along its length, then south down Lanark Way through an old military checkpoint into Springfield Road. Turning left, he headed east again onto Falls Road, where he went south as far as Milltown Cemetery. Retracing his steps, he continued onwards to the northern end of Falls Road and into Divis Street before turning left onto Millfield, and left again onto Peter's Hill, which leads into Shankhill Road. Finally, after walking the length of Shankill Road he caught another bus back to the city centre. Throughout these walks, whenever Phespirit chanced upon a large political or paramilitary mural on the side of a building he photographed it, feeling uncomfortably conspicuous while doing so.

Much less tense was his coach trip out to Giant's Causeway on the North Antrim coast. He passed a leisurely two hours at the site of this extraordinary natural wonder. His journey there and back took in the prime tourist sights of Carrickfergus Castle, Cranlough, Old Bushmill's Distillery, Dunluce Castle, and the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. At the distillery Phespirit savoured the warmth of a 10 year-old Bushmill's, but it couldn't quite win him over to the cult of whiskey drinking.

His last morning was taken up in the Ulster Museum, which is effectively a national gallery, a natural history museum, and a national history museum all stacked into one. Phespirit particularly appreciated the geology section, but here - and throughout the whole museum - his peace was shattered by wave after wave of running, shrieking kids on a summer school trip. It's not so bad, though. If peace ever again has to be broken in Northern Ireland, what better way than through the happiness of its children?

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