Archives for category: Irish Culture

Before I went to Belfast, I put together a short list of things you… er, I, didn’t know about Belfast.  Then later at the beginning of the trip, I put together an even shorter list of radically cool things.

Yeah, I didn’t know jack back then.

Uh, a month ago.

Y’know… waaaaaay back.

When I was younger and much less sophisticated and worldly than I am now.

But NOW… oh, friends, NOW, I need to issue a serious revision.

Big time.

Must be done. 

Lemme just say it now:  BELFAST ROCKS!

It’s an amazing city and a grrrrreat!!!! place to visit.  You need to put Northern Ireland on your short list, immediately.

(you’re still here?  I said:  put it on your short list!)


(Ok, if you’re asking this NOW, you clearly haven’t been reading my blog closely enough.  Get on that, please.)

Here’s my list of all the stuff I discovered in 3 short weeks that I love about Belfast and Northern Ireland.  (And let’s be clear here:  I was working 10-15 hour days, including weekends, so if I can find all this when I was distracted by this crazy *work* thing, imagine what you can find if you go there just for fun.)

Let’s go:

1.  The people – Gosh, how do I even describe the generosity, openness and friendliness of the people of Belfast?  Belfast City Council, MCI, the Hilton, all the community/voluntary/statutory professionals, even random strangers in the market.  Everyone I met was just smashing… and beyond accommodating, even when you’re vegan.  And Americans have the rep of being friendly out-and-about in the world?   Go to Ireland, friends.  We got nuthin’ on them.

2.  Architecture – I totally loved the mix of ancient buildings with ornate styles right beside brand new, highly stylized and glass-abundant buildings.  The architecture mix was a huge contributor to my overall impression of Belfast that it’s got a rich sense of history with a forward-looking perspective.  Love that.

3.  Titanic Museum – Gosh, simply a GREAT museum.  Inspiring and moving too.  Loved loved loved it.  Also love that it was a huge gamble on the part of the city that is handsomely paying off.  A Must Do.

4.  Black Cab Tour – Excellent tour.  Peter, our guide, really inspired me with his own story of living through the Troubles and making it to the other side.  Must Do.

5.  Victoria Square and downtown shopping – Another Must Do that I didn’t do enough.  What a great outdoor shopping area this is… is it just me or are clothes cooler in Europe?  I had 2-ish happy hours just wandering around stores on the first Saturday morning with a soy latte in hand, happy as a clam.  But that was it.  Sigh.  There is a black leather(-like!) jacket that has my name on it in Next.  If I wouldn’t have been working so blooming much, it would’ve come back in my suitcase.  (see? this whole *work thing* interfered in numerous ways…)

6.  Restaurants – Gosh, fabulous restaurants.  We went to some truly delish places – Ox, Shu, Deane’s spring immediately to mind – and they also did a wonderful job of accommodating my dietary preferences.  I didn’t even have to play the Cancer card to get a vegan meal, either.  They just cooked me up some plants because they’re nice like that (see #1).  Bless these lovely establishments.

7.  Countryside – Ah, the Emerald Isle.  Yes… it’s quaint, green, rolling-hilled… exactly what you’d expect.  I didn’t see much but what I did see?  Beautiful.

8.  Giant’s Causeway and the Northern Coast – Fabulous.  (am I overusing this adjective?)  The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it should be.  Must Do.

9.  Clean Air – As a cancer survivor, I am thrilled and delighted to breathe fresh clean air.  I did, a lot.  One of the cab drivers told me that they brought children to Ireland after Chernobyl to heal, due to the clean air.   Yes, please.

10.  Castles – Alas, I only got to see two, Dunluce Castle and Stormont Castle, which is where we met an Assistant Deputy Minister for discussions about Belfast’s deprivation and how to move beyond segregation.  Both beautiful but want to see more.  Love castles.  Want to live in one.  Preferably with a turret.

11.  Sense of History – Ah, history.  Belfast has history in spades and, most seemed to agree, is still living their tumultuous history for a couple more generations.  It is a rich and difficult history, to be sure, but also a study in human behavior, which is why it’s so fascinating.

12.  Revitalization and Inspiration – This is perhaps the thing I loved the most about Belfast:  even though the legacy of the Troubles is difficult, it was so incredibly inspiring to me to see so many people rising to the occasion and working so hard to make Belfast a better place.  Admittedly, this is a Survivor’s perspective (something I know a teeny bit about):  the deepest sadness and fear – the worst things that happen – also bring out the absolute best in humanity.  I found it incredibly inspiring, not unlike making it to the other side of my own personal trial.  Hooray for coming out the other side!

13.  City Hall – Our workplace for 3 weeks!  A great, historic building.  We presented in the Great Hall, which was virtually destroyed in WWII.  The sound of the city rushing by as we walked to this inspiring building every day… priceless.

14.  Game of Thrones – What an unexpected pleasure it was to find out after I left home that my favorite show (right up there with Sopranos, Seinfeld) is filmed in Belfast.  The countryside and Northern coast reminded me of the show and touring the set was absolutely marvelous, a real treat!  There are even Game of Thrones tours all around Northern Ireland too…  so many things to do, so little time.  Sigh.

15.  Cathedrals – I got to visit three:  St. Anne’s, St. Peter’s and the Clonard Monestary cathedral.  Awe-inspiring, beautiful.

16.  Running by the Lagan River – I did this several times, but there’s nothing like that first time (here), which is when I saw a fox.  A fox!  In a city!  I never saw a real fox before… y’know, one that was alive.  So cool.  I love it that there are so many green spaces and walking trails.  Needed way more time to explore….

17.  Seagulls and Cathedral Bells – The first and last sounds I heard every morning and night were the sounds of St. Anne’s chimes and the scream of seagulls.  An unusual auditory juxtaposition but so iconic.

18.  Crumlin Road Prison – Fascinating.  Eerie.  I definitely would be too chicken to do the paranormal tour at night.

19.  Belfast Community Circus – I was so incredibly inspired by the children and teenagers in this circus.  It was but one example of integrated programs going on in Belfast that is breaking down the traditional boundaries between community backgrounds.  Awesome.

20.  St. George’s Market – Another favorite, just a stone’s throw from our hotel.  I got to have lunch a couple times and breakfast once at the market.  Loved the sun streaming in the sunlights on throngs of people shopping and eating and bustling about.

21.  Fish n’Chips – It’s all in the post.  Don’t read it if you’re hungry.  Yum.

22.  Wheaten Bread – Another major yum.  Must Eat.

23.  Van Morrison – Aww, I’m chillin’ to my Born to Sing CD as I write this.  Perfect.

24.  C.S. Lewis and Queen’s University –  Loved the little reading room at Queen’s.  Also loved the architecture of the university, as well as how many of our friends at City Hall went there.  As a product of my local (small) undergraduate university, I’m totally down with finding educational value and rigor right under your nose.

25.  Bushmill’s Distillery – Another grand tourist venue and the impetus for the best Mommy’s Gone For Work gifts I’ve ever gotten for Steve.  They have a single malt Irish whiskey that’s aged for 12 years that you can only get on site.  So I did.  Yes, I did give up that much space in my suitcase for Steve.

26.  Belfast Culture Night – This was like an enormous street party that spilled onto multiple streets.  Such a great way to get people downtown.  Another fabulous example of the creative ways Belfast is overcoming segregation and having tons of innovative fun in the process.

27.  Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge – Scary, fun, spectacular scenery.  Loved looking out over the water to Scotland, while hearing waves crashing on cliffs and a cool breeze through my hair.

28.  Crowne pub – Deirdre would squash me if I forgot Guinness at the Crowne.  So I didn’t.  (No, really… it was cool.  All pub-y and Victorian.  Y’know.  Cool, not like a bar.  Soooo American. *scoff*)

Whew, I’m sure I’m forgetting something here…. but as you can see, I’ve got more in this list than I had days in Northern Ireland.  There were many things I would have loved to see but didn’t have time for too:  the zoo, Carrickfergus Castle, Belfast Castle, Cave Hill, Ulster Museum…  more shopping.  Lots, lots more shopping.

So, here’s the nutshell version:  go to Belfast, but not for work.  You won’t be sorry.  #smartercities Challenge


Remember that Van Morrison lives in Belfast and is about to receive a Freeman of Belfast award?

Cool, right?

I think so too.

So how cool it to open a very thoughtful thank you gift from the Belfast City Council and see this:


They tell me he doesn’t do many autographs…  shucks, and there’s one just for lil ol’ me.

I am really touched.

Thank you to Jayne, my friends at the City Council and Van Morrison.  I am deeply honored to have been able to come to your wonderful, dynamic city.  You are an inspiration. 

Here’s a tune from the CD so you can enjoy with me too, friends.  Open the Door (To Your Heart).  Take it away, Mr. Van Morrison…

#smartercities Challenge

Yep, I’m afraid that on Day 20 of 21 days in Belfast, I went to jail.  Directly to jail, without even passing Go.   You’d think after a long project, successful presentation and far too much time seeing the inside of meeting rooms, I’d leave with more of a whimper than a bang, wouldn’t ya?

Maybe I just went off the rails.

Maybe it was the fatigue.

The stress.

The intense pressure we were under…

[mischievous cackle here]

Ok, seriously?

Tell me you REALLY think I was in jail!  Haven’t I given you the impression I’m a responsible professional in this blog at ALL?

(omigosh, I would be total TOAST at work if I went to jail!!  My manager would freak!  What would my parents say?  My husband!  My poor kids!  C’mon, folks!  I shudder to think of it….)

Alright, here’s the real scoop…

The jail I’m speaking of is Crumlin Road Gaol, a former prison where they sent people during the Troubles, now a museum.  Our most excellent Black Cab tour guide Peter suggested it as a very depressing, but interesting, tour so when Sandy, Nick and I found ourselves with two whole FREE hours on the afternoon of our last day, we took our Mission Completed Afterglow and off we went.

Some photos for your viewing pleasure… (don’t forget, if you click on one of the photos in the gallery below, you’ll get a slideshow!)  #smartercities Challenge

It’s Monday.  We’re working on the presentation and final report.  It feels like we’ve been doing that for DAYS… oh wait, we have.  It’s a long day to just sit in a room and type and review, discuss, type, review, discuss, type, review, discuss…

You’re getting the idea, right?  Real glamorous.

HOWEVER, as you may have realized, I inadvertently learned on the way here that the only (ONLY) TV show I watch – Game of Thrones – is filmed in Belfast, as well as around various countryside locations in Northern Ireland. I’ve been simply giddy with excitement about that little fact, so much so, that I worked it into my self-introduction during our project launch, in front of about 90 people from around Belfast.  I think I said something like I was excited to be in Belfast because it seemed somehow poetic and historic to come to the UK since my dad is English, right up until I learned that Game of Thrones is filmed here.

Got a good laugh with that one, I did.

Well, do you know these lovely folks immediately started working on getting a tour of the studio together?  And then, of course I felt guilty when I found out it was scheduled Monday afternoon, since we’ve been working ridiculous hours since Thursday to try to get our final presentation and report done.  My team decided I should still go, because I’ve apparently been yapping my face off about Game of Thrones since we’ve been here.

(It was all fine until taxi driver I was interrogating about actors he’d come across let on to the rest of the team that the show is full of sex and violence.  Totally blew my sweet-n-innocent cover.  Thanks a lot, dude.)

So, today was the big day.  It’s nasty, drizzling and grey as we made our way down to Titanic Studios.  It’s an enormous building formerly used for painting enormous ships like the Titanic…  by enormous, I mean it’s 64,000 square feet, divided into 4 different sets.   Yeah, and there was a big sign that said NO PHOTOS, which the girls (Clare, Deirdre and June went with me) helpfully pointed out as we walked across the lot.

Paul, the Studio Manager, gave us the tour – he’s a great guy and a former Irish language teacher who got a call one day in 2007 about some pilot that was filming in Belfast and could he come and help out?

So we walk through a little door into this absolutely cavernous building with ceilings that I think he said were like 80 or 90 feet high.  When you walk in, you could see a bunch of plywood and scaffolding stuff.  Not thrilling until you walk through a little tunnel into one of the four sets.  Here’s what we got to see:

1.  Tyrion’s chambers:  It included separate sections that are his bedroom and several other adjoining rooms.  None of the furniture or set dressing was there, like in this photo below:

(Tyrion Lannister, photo credit UK Daily Mail)

2.  A new set for Daenerys that will be used in Season 4.  It looked like a pyramid with a large bench-like throne at the top of a bunch of steps with a pool of water around them and intricate designs in blue and gold painted on a stone walls and floor.  There was a silent waterfall on a glass mosaic on one side.  This is the first set created by the new set designer and it was freakin’ spectacular!!!

(Daenerys, photo credit:

3.  The upstairs set for Daenyrus’ private suite in the pyramid, also for Season 4.  There were some incredible, very intricate doors that apparently made by laser cutting wood into amazingly detailed shapes.  Awesome.  It’s a new set, new location, so now I can’t wait to see what happens!!  She apparently goes out onto the balcony to look across the Narrow Sea.  Hmmm….  what’s up there??

4.  An ice mountain, also used in Season 4 when Jon Snow apparently is caught in an avalanche.  The actors had to actually use ice picks and spiked boots to climb the set piece, which was made of plywood and styrofoam and covered in candle wax and sprinkled with salt to look snowy.  It looked very realistic!  Because they had to basically destroy the set for each shot of the avalanche, it was filmed during the day, then the set people had to rebuild the set every night for 3 1/2 weeks for the next day’s shoot.  (Can you imagine??) 

I haven’t seen Season 4 yet… (Steve’s got 10 episodes taped for when I get home), but since John Snow is my favorite I had to ask if he is dead.  He is not.  Whew, thank goodness.  Eye candy, ladies, have a gander:

That’s what I’m talking about.  (Jon Snow, photo credit:

5.  Ice maze, also used in Season 4.  This is apparently part of some scenes involving trenches at The Wall (I haven’t seen yet!), which, incredibly, were build on an elevated platform out of huge styrofoam blocks.  The camera crew are  actually are underneath the set during filming.  Whoa.

(The Wall, photo credit:

6.  And…. the Iron Throne.  This set of the throne room is really big, really cool.  The room is big but surprisingly small compared to how it looks on camera.  The throne itself has quite a bit of metal on it, although there was a little section chipped out of the seat and it seemed to be partly wood too, with maybe some sort of foam as well.  I don’t know, I’m clearly not a set designer.  Again the painting to simulate reddish stone walls and floor was so realistic, with detailing of stylized rabbits around the balcony walls.

(Iron Throne, photo credit:

All the chandeliers were gas-fed and lighted with fire, although there was no lighting in any of the sets today.  The painting on all the sets was really amazing – it looked like marble and stone in different colors.  Gosh, thinking of how amazing the settings are on the show, it was really incredible to see them close up.  No wonder the show is getting so much recognition and is such a visual extravaganza.

While we were looking at the various sets, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) was there filming.  The Studio Manager said he’s a great guy and likes to play pranks all around the studio.  He also said that all the actors are really nice and that the actor who plays Joffrey is actually quite soft spoken, a great testament to his acting chops!

Perhaps the coolest part of all this is that the show employees between 700 to 800 residents of Belfast and is clearly bringing a lot to the local economy.  We walked by lots and lots of semi-circular workshops and trailers that were marked with signs like Special Effects and Drapes.  We could see people in the shops tinkering around a bit too.  They use a lot of local craftspeople, like bricklayers and other construction and artistic effects folks.   Happily, they’ve recently had a massive uptick in studio tours, mostly Americans.  When we were waiting for our cab to head back to work, a bunch of guys kept showing up at the front gate for extras casting calls and Clare said she had read in the local newspaper they’re looking for men with beards.

All in all, a fun peek inside the coolest show since… hmmm, The Sopranos, I think?  If you’re not watching it, you need to get on that, immediately.  June, Clare and Deirdre seemed convinced that they oughta check it out just from seeing the sets.  You can rent it from Netflix.

We now return to our regularly scheduled work marathon….  #smartercities Challenge

Alright, even though you’re going to think I’m making this post up, I swear I’m not…

It’s Sunday and we’ve been at it for hours in our conference room in the Hilton.  The staff here have been attentive and empathetic, so they come every now and then, to check if we need anything, sigh and leave again.  So, our sweet lady who brings us jugs of hot water and coffee appears at our door and says:

“How would you like a wee break?  We’ve got a bouncy house and a rodeo thing…. c’mon with me.”

There is a Chicken Wing conference down the hall from our work room.

I promise I’m not kidding.

I can’t invent a Chicken Wing Conference in Belfast, people.  I may be creative, but let’s be serious here…

We follow her through some back hallways of the hotel past wait staff pushing carts of chicken wings to a large ballroom with round tables covered with white tablecloths.  Hundreds of colorful balloons enliven a small dance floor.  In one corner, a huge bouncing house, yellow and blue.  In the other, a bucking bull ride.  And for us, 10 minutes of bouncing, crashing, bucking and laughing hysterically.

Bouncing is surprisingly exhausting when you’re past a certain age.  Like ten.  Who knew?

Great.  Fabulous. 

Back to work.

But she just came back and said there is apparently a cross-dressing comedian coming on in about an hour. 

Good grief.  Truth is stranger than fiction, friends.  #smarterCities Challenge

iPhone 013

So I have a little confession….  I broke the rules of My Lifestyle today.  Big time.  I guess if you’re going to break your own rules, you gotta do it with flair, right?  I sure did…  are you ready?  Don’t tell anyone:
I ate some mighty fine, real fish n’chips, right here in Northern Ireland.  (shhhhhhhhhhh!)

Oh yes I did.

Not those nasty, pretend fish n’chips with the soggy coating and chips cut too thin.  (America, I’m looking at you)  Or, heaven forbid, the kind that come with…. (gasp)… tarter sauce. 

Goodness no.

I’m talking about the kind of fish n’chips that come in a paper box, with firm white fish that flakes with just a little pressure from the tines of your (preferably plastic) fork.  The kind you douse with malt vinegar like you’re putting out a fire.  Where the fries are screaming hot, yet rendered even crispier with a good coating of salt.

Oh yeah, and I had a side order of mushy peas.

Mushy peas? 

WTH are mushy peas, you ask?

Um, they’re peas that have been mushed.  Let’s not make this complicated, shall we?

(Hi Dad… of course the mushy peas weren’t as good as yours.  Right, right… no, no, the fish wasn’t as good as in England either.  No, really.  Trust me.  I promise there was no comparison.  Would I lie to you?)

Ohmigod….  this is a meal that takes me right back to being a kid with a proper English father.  When I was 10 years old, we went to England to visit my sister and her new baby Linz (yep, the Linz I had my Vegas weekend with at the beginning of this adventure, nice job remembering that detail!).  I remember getting fish n’chips wrapped in newspaper and devouring every crispy bite, then licking oil off my fingers.  When I was older, BK (Before Kids, you know… that other life all parents barely remember) and newly married, we visited Linz in England again and again I had some honest-to-goodness fish n’chips.  It’s a Must-Do in the UK, friends.

Ah, memories….

So imagine my surprise and delight when I saw a proper chippy a block from our hotel (for you Yanks, a chippy is a proper fish n’chip shop).  So I’ve been yapping about getting some for days and finally got the opportunity tonight when I convinced Steve and Nick to go with me.   Oh yesssssssssss…..

Only difference now from Those Glorious Years Of My Youth is that I’m now, ahem, vegan and don’t eat that kind of stuff.

But I did, just once, tonight.

And while it satisfied both my tastebuds and my nostalgia, my tummy is thinking we ain’t doing that again.  That’s ok, it was worth every tasty, glorious bite.  #smartercities Challenge

In yesterday’s Radically Cool post, I mentioned that the City Council had decided to give Van Morrison an award.  Today I’m able to add a bit more color:  the award is Freeman of Belfast.  Here is a photo from our tour of City Hall showing the award recipient in 2012, Dame Mary Peters (the one prior to that was given in the 80s, so they don’t do this a whole lot):


Then later, when we were touring Belfast, our driver stopped by Van Morrison’s house, which was in the middle of a street of very uniform rowhouses:


DSC01037  #smartercities Challenge



View of the River Lagan from hotel

Grey clouded sky

Still grey river, a slight mist in the cold air

Decorative iron fence along the water

Brick wall

Passerby huddling into her coat

Spiral razor wire on top of a fence


Bridge arching over the river

Silence along the path

Sharpened iron spikes like knives on top of fence

White striped bark of a small grove of birch trees

Rippled green iron wall

Iron fence

Bushy-tailed fox darts across the road and through slats in a tall fence

Wooden fence

Brick wall

Razor wire

Orange brick terraced houses

Fish and chip shop

Closed metal garage doors closed over shops

Traffic increasing

Old stone buildings beside modern, glass and steel shops

Cobblestone roundabout  #smartercities Challenge


1.  Just yesterday, the Belfast City Council decided to give Van Morrison an award from the city.  Our IBM meeting and dinner sandwiched that meeting.  I think the ceremony will happen after we leave.

Sink to the left and the toilet is through that door in the center that's ajar.  There are 3 stained glass windows above the door to the loo.

Sink to the left and the toilet is through that door in the center that’s ajar. There are 3 green stained glass windows above and a similar stained glass window in the door.

2.  In the Lord Mayor’s suite in City Hall, there is a bathroom just off the formal dining room that is an exact replica of bathrooms on the upper class cabins of the Titanic (Nope, didn’t use it.  I know you were wondering).

3.  Get ready, this is The Big One…. drum roll, please….  That most excellent show Game of Thrones is filmed in Belfast.

Oh, yes it is. 

I know!  How cool is that?

I am totally going to see the place they shoot, which is apparently very close to my hotel, in the Titanic Quarter and maybe a couple other places.  I will find it.  Stand by for photos, friends.

I found that one out on the plane sitting in Newark, from two nice gentlemen who sat in my row and live in small towns outside of the city.   One of them knows someone who one time waited on the actor who plays Joffrey Baratheon in a local restaurant.  He’s apparently nice in real life.  Talk about being an incredible actor….   #smartercities challenge

Northern Ireland first appears as a patchwork quilt of green rumpled over a grey expanse of sea.   Closer, there is an icy wind that whistles through the taxi as we pass stone houses nestled into gently sloping hills, orange bricked towns and into the small city of Belfast.   The Challenge has begun.    #smartercities Challenge