Just prior to 3 pm, twenty-three bodies filtered into the mini tour bus outside of the Gardner Integrated Athletic Center in order to make our 9:20 pm flight (That’s right, we had a window of just over six hours. Coach Mucci takes no chances).
Our close quarters and traffic-laden ride to the airport ignited the usual discussions and arguments amongst the team: the most deserving NBA MVP candidate from last season (clearly should have been Kevin Garnett) and Brent Anderson’s disgust with what he sees as a trivial conservative presence on campus.
Game 2 of the National League Championship Series helped to fill our abundance of free time. The Philly faithful of Dave Nowacki, Matt Stitt, Ben McDowell and Joel Michel made sure to continually harass the lone West Coast representative and Dodger fan, Alex Schwada.
Admittedly, 9:20pm arrived quicker than expected and without any major hiccups, we boarded Continental Airlines transatlantic flight #94 twenty-three deep. So far so good!
After six hours of real time and 12 hours off our clock, we finally stepped foot onto the Emerald Isle. Much of our party is considerably jetlagged (As I write, my roommate Joel is fully clothed in bed and snoring without regard to my future hearing capabilities). I, however, have escaped the bug thanks to midterm week’s ability to virtually erase sleep from my schedule and a terribly boring choice on my part for an in-flight movie, “Swing Vote”. (Do yourself a favor and skip out on that one.) The combination of the two produced a solid six-hour plane-nap for me. But I digress.
Situated some 20 kilometers outside the city limits, the Belfast airport sits among some of the greenest countryside the earth has to offer. The slow and steady yearlong rainfall that the island receives produces an incredibly lush landscape.
Our ride is accompanied by the newest member of our party, Paul, who will serve as our driver and tour guide for the duration of our stay in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Paul, however, is not the only expert on the trip. Tom Foley and his son Andrew have also accompanied us for the experience. Tom is the CEO of the Red Cross in Philadelphia and a former professional basketball player in Northern Ireland. Between Tom and Paul, there isn’t much that cannot be explained in regards to “The Troubles”, the name given to the conflict that has plagued the island for much of the past half-century.
Before we had the opportunity to check in to our hotel, Paul and Tom bombarded the team with an anecdotal history of Belfast. As the tour bus meandered through the city, the dynamic tour duo of Paul and Tom (the team is currently thinking of a catchy name for this pair) pointed out historically significant sites. While my recounting of their stories will surely do them no justice, here are some highlights of our preliminary tour of Belfast:
Our first stop was City Hall, built in 1902. Composed of a weathered stone and including incredibly detailed stone sculptures, the building was situated in the busier section of the city, as a few tourists joined the team in stopping for a few snapshots. “The Belfast Wheel” (basically a well-kept Ferris wheel) hugged the left wing of City Hall, giving tourists a view of the entire city. The team is planning a late-night visit to the wheel.
Another spot that produced some incredible photos was the Stormont Estate, the current seat of the Northern Island government. Virtually empty thanks to renovations and weekend restrictions, the team had the grounds almost to itself. A long, arrow-straight avenue leads to the majestic building, which sits atop a steady incline. The avenue starts at the bottom of the hill and makes it way up to the front steps of the Stormont, creating an incredible view from the building’s entrance.
In addition to these two picturesque stops, the city tour mainly involved driving around to get a feel for the incredibly unsettling history of “The Troubles”. As previously mentioned, “The Troubles” refers to the time period when Northern Ireland had been a battleground between the Nationalists, who desired a unified Irish island (usually Catholic), and the Unionists, who wished to express their loyalty to the British (usually Protestant). For some time now, there has been peace in Northern Ireland. The past, however, is still very much alive in the city of Belfast. For example:
-Some buildings still lay in ruins within low-income districts of the city.
-The Europa Hotel, famous for holding the world record as the most bombed hotel in the history of the world (34 times), remains in service to this day.
-A gate separating the Catholic (Nationalists) and Protestant (Unionists) sections of the city known as the “Peace Gate” remains intact. The gate was closed to separate the two sections during times of uprising.
-And most poignant of all, murals infest the city’s residential and commercial buildings. On virtually every street corner, a mural remains from “The Troubles”. The incredibly detailed murals convey chilling messages to its audience. Some display rallying cries by the paramilitary groups that had been responsible for a majority of the violence while others honor the fallen victims of the turbulent times. (Some 3,000 have died in the past 30 years. Compared to the population of the island, this is a staggering figure. If the United States were to experience a proportionally similar murder rate, it would cost the lives of over 300,000 victims.)
Tonight will end with a team dinner and a night out on the town. With our first game tomorrow night, we are going to try and experience Northern Ireland’s nightlife without hindering our play. We will see how that goes!