A Taste of Winter in Northern Ireland

Our trip to Northern Ireland this past weekend was off to a great start… we departed early Friday morning (almost on time) heading to our first stop in Belfast.  Just as on past trips, we were greeted in the city by our guides from Black Taxi Tours for a political tour of Belfast.  After the insightful tour students were given a bit of time to wander the city, many taking the free tour of Belfast City Hall.  In the late afternoon we hopped back on the bus and headed to the village of Ballintoy on the northern coast.  Again, just as on trips in the past, we arrived at our hostel where we had a lovely meal, a lovely evening and a lovely sleep.

We got up on Saturday morning to a clear sky and bright sunshine…. what a wonderful day we were looking forward to!

On our walk to the first stop of the day, Ballintoy Harbour, a cold wind started to pick up from the north.  As we got closer to the harbour, the wind grew stronger and it started to hail, then snow, and then sleet.  With the strong winds and unfriendly precipitation, we had a very short stay in the harbour… with many of us seeking shelter in the old lime kilns.  What was especially amazing was that, even though it was low tide,  the waves crashing on shore were some of the largest I’ve seen in the harbour (this was my fifth time running this trip)!

Waves coming in in Ballintoy Harbour: normally they just splash against the side of the rocks… NOT over them!
Incredible waves in Ballintoy Harbour

Returning to the bus very cold and very wet, we had to change our normal itinerary.  Instead of crossing Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (much too dangerous in the wind) we headed for the Giant’s Causeway where, miraculously, the sun made another appearance!  Unfortunately the sunshine was short lived and just as the bus arrived to take us to lunch the hail/sleet/snow returned!

A glimpse of sun at The Giant’s Causeway¬†

With such changeable weather we had to cancel the regular stops and instead headed to Harland & Wolff’s Thompson Graving Dock in Belfast.  The Thompson Dry Dock was opened in 1911 and the first ship to enter it was The Olympic, sister ship to The Titanic.  Both ships were fitted out in this dock before being sent on to their ports for their maiden voyages… as the saying goes, ‘She was perfectly fine when she left Belfast.’

Thompson Graving Dock

At the time it was built, Thompson Graving Dock was the largest  in the world.  For ships to enter the dock is flooded and once the back gate is secured, with the help of some very powerful steam pumps, the water is removed.  Using all three pumps the dock could be emptied in one hundred minutes… this is a rate equivalent to draining two olympic-size swimming pools every minute.

Our tour braved the cold to see, up close, the incredible size of the dock… and ships that were in it.

Gail, our lovely guide, holding up a photo showing the size of the Titanic while docked in Belfast… she reminded us that this was just the part you could see above the dock!
The dock itself.  The back wall is the gate to the dock which can be extended even further to accommodate large ships, like The Titanic

Though we had to change plans on essentially no notice, it was wonderful to see something new… to see the role Belfast had to play in a bit of world history.

Thompson Graving Dock is definitely worth a visit for history buffs… especially this year as it’s the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage!

Claire Gannon
Head Resident
Champlain College Dublin

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