One of the many incredible things about Ireland is its complete devotion to all things cultural. Upon arriving in Belfast, we discovered the effect this has on budget travelers – many museums are absolutely free. Given our budget, we had not expected to be able to gain access to many museums, a disappointment in Europe, a continent so rich in history. So for us, this free access was a revelation. Coming from Canada where tourist attractions almost always charge at least a small entrance fee, to be able to walk into the amazing, modern Ulster Museum in Belfast, located conveniently near to our hostel, and pay nothing for the privilege was awesome. And if that wasn’t enough, the museum itself is exceptional. The building is a mix of traditional and modern architecture, woven together when the new section was added on to the original structure.
Inside, we were given pamphlets advertising the various exhibits, and a map. The older man at the door encouraged us to take the stairs or elevator directly to the top floor, and follow the flow of the museum back down, taking in the displays on our way. In doing so, we got a mix of all the Ulster had to offer – dinosaur skeletons, art and pottery, historical artifacts, a display featuring clothing sketches and designs from 1930s Paris, and an entire section of the museum devoted to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, cataloguing the history of the conflict from start to present day, complete with photos and diagrams to help visitors understand the many issues involved.
Because entrance was free, we were able to start our tour in the morning, return to our hostel for a budget lunch, avoiding the expensive meals museums offer, and return not only in the afternoon, but also the following morning to continue our exploration. The entire exercise was very impressive, and an example for the world to follow.
The second major cultural endeavour taken by Ireland is Culture Night. One night in mid-September is designated for the entire country to participate in various cultural activities, open to the public, many of which are also free. Wherever you might be on the island, on that date look for whatever music, art shows, dance performances, or cultural gatherings may be happening. For us, we were fortunate to be in Belfast, which has a huge Culture Night, situated mostly around the Cathedral Quarter. The dark clouds loomed, but the rain held off, allowing us to enjoy a festive, celebratory night with loads of locals – something every traveler, though not every tourist, hopes to be able to do. At Saint Anne’s Cathedral we took in the music of Joni Mitchell from an Irish duo.
We ate crepes from one of many food trucks placed around the square. We watched small children learn how seeds turn into vegetables, and parents join their toddlers to wave streamers and dance along with two very energetic leaders.
We poked our heads into pubs, hair salons, coffee shops, and offices, all supporting local talent, all featuring a musical group or an art display, all free for the enjoyment of the public. From massive, music-blasting parties to guided meditation walks, huge sculptures covered in colourful knitted art, to the music of Nina Simone, there was something for everyone. And just as we thought we’d seen it all, we turned the corner to find a line of graffiti artists, beautifying a block of dingy building walls with their bright neon paint, and technique like I had never seen.Pure art, up for everyone to enjoy, right on the streets of Belfast.
For a city that has seen so much tension and conflict, it was fantastic to see the joy, celebration, and appreciation of art, music, and culture, and the coming together of – what felt to us like – the entire city. We would later learn that even in some of the tiny towns we visited there were Culture Night events to take in, and given the chance to return, I have no idea how we would choose which city or town in which to spend this amazing night. The festivities lasted long into the darkening hours, and we listened to the joyful – though not entirely tuneful – sounds of a local middle school band as we made our way back to our hostel.