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Dublin and Belfast Spotlight

A Tale of Two Cities

By John Butler

March 7th, 2008

I notice it first from the air, as my plane banks across the bay preparing to land in Ireland’s capital city. The sprawl of Dublin is striking from high above; a maze of streets bisected by the River Liffey stretching far out to the west. Dublin is still a beautiful, evocative place, but it can no longer be regarded as small. Tremendous development drags the city limits further inland every year, and from my vantage in the sky it’s hard to see much green at all.

It’s a radically different city from the ramshackle hometown I left in 1995. A decade of unprecedented economic growth has recast Dublin as a hub of commerce: a multiethnic European capital teeming with bars, shopping, bold architecture, and a truly world-class cultural calendar of music and theater. The outer suburbs in which I was raised have become hip inner suburbs; the old inner suburbs are now part of the city center. The place I left exists only as a figment of my romantic memory.

Or does it? Less than a two-hour drive north of Dublin along a newly constructed motorway, another capital city is tucked between the foothills of the Mourne mountains and the Irish sea. It’s a compact, atmospheric port town at the mouth of the Lagan river, with a burgeoning arts scene, fantastic food, and a metropolitan area that can be covered easily on foot. You can find historical landmarks and inviting pubs at every turn, and just beyond the city, verdant rolling hills and bucolic villages. In the parlance of fashionistas, Belfast could be the new Dublin.

Yes, Dublin is in the Republic of Ireland and uses the euro, while Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland are part of Great Britain and use the pound, but the cities now share some striking similarities. In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, signed by the British and Irish governments in 1998, Belfast is invested with a sense of immense possibility, yet it has the same small-scale charm that put Dublin in the spotlight.

In some ways, the recent story of Ireland is encapsulated in this tale of two cities. Too often, people fly into Shannon or Dublin and point their compass southwest, to the Ring of Kerry and the Blarney Stone. Those landmarks have plenty to recommend them, but you can find hauntingly beautful landscapes, great accommodations, and many of the most welcoming people on this island between the two metropolises. You can enjoy a walking tour that takes in Dublin’s best bets and then browse Belfast, from landmarks of its stormy political past to those of its progressive, prosperous present.

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