Next stop – Belfast, Northern Ireland, which will be our “home” for the next 4 weeks. We had rented an apartment on Airbnb it was beautiful and in a great location. Robert (June’s brother) and Trina (his wife) are joining us for the next 7 weeks, so while we were waiting for them to arrive we started to explore the city! We walked a few blocks to the downtown where city hall stands tall and proud and right across the road from the city center, what do we see???? a brand new Tim Horton’s Café! Wow, an unexpected taste of Canada in the heart of Belfast.
June was getting excited for R&T’s arrival so we headed back to the apartment to have food and drinks ready. It was so great to see them! With the World Cup playoff starting and England playing Sweden, we found a local sports pub, ( Lavery’s is Belfast’s oldest family-owned pub, at the heart of the city’s social life for almost 100 years) just a block away and settled in for an exciting game of football (soccer for our North American friends). England was on the victorious side and moved onto the semi-finals. We headed back again a few nights later for the next game but this time the “home” team was not so lucky. It was fun to enjoy this “national pastime” with the locals. While we are here we joined a local gym for the month. It was a couple blocks away and was a nice environment to exercise in and it made us feel like this was our home.
Being in Belfast gave us the chance to reconnect with a colleague of Robert’s who works at Queens University. We had met Allan, and his wife Ann, in Honolulu years ago and then again last summer in Oregon for the solar eclipse. It was nice to see them again, this time at their home outside of Belfast for a nice dinner and evening. They are both a lot of fun and interesting people. Ann told many stories of her growing up in “The Troubles” which was the start of our education on this most turbulent part of Northern Ireland history.
The Troubles was an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century. Also known internationally as the Northern Ireland conflict, and the Conflict in Ireland it is sometimes described as a “guerrilla war” or a “low-level war”. As it would happen our apartment was just a block from “Sandy Row”, which is a staunchly loyalist area of Belfast, being a traditional heartland for affiliation with the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Orange Order. In 1690, on his way south to fight at the Battle of the Boyne, King William III of England and his troops travelled along Sandy Row. We took a very interesting walking tour of this neighborhood and the murals which was led by a local man that grew up during the fighting. He led us to believe that his generation were doing their best at trying to teach their kids ” to get along and change their thinking”. We shall see. There are over 2,000 murals in Northern Ireland. The first mural was painted in 1908 by Unionists. The objectives behind the murals were to mark one’s territory, show resistance and commemorate people who had died. Several themes can be seen on the murals: historical events of the 17th century like the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne, the First World War, the period known as The Troubles (late 1960s – 1998), sporting figures like George Best who was a famous football player, cultural figures like the children’s writer C.S. Lewis and icons like the Titanic. A community cohesion strategy set up by the Northern Ireland housing executive in 2015 aims to re-image Northern Ireland over a 10-year-period, by replacing paramilitary murals and sectional symbols with images of a shared history.
We also found ourselves in the middle of the “12th of July” celebrations and the Orangeman’s Parade. The Twelfth (also called the Glorious Twelfth or Orangemen’s Day) is an Ulster Protestant celebration held on 12 July. It began during the late 18th century in Ulster. It celebrates the Glorious Revolution (1688) and victory of Protestant king William of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. On and around the Twelfth, large parades are held by the Orange Order and Ulster loyalist marching bands, streets are bedecked with British flags and bunting, and large towering bonfires are lit. These bonfires were huge, 5 story’s high, made mostly of skids with Islamic, Irish Nationalist flags and Catholic symbols draped on it. Clearly sending a message, no outsiders welcome here. The heat was so intense we had to stand back at least 80m, and it was still hot! It was an incredible sight to see. Did I mention that this was at midnight and the party/celebration was just getting started! The next morning, at about 10:30 am the bands started marching by and continued for 2 hours or 11km one way! There were over 100 flute and drum bands, it was awesome to see and hear! Then they stopped, drank for a few hours and then turned around and came back, crazy. We watched for a while from our viewpoint on the 7th floor, but then decided we needed to go down and participate in all the craziness. We have NEVER seen SO much open drinking and drunkenness!!! And the garbage!!! so much garbage on the street, we couldn’t believe our eyes. This partying went on ALL day and then most of the night. By the next morning, other then a lot of hangovers, there was no sign of a party, the city had done a great job of cleaning up!
When we were looking for a sports pub to watch the World Cup we had found an article that listed the Top 10 Pubs in Belfast. We thought that it would be fun to create our own “pub crawl” including them all. Since we are not young anymore we decided to break it into two nights. Our first night we made a loop through the downtown and had a drink at Bittles Bar ( founded in 1868 ), Bullitt Hotel, Kelly’s Cellar ( one of our favorites, established in 1720 ), the Perch Rooftop Bar and The Crown ( another favorite, refurbished in 1885, and at least twice since, it is an outstanding example of a Victorian gin palace, and one of Northern Ireland’s best-known pubs.) . Irish Whiskey and cider were enjoyed all night!
Early the next morning we boarded a bus that took us back down to Dublin for the day. The main reason for going was to see a debate that evening between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. It was a beautiful sunny day and we enjoyed an excellent city tour, and toured the Old Library in the Long Room at Trinity College, built between 1712 and 1732, this library holds the collection’s 200,000 oldest books, it was magical! We then went to view the Book of Kells, sometimes known as the Book of Columba. This is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. For dinner we headed to a restaurant called The Bank. This site has been occupied since Viking times, as it is located in the oldest region of the city in close proximity to the viking Parliament. The interior, which was once the main banking hall, is a stunning example of merchant power and patronage displaying an extraordinary ornate setting, stained glass ceiling, mosaic tiled floors and spectacular hand carved plasterwork and cornicing. Gorgeous! Now it was time for the main event!!! The debate! We arrived to a sold-out venue, which kind of surprised us, and it was so hot!! It started late and it just got worse. It was more of a continued discussion carried on from a previous meeting in Vancouver. Much of the discussion was a bit over our heads, especially when Peterson was talking, Harris was better. It was definitely worth the experience and the basis for a great conversation with my other brother, Peter.
For the next 5 days we explored the country of Ireland. With our rented Mercedes we got on the motorway (in our mind the wrong side! ) and headed down south to Blarney, just outside of Cork. The main reason for visiting Blarney was to “kiss the Blarney Stone”. The Blarney Stone is a block of carboniferous limestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle. According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with the gift of the gab (great eloquence or skill at flattery). The stone was set into a tower of the castle in 1446. We knew it would be a tourist trap, but the castle itself was quite nice and the grounds were lovely . With the gift of gab now in us we headed over to the west coast of Ireland to the Cliffs of Moher. This is a fourteen kilometer stretch of sheer cliffs along the North Atlantic that reach a maximum height of 214 meters . They were spectacular! In total we hiked 28 km over 2 days with a gorgeous blue sky above us and a beautiful blue ocean below us. As we continued our tour we spent the night in Galway and enjoyed some traditional Irish music in a pub and then some street music to finish our day. Heading to Derry or Londonderry ( it depends on what side of religion or politics you are on as to what it is called ) we stopped at a small church at Drumcliff that had the gravesite of W.B. Yeats and then a lunch stop in Donegal before reaching our B&B on the Northern Ireland side Londonderry. We went across the river to the Ireland side and the city of Derry and walked around the old walls of the original fortified city from the 17th century. The events that followed the August 1969 Apprentice Boys parade resulted in the Battle of the Bogside, when Catholic rioters fought the police, leading to widespread civil disorder in Northern Ireland and is often dated as the starting point of the Troubles. Then we did a walking tour of the murals. Belfast and Derry contain arguably the most famous political murals in Europe. Murals commemorate, communicate and display aspects of culture and history. The themes of murals often reflect what is important to a particular community. They were all very powerful and thought provoking. We had 1 more stop to make on the way back to Belfast, which was at an old Irish Linen Mill that we had learned about at the Belfast Farmers Market. This place was not easy to find! After leaving the motorway, several km and many very narrow 2 way roads, we found it! It was a very interesting place, to say the least. The cottage (their house) was over two hundred years old. When their generator was working the wiring was knob and tub wiring but their generator was not working so all the lights were gas and had to be lit. The house was an almost a “museum” built over 200 years ago, but the real attraction was the Mill and the looms, which were almost as old! They had a few of them of different sizes and the “new” ones were from the turn of the 19th century. Marion was a fabulous host and gave us a tour and showed us how the looms worked and then Hermmann ( her husband ) came home from one of the flax fields. They came to Ireland from Germany to create linen like it used to be and now some forty years later they are living in the past but enjoying every minute of it. Hermmann spent the next couple hours showing us the “new” mechanical looms that were made in 1904. He showed us every stage of production right from the beating and weaving of the flax to getting the thread ready for the looms. I think he was just so happy to have Larry to talk to that he even invited us to stay for lunch and coffee, which was very generous but we declined as we needed to get back to the city.
Since we still had the car for 2 more days we did some sightseeing, along with R&T, that needed a car to get to. The first day we headed south of Belfast to the Mourne Mountains and the Slieve Binnian hike. This was a great hike that followed the Mourne Wall up the mountain seven hundred meters where we were rewarded with a gorgeous view , then circled around and headed back to a nice little café at the starting point. The next morning we headed out early to get up to the Giant’s Causeway before the tour buses arrived. This is a is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. In layman’s terms, a very cool rock formation with 40,000 pentagonal shaped columns all connected. Is this a 60 million year old story of science, or not?? The other story is about a giant dressing up as a baby to fool the Scottish giant who was his rival. Which is more fun??!! Our next stop was Bushmill’s Distillery where we tasted some Irish Whiskies. These were not our favourite and was just a preview of what was ahead of us in Scotland. Then a couple quick stops, one at Dunluce Castle and one at Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge this bridge links the mainland to the tiny Carrick Island. For centuries fishermen threw this precarious bridge across the gap to get to the island. The chasm (gap) is 24 metres deep and 18 metres across. The bridge is no longer used today by fishermen: they prefer to use a helicopter! We didn’t actually cross it, it was quite expensive to do, but we did enjoy a lovely walk and the view was spectacular! We finished the day with dinner by the seaside and a very nice scenic drive back to Belfast along the coast.
Without our rental car we went back to being “city people with no car” again. The first thing on the list was to finish our Belfast Pub Tour. This time we started off at the Sunflower Public House, a very small, very local pub (We ended up going back again the next night as the Belfast Ukulele Club was singing and playing and yes, it was a lot more fun then it sounded). The John Hewett Pub which was just Ok, The Duke of York which we really liked! When we asked the bartender for a recommendation for a whiskey she asked how much we wanted to spend, because the prices started at 4 pds up to a 1000 pds for a one ounce shot!!!!!! She also gave Robert a very disgusted, but joking, look when he asked for water in his scotch. The Dirty Onion and finished it off at Whites Tavern, where the first tavern license in Belfast was granted in 1630, to the building that housed Whites Tavern.
The last touristy thing we did was go to the Titanic Museum. It is a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage built on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard where the RMS Titanic was built. The building itself was very impressive, but the museum itself, was a bit of a disappointment.
Since we visited the murals in Sandy Row and Derry we had one last mural tour to do. This one was a black cab tour of the working class area where the Catholic’s lived. Our driver, who had lived through the Troubles, was not as convinced as our Sandy Row tour guide that things would be getting better. This could have been because the Catholics did not have any civil rights for so long that the resentment is still very deep in the subconscious of the neighbourhood. We visited parts of the “Peace Wall” which are walls that were built across Northern Ireland’s capital city as a means of defusing sectarian tension. It was eerie looking up at a wall that people are trying to tear down, while other countries are trying to build them 🙁 The tour gave us a very good view from the other side of the fighting. Here the I.R.A. was heralded as heroes instead of terrorists. Another very powerful afternoon. In 1998, the internationally-brokered Good Friday Agreement, also called the Belfast Agreement, officially ended the conflict and set up a power-sharing government between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists. Since then, the violence has largely subsided. But tensions still linger between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods,
One afternoon we spent with Allan and he showed us around the Queens Astronomy Department and their observatory that he built on the roof of the Astronomy Building. We even did some “daytime observing” as Venus was high in the afternoon sky. That evening we had stars of a different kind as we went to the Grand Opera House and saw their rendition of The Wizard of Oz. The next day Allan gave us another tour, this time of the Giant Ring, a 5000 year old stone configuration south of the city. Our action packed month ended with an afternoon of lawn bowling at the Botanic Gardens, dinner and “An Evening with George” at the Lyric Theatre. This is the theatre where Liam Neeson got his start. The play was a one woman play set in a Belfast suburb and was based on a lady that had picked up a George Clooney full size cutout at a bar and she reminisces with it about her life through The Troubles. It was funny and done quite well.
What an amazing four weeks! Beautiful scenery, lovely people and fascinating history. Lot’s of things to contemplate when we are back home