Many of my family members were enlisted: WWI & II, Korea, and even going way back to a distant cousin in the Civil War and forward to another distant cousin in Iraq. I’m especially interested in the World Wars, learning enough from them to promote peace, and most importantly, remembering those who were there. We’ve already lost everyone who was in the Great War. Let’s listen to those who were in the middle of the Second World War, some of whom are still here to tell their stories. Please check out the trailer for this book about just such a thing:
With a 9:30 am scheduled start, our tour du jour gave us plenty of time to detour for another almond croissant and tea with milk and sugar at nearby Caffe Nero in the morning before slowly sauntering a mere quarter block to our waiting coach. Turns out we could have made many detours, since it took 45 minutes for Paul, our scrappy driver, to get the microphone working. In the meantime we listened to an entire album of Madonna’s greatest hits because the speaker (unfortunately for me) was working just fine. Cousin Sharon rolled with it – another sign of an expert traveler (and/or Madonna fan).
Okay, I sang along to the chorus of “La Isla Bonita.” And “Like a Prayer.”
Our Giant’s Causeway tour, purchased through Viator, would route us to Bushmills Distillery initially, then skirt past distant Dunluce Castle, and go up to the Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge before heading back down to Belfast via the glens and coast of Antrim.
Old Bushmills boasts “Ireland’s oldest whiskey” and was not far out of Belfast. Sharon was tickled to get Paul’s one discount ticket for a bottle of the highly prized and celebrated 12-year blue label not available in the United States. Because we were late, we only had about 10 minutes in the tasting room and, mind you, it was still before noon. I never drank whiskey before noon in my life. Couple that with a tight schedule and you’ve got yourself a surprise morning liquor buzz. Please, don’t judge.
Next was Dunluce Castle, pictured waaay in the back here, on a cliff. I have to say it was nothing more than a nice photostop among many. It was not quite deserving of the status of listed attractions on the tour, in my opinion. It looked to be under repair, too, so it was even harder to take an adequate photo. But the coastal view was nice.
On the way to our star attraction, Paul told us the legend of Giant’s Causeway’s origin by the benevolent and magic giant Finn McCool, who built the causeway as stepping stones to get to Scotland. I had trouble listening (see Bushmills paragraph above), so all I could tell you is it had something to do with a giant baby’s teeth and a pancake.
You wouldn’t know it from the pictures here, but there were people speaking all sorts of languages crawling all over the rocks. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Causeway draws people from all over the world any time of year. It’s about a 15-minute walk down to the rocks, but you can take a trolley for a pound per person. The rocks were moss-covered, slippery and, yes, hexagonal, for the most part. Folklore aside, this spectacle is actually a field of columnar basalt – also found in eastern Washington state, Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower, and Mars, the planet – but in this case it has been washed away by the ocean tide over millions of years.
There was a little pub called The Nook nearby, where Sharon had an Irish Coffee and I had the carrot soup. We were both happy. A strange collection of framed items hung on the walls. This one in particular caught my eye – a collection of wax seals of British aristocracy, with the center showing that of Lady Grantham. Do we have any fans of Downton Abbey here? (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)
Next was Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and I have to say I was much more excited about this until I realized I wasn’t given money, I actually paid to walk 165 stairs down to a collection of rope and wood slats slapped together a hundred feet over the ocean’s deadly crashing waves below. In 30 mile per hour winds. Was I scared?
Yep. (before and after below)
Near rope bridge
Away from rope bridge
Then relieved. Relieved is a good feeling. Was Sharon scared?
You be the judge.
On the way back, we visited the gift shop and I was delighted to find a confection completely new to me: Fifteens. Something unique in the texture seemed extra rich, decadent and sugar-laden, but also to whisper conspiratorially, You need this. Or perhaps more succinctly, You have just feared for your life. It doesn’t matter that this is made of 90% sugar. You want it. No, you’ve earned it.
I later learned this is a Northern Ireland confection made of 15 marshmallows, 15 glace cherries, and 15 digestive (or graham) crackers, rolled, refrigerated, and dusted in desiccated coconut. Why did it take so many years of life before I even heard of these? Why wasn’t I fifteen when someone said, “Hey, you’re fifteen, so I made you something: fifteens! Here are fifteen of them. Enjoy!”
I haven’t been fifteen in good long while.
On the way back, Paul would point across a field now and then and tell us we were gazing upon the Glen of Such-and-Such, known for so-and-so. At first, I thought there wasn’t much to see. I was thinking back two years ago to our Galway-Connemara tour, where we happened upon an old Famine graveyard, monastery ruins, and perhaps even a ghost. But then, as we carried along, despite feeling a little sick from the combination of how fast Paul liked to take hills and curves and how high my blood sugar just spiked, I became enchanted. Over here, a pristine white-stone-faced Georgian home with red shutters overlooking the Atlantic shore. There, the ruins of a Medieval stone archway overgrown with brilliant green moss and hanging ivy.
This little fishing village of Glencove was nothing more than a rest stop. In my sugary stupor, I vowed nothing less than to come back in six months, or Bob’s your uncle.
For the last hour of our coach ride back to Belfast, we didn’t have much of a view, as we left the coastal highway. Once we returned, we stopped in to the Grand Opera House, which happened to be right next door to our hotel. We had walked by many times and were intrigued to see what was playing: Ghost: the Musical.
The show by the Ulster Operatic Company was indeed based on the 1990 movie Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze’s character Sam Wheat is secretly murdered and becomes a ghost to warn his girlfriend of impending danger. Many people remember Whoopi Goldberg’s character Oda Mae Brown, a funny, flamboyant charlatan who actually has the psychic ability to help Sam communicate with Molly (Demi Moore) from the “other side.”
Now, just imagine that you’re doing a play based on the movie in Northern Ireland with local actors. You’d think, maybe, there’d be a talented person of color to play, well, anyone? Okay, maybe the extras could all be, uh, Northern European-looking, if that is in fact all that your casting pool comprises. However, it seems especially important to have the character of Oda Mae Brown represented by a woman of color. The actress portraying her delivered the classic lines fairly accurately (“Rita, you in danger, girl.”) But, well, I have to say I would have liked some diversity and definitely not a spray tan. That being said, I think their upcoming musical adaptation of Legally Blonde is going to be on point.
Going to a musical was fun, anyway. It reminded me of what it feels like to live life with a little extra drama and song. Overall it made for an exciting end to an already-extra dramatic day. For me, anyway.
Our Mahgera guide, whom I will heretofore and forever refer to as The Illustrious Paddy Hogan, dropped us off at the “flyover” bus stop on route A6. We were on our way next to Derry/Londonderry, the sprawling Walled City where it’s likely that our great-great grandfather last left the Irish isle behind him forever.
Our first and pretty much only plan was to take the famous Martin McCrossan walking tour, which was to start at the tourist information center. There is nary a word on the website to the effect that Mr. McCrossan himself is deceased, so when a bright yellow clad woman with a long, dark pouf of hair greeted us, I was confused. I merely listened as she chatted about all sorts of things with the two other tourists in front of us, a woman and man from Canada and New Zealand respectively. She only turned around to us to say that she’d heard Americans can’t distinguish a New Zealand accent from Australian. “Uh, that’s true for some people, I guess,” was all I could say, but she didn’t hear me. It wasn’t a question, anyway.
The beginning, middle, and end of what we know about our ancestor James Farrell came from this obit clipping, which led us to Belfast, the area of Drumard, and now this proud Walled City, first ever “UK City of Culture” (2013), featured – no kidding – in this weird board game that requires players to “divide the city into neighborhoods, then populate them with loyal peasants and nobles who share your view.”
That is the crux of the confusing mishmash that was made not too much clearer in the history-heavy, hour-long walking tour exclusively along the 400-year-old wall, the only city fortification in Northern Ireland that remains in its entirety. The words “no surrender,” as seen in a photograph above, refer to the 105-day siege of 1688, during which Protestant loyalists retreated inside and closed the gates to fight against the rebelling Irish republicans.
Yes, this is a battle that has gone on for hundreds of years. And “no surrender” surely meant something in the 1970s-80s when the infamous Bloody Sunday or Bogside Massacre occurred here. Fighting between the British loyalists and Irish republicans (or, perhaps more accurately, the Irish Republican Army or IRA) bred much of the violence of The Troubles, which, as we learned from The Illustrious Paddy Hogan, were troubling and sometimes violent for everyone all over Northern Ireland.
From the wall, you can look out over the Bogside (mainly Catholic) area and see murals that point to people and even locations of the massacre, beginning with the school girl (pictured upper left). The 12-year-old allegedly was bending down to pick up something she saw in the street when she was struck by a bullet from the fighting and died. “End British Internment” refers to the policy in the 1970s by the Northern Irish and British governments to imprison and interrogate suspected and known republican dissenters. #Derryhappy seems to be a lighthearted anachronism, positioned to provide a more positive and modern spin on what could be an otherwise gloomy view.
Getting back to our tour, our guide, a Dubliner married to a local man, explained a lot about the history of the various conflicts centered on the wall, about the Troubles, and about the ongoing “parade season” occurring most of the summer, when people gather together to watch marchers and musicians carry on the tradition of walking in pride and celebration of their culture and beliefs. She insisted that today there is a spirit of reconciliation (which a Dubliner living in Northern Ireland surely is qualified to attest) and pointed out a statue, which depicts two boys, each representing one of the sides of the centuries-old conflict, reaching out their hands as if to clasp them together.
Only, there remains a space between. Just before we get too somber, our guide comments that, in the parade season, someone usually climbs up to the sculpture, known as “Hands Across the Divide,” and puts a beer can in that space. As with any art, I’m sure it would be up to the viewer to interpret whether they’re sharing that beer or whether each is claiming it as his own. But as we kept hearing over and over in our time in Northern Ireland, the spirit of reconciliation these days really does overarch the tragedy of the historical conflict.
Once our tour was over, we sat for tea and later checked out a place known for their delicious scones. Really, can you ever have too many scones with cream and jam?
That evening, we ate at the Ginger Bistro, where I ate the lovely Sweet Potato and Cashew Nut Pie that still haunts my dreams. A distinguished looking couple sat next to us as we finished, and as I started to slip my arms back into my coat sleeves, the man asked where we had parked.
Me, smiling: “We didn’t. We walked.”
Him: “Oh, excuse me. It’s that I parked on a yellow curb and I thought I might take your spot.”
The man went about perusing the menu while his wife, a well-postured woman with a perfectly polished platinum blonde bob, took over conversation with Sharon and me. She asked how we were liking their fair city and what we had seen so far. After a while, her husband rejoined the conversation.
Him: “Wha- hm?”
His wife: “America, I said. They’re from America.”
Him: “Oh, you’re Americans?”
His wife, slightly exasperated: “Ye-es,” she sang, and added, as if it were obvious, “that’s why I’m talking to them.”
We walked back to the hotel and I reviewed my notes from the informative day, while Sharon caught up on some emails. The next day we would be getting up not too early for a “luxury coach” tour of Giant’s Causeway, the north Antrim coast, and Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, coming soon in Day 4.
In Riots and Arson for One James Farrell, I wrote of an event from 1830 that may have included an ancestor in his home townland of Drumard, in county Derry. This was back when the country was only “Ireland.” When Sharon and I visited the area on our trip to Belfast and Northern Ireland, we hoped to learn more about what our great-great grandfather called his birthplace. No one knows anything more about him or his predecessors than this. But it’s not that simple, and as at least one townland resident kindly explained, “That was too long ago.” Things have changed.
Places are always the same; it’s what’s in them that changes. Take the old ruins below: today, a stone corner and rock walls overgrown with trees and plants. But our illustrious guide Patrick knew that, once upon a time, a Farrell family lived there. And while no Farrells live in Drumard anymore (this is one of the things that changed), this is who we came to learn about. We came to be as certain as possible that this is where our Farrells were from.
Let me back up. Day three on our trip to Northern Ireland started with a 1-and-1/2 hour bus ride to the town of Maghera to meet Patrick, a local who was described to us as someone willing to drive around, but moreover, who was very interested in the history of the place. He quickly has become one of my favorite people in the world, though I cannot quite explain. After spending only a few hours with him, I can say he was warm and friendly, broadly knowledgeable, shy of pictures, an adventurous driver, and went above and beyond the call of duty. All this for two U.S. Americans trying to find a Farrell needle in an almost 200-year-old haystack of McPeakes, Diamonds, Duggans, Converys and Carmichaels.
Because the day was so meaningful and thrilling and layered to me, I can only hope to finish writing about this day if I first concentrate on a few memory snapshots rather than try to encompass everything about it all at once. I will write more about our quest, but for now I’ll stick to my most memorable impressions and hope that I do justice to the full experience some other time.
A Farrell family ruin: As seen above, in 1911 this very small cottage would have housed at least seven Farrells, including one James. This wouldn’t be “our” James, of course, who was a U.S. citizen by 1859. This “road” is how we got there. Patrick, with his 4-door sedan, bent a couple of larger branches back before turning right down what, to me, looked like an unused footpath lined solidly with shrubs. He was able to take us all over the different townlands (Gulladuff, Rockland, Killard) that all could be considered Drumard, which is actually the name of a hill, but this was one of the narrowest places. I remarked about how small the house was and what crowded circumstances people put up with. Once again, my Americanized ear couldn’t catch the nuances of his accent.
Patrick: “Drumard would have been one of the purest districts in the 1830s.”
Patrick: “Yes, they were very pure. They couldn’t afford much.”
Me: “Oh, poor! They were poor. Not pure.”
Me: “So the district was mostly Catholic.”
Patrick: (with a genuine bright smile) “Ah, you’re catching on.”
And there is the crux of the history, and I guess the mystery. The conflict within this area goes back as far as you want to take it, but some take it to 1690 and the Battle of the Boyne, when (simplifying for brevity) Protestantism won over Catholicism and Catholics were (again, simplifying) second-class citizens who couldn’t own property, hold government office, or even vote. With the majority culture in Ireland being disenfranchised, you can imagine there was conflict. And while civil rights have been restored, this conflict continued and still goes on today.
As this memorial in Gulladuff shows. Here are the names of all the people from 1797 to the present who died in the area due to the religious conflict, which was later explained to us as the civil rights issue that happened to be about religious affiliation. Researching a rather touchy subject, we came to Drumard with many questions that Patrick and others in town were kind enough to try to answer. I don’t want to say too much, but we could do more than guess that the conflict hit home with at least one person we talked to that day. But again, as I can’t get into the multi-layers of this one day too easily, I will leave that so I can go on to another story . . .
The Irish Man Cave: During our local tour, Patrick mostly didn’t drive us down abandoned alleyways. He mostly stopped by houses to see who might be home. The first was the “old Johnny Farrell’s place,” where today a distant relative of Old Johnny lives. A son, Martin, was home, and kindly resolved our curiosity when Sharon noted the Guinness sign above a doorway. “Do you have a pub?” she asked. Not so unbelievable, I thought, given that the first thing we drove past on our way up (after the sheep, that is) was a helicopter. “Yeah, come and have a pint,” Martin laughed and gestured us toward the door. I have to say I believed him for a good 5-10 seconds. We didn’t have a pint, but we weren’t disappointed, as there was this cool room pictured here, complete with peat stove, a sign over which hangs a NY license plate that reads, “5th Ave,” a barrel (for whiskey?), and an old aerial photograph of the property.
Mickey D (not to be confused with the fast food chain): After visiting with Martin, we drive up to a house and wait, and only a lumbering old St. Bernard greets us at first. Then, another old, white long-haired pup. Patrick says perhaps no one is home, but seems doubtful that that is possible. Eventually, a man who says we can call him Mickey or Mikey (“whichever you like”) greets us kindly, and he and Patrick talk about Farrells. Old Johnny Farrell was Mickey’s grandfather, Patrick explains. “You know who you might talk to is Bea,” Mickey says, and Patrick again appears somewhat doubtful. We agree to go check with Bea, pat the two dogs on the head, and leave Mickey to the long walk back up the driveway.
Bea, and a little bird: Okay, I don’t have a picture of Bea or the little bird. We drove up to her lovely house the same as all the rest, and waited the same as all the rest. While we did, I got the sense that this was not a place or a woman to take pictures of. She greeted Patrick at the door with a cane rather than a smile at first, but we only kept a respectful distance until we heard her squeal of recognition, clearly after Patrick reminded her who he was and, I suppose, piqued her interest at explaining who we were. She invited us in.
It was just her in the house but there were exactly four chairs, one for each of us, around the peat-burning fireplace where she had obviously been seated, a tray next to her on which lay a Bible and rosary. Behind her head as we talked, and she told us that we were rather late in researching the Farrells and not staying nearly long enough to do the process justice, I noticed a bright orange bird in her beautiful backyard garden. I imagined she would have let me see her garden if I asked, but she had a few questions for us.
Bea: “So, about Trump. You’re not going to let him in, are you?”
The U.S. Presidential election conversation continued for a bit, peppered with repeated reminders that we should make an appointment at the rectory to look through their records. She was right – we should have made that appointment. She was also right that we didn’t plan very well, because we were only in town for the morning and there wouldn’t be time to visit the rectory. I hope to come back and follow her advice some day soon.
Mr. Kelly’s Caravan: Patrick drives us down Killard Lane next (pictured above) where we hit upon a place that feels inexplicably significant to me. Patrick explains that this might be near old Farrell’s Lane, and that this was about where a group of Ribbonmen (Catholics and, that night, rioters) gathered on the night of July 12th, 1830, when the houses of James Farrell and others were burned by Orangemen celebrating the victory of King William (in the Battle of the Boyne, mentioned above). Maybe it was the spark of my imagination when I read the story, but I could almost picture the day, way back then, when the tense action started and men armed themselves with swords and axes, torches and scythes, dressed in their respective gold or green colors and flying their flags in each other’s faces.
We ask first about the Farrells down the lane, where Patrick explains a Mr. Kelly used to live, as he points to what is now no more than a pile of stones. He lived in the home until it crumbled to the ground around him, Patrick says, and then he moved into a caravan (RV) next door. We are told we can go back and ask Liam, who lives at the top of the road. I reveal that I am having a sort of déja vù experience, and talk about James Farrell’s house, which according to one of the census reports, was at #65. “Liam is in number 66, right here,” Patrick says, and knocks on the door. Liam, who must have been at least 90, didn’t remember anyone telling him stories about any kind of arson, which is totally believable. It’s not because I don’t think his memory will serve him but because it’s true what we’ve been told: 1830 is a heck of a long time ago. It’s too long even for the oldest Drumard resident to have heard a story about it.
More than that, it’s not the kind of story that you want to go around talking about. And in Northern Ireland, it’s not unique. The history of religious conflict is too long, detailed, and tragic. People these days still celebrate the victory of King William, not just on the commemorative day of July 12, but for the parade season that lasts all summer. But they still don’t seem to dwell on the particulars, and for good reason. They’re trying to live together in peace. And it is clearly an achievement they have made that any country could learn from.
As this sign clearly shows. Once a divided place of riots, burnings, fights, shootings, and killings, where two different cultures vied for control, Drumard signs are now written in English and in Irish.
We learned so much more, not the least of which being that, all things considered, we can reasonably be certain that our James Farrell was from this Drumard (one of four places of that name – long story). We also learned a lot when we went on to the emigration port city of Derry later that day, but I’ll stop here so I get some sleep tonight. Consider this a day to be continued. . .
Feeling unusually well rested, I had to think about it at first when I woke and saw the time on the clock: 7:30. Wasn’t that what the clock said the last time I looked? Of course, this was a.m. now, not p.m. I sleep an average of 6 hours a night, so this was a little jarring. When I’m on vacation, I sleep even less, anxious, I guess, that I might miss out. But I slept double the usual amount? Cousin Sharon was kind (and stealthy) enough to let me catch up. (Considering the 0 hours I slept the previous night, I guess I’m still averaging the same).
We had a 48-hour sightseeing bus pass so we decided of course to spend the day hopping on and off to see Belfast’s best. We ate hotel continental breakfast and learned they call oatmeal “porridge” (shall I continue counting British influences or will that get annoying?) and that crusty bread and cheese with jam for breakfast always feels like vacation.
I barely took any photos at our first stop, the Titanic Museum – or should I say “Experience,” since it was more of an informative journey through the designing, building, launching, sinking, and rescuing. Underwater discoverer Robert Ballard in 1985 deemed the wreck a museum (see this link to the original NY times article), so no artifacts are allowed to be taken from the site. This is why Titanic exhibits are information-based and include mostly model reproductions and personal stories, rather than the amazing things down there (click here for discovery video footage). The experience is especially creative when you climb aboard a slowly traveling pod that takes you through the “shipyard,” and it’s uniquely memorable if you get stuck in the pod which is suspended 6-8 feet in the air and you must be rescued (hm, maybe part of the authentic experience?) Two German teens were in the row ahead of us as we sat in front of a display and the audio loop of hammering played over and over. And over. And over.
“Do you think this is normal?” one girl turns and asks. As a former German language student, I’m reminded how awesome German high schoolers are at English, compared to us Americans with our sadly optional foreign language classes.
“Alles paletti,” I say naively, remembering the cute German phrase that sort of means, “everything’s hunky-dory.” Clearly they were right not to believe me. Several minutes later, we were taken down and led back out to the exhibit, with the usher’s words, “It happens every so often.”
Anyone can read about the Titanic, so I won’t go into detail. I will say that another unexpected thing I learned was how the 1997 movie (jeez, do I have to appreciate ego maniac James Cameron now?) helped restore Belfast’s pride in Titanic history, which up to then understandably had been a sore spot. I always thought only about the tragedy of the loss of life before. There was so much more lost, including workers’ lives, in the three-year construction of this literal dream boat.
On to something more cheerful? Well, we did briefly stop at Queens University area and Ulster Museum, where another informative yet tiny exhibit was housed, about the unfortunate happenings of 1916: 1) The great loss of life of WWI’s Battle of the Somme, and 2) the Easter Uprising. The uprising involved “some 1,600 Irish nationalists…seizing a number of official buildings and calling on all Irish patriots to resist the bonds of British control.” Brave? Sure. Successful? Um… Let’s ask History.com: “Despite the rebels’ hopes, the public did not rise to support them, and they were quickly crushed by the police…(and) fifteen of the uprising’s leaders were eventually executed.” ( History.com, “The Easter Uprising Begins in Dublin.”) Ohhhh.
So, in other words: nope.
We went on to one of Belfast’s most popular attractions, Her Majesty’s high security prison, Crumlin Road Gaol. “The Crum” served the Queen from 1845 all the way up to 1996. You can guess the changes that were implemented in that time period. For example, they used to house child prisoners who committed crimes such as stealing food so as not to starve, or being considered generally shifty little buggers, for which one 10-year-old actually hung himself in his cell to avoid his scheduled flogging. Much later, during the Troubles, some groups managed to smuggle in bombs, at least one of which exploded. Hangings occurred up till 1973. Our guide, Eoghan (“Owen” in English), pictured in the cold prison yard above with Sharon, gave me a minor heart attack when he took us through the comparatively pleasant and spacious death row cell through a secret doorway in the bathroom that suddenly ker-SLAMMED open and revealed dangling nooses in a closet-like room.
The tour was over soon after that hard-to-follow antic, and we ran out to catch the bus again, as it was getting late. On the short walk, I had to take a picture of the old (1850) Courthouse, which is connected to the jail via underground tunnel. Eoghan had explained to us that an investor bought it for £1 in 2003, with the promise he would restore it and make it a tourist attraction and hotel. Let’s just state the obvious: he didn’t. It stands looking dark and bleak, a fitting sideshow, in a way, to The Crum, but a much sadder spectacle, especially when you know it’s made up not only of broken windows, but broken promises.
Now, on to the cheerful part.
Wait – did I say cheerful again? I meant depressing. The sightseeing bus appropriately yet eerily takes you through West Belfast, infamous for having the distinction of housing the Peace Wall. This is the sometimes 30-ft wall that controversially remains in place between the Falls Road (Catholic) and Shankhill Road (Protestant) areas. I say “appropriately” because that is how the tour is handled, but to me, it still felt somewhat inappropriate to be on a big red bus that travels down the neighborhood streets of people who are still staring this wall in its rather ugly face.
Certainly the murals painted on nearly every available foot of the wall can be beautiful, emotional, passionate, touching.
These are not the ugly part. Everyone who spoke to us about the wall either said explicitly or implied that life will be better without walls dividing people, even if they were part of the times and trouble that raised them. On our last day, we returned to have a closer look at the wall and hear about its history from one of those people who was directly affected by it (and by its absence), so there is more here. I’ll leave that to “Day Six” and finally get to . . .
. . . the cheerful part: food!
I didn’t get a picture of our dinner at Robinson’s Bar that night, where the potato leek soup was memorably warm and fulfilling, but does it count if I include this lovely still life of tea, cream, brown sugar, and almond croissant? Does it help to know the croissant was warm from the oven and I didn’t even know it until I picked it up for my first delicious bite? Northern Ireland was replete with unpleasant history, but also pleasant surprises.
I’ll end for now with this heartening sentiment, the type of which made all the learning about all the tragic conflict, neglect, terror, madness, and the like definitely worth it.
I could be in so many seaside places, but this isn’t just anywhere to me. This is the North Atlantic coast of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland represents an intriguing yet dramatically dead end, research-wise, for this very amateur genealogy enthusiast. Not one of us in the very extended family has taken the books back beyond the place my great-great grandfather said he originated: Drumard, Derry. I was already in love with Ireland, the birthplace of other ancestors, and I’ve been to Norway and Germany where I trace other lineages. I wanted to see this place that, growing up hearing the news in the 1970s-90s, I often confused with Beirut and thought of as synonymous with conflict. And yet, anyone can see that this is a place that has pushed past conflict and grown into a cultural mecca, especially for people with Irish heritage. My cousin and expert traveler Sharon, with whom I went to Dublin two years ago, suggested another Emerald Isle adventure, so we made the week-long mid-October trip to the fabled North.
This is the first of a series covering seven rich, historical, saucy, cheery days.
Once off the plane, we took an easy Aircoach bus from Dublin for a nearly two-hour trip to Belfast. It wasn’t exactly a scenic ride, but I spent a lot of time looking out the window as usual. The only sign of a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland I could see was a nondescript station that seemed like (and possibly was) no more than a toll booth area. Maybe I missed the “welcome to the U.K.” sign amongst the mostly tree-lined highway, but after learning a lot about history and culture on this very informative trip, I think not. I’ll guess there’s a good reason why this island’s border is all but invisible, but that is a big subject right now, which I’ll leave to those more knowledgeable and involved.
Based in Belfast for the week, we started mid-afternoon with a hop-on hop-off bus tour while we waited for the hotel room to be ready. Our top-hatted concierge waited with us for the retro mini shuttle that would take us to the first stop, and told us about his goal to see Route 66 if he ever went to the U.S. Once on the bus, we took it all the way around, from the Titanic Quarter and its silver iceberg-esque museum, to the reportedly haunted Crumlin Road Gaol (jail), through Queens University area, and up and down West Belfast’s peace walls. We ended in the city center away from our hotel, so we popped in to Starbucks to use the bathroom. You couldn’t use it without a code from your receipt, so I bought a scone, which came with butter and one of those little glass jars of preserves with the gingham cover. I’m proud to say this was the only reason and only time we went in to Starbucks, as I usually try to patronize only local places when traveling. In other words, I didn’t come all this way to get a grande caramel macchiato.
We checked into the Fitzwilliam and attempted to get into a snug at the Crown Bar, known as either Belfast’s most famous bar, or “the most beautiful bar in the world” – or both or neither, I suppose. For some reason I couldn’t take a beautiful (or famous) picture of it, and there wasn’t anywhere to sit, so we left that for another day. Instead we walked further down Victoria Street, still too tired to notice there had likely been at least eight giant references to British rule in less than eight hours (three in this paragraph alone). I remembered Laverys mentioned on the bus tour, so we went to the multi-level sports bar that had a kind of frilly edginess. Described as the oldest family-run bar in Belfast, I’m already going out on a limb and saying that people really like their superlatives around here.
At Laverys, a server we later called Whiskey Robert discussed his favorite subject with us between orders when we stayed on for dinner, despite his warning that the football game was on at seven and the place might be a little too much fun for us. Put another way, Whiskey Robert guessed we weren’t fun enough for Northern Ireland v. Germany in the World Cup Qualification match. After a Guinness, a Redbreast, and 24 hours with very little sleep, I conceded Whiskey Robert was right. I fell asleep by 7:45.
My husband of ten years met my mom on Mother’s day 11 years ago. It was his idea.
We made the 4 1/2-hour drive from Minneapolis to Brookings, South Dakota, and back that day. She didn’t know what he looked like, so he wanted to surprise her. I called her and came up with some excuse to keep her home at the right time, and we pulled up in the driveway around noon.
Here’s the kind of guy he is: He went to the door to tell her she had a singing telegram but the singer was too shy to get out of the car.
Here’s the kind of person she was: She tried to convince him not to make anyone get out of the car, let alone to sing. That was supposed to be my cue to get out and surprise her.
Here’s the way things go for me sometimes: The car’s child lock had somehow been switched on. This left them to stand at the front door, waiting for me. He said he would go get me, the shy telegram non-singer. She laughed in her own shy way, wanting but not willing, I’m sure, to protest to this tall, dark, and rather insistent (read: very non-South-Dakotan) stranger at her door. He let me out and of course we laughed ourselves silly as I introduced her to Rich, who was decidedly not going to make me sing.
We went inside and he saw my childhood home. Then, we went out to lunch and came back to the dining room table to chat before we went on our way. We had another 4 1/2-hour drive ahead of us. It didn’t feel long at all. After all, I had just seen two of my favorite people meet for the first time. And past that front door scene, there wasn’t another single awkward moment all day. Just a bunch of smiling and laughing moments and – though it would only be just seven more years of them with her – the beginning of so many more.
I’m trying to remember all the things I wanted to say about Jake, and nothing comes. I see his picture and I go blank. As he lay nearby on Sunday after refusing every bit of food I could think to buy or make, and knowing about the growing “mass” near his liver, I looked at the date and realized it was 1) seven years ago exactly that he came to live with us, and 2) his last full day with us.
Rich and I bought our first house on the same day we got him, my first dog, on March 6, 2009. I had always wanted a dog, despite what anyone who knows me might say. I remember posting his picture on Facebook, and my cousin took the opportunity not to congratulate me but to laugh and remind me how scared I was of dogs when I was younger. I was mouth-high to a dog when one chased me until I peed my pants, and I didn’t know how to respond to them for a long time after that. But yes, I had reverence, and awe, and love, even then, of dogs.
It was a big step coupled with a huge step. The housing market had crashed and we bought a major fixer-upper. But it had a yard. And an upstairs. And a basement. It had potential. I didn’t need the luxury of hindsight to know at the time how full of potential our lives were. It was so easy to see. Within months, we had two dogs, and a year later, our little garden oasis.
Seven years is so short, yet long. I really had to strain my brain to think back to when we used to walk the neighborhood in the city. I remember trying to time our walks so I could throw the poop bag away at the garbage can in the park. An 80-pound dog’s poop twice a day is, well, a bit much to keep around until trash day. (Hey, it’s a blog about a dog. There will be poop stories.) He used to do this little dance with his back legs when he squatted, so people (myself included) would laugh when they saw him. Okay, not everyone laughed. Once in the middle of Minnesota winter, he pooped on a small pile of dead leaves on the boulevard. The non-dog-loving crab-girl who lived in the house nearby saw it and sneered, “That’s a garden, for future reference.” I later bought her a card with a dog on it, and I was going to put it on her front step, but I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to think of something to write inside. I never did give her the card.
When we lived in the house, we also had two cats in addition to the dogs, but one of them decided she didn’t want to go with us when we moved. She died shortly before we moved and shortly after my mother died. We moved to Oregon in 2013, Rich and me and three long haired animals. (He hasn’t stopped finding at least one of our long hairs on at least one of his sleeves every day since then.) We had a 26-foot truck piled so high with most of our stuff, despite how much we had to leave behind, that we couldn’t open it until we got to the driveway of our new place. The dogs and cat now shared a much smaller space inside, but 6 acres outside to roam around, and a lot more outside of that in the country area where we still live. Long gone are the days of poop bags. We don’t need them out here. And for some reason, Jake stopped doing the little poop dance. He liked to walk, and walk, and walk, for a good two years. Then, maybe last fall, his walks got shorter.
Up until then, I almost always saw him with his nose to the ground. If there was another dog anywhere in sniffing distance, he’d lift his head and start walking in a zigzag and pull as hard as he could until he found the scent or the dog. We never did have him fixed, so he had a bit of an aggressive swagger for the first 6 years. In the city, grown men used to cross the street to avoid passing directly by. And once, a person I would soon learn was a gang initiate would try our house first in the neighborhood, approaching as Jake and I sat in the gated front porch. The guy took one look at Jake, said something stupid, and proceeded down the block and tried to break into the house three doors down. (They didn’t have a dog, but later got one).
Jake never hurt anyone. He dropped to the floor as soon as you bent over to pet him. He panted and slobbered constantly. Our first night together, we sat in our new home at the kitchen table in the dark. It was a former abandoned house, so people in big black SUVs would park outside our house and deal drugs. This was going on the first night we moved in, and I had no curtains. Rich was at work. But for the first time in my life, I had Jake, protector extraordinaire. So the two of us sat there, watching the illicit activity outside, not knowing what else to do but sit and watch. And pant.
Although the neighborhood got better, we needed to leave the city. Jake, Wendy, and Nova were our companions in Oregon, and there weren’t any better companions to have. At times, especially when we had our first cat, Chloe, we seemed to have our hands full. Now, they seem pretty empty. Those days of obvious fullness, of potential, of endless amounts of very long dog hairs, are not here. Judging by the gaping hole in the middle of me, and despite the box of ashes on the shelf next to Chloe’s and Nova’s, Jake is very clearly not here.
I told him before he went that he could come visit me in my dreams, but only if it’s really him. Immediately I started dreaming of dogs. I’ll see them from a distance or from behind, and they have that familiar black sheen and long bushy tail. Then I get closer, and it’s not him. It’s really, definitely not him. I like to think he’s on the scent trail of something right now. Or maybe right here on the ground near my feet, where he most definitely would be, if he could be. I like to think of him doing anything, and then I have to not think of him for a while.
Seven years is a long time, a whole skeletal system and epidermal skin layer for a human. We all know how long it is for a dog. For a humanlike me, it’s not long enough. And I knew from Day One in that dark, curtainless, cozy kitchen that it wouldn’t be. It will always be one day too short. Always.
Look at that handsome face. I love you, Bub. I hope we did good by you.
For many of the four million annual visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the 58,261 names on the stark, V-shaped wall are just that: names on a wall. — The high school students were from Bismarck, ND.
(This is the third part of my Ireland travel diary. See Dublin here and Day One in the country here.) It is a bright and quiet Sunday morning in Galway, and a RailTours Ireland guide comes to our hotel to ensure we get on the right bus for the last leg of the tour. Our new guide is also the driver, a man who hails from the heart of a Gaelic-speaking community, and is a bit quieter than Norman. When he says his name, I write down Mauritan at first, and then I realize he said Martin drawn out into three syllables. We are now leaving the tourist town of Galway, traveling up the west coast and will be listening to music by the High Kings over the shuttle bus speakers until we come to our first “photostop.”
In the meantime, I quietly note each passing impression: The bright winter sun, which Martin has said offers the best light of the year. Daisies, foxglove, hydrangeas. Horses grazing between houses. A red lacquered gate across a driveway. Hedges and brambles overgrowing rock walls that outline each property. Piles of rocks in yards and stacked inside stone ruins. Pristinely white washed cottages with shiny roofs right next to those ruined structures. Houses that soon give way to bodies of water, lolling mountains, and sheep. Shaggy, marked (i.e. doomed) Connemara sheep.
The next town we pass through after Galway is Ochterhard, in summer a very popular fishing village not far from the famous Quiet Man (or Leam) Bridge. The Quiet Man (1952) is an award-winning, romantic, nostalgic comedy starring John Wayne and directed by native Irishman John Ford in this area. I’ve since seen it and found the landscape more charming than John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara combined by about a hundredfold. Martin says the area is popular for making films, another word to which he adds an extra syllable, and that we’ll be going to a bar that boasts a claim to a more recent Hollywood fillim.
The dark Maamturk Mountains and peat bogs bring us along to Kilary Fjord, where a lone boat seem to float upon its mirror opposite and mussel farms form long dotted lines in the still water. In my head I sing Molly Malone’s famous “cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!” Martin stops for a man alongside the road, and when we reach Gaynor’s Bar, they are just opening for us tourists, our guide, and one country hitchhiker. Martin hides in the back, and a man sits in the corner eating a sandwich. I ask if I can take a picture, and he tells me it’ll cost me a tea, and says the man pictured above the fireplace lording over him is The Field’s main character played by Richard Harris. Sharon’s Irish Coffee comes topped with a half inch of cream foam and she asks the bartender for a spoon to stir it. The woman stares wide-eyed and shakes her head slowly. “I can’t let you do that,” she says with utmost sincerity. So that’s how you drink, and don’t drink, an Irish Coffee.
While we end up spending the majority of our day driving through scenic Connemara Bay and other landscapes, the main attraction is clearly intended to be Kylemore Abbey (and its Victorian walled garden, if we had come two weeks earlier). This abbey is only about 150 years old, and while there are still 14 Benedictine nuns living there, the girls boarding school closed about five years ago. Martin tells us Madonna had just checked it out and decided it was the only place on Earth to send her kids, before it closed due to low enrollment and aging nuns. There are a lot of purportedly haunted Irish castles, but it seems this is the only one haunted by the spirit of a living pop icon. The lake is beautiful, the actual castle is stunning, and somewhere in it they run a small chocolate factory. I have a hard time understanding why people don’t just become nuns so they can live here, regardless of religious calling. I think I can almost find it in me, but I remember that boat has sailed, and anyway, I love my husband. And, yes, that is the order in which these thoughts occur to me.
The story of Kylemore is rather tragic, as it was built by the admirable Mitchell Henry for his beloved wife. They did have time for nine children, but she got dysentery while on vacation in Egypt and died by age 45. Henry built her a mausoleum next to a pretty little Gothic “cathedral in miniature,” and he lived another 35 years before joining her there. The Benedictine nuns from over the years are also buried near the church in a small graveyard. But enough of graveyards and churches, and back to the spirits that may or may not haunt them.
About 1-1/2 miles before reaching the sunset fishing village of Costelo, a Gaelic-speaking community with a Gaelic-language radio station, I think I see a ghost. If not a ghost, then a woman who is a living relic of the past. I even describe her to Martin, and he says people like this may be seen on the rural Aran Islands across the bay, but not around these parts. Not anymore and not for a long time. In my best sketch as we bump along on the darkening roads, I try to convey a figure perfectly framed in an 1800s stone house to the right of a larger, modern cottage. Hands at her sides, she has a pink scarf on her head, gray shawl and dark skirt. In “reality” she is heftier than here, but her eyes are exactly so: dark, peering straight out at the road she faces where I ride by and gasp at her immediately piercing attention.
I try to take pictures of similar houses, and this one comes very close, with its simple stone structure next to a modern white-washed home. The sun was setting over the bay, and our final photostop is in Costelo, which happens to be not too far from Ochterhard, the fishing village we passed on our way up to Connemara Bay.
Martin wants us to see a real Gaelic, thatched-roof pub. Everywhere else we’ve gone, signs are in Gaelic and English, but this one is just Gaelic: Tigh pheadair mhoir ceol ol seol. Sounds like a play on words, and I’ll just have to hope I learn what it means someday. I’ve seen so much and asked so many questions by now, some of the most obvious ones escape me. (Later, thanks to the good ol’ Internet, I find that ceol=music and seol=sail. Cool.)
Our tour ends at the rail station in Galway, and we have to get out a few blocks down from it because of a Sunday evening traffic jam. Sharon and I wheel our suitcases in the streets and wait until our final tourguide comes to ride the train with us. The service from Railtours Ireland is impressive. Our day was even more so. We come back to a new hotel near the station in Dublin, have a little something to eat down the block at ubercharming Ryan’s Victorian Pub, and resolve to wrap up an ideal first trip to the emerald isle that lives up to every bit of legend and lore I’ve ever heard, and so much more. ~
I hope these words are clean when I'm done with them