Shortly before leaving Ireland, I went on one last big trip in between my exams – I could do this because I had three exams to do, spaced out in the month designated for it. Full-time college students at Cork look just a little desperate in May – that and practically OD-ing on caffeine – as all the exams for both semesters are in that one month, and seem to be heavily based on essays, to be completed in the prescribed time period. I was feeling a little desperate myself, as I couldn’t leave Ireland without seeing Belfast – it would have been like reading a book and skipping the second to last chapter where all the important stuff happens. Though yes, I do confess to be one of those people that reads the last pages of a book about a third of the way through – if not at the beginning.
Why is that? What happened in Belfast and the surrounding areas was the result of a chain reaction, one that started with Ireland’s [eventually successful] rebellions against the English and ended with ‘The Troubles’ of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. But I’m also not saying that this is all over: there are still animosities on both sides, but a truce has been called and people have stopped killing each other, so we can say that the worst has passed while hoping that no one prods the sleeping bear.
Now if you look at a map of Ireland, you can see that Cork and Belfast are at opposite ends of the island. Now, Ireland is not a huge place, but trust me when I say that I do not do buses – not for long periods and definitely not happily – and that taking one would have meant about an entire day sitting, trying to ignore my itching legs. So I took the train, something that proved to be a wonderful, if sometimes stressful, adventure, especially by contrast. It’s a wonder that anyone who is in possession of a student card would use any other mode of transportation for long distances in Ireland, especially since the cleanliness of the bathrooms puts those in Spain to shame…
I got to Belfast in the evening, took a connecting train to my hostel’s neighborhood (oh Lord, do I love trains!), and was immediately struck by a thicket of ‘for sale’ signs in an otherwise charming college barrio. My hostel was pretty cool, though it rose above what was standard because my room had a skylight accessible by standing on a chair:
I loved the location of the hostel; it was surrounded by cheap places to get food, Queen’s College, and a shop called The Rusty Zip:
This place was great – it’s used clothing with a retro flair.
I also walked right past a cool church:
Queen’s College is another of those collages vying to be the prettiest in Ireland. While I’m not going to pass judgment on this one, it’s certainly not doing so bad for itself:
I spent a decent amount of time exploring the city, walking around, getting lost, walking around, turning my map upside down, turning around…I’m not afraid to admit that even with my newfound proficiency at maps there are still times when they stymie me; I spent a lot of time in Belfast coming up to such landmarks as the Albert Clock Tower and going, “Wait. Wasn’t I going in the other direction?”
But that doesn’t really bother me, as seeing things like this are really very amusing. It made me glad, for instance, that I didn’t go to Pisa, because Ireland gave me its very own imitation. Now, you may think it’s not so very special in comparison to its fruity Italian cousin, but it is quirky in its own adorable way. It’s not just that it’s leaning about four feet to the right, but also that each of the four clock faces tell different times. It’s that the bell, whose metal was used for bullets in World War Two, now replaced with a much cheaper steel, can barely be heard when it is rung. It was built for Queen Victoria (and for those not in the know, Victoria was to Albert what Brad is to Angelina, only perhaps without the scandal, hence the name of the tower) in 1869 to memorialize the death of her husband. Unfortunately, the ground it was built on was marshy and the whole affair started to lean. There have been sizeable efforts since then to stabilize the structure, so we can rest easy in the knowledge that this is not going anywhere.
Belfast is full of these sorts of shrines to Queen Victoria – it’s impossible to walk anywhere without some sort of reminder of her reign – Great Victoria Street, Victoria Street (it’s no wonder I got lost), Albert Square, Queen’s Square (of course, both of these ‘squares’ were actually streets), and Royal Avenue. The difficulty here all arose when Queen V. visited in 1888: people went to all sorts of trouble to make her feel welcome, generally spending too much money for too short a visit, much like in Cobh (they renamed the town Queenstown) and at Muckross Abbey (they bankrupted themselves for a three-day visit). Fortunately, Belfast seemed to largely satisfy itself with the clock tower and a little shuffling of names.
City Hall was started in 1898 and finished in 1906, overshooting V.’s visit by a few years: it’s probably the one huge monument not overtly dedicated to her (though it was more recently made up for by the construction of a massive shopping mall, again in her name– I think it was simply force of habit at that point). Instead, City Hall was a representation of the boom in heavy industry that happened in Belfast in the 1800s: after all, Belfast was home to such manufacturers as Harland and Wolff, the builders of the infamous Britannic, Titanic, and Olympic. There was a huge shipyard (in fact, that same shipyard is coming back from the dead, as the U.K. is pouring money into making it an industrial center again), as well as a port for all sorts of goods coming or going from Ireland.
But despite how decorative it is, it is still a functioning seat of government: this is the center of the whole shebang. The two parties (Sinn Féin and the Loyalists) sit on different sides, with the press right down the middle. The mayor and a couple of honchos sit in very large and uncomfortable-looking chairs on a podium off to the left. The day I took my tour through the building I was informed at least twice that it was the anniversary of King George VI’s coronation (for reference, this is the same King George of The King’s Speech), another not-so-subtle reminder that Northern Ireland is English.
I will say that my favorite part of seeing City Hall was a quote I felt compelled to write down, straight from the mouth of the guide: “Prince William and – what’s her name? Sophie – no, Kate! I’m not so god with names.” It’s nice to know that not everyone is completely and crazily into the lives of the royals.
Keeping with the royal theme, one of the major touristic stamping grounds of Belfast is the Crown Bar, which is worth a visit because it looks like an old-time man cave:
Much of the décor here is original, down to the working gas lamps and the enclosed booths to ensure a little more privacy for those patrons who perhaps want to see how far they can get into their cigar before being noticed by the staff.
Another tourist monument (inexplicably) is the Jaffe Fountain, which was not running when I was there:
I think that it’s tourist worth is in the fact that it is yellow.
Oh, sorry. This isn’t a monument or in any way touristy. It’s a grocery store. For that matter, Tesco isn’t even a ritzy chain. Only in Belfast: here the buildings are simply gorgeous, so you can buy your discounted Nutella (in Cork I saw it in the standard 400 gram size down to 1.50 euros several times, yuuumy) in a genuine historical building. Of course, there is the other end of the spectrum: the ugliest building is also in Belfast, at the junction of Ventry and Wellwood. But I’m not showing you that. Instead, I’ll move on to this:
This is St. Anne’s Cathedral – ironically, there’s also an Anne Street…not all that close to the cathedral. It’s your usual cathedral, except for a maze at the very back of the nave, one path done in black stone and one in white stone. If you follow the black path, you get nowhere, but if you are a morally upright Christian who pays tithes and always returns your neighbor’s lawn mower, you follow the white path all the way up to the altar.
My personal favorite site in Belfast was, hands-down St. George’s Market. This was the place all of the other markets of Ireland had been preparing me for. It’s just…it smells good. And not only is there sumptuous food and produce, there’s various people selling the things that they have created, from jewelry to art to furniture to clothing to table and kitchenware. It was a foodie’s paradise, not to mention the fact that I got a beautiful pendant, the insides of an antique Swiss watch left as is – it’s like looking into the head of whoever designed the timepiece.
I’m salivating just thinking about this place. This was the main reason why I came back to Cork virtually penniless. Crepes, real authentic falafel, Indian, Greek, Spanish (homesickness for Spain!), Italian, baked goods…I have to have eaten before even thinking about it. The smells…
But aside from the whole food component, it was great to interact with a lot of different people, look at what they were doing and just get their points of view. You can tell a lot about people by what they deem valuable. I drank it all in, feeling like this was more like real Belfast, even with all the other tourists swarming around. I hid my camera as much as I could (I have fourteen photos of this place, a small number for a place I went to the trouble of finding twice), and walked around, every time seeing something different.
So hopefully this gives you an idea of what the city looks like now; it’s just the city center, though, not really where many people live. Most people live in either the Protestant or Catholic areas, or father out of the city itself.
It seems fundamentally strange to me, to see two different but still very similar religions be so diametrically opposed to each other, so much that they feel the need to separate themselves in order to avoid conflict, but that is what has happened. The entire time I was in this area, my heart clenched in a physical ache at the realization that this is the way that people expect life to be, even if only for now. In this day and age, when will tolerance be an applied concept?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In order to best see the Protestant and Catholic sections of Belfast, it’s best to hire a Black Taxi: these are actual taxi cabs (black, naturally) that take you on tours of these areas and tell you a history that is often personalized by the cabbie’s/tour guide’s own experiences. My cabbie was Catholic, so that may color my account of The Troubles, but I’ll see what I can do. If it comes out lopsided, know that atrocities were committed on both sides and that in the end it may not matter exactly who did what, so long as we know the result and its implications.
‘The Troubles’ were also referred to off the cuff as ‘a little bit of trouble,’ but were extremely serious, despite their somewhat light name. It was the IRA and Sinn Féin (pronounced ‘shin fain’ and meaning ‘ourselves alone’) against the English government – though it was also the Catholics against the Protestants, respectively.
The fuss actually started in 1921 with the partition of Ireland, when the Republic gained its freedom and when Britain retained six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster. This fragmented the northern province, but for a reason: the vast majority of the new Republic was Catholic, but the six counties in question were mostly Protestant, in a four to one ratio. It didn’t hurt that these counties also had a little money to rub together, due to shipbuilding, linen manufacture, and engineering firms. A Protestant Unionist government was established, and the English moved on to other things.
The person that put The Troubles in motion was called Michael Collins, a hero of the GPO during the Easter Rising of 1916, who was later interned by the English (which is surprising, because most of the leaders of the rebellion were executed). He managed to get back into the country in 1919, to a hero’s welcome. He became the head of the I.R.A. – the Irish Republican Army – which became known for its guerrilla-style warfare and for its faceless leader, Collins. Collins rarely had his picture taken – and never was a photo circulated – so the British were having a hard time finding and ‘eliminating’ him. They ended up sending the Cairo Gang, a group of fourteen assassins, after Collins and a number of others. However, the very day they set foot on Irish soil, they had their photo taken. This proved to be fatal, as the photographer was a cousin of Collins, who got the photo and systematically went about eliminating his would-be murderers. When the English finally cried uncle in 1921, Collins went to London to broker the deal; it was the best he could do, but it still angered many Irish, to the point that a horrible civil war followed the new independent state. Collins was killed in 1922 trying to protect the freedom he had already sacrificed so much for.
In the meantime, Catholics were second class citizens – all of the good jobs tended to go to Protestants, meaning that Catholics (and their big families) were left out to dry. And so these Catholics with their big families multiplied in number and in their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Our guide, for example, had siblings that numbered in the double digits (his poor mother!). In the meantime, the Protestants were chugging happily along, having 1.7 children, growing houseplants, and covering things in doilies.
The I.R.A. wasn’t all that popular, so some revolutionaries went political with Sinn Féin in 1962; they catered to the inhabitants of west Belfast, the Catholic ‘stronghold.’
A six foot high barrier of steel was erected around the city center; any Catholic entering was subjected to a body and luggage search, which was repeated when they wanted to enter a shop.
In 1964, an Irish tricolor flag was hung in the window of the Sinn Féin headquarters, which was still in its fledgling stages. This offended a powerful Protestant political figure, one Reverend Ian Paisley, on the grounds that it was the flag of a foreign state and therefore should be taken down. He vowed that if the Sinn Féin party wouldn’t take it down, then he would – and that’s how it panned out. The offending window was smashed and the flag taken down, but it sparked people to put flags up all over the place, too many for the Protestants to forcibly remove.
This event sparked an ever mounting animosity. The battle lines were drawn between Sinn Féin and the I.R.A. and the British government and the Ulster Volunteer Force, though there were other splinter groups on either side that also competed for attention. For that matter, in 1966, when the U.V.F. was founded, they declared war on the I.R.A.
It’s important to take a moment to talk about the good reverend for a moment: Ian Paisley formed his own religious and political groups in order to fight against the Republicans (Catholics), and remains a powerful political figure (and enigma) to this day. He became known as ‘Dr. No’ in this period, as he was reputed to say no to practically everything.
1969 is when it all went to hell. First there was the Protestant ‘Apprentice Boys’ March in Derry on August 14. I.R.A. supporters started to riot. There were some people in the march who were much more volatile than the others, and this is where the trouble escalated: when the U.V.F., police and the police reserve (led in some respect by Ian Paisley) attacked the march, an out-and-out fight escalated. When people in Belfast heard what was going on, some Catholics decided to take the pressure off of Derry by rioting, as well. Armored cars and soldiers with machine guns opened fire. It was the Protestant might against a majority that was not fighting back. There was no discrimination of gender, age, or apparent intent. Finally, British soldiers stepped in between the two warring groups, to the relief of the Catholics, who saw it as an end to fighting they were not prepared for.
Later, the I.R.A. broke into two factions: the Official I.R.A. and the Provisional I.R.A., which was more inclined to engage in guerilla war with the British army, known for bombing various Protestant or British institutions.
The most intense fighting had been in Belfast, where seven people were killed and hundreds were wounded. In addition, many Catholics were burned out or otherwise driven away from their homes and businesses, one case being Bombay Street. At one point during the events of those terrible days in August, Protestant forces had their eye on destroying a monastery near Bombay Street. When the locals rallied to protect it, the Protestants instead burned down the entire street.
After the dust settled, a collection was done in order to raise money for the rebuilding of the houses; the homes stand today – along with the monastery the people endeavored to save. Today these houses are generally passed down in families and there is a pride in living there.
This is a memorial garden at Bombay Street, to commemorate the losses of that community. Behind it is the Peace Line, a 25 foot tall wall to separate the two groups. The Peace Line here is a part of an over 13 mile long network of 40 walls all over Northern Ireland, most of it in Belfast. Entire areas are fenced in and have specific hours that they are open (staffed with men with rifles) and closed down – in Belfast, they are open from 6:30 to 9:00 during the week and closed on the weekends. There are ways of getting into and out of a neighborhood during the weekends so people aren’t completely closed off, but there is certainly a military presence and a feeling of foreboding.
So here’s the Peace Line again, with the back of a house facing it and, you got it, a cage to keep bombs thrown from the other side from blowing up the entire house. Just behind the cage is a trampoline; our guide dared me to bounce over to the Protestant side. Um, no. But at least there is a trampoline there now – I’m guessing nothing of the sort would have been there in the seventies.
I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude of the Peace Line: I’ve calculated that it’s about five times my height. How terrible is it that something of this height is necessary today, and in an affluent country? I cannot understand how this is not a source of greater shame for the people of Belfast than it is. This status quo simply blows me away.
Some parts of Belfast are blanketed in political murals and graffiti, especially on the Catholic side, on one stretch of road. It’s a form of protest, though now the majority is dedicated for remembrance.
The mural to the left reflects the events of 1970, when the O.I.R.A. fought against the army in the Falls Road area of Belfast, causing the British to shut down the area and search for ammunition – the barricade lasted for 36 hours, until women from a nearby area came in with prams loaded with bread and milk to provide relief to the people of the neighborhood. The army couldn’t contain them – thankfully they didn’t have the stones to fire on women, some of which would very likely have had babies with them – and so the barricade was broken.
The other mural is for the black taxi service, the very service we were using for our tour. They came about due to the fact that buses were being used as burning barricades, which sparked their decommission. Black taxis were bought, and separate companies serviced Protestants and Catholics for reasonable prices. Today, these aren’t economically feasible, but they are still run, out of respect for the dedication of the cab drivers in helping their compatriots.
In August of 1971, internment began – the imprisonment of Catholic rebels. There was no discrimination against age, and there was no need for a warrant – or for that matter, evidence or reason – to imprison someone. These people were held captive with no release date and without the prisoner of war status they sought. It became an incentive to join the I.R.A. or other factions, and eventually ended up backfiring. For that matter, Irish-Americans started to collect money in bars to fund the resistance effort, further antagonizing the British. Internment continued until December of 1975.
It got so bad that the English felt obligated to take over the top three floors and roof of every high-rise in the city for ‘observation’ purposes. However, this was also tactical: from that standpoint, the British would be able to snipe the opposition and be safe from any returning fire, for if the insurgents fired back, they would be at risk of killing some of their own people. The English would hold these apartments for 25 years before giving them up.
On Sunday the 30th of January in 1972, 29 unarmed civilians between the ages of 15 and 59 were shot during a civil rights march in Derry, a town to the northwest of Belfast. The march was meant to be modeled after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, but it went terribly awry, as the more militant marchers were inflamed to violence at the sight of the barricades and tanks imposed by the British. People began throwing bricks and stones, yelling epithets at the soldiers. The soldiers opened fire. Fourteen men and boys died (five of them aged 17) and 15 were wounded.
This event was dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’ and has, of course, become even more widely known due to the U2 song of the same name. For that matter, their song ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ also alludes to The Troubles – at one point, the English were set to invade a Catholic part of Belfast. However, they had a hard time navigating their way around, as all of the street signs had been taken down. I don’t know exactly when this happened – looking back on my notes, it appears that our guide, while amiable and knowledgeable, did not have the affinity for dates that I would like – but it was likely during the initial stage of the military occupation of Belfast.
In any case, Bloody Sunday has gone down in history as one of the largest civil rights offenses of modern history; it was only in June of 2010 that the Saville Inquiry was finalized – an undertaking that took twelve years to complete – concluding that the deaths had been completely unjustifiable; as a result, James Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain, finally apologized for the atrocities.
We are left with a photograph that epitomizes the events of this terrible day: Father Edward Daly holding up a bloodstained white handkerchief, leading a group carrying mortally wounded Jackie Duddy. The strain on their faces is mixed with terror.
Over the next several months, the Republican forces contributed a spate of bombings to the overall chaos, and nothing really changed: the violence continued, in Northern Ireland, in the Republic, and sometimes even in England.
This is Marian Price, a woman who was part of the group responsible for the I.R.A. car bombing of the Old Bailey in London in 1973. She had massive public sympathy, which I think was unfounded, as her crime harmed 200 people and caused the fatal heart attack of a man. However, she was a woman and one who conducted a 200-day hunger strike – she lived that long because she was force-fed for 167 of those days, a very violent process that can sometimes kill people. The process used involves using a tube and pumping food directly into the subject’s stomach. In order to make the protester accept the tube into their body, the lips are prized open with a spring-loaded metal device and a wooden clamp is inserted in the mouth – there would be a hole in the clamp so that the tube could be fitted through it. All through the feeding, the protester had no idea whether the food would enter their stomach or whether it would go down the wrong way and suffocate them.
This is not a new process – the most famous historical example I can think of right away is that of the female suffragists in the American women’s movement, which eventually succeeded in passing the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote. The dark underbelly of that protest was the hunger strikes and the horrific force-feeding of a substantial number of women.
This is Kiernan ‘Header’ Neugent (‘Header’ is pronounced something like ‘heter’), the first of the ‘blanket men.’ Header (meaning ‘crazy’) was an I.R.A. man who was imprisoned in 1976 for hijacking a car. He was no stranger to the I.R.A., violence, or prison, so that was perhaps where he got the guts to refuse to wear a prisoner’s uniform, stating that he was a P.O.W., not a criminal. Instead, he opted to wear a blanket. This was heralded as a great idea by many of his peers and was emulated by more than 300 others. However, after three years of this, the ‘blanket protest’ wasn’t getting them where they wanted to be, so they opted for a ‘no wash protest,’ also called a ‘dirty protest,’ which was probably pretty intolerable after a while. Or maybe not. After two years of stink and filth without the desired result, there was a hunger strike. Fewer people undertook this – probably mainly because it is much harder to keep up the willpower – but those that did produced catastrophic results. In 1981, ten men died due to the strike. The first was Bobby Sands:
You may notice the letters M.P. next to his name on the wall: that was because he was elected as a Member of Parliament during his time as a hunger strike participant. The public certainly spoke pretty loudly, but it wasn’t until he and nine other men died that the British government decided to concede the prisoner’s demands. However, this was done in a way such that the prisoners had all the privileges they wanted but without the P.O.W. status written on paper. However, this was close enough for their liking, and after that the action dropped off – there were still bombings, but not to the magnitude and ferocity as seen before.
It is good to mention that in many people’s eyes there were really eleven victims of the hunger strike – Pat McGeown lived to be 40 years old, dying in 1996, but the cause of his death is widely known to be connected to his efforts as a hunger striker. For that, he is another of the heroes of he hunger strike – though he didn’t quite make the mural. He was one of the thirteen others that participated in the strike – those others survived because the strike ended, they fell into a coma and were taken off the strike by family, or because of another health issue. To someone (me) who can’t even imagine doing a juice fast for a week, this is enormous. Imagine what would have to drive you to swear off all nourishment, how your body would change, the pleading from your family, the force-feeding, your dedication. It’s something to think about when you tuck into your extra-large order of fries, cheese-swathed nachos, or your three-patty burger.
I’ve written a lot about what the Catholics/Republicans/I.R.A. & Company were subjected to by the Protestants/Loyalists/Paisley & Company, but I just want to take a breather here and remind you that the Catholic squadron did more than their fair share: mostly it was small bombings, but all those smaller events add up to a much larger picture. Remember that a lot of these heroes were in prison for a reason (well, usually, anyway), and their heroism and sacrifice are only part of the story.
For that matter, there were some popular places that each side liked to take a crack at every now and then, the most assaulted being the Europa Hotel, due to its population of newspeople, assigned with the task of reporting on the action.
There was also a pretty terrible bombing at the opera house, which has since been rebuilt:
Of course, you’re wondering what they were showing when the place was blown up: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
So back to the carnage. These next few photos are from the Protestant barrio we visited:
Not very pleasant, is it? That gun follows you wherever you are in the park, a gruesome shrine for someone who was renowned for killing Catholics, regardless of their political fervor.
And this one is for Stevie ‘Top Gun’ McKeag, an unpleasant sort – or if we’re calling a spade a spade, we’re calling him a bigot. He was active in the ‘90s, known for killing Catholics and Republicans. Eventually, he had a motorcycle accident and was disabled; a year later, in 2000, he died at age 30. You won’t hear me saying that he went too soon, but perhaps the one thousand people who attended his funeral would. I’m simply disgusted by his life and am fervently glad he didn’t make it to the present day.
This is William of Orange, another pill in his own right, but perhaps I’m saying this in light of all the trouble he caused. On the 12th of July in 1690, Will won the Battle of the Boyne, meaning that the Catholic King James was out and William of Orange reigned supreme, free to impose Protestantism where he liked – which, of course, included Ireland. So what followed involved a heavy dose of intolerance and a liberal sprinkling of persecution, making enemies of the two sects. Some Protestants pride themselves in their inclusion in the ‘Orange Order,’ people who pride themselves on being Protestant, celebrate every 12th of July, and exclude people of every other religion. If you marry outside of the faith, you are chucked out of the order and ostracized.
So finally we reach the ‘conflict resolution’ stage. In 1994, the I.R.A. finally realized that it could never truly defeat the British army (go figure). This was perhaps linked to President Clinton and Senator George Mitchell’s visit in 1996. They sought an agreement between Sinn Féin and the Protestant government. They decided on an obligatory 50/50 Catholic/Protestant hiring split, as well as many other things (as a sidenote, Northern Ireland is one of the few remaining places in the Western world where it is mandatory to mark your religion when looking for a job). In 2000, Sinn Féin sat in the government with the loyalists. Now, there are 62 integrated schools, and a surprising amount of tolerance – two years ago, two soldiers and a policeman were killed, without backlash but with regret expressed on both sides. The U.V.F. and U.F.F. (the Protestant militants) completed decommissioning in the latter part of 2010.
And do you remember Ian Paisley? Dr. No? He became a more official political figure (meaning that he was elected); he’s best known now as one of the ‘Chuckle Brothers.’ his ‘brother’ being the Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness. This was during the time when Paisley was made First Minister of Northern Island and when McGuiness was his Deputy First Minister. I don’t know what effected this change, but I can say that it was drastic and very, very welcome. Paisley was even connected to the disarmament movement, as well as the 2006 desegregation of the police force.
The result of this whole thing is that Belfast is the safest city in Europe: there just isn’t any crime. As our guide joked, they only shoot each other. However, my guide was optimistic in thinking that the Peace Line would be down in 30 years – thirty! – and told us with great gravity that he hadn’t been in a Protestant bar for 40 years. So yes, progress. An easy truce. But it’s going to take a long time for these wounds to close up and for the scars to close over: even a passing glance at this city shows that. Belfast will eventually answer the question: Can we have peace with differences? I fervently hope so, as it has ramifications for the entire world.
Now. That was pretty freaking depressing. (Apologies.)
Now that you’re emotionally (and perhaps historically) run out, riddle me this: what are the three top natural attractions in the world? (I’ll give you a minute.)
Hint: two of them are in the United States.
Hint: one of them is partially in two countries.
Now if you guessed that #1 is the Grand Canyon, good job. You win a cookie. If you guessed that #2 is Niagara Falls, I’m less impressed (but you get points if you can link the Falls with the Three Stooges). #3 is, of course, in Ireland. It’s the Giant’s Causeway, and it was on my bucket list about a hundred times over. Now, the Grand Canyon, it’s just a big crevasse. Niagara Falls is pretty cool, but you can be done looking at it in twenty minutes. The Giant’s Causeway is filled with myth, legend, is geologically fascinating, and is just plain fun to walk on. So let’s just say I was pretty excited at the prospect.
It takes quite a while to get there, so it’s virtually obligatory to take a bus tour. Fortunately, our guide was pretty interesting. For example, he explained the Red Hand of Ulster that’s on the Ulster regional flag: there were once two Viking ships in a race to get to the Irish coast, the understanding being that the first to get their hands on the land would possess it. The race was pretty close, but there’s a pretty clear winner – so the king in the second boat began to think logically. He lopped off his hand and threw it ashore, making him the first. And when I said ‘logically,’ I meant that he was an early-onset dementia patient. Great story, huh? Then you’ll love this one:
A week before I took the tour, there was a man arrested for dumping milk from a milk truck into the Lagan River in Belfast, off of Queen Victoria Bridge. When questioned why he was disposing of a bio-hazard into the river, he calmly answered that he was ‘feeding the sea-cat.’ It just goes to show that Northern Ireland has been filled with crazy people since its settlement and that this dubious legacy continues to this day.
On the way, they let us out periodically to stretch our legs and take pictures of things. Fortunately for us, those things happened to be castles, with dizzying profusion:
And then, finally, we were at the Causeway. I hurried off the bus, determined not to miss a single moment. The Giant’s Causeway is set in a series of different little bays, so there’s a little prelude to it:
The Giant who made his home here was called Fin McCool, who rode a camel (pictured above) and was a bit cocky. He built the Causeway in order to fight a Scottish giant (Scotland being only about 20 miles away). He then realized that the Scottish giant was enormous, freaked out, and did what could be considered an act of genius: he went home and asked his wife what he should do. She told him to get into a crib in baby’s clothing. The Scot came over, boiling over with rage, took a look at the ‘baby’ in the cradle and thought to himself, ‘if that’s the size of the baby, what could his father be like?!’ He promptly peed his pants and beat a hasty retreat back to Scotland, tearing up the Causeway on the way. Another of the stories I heard was that the Causeway was built so that Fin McCool could see his sweetheart, but I rather like the other version better.
FinMcCool also had a granny (pictured above, from a distance – consult Google Images if you want a better look), who had a strong liking for spirits (she was, after all, Irish). It got to the point where she was ticking off her grandson with her antics, so he took her aside and warned her that if she got drunk one more time, he’d have her turned to stone. She was good for a while, but did eventually relapse (she was, after all, Irish). So Finn, being a giant of his word, turned the old biddy to stone. It makes you wonder what the camel did to him to deserve the same treatment. A quote from Aladdin comes to mind: “Watch out, they spit!”
And now, the main event:
In traditional Irish fashion – at least for the season, anyway – the weather was great (if a bit breezy) at first, it rained for about twenty minutes, and then it cleared out again. It makes for great, dramatic photos – not like it’s really all that hard to do at the Causeway, anyway.
The true geologic reason behind the formation of this wonder is as yet unknown. We know that the pillars are made of basalt (cooled lava), that there are anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 of them, and that they were formed 600 million years ago, but we don’t know why they formed hexagonally when it has never happened elsewhere on the globe (that we know about, anyway). I like the mystery, because it means that you have a measure of freedom to accept the myth as reality and go on your merry way. After all, a little mystery seldom hurts anyone (“What’s in this box with air holes? OH NO IT’S A HONEY BADGER!”).
Another of the giant’s landmarks is his boot:
And then there’s the organ:
Maybe now those skeptics among us can realize why the Giant’s Causeway deserves the #1 spot on that list. The Grand Canyon? Pish. Niagara Falls? Kid stuff. The Causeway: beyond amazing.
Our last stop before being driven back to Belfast was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It’s set in a stunning setting – though about 99% of the Irish coast could be described with that adjective.
The bridge was used by fishermen until a little after 2002, when fish became scarce. The bridge was used in conjunction with a pulley system, whose purpose becomes evident in about two seconds:
Now ask yourself, ‘Did Sarah cross this bridge to get to the cool island-thingy?’ And now ask yourself, ‘Does Sarah have an almost-paralyzing fear of heights?’ And just one more: ‘Is this fragile-looking bridge thing very, very, stupidly high up?’
The answers to these questions are: No (HELL, NO!), Yes (MULTIPLIED BY A GAZILLION), Yes (my palms are sweating even thinking about it). But it was very pretty and I was very glad I’d gone there (like I had a choice…). Smelling the ocean and feeling the wind in my face made me think of home, on the opposite of that very same ocean I was staring into, while still being grounded in the very Irish-ness of the whole experience.
I left Belfast, feeling like I had gone through the whole gamut of emotional possibilities. The city and its surroundings sucked me in, rolled me around in its culture, and then gave me back to myself, so I could make the journey back home to Cork, where I could say my final goodbyes to that city.