Ireland Day 12
The next morning dawned foggy, and we traveled north toward Yeats grave at the church at Drumcliff, near the base of another forgotten important mountain….geez. Ya think I should just give up on this? LOL. With the thick fog, we could barely see the outlines of the mountain, but Isabella brought out photos for us to get the idea. I left this part in just to remember how hard it was to remember everything as we were actually traveling. The mountain is called Benbulben, loved by Yeats and chosen as his final resting place.
Standing at the tomb of Yeats in the midst of the magnificent collection of Celtic Cross tombstones was perfect in the fog. We saw the oldest Celtic Cross still in existence, used in the early days of conversion to teach the Celts the gospel. The shop at Drumcliffe was another gem, and I wished I hadn’t left my wallet and cash locked up in the bus. I am really trying to keep from buying “stuff”, especially since I don’t have suitcase room anyway.
A few miles north of Drumcliffe we again made an unscheduled stop at a Neolithic site. Creevy Keel was constructed around 3,000 BC, with a court cairn, and a beautiful portal with the portal stone still intact. Seems as though the Druids use this site often for prayer and ritual.
Isabella loves the site, and always tries to show it to people who are receptive. However, she refused to enter the passage, or go near the portal stone, saying that the “energy” of the place was difficult for her. Listening to her talk this way, I understood that even though she is a good Irish/Italian Catholic, she is very much connected to the old ways as well.
After our morning stop, our route meandered northward toward County Donegal, famous for the Donegal tweeds, and also quite popular with the Irish because the estates are bigger, the houses more spread out, much like semi rural areas in the US. Daughter Deb asked about how folks live, but I have to say I don’t have a clue. Traveling through a country like this, on a tour, or even in a rented car of your own, and visiting the beautiful sites that are the tourist destinations, or even the destinations for those on local holiday, doesn’t really give much of a clue what actual daily life is like. My sense, however, is that it isn’t all that different.
What I have noticed from watching the news, from reading the papers, and from many of Isabella’s comments, is that the Irish are very fond of their great literature, their artists, their poets and writers, their playwrights. In spite of all the unrest and the violence between the Protestants and the Catholics, it seems to be a gentle place. The apparent ethic is a commitment to the environment and “green” politics and actions are everywhere.
On our tour of the western part of the country, we saw a bit of homeless, but more like a person or two here and there on a bridge who had imbibed too much. In Belfast, it is a different story, but more on that later. After just two weeks, I would say Ireland is a gentle country, with wonderful friendly people everywhere. Everyone is kind and willing to help with directions and conversation. The big “thing” here are the pubs and one is encouraged to go into the pubs and strike up conversations with the locals, but that hasn’t been as easy as they say. Much of the time the pubs are filled with the tourists, and locals are hard to find. In order to get a better handle on what it is like to live here, you would have to come here and stay awhile, and actually have enough time to sit in a pub and become a regular, buy some rounds, and then talk to the locals.
At the moment I am 32000 feet high over the Atlantic as we fly home to the USA, and after so many hours the brain is not exactly brilliant. Still, it is a good time to write, and better than waiting till we get home when I know we will be crazy busy. I did so well managing to write every single day of the trip in real time that now it is extremely difficult to attempt to recreate days past from memory. These kinds of trips seem to do that. So much happening so fast that it is hard to track it. Especially here on the airplane with the photos tucked away in my carryon in the overhead bin. I cant even use them to trigger the memories.
But I’ll do my best. Derry and Belfast are in Northern Ireland. It has taken me almost the entire three weeks to even come close to really understanding the separation between the two countries and how they came to be.
Derry changed all that. When we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, there wasn’t any real border to speak of, unlike years past before the Peace Agreement. Still, there is a palpable difference. More than just the fact that the signs are no longer in both English and Gaelic, and the roads are measured in miles. There is something in the air that feels different. The farms are bigger, more really big farms rather than the sweet family farms we have grown used to with their small cottages and charming yards. In Northern Ireland, all the way from the border, through Derry, and Belfast, and on south back into the Republic, there is an obvious gentry and separation between the have’s and the have-nots.
Derry itself was a surprise. Until this visit, I remembered Bloody Sunday only vaguely, but when we began our tour of Derry with a local guide on our bus for a short time, the story unfolded with harsh clarity. Isabella stepped aside for a time as the raven haired blue eyed young Irishwoman with the strong brogue told us the story of “The Troubles”, and we disembarked from the bus to stand on the site of Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972. It was the beginning of The Troubles, when the British police killed many people who were demonstrating against the discrimination against the Catholic population by the British Protestant police in power. The British claimed that the demonstrators had started the ruckus with bombs, but now, many decades later they have recanted and at last apologized to the families of those killed, stating that the killings were wrong and unnecessary. There will eventually be some kind of compensation but that is still in the works.
The Story of Bloody Sunday is a harsh one. This afternoon, many days after we visited Derry, I am still somewhat confused and haunted by this long complex chapter in Irish history. Searching the many facets of the IRA, of the rebellion, the Troubles, and Irish historical timelines is like going down a rabbit hole. One thing leads to another and before long the photos are not processed and the blog is not written. If you want to go into it more deeply, here is a link from Wiki to get you started.
In this part of Derry, there is an area called Free Derry, where protestors are given a platform for free speech and demonstrations, and there are many sad murals around the squares protesting the terrible happenings during those decades. President Clinton was instrumental in helping to reach the Good Friday agreement in 1998 proclaiming peace. There are 6 counties that chose to remain loyal to the British crown, and the rest of Ireland is now the Republic of Ireland. All of this is incredibly complex, and the discord between the British and the Irish goes back centuries rather than just decades. I find it hard to really understand why any of the counties would want to remain with Britain rather than be part of the Republic of Ireland, but Britain was not about to let go of the largest industrial city and the best port on the island of Ireland, so after so much difficulty, there was finally an agreement reached between the two countries.
We enjoyed a walking tour of the city walls, with more stories of the history of the town with 50 names. Called Derry, then changed to Londonderry by the English, then back to Derry after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the best name is “The Walled City”. The walls were built by the British to keep out the wild Celts who wanted to eliminate the British from Ireland.
Our guide is proud of Derry, and its efforts toward peace, claiming that they have worked hard for that peace, and although there is still a definite separation of Catholics and Protestants in the city, she said it has changed a lot, with mixed marriages becoming more common and more collaboration between the two sides. We walked across the Peace Bridge, designed and opened in 2011 as a monument to that peace process, with its symbolism of hands reaching across the river between the protestant side to the south and the catholic side on the north.
After the bus portion of the tour, we walked the walls of the city, Derry known as the “walled city”. The Brits built the walls after they occupied the city in the 1200’s and the Celts refused to give up their land and kept causing trouble. The walls were built so well that they were never breached, hence another name for Derry, The Maiden City. Walking the walls was wonderful, and trying to absorb all the history of the area was challenging.
Walking across the bridge from the Catholic side of the city to the Protestant side, we explored the historical fort site at Ebrington. The fort is no longer in use, but the city of Derry is developing the site as a celebratory place for parades and gatherings to honor the peace process for which their city has become renown.
I have to share one of my favorite murals of all time, from the walls of the old fort. Look closely. After the official tour, Mo and I spent some time wandering the inner city, looking for food that wasn’t one more “self serve” cafeteria, and found an interesting looking place called Nando’s. It is mainly chicken in an upscale fast food sort of place, where you order your food at the counter, but then it is delivered to the table. The food is spiced by a pepper called peri peri, from Africa, and the theme of the restaurant is Portuguese, and represents Portuguese sailors traveling to Africa and bringing home great spices. It was interesting, and I loved the great food, all fresh and spicy. I had a quinoa salad with peri peri and Mo had some great wings that were pretty darn spicy as well. It was a nice break from all the generic even though excellent choices at the self serve’s.
Leaving Derry, we continued toward Belfast, via the new superhighway that is a collaboration on the part of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are other examples of this kind of collaboration, including wireless communications and electrical power for the entire island of Ireland. Again, the landscape was dominated by large industrial agriculture, and as we approached Belfast, the ambience of heavy industry colored much of what we saw. There are big steel mills in Belfast, and at the moment some of them are going down and there are going to be several thousand people unemployed as a result.
Belfast itself felt crowded, dreary, and not at all inviting. We approached the city center, with Isabella pointing out various landmarks along the way through heavy traffic. I would imagine that seeing Belfast for the first time from this perspective may have colored our impression of Northern Ireland, but it definitely did not feel as charming to us as our previous 12 days in the Republic.
Dinner on this night in Belfast was included, but as is often the case with these included dinners the venue was less than optimal. We were in the beautiful pub, but in an upstairs room, with the chairs so crowded that we could barely lift a fork, and the noise level so loud that hearing anyone talk was next to impossible. The food was OK, however the service was horrendous.
Our hotel was right downtown, and Isabella regaled us with all the possibilities for our evening, but by the time we got to the hotel, which was actually quite nice, we knew that if we were going to get out, we would have to do it quickly. We decided to go find the Crown Bar, one of the most beautiful pubs in Ireland according to the guidebooks, but the walk entailed negotiating lots of construction, and many men hanging around drinking, or lying around on the sidewalks drinking. I have no photos from this night walk through town because I didn’t feel comfortable at all carrying my camera around with me, or even the phone.
The Europa Hotel was considered a must see, a place that the Clintons frequented among other world dignitaries, and we walked there, but it was just a big fancy hotel lobby with a bar and wasn’t all that inviting. We tried walking back to the Crown, but it was so loud and so crowded we couldn’t even get in the doors. Instead we settled for an Irish Coffee in our hotel pub where we had previously had dinner, and were happy to avoid the streets and get back to our room.
The link to the rest of the photos of the part of the day from Sligo to Derry is here.
Another link to photos of Belfast is here.
Next: We see the Belfast Titanic Museum and another high point of Ireland, The Giant’s Causeway.