One of my dearest friends in the world is Maggi, an 86-year old woman I met back in 1976 in my Freshman English class at college. A housewife and mother of two, Maggi was born in Belfast. Northern Island and moved to Massachusetts when she married an American in the 1950s. Maggi is a rather famous storyteller who shares traditional folk tales, sentimental and thought-provoking reminiscences of her childhood in Belfast, and traditional folk songs and rhymes. She has performed all across the U.S. and in Britain, has won many prestigious awards in the folk world and recently published a book of her stories, Belfast Girl.
At the age of 44, Maggi decided to go to university to earn for a B.A in German, while I was an 18 year old Psychology major fresh out of high school. Despite vast differences in our ages and backgrounds, we became the best of friends and have continued to be so for the last 42 years. Because of my friendship with Maggi, I probably know more Irish slang words than any other American, and have adopted a few of them because no other word quite captures the sentiment that they convey. Foolish or annoying people are bloody nits, eejits or right gits. When you’re disgusted with something it makes you want to boke (gag or vomit), a toilet or bathroom is the jacks, and when you’re having a fun and gossipy conversation you’re experiencing a good craic. Interestingly, though I had visited England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland before, I’d still never seen Northern Ireland, but that changed in 2011 when as part of a longer stay in Europe that summer, I decided to explore Maggi’s homeland.
I flew into Dublin in the Republic of Ireland and stayed at the Airport Hyatt that evening because I arrived on a late afternoon flight. It was a clean, modern and comfortable hotel that had two fatal flaws. One, an Internet connection cost the equivalent of $28 for 24 hours, the most expensive I have seen anywhere in the world. I refused to pay it, but luckily the hostess at the front desk confided to me that one block away, the Insomnia Café offered free wi-fi connections, so when I woke up the next morning I headed there for some good iced mocha and to get some Internet tasks accomplished. The other flaw at the Hyatt was the elevator. It featured a recorded female voice, with a somewhat upper-class, British accent that told you everything the elevator was doing:
“Doors closing. Going up. Second floor. Doors opening. Going up. Fourth Floor. Doors Opening. Going up…” As I was on the sixth floor, this all got really annoying really quickly! I don’t know whose bright idea this was, but they need to be lashed!
I left Dublin before noon and headed north, assuming that when I crossed into Northern Ireland, or Ulster as it is also called, there would be a border crossing of some kind, since the North, like Scotland and Wales is part of the United Kingdom. But the only way I knew I’d crossed the border was because suddenly the little towns and houses I was passing were flying the British Union Jack flag and in retrospect I realized that because Ireland and the UK are part of the European Union now, there would of course be no border stop. I then exited the highway in the border town of Armagh to get cash, since the Euros used in Ireland are replaced by British Pounds in Northern Ireland.
The first sights I wanted to see were the Legananny Dolmen and the Breaghmore Stone Circles, ancient sites reminiscent of Stonehenge, but not nearly that big. The Dolmen was easy to find and seems to be a popular attraction, but no so the Stone Circles. The problem was that while they did appear on the map I got from the rental car company, there was no visible road that led to them, so I surmised that this meant they must be located on some very tiny backroads. I started driving in their general direction narrow, twisting one lane roads, occasionally being startled by a fast approaching lorrie (truck) coming at me in the opposite direction. I had to rapidly throw the car into reverse and back up to a point where I could pull off and allow the truck to pass. I hate stick shifts, especially when you have to make a fast, evasive maneuver and when you have to shift with your left hand, as you must in an Irish rental car!
After a while, I decided to stop in at a small convenience store to ask for directions and was amused by the response. You would think I was asking someone in California to give me directions to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts! Although I knew I had to be within 5 minutes of these damned stone circles, people acted like I was asking them for directions to Mars. Some said they had never heard of the place! Finally, one guy directed me to take my second left and then I’d see signs directing me the rest of the way. Sure enough I saw a sign that said: Breaghmore Stone Circles, 2.5! I drove exactly 2.5 kilometers, but all I saw were farms and cows and sheep. When I’d gone three kilometers, I figured I’d passed them so I turned around and slowly backtracked. Nothing!
A bit frustrated now, I flagged down a passing truck and asked the guy where the stone circles were, and I could barely tell whether he was trying to help me or tease me. He seemed to take some enjoyment from my predicament, but he did offer me some help, though I could only understand one of every three words he said, even with decades of practice listening to Maggi! Still, it was a bit easier than the time I had with the accents in Glasgow, Scotland a few years prior. What I finally gleaned from this guy was that the stone circles were further along the road in the direction I’d been going. As I turned around and started back down the road again it suddenly dawned on me that I was now in Great Britain and they use MILES here, not kilometers. My car, however was from Ireland and therefore the odometer measures kilometers! I’d only gone 2.5 kilometers, but I’d needed to go 2.5 miles! Sure enough, I finally found the circles, and while they did not elicit the awe that Stonehenge does, they were interesting and I had them all to myself.
From there I made a beeline toward the northern coast to get to my B&B for the night. Along the way I listened to one of Maggi’s storytelling CDs that I’d brought with me, and it was the next best thing to having her riding in the passenger seat beside me! One of the selections on the CD was the traditional folk take about Finn McCool, an Irish giant who was always squabbling with the Scottish giant across the sea. My destination that night was the Giant’s Causeway, a geological formation that is a major tourist attraction in Northern Ireland and is actually a World Heritage Preservation site. It was formed about 60 million years ago by volcanic activity as lava flows met very cool sea water, causing the lava to harden quickly and form a peculiar geometrical pattern of hexagonal columns (that means six-sided for my dear geometry-challenged readers) of dark-gray, tan and black basalt rock.
However, if you prefer to believe the folk tales, the causeway was built by Finn McCool, who created it so that he could go to Scotland and attack the Scottish giant. Unfortunately for Finn, the Scottish Giant was far bigger than Finn had counted on, so he quickly retreated back to Ireland where his wife dressed him like a baby to fool the angry Scot. When the Scottish giant saw how big the baby was, he decided he did not want to fight its dad, so he returned to Scotland and peace ensued
I stayed at a B&B called the Adtrabane House and it is located only a short hike from Giant’s Causeway. I was met by my charming and funny redheaded hostess, Maureen, and after showing me my very nice room, she urged me to make use of the remainder of my evening by seeing the Causeway and getting some dinner. I decided to hike to the Causeway first, and because I was staying at this B&B I did not have to pay to park in the huge lots down the road and deal with the hassle of being with so many other tourists. Instead I used a private path through farmland that led to the top of the cliffs above the Causeway and then a stairway leading down to the actual formation. It was very gray and looked as if it might rain, but I walked about 10 minutes and reached the edge of the cliff. Although the Causeway looked rather unimpressive from up here, there were magnificent views of the coast and cliffs, and I loved the fact that there were virtually no tourists here at this time of day, so all I could hear as I walked the cliff path were the sounds of wonderful seabirds, pounding surf, and my own footsteps. Occasionally the sun would break through the cloud cover and send a beam that would light up a particular section of hill or cliff, and I nearly needed sunglasses to shield my eyes from the intense green color, the likes of which I have only seen in other volcanic places like Scotland, Iceland, Bali and Hawaii. It must be the minerals in that amazing volcanic soil.
As I started to get close to the actual causeway, I began to realize what all the fuss was about. This formation looks like a cobblestone bridge that juts out onto the ocean. From above them looking down, the tops of the hexagonal columns look like a honeycomb pattern; from the side, the columns are each of various heights and look like a tightly packed skyline of skyscrapers, and you can use them just like a stairway to walk up and down the formation. It was absolutely beautiful and as the sunlight cooperated well with me, I got some amazing photos. I think I passed 10 people the whole time I was there, and I was so happy for the solitude because the following morning as I left my B&B for the day I saw literally dozens of tour buses bearing down on the parking lot, and I am sure it would have been a very different experience with hundreds of tourists swarming all over the place!
I walked back up the cliff face and to my B&B by 8:15 (it doesn’t get dark in Ireland at this time of year until almost 10:30 PM), and needed dinner after my pretty challenging hike, so I headed for the nearby Bushmills Inn for dinner. It was a charming and elegant restaurant, and they had me as soon as they served me delicious warm Irish brown bread and soda bread. I ended up having lamb with champ, a northern Irish version of very buttery and creamy mashed potatoes. I finished the meal off with an Irish coffee, spiked with Bushmills whiskey made at the oldest whiskey distillery in the world. It was an almost perfect meal, marred by the presence of four men in their early 60s who were seated near me and were evidently there to attend a golf tournament. For an establishment that was rather classy and formal, these eejits were ridiculously loud and so inappropriate, their conversation laced with lots of foul language. Their accents sounded American, but I was clinging to the hope that they were perhaps Canadians. Then I heard one of them say, “I can’t believe they won’t take American dollars here, but they don’t seem to want them!” It took all the will-power I had not to scream, “For God’s sake, if someone tried to pay you in British Pounds or Euros on Long Island would you accept those, you great, bloody nits!” However, I refrained and kept my cool and breathed a sigh of relief when they left, leaving me to drink my Irish coffee in peace.
That night there was pouring rain and howling winds. I left the window open a bit so I could listen to it all from my huge, comfy bed. In the morning, Maureen’s husband Don gave me some great travel tips about things to do that day, while I feasted on the home cooked breakfast they provided. In addition to fresh fruits and cereal and juice and coffee, I had an “Ulster Fry”, another local dish that consists of fried eggs, sausage, Canadian bacon, tomato wedges, potato bread that almost seemed like a very flat block of hashbrowns, and Irish soda bread. All of it was delicious and it fortified me for my day.
First I went to explore the nearby ruins of Dunluce Castle, which dates back to 1500 and sits on a dramatic cliff overlooking the sea. It was home to a rowdy Scotsman named, “Sorely Boy MacDonnell” who was evidently a major thorn in the side of the English who were trying to seize this area in the 1500s. Then I followed directions that my B & B host had given to me to a weird attraction known as the Dark Hedge. The Dark Hedge is a mile long stretch of road that seems almost like a tunnel through some 300 year old beech trees. It really looks like something out of a Lord of the Rings film, and I spent quite a bit of time there trying to take just the right photo to capture its mystery and beauty.
From there I went east and south along the Antrim Coast Road toward Belfast, stopping to get photos or take little walks in places like White Park Bay, with its massive sandy beaches, at the scarce remains of an 8th century castle that was believed to have been destroyed by the Vikings, and the magical harbor at Ballintoy that simply took my breath away. I intended to stop and get some good fish & chips at a place in Ballycastle called Morton’s, but it was closed up like a drum, and I really didn’t find any other places to eat, so snacked all day on fresh cherries and strawberries and shortbread cookies.
I rolled into Belfast around 5:30 PM and thanks to my inborn GPS system, found my hotel, the Park Avenue on Holywood Street without much trouble at all. I then decided to place a very quick call to Maggi to find out what neighborhood she’d grown up in. She asked if I had seen a theater called the Strand where she’d gone to movies as a child in the 1930s and I had to laugh. It was literally next door to my hotel. Come to find out, the house she grew up in was 5 minutes away. So as soon as I got off the phone, I headed over to Irwin Crescent and found the neat looking little red brick duplex that had been her home. I got out of the car and strolled the neighborhood and took a few pictures, and all of a sudden as I was turning to go, a red-haired woman came barreling out of a house next door, demanding to know why I was taking photos of her house! I guess I would be a lousy private detective. She calmed down after I introduced myself and told her what I was doing.
I went to dinner at a place called Beatrice Kennedy that was highly recommended by my guidebook, and boy, was that a good decision. I had one of the best meals of my whole trip here: apple-celery bisque, warm brown bread, roast duck breast over a bed of mashed sweet potato, beets, asparagus and peas so crisp and crunchy I am sure they came out of someone’s garden earlier that day. As if that were not enough, I had a chocolate and raspberry “summer pudding” that was something between a sponge cake and a trifle, and the entire meal was simply wonderful.
In the morning I’d scheduled a 9:30 Black Taxi tour of Belfast’s segregated Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. It’s strange. I knew of course of the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and that there had been much violence from the 1960s though the 1990s between the militant Irish Republican Army (Catholics) and equally militant Protestant groups, but in my long friendship with Maggi, she’d rarely ever mentioned “The Troubles” as they are called here. I always had the impression that perhaps it was too painful for her to speak about, so I never pressed her about it. But I am ashamed to admit how ignorant I was about the whole situation and the Black Taxi tour was a real eye-opener!
The short-hand version of what happened in Ireland goes like this. When the English conquered Ireland, they outlawed Catholicism and folks like Cromwell slaughtered entire villages of people. After centuries of conflict and persecution and uprisings, in the early 20th century, England granted most of Ireland independence, but kept 6 counties in the northeast under British rule and this became Northern Ireland or Ulster. Most of the people living there were Protestant and loyal to England, but there were also Catholics there too, and they had a rough time of things. On my tour, my cabbie, a 60-ish year old man named Bobby took me down the Falls Road, which is where most of Belfast’s Catholics live and Shankill Road, the Protestant area. Factories and linen mills that were between the two neighborhoods had two entrances: one on the Protestant side and one on the Catholic side. Workers would come in through their own doors, work together all day, and then leave through different exits.
Because of increasing unrest during the 1960s, with some groups like the Irish Republican Army calling for Ireland to be reunited, and other groups wanting the North to remain British, a wall was built between the two areas. It was called The Peace Wall because it was designed to try and keep the peace between the two sides. It is 42 feet high in places and is eerily reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. There are gates in the wall that even now, after over 15 years of relative peace, are closed each night to avoid trouble. We visited a Catholic area called Bombay Street right beside the wall where Protestant mobs burned down several rows of houses and tried to destroy a major Catholic church, and there are murals commemorating this. I noticed that many homes adjacent to the wall had what look like huge steel cages on the back, completely enclosing their back porches and yards. These, Bobby explained, are to protect the houses from rocks or occasionally bombs that are lobbed over the wall from the other side! I asked if this was just a reconstruction to show what it was like during “The Troubles” and he laughed and said, “No, mostly it’s just kids throwing rocks today, but these are still functioning and designed to protect the occupants.” I was speechless.
Bobby showed me dozens of murals on both sides of the wall. The ones on the south side/Catholic side tended to be themed around the demand for “oppressed” groups to be given independence by their “occupiers”: Palestine, Basque Country, Iraq. (Evidently an anti-George Bush mural was recently painted over with an anti- Barack Obama mural criticizing US policy on Afghanistan and Libya. On the north or Protestant side, there were some murals honoring people who had murdered Catholics during the troubles. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s hero.” said Bobby. He told me that he has been doing these tours for 8 years; before that he was a cab driver, which he said was among the most dangerous occupations in Belfast during The Troubles. If a cab driver was identified as Catholic, militant Protestants would call for his cab, have him drive them to a Protestant area and kill or beat him. The same thing happened with militant Catholics targeting Protestant cabbies. I just never had a clue how bad things had been here, and the fact that all of this violence was launched between two such similar denominations of Christianity just boggled my mind.
While there is still tension these days, Bobby says it is nothing like it used to be, and thankfully, tourists are coming back to Northern Ireland these days. Bobby took me to an area of the Peace Wall where visitors can actually write a message to reflect how they feel after touring the area. All I could think of to say was, “Just stop it! We’re all the SAME!” Admittedly, I am no James Joyce, but what I said was from the heart.
On the way back to my hotel, Bobby stopped to show me the dry dock where the Titanic was built and kept until it left for its fateful trip from Liverpool, England. The sheer size of this huge hole in the ground was amazing. He also pointed out the construction taking place nearby for a brand new Titanic Museum that was due to open the following year.
That evening I had dinner at the Crown Pub, one of Belfast’s oldest and most famous places, and atmosphere and the food were both amazing. I had an appetizer of fried brie, an entree of lamb and mashed potatoes, amazing brown bread, and a rhubarb and apple hard cider that was delicious. I still had room for sticky toffee pudding, a very British treat that is rapidly making its way to the top of my favorite desserts list.
From Belfast I drove south and into the Mourne Mountains of County Down. This is another area where Maggi spent a lot of her young adult years hiking in the mountains with her sister and their friends. The Mournes are the highest range in the North of Ireland, but geographically cover a relatively small area. They are very dark and barren and brooding and exude a special beauty. The weather again cooperated and I got some lovely photos. I pulled by the side of the road near a house and was taking photos off into the distance when the man who lived there peeked his head out of the barn and came over to greet me. Like my experience with my friend who’d tried to give me directions to the stone circles, I understood only about half of what this man was saying to me, but it was all accompanied by a warm and friendly manner that put me at ease. I told him about Maggi and he wanted to wipe off his hands and use my camera to take a photo of me with the Mournes in the background to show her, and then he insisted I walk up the steep driveway to his house because I could get a much better panoramic shot from up there. At least I think that was what he said! He told me stories of big snowstorms where the snow was apparently three feet high and he and his bras (brothers) built snow forts. He said he’d never, ever seen an American in these parts and was impressed that I even knew about the Mournes. At least that’s what I think he said. He was kindness itself.
Northern Ireland does not seem to get the attention that its sister to the south receives from tourists, but I have to say that I thought it was a wonderful travel destination. The scenery is mind-bogglingly beautiful, the food was terrific, and the combination of a vivid and often troubled history, coupled with the warmth and friendliness of its people make for a fascinating getaway. I even preferred the rather staid and civilized streets of Belfast to the far more crowded and rowdy streets of Dublin in the south.
When I returned home to the States, I shared my experiences with Maggi, who listened to my impressions with great interest. She laughed uproariously at the woman who’d come out to see what I was up to when I was photographing Maggi’s old house. “That is so typically Belfast!”, she roared.
And then I saw tears gather in her eyes as I showed her the photos of her beloved Mourne Mountains. With a gentle sigh of resignation, she whispered, “I’ll probably never see them again, but the very sight of them just makes my heart full.” Subsequently I uploaded a photo of the Mournes onto the desktop of Maggi’s computer. Like many folks her age, she is terrified of her computer and is always getting muddled with regard to how to use it. But now she says that when she turns it on and sees her gorgeous Mournes, she panics just a wee bit less. And now I totally understand why.