Sorry for the delay. I’m just going to be dreadfully honest and tell you, it was plain laziness on my part.
April 12 130 pm
Yesterday I took a day tour with the same company of the Connemara day tour, only this time I went to the Cliffs of Moher. I almost wish I hadn’t done the tour because it was quite different from the Connemara Tour. We passed some really cool stuff–castles, portal tombs (called Dolmens, erected by ancient pagans), and the beautiful ‘lunar landscape’ of the Burren, a protected nature area. But not once did the bus stop and let us photograph any of it. I paid twenty euros (near forty dollars) to take a bus to the Cliffs of Moher when I could have hopped a Bus Eireann for free with my bus pass and seen the exact same landscape through the bus window.
It was a beautiful day though, so I did my best to capture the scenery in pictures through the window. The Burren is crazy, they aren’t joking when they call it ‘lunar’. It’s all limestone and shale mountains and valleys, carved before and during the last ice age by ocean and glacial shifts; they were forced up out of the ancient sea. The mountains look like giant piles of crushed rock. They’ve found sea life fossils high up the sides, both extinct and living today, which shows just how much of Ireland used to be under the sea.
One lovely young Asian family decided it was a fantastic idea to bring their infant and their two year old on an 8 hour bus tour–I don’t need to tell you how that ended up. Suffice it to say, I still really hate babies.
I was flanked by Americans on all sides, which was nice. The guy sitting beside me was good for a bit of chit chat and the two Colorado ladies in front of me invited me to eat lunch with them. The two ladies behind me, however, did us proud by being the loud, obnoxious Americans that Europeans expect us to be. They had many inappropriate ‘Mom’ conversations loud enough for half the bus to hear whether we wanted to or not. It’s funny how laid back, go-with-the-flow young Americans are compared to older Americans. We younguns do everything we can not to draw attention to ourselves, and watch in horrific fascination as the elder generation lives up to every stigma we work so hard to waylay. I was further taken into a bad impression of said ladies behind me when every five minutes one of them kept saying ‘That’s just beautiful’ ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ ‘How beautiful!’ The lack of adjectives in her vocabulary made me shudder. Don’t get me wrong, after twenty days of seeing the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, I’m running low on appropriate ways to express my disbelief as well. God bless my parents for giving me damn good, intelligent genes.
There were a great many ruined churches in The Burren. Cromwell, a British general, cut a swath through Ireland (1650ish), burning off the roofs of churches and abbeys and conquering every castle in sight. Now the empty husks, overgrown by native plants, stand desolate in the fields of the Burren, reminders of worse times.
The Aillwee Caves was our first stop. I did a guided tour . I love caves, there’s just something deeply intimate about them, walking the corridors of the Mother’s womb. It certainly wasn’t as kickass as Mammoth Cave, but I enjoyed it. The lighting was too dim for decent pictures, but I did get a neat one of a little waterfall that was backlit.
We ate lunch in a town called Doolin, which is a destination on my list for next time. The lunch was awful, if I’m going to be honest, the worst meal I’ve had since coming here. We ate fast and headed ten minutes up the road to the Cliffs of Moher.
The cliffs made me feel like I felt in the Grand Canyon. You can stare and stare, look over and contemplate the waves so far below, but still your eyes can’t catch up to your brain; you can’t comprehend that what you’re seeing is real. I think I took the same three pictures four or five times each because every time I turned away and looked back, I kept having the same awe struck reaction.
The best part is there’s only two cliffs out of the 9 km stretch that have viewing platforms. There’s a big sign–huge, brown sign, completely impossible to miss–behind a stone wall that says ‘Please do not go beyond this point’. People climb the stone wall and take pictures standing next to the sign before walking along the edge of the cliffs. This has gone on for so long that a trail has been worn along the cliff edge, but no one’s around to keep people from doing it! My guidebooks all warned against going off the posted paths because several tourists get blown off the cliffs each year due to high winds. I got a great picture where I lined up the plaque on the stone wall (says: ‘in memory of those who have lost their lives at the Cliffs of Moher’) with the big brown sign warning not to go beyond it, and the path beyond the sign with the tons of people walking along the edge. Fantastic picture. I’m pretty terrified of heights, but that alone wouldn’t have kept me from following the crowd and walking the edge. What kept me from doing it was how crowded it was on the tiny pathway. One accidental jostle from someone walking by you and over the cliffs you go. Not to mention if I’d been blown off or knocked off no one was there with me to even know I was gone!
The entire country is covered in stone walls called ‘penny walls’. They section off farm land and rise up the sides of mountains. They look like a brisk wind should blow them over, but they’ve stood for not quite two hundred years. They were built during the famine, funded by the landowners (the British). Out of work and destitute Irish men were paid one penny for every yard of wall they built as a way for earning money during the famine. Not only have you lost your farm, you have no home and a family to care for, and your stomach is constantly, gnawingly hungry, but if you want to earn money, you have to lug huge stones up the mountains and build walls for the British. How degrading and awful, because life just was’t hard enough at that point.
April 13 1000 am
Was going to go to Boyle to see Lough Key Forest Park today, but it’s a bank holiday so the bus schedules are all messed up. I waited an hour in the cold and rain before finding that out. Since it’s freezing and raining, I just came back and have been sitting in McDonald’s drinking coffee. I’m still wondering if the stores will ever open, because my back up was to hit the stores, lol. I might end up catching a taxi to the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetary for lack of anything else to do. The TI office isn’t terribly far from here, so I might give it a try and hope it’s open (most likely not, damn bank holidays.)
The bus ride to Sligo was trippy. There were long stretches of road where I felt like I was at home! There’s the part that looked exactly like Anchorage, over by Tom Sawyer park. I had to do a double take, it was like deja vu but not. No sooner had I made a note to write about it later, we passed a gorgeous white, thatched roof cottage with smoke curling lazily from the chimney…yeah, we don’t have those in Anchorage!
Sligo was a ghost town when I got here around lunchtime. Everything but the pubs and restaurants was closed. I figured the lack of people was due to everyone doing the easter church thing, but even as two o clock rolled around, there was not a lot of foot traffic to be seen.
My hostel is situated right in the thick of downtown shopping. There’s beautiful clothes in windows everywhere I look! I basically just walked around Sligo yesterday, hitting all the tourist spots. I saw the Famine graveyard, nothing more than an empty plot of land and a few grave markers, but no indication of who or how many were buried. Even without much but a monument to mark the spot, it was still haunting to know that beneath my feet were an indeterminate number of people who suffered a horrifying death.
The walk to the graveyard too me to the apex of a hill with great views out over Sligo, and then through a seedy little neighborhood that I detoured around on the way back.
I saw the WB Yeats memorial, the City Hall, the Courthouse, and the famine memorial on the river. Sligo Abbey was open, which I hadn’t expected since it was a religious holiday. It was a ruined shell like most of the others I’d seen, only with some neat tombs and more than just the chapel left standing. I also learned the difference between an abbey and a friary. The monks actually lived in the abbeys, and generally the abbeys were closed to the public.
April 14 730pm
My second day in Sligo was fun. It was still a damn ghost town, I swear the entire country just shuts down Easter weekend. It was the monday after easter and it was a bank holiday. After finally warming up over my McDonald’s coffee and reading my book for a bit, I took a chance on the TI office being open and walked to it. I got a map and directions to Carrowmore, and began the two and a half mile walk.
It was wind and rain on the coldest day yet, and I made that damn walk. The cemetary was so cool. A lot of the portal tombs are no longer intact, but a few are. The rain couldn’t get me down too bad because I was walking among the sacred burial grounds of ancient pagans. My shoes got soaked through and I felt like I’d probably end up with pneumonia or worse, but I walked to EVERY tomb, no matter how destroyed. Had I lived 4000 years ago, I would have been buried in such a tomb, honored before the gods as I journeyed into the Other World. I tried to imagine what they were like, what their lives, loves, and hates were, but it’s so hard to know. Life is so different now.
I made the walk back, talking to myself and the sheep on the way. Yes, I was that bored. By the time I got back to the hostel, my blue jeans were soaked up to my knees and my shoes were sloshing with each step. I got cleaned up and put on dry clothes, and went shopping again, big surprise there. It was still so early by the time I was done shopping and I needed a distraction, so I slid into a matinee of ’17 Again’, which was cute.
April 15 300 pm
I made the tough decision of leaving Sligo a day early and not seeing the Lough Key Forest Park. I’d completely psyched myself up for it, but having to check out of my hostel meant taking my bags with me. Then worrying about storing them and finding a way to the park from Boyle. It just seemed like too much work and I was so worn out, so I hopped a bus to Derry.
We passed through the town of Donegal on route and I’m regretting cutting it out of my plans. Donegal looked beautiful, the perfect, colorful Irish town. Plus, a castle and harbor cruises…sigh. Oh well, next time.
Derry came upon us suddenly. I’d gotten it into my head to expect this gigantic hill, walled off all the way around. My dodo brain didn’t stop to consider that Derry has been walled since the sixteen hundreds…obviously the city has expanded around and outside the walls.
It is cheaper to stay and eat in Northern Ireland, I’ve figured out. I found my way to the walled part of the city and went to the Tower museum. Cool building, the typical castle tower house, converted inside to the History of Derry exhibition. This museum only touched lightly on the Troubles in Derry, and I never did make it to the ‘Free Derry Museum’ so my facts are sketchy about what events transpired.
Suffice it to say many people here died in the fight for Irish independance. When I get to the murals here in a minute, I’ll tell you about some of them. The museum also had an exhibition on the excavation of the Armada ship La Trinidad Valencera. It sank in 1588 off the coast of Donegal county upon being chased from Irish shores after a failed attempt of Spain to take over. It was discovered in the 1970s by a Derry diving club. THe exhibition noted how it was found, what equipment was used to bring artifacts to the surface, and what conservation techniques were used to keep fragile bits from being destroyed in the process. It was so cool, it made me want to be a diving archaeologist!
After the museum I found a staircase to the top of the wall and proceeded to make the one mile walk around the city. There were some really neat views over the outer city as well as the inner city. I visited St Columbs Cathedral (not as beautiful inside as outside). The Grand Parade was pretty, a section of the wall planted with oak trees. What really burned me up was the large amount of grafitti, political or otherwise, on the walls. With all due respect to the inhabitants of Northern Ireland, telling the government to release political prisoners by painting gigantic white letters on 400 year old historical walls probably NOT the way to go.
I exited the walled city in the opposite direction I came in to see the Hands Across the Divide statue. It’s a symbol of peace and reconciliation. Then I circled around to the murals of the Bogside (first residential area to be settled outside the city, now called Free Derry). The murals are on the sides of the Bogside apartment homes, two to three stories high, painted by three Derry men during the late 90s. There are twelve murals, here are a few:
Motorman: Image of British Army officer battering down a door, meant to capture the brutality of the troubles.
Annette Macgaven: 14 year old girl shot dead by the British Army in September 1971
Mural of fifteen people killed by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday (July 1971) during protest
Mural of political prisoner who survived a 53 day hunger strike while incarcerated.
They are at once fascinating, wonderful works of art, and at the same time heartbreaking, haunting moments of time during the Troubles. I would have learned more about Derry’s political troubles had I gone to the Free Derry Museum, but I was losing daylight and totally knackered.
I headed to Belfast this morning. I got to ride the whole way here on the top of an enclosed double decker bus which was SO awesome (even in the cloudy, nasty rain with no visibility.) I broke down and got a taxi to my hostel (too many bags for a twenty minute walk). I hit the tourist office and got some brochures and maps, as well as a souvenir Ireland umbrella since my crappy one broke in Sligo. It’s probably the fanciest damn umbrella I’ve ever owned!
April 16 500 pm
Today has been an amazing day. It didn’t start out good because I thought I was going to have to pay 30 pounds to take a black taxi tour by myself. My driver arrived and helped me get my stuff over to my new hostel, and instead of giving me a tour he drove me to the City Center (with commentary) and put me on a Titanic bus tour for free. Arnie, my hostel owner, had told us some girls were wanting to do a black taxi tour at 2, so I needed to come back then.
Some fun facts I learned from Walter the taxi driver…
3 Queens Universities were built in Ireland…Cork, Galway, and Belfast. Upon commencement of building, somehow the plans were swapped. The largest of the 3 was meant to be in Galway and it ended up being built in Belfast! It’s a beautiful building (my favorite picture from the trip is of me sitting in front of it) and the grounds beside it house the Botanic gardens–a colorful, airy place full of sunbathing students.
The Spires Mall is not only the Irish Headquarters for the Presbyterian Theologians, but also a shopping mall. Go figure.
The third most bombed hotel in the world (and the most bombed in Europe) is in Belfast, called the Europa. It started because the newsmen who came to Belfast to cover the troubles would stay at the Europa. If a paramilitary group wanted coverage in the news, they bombed the hotel. It’s somewhere in the vicinity of 34 times, the last being in the 90s. Fortunately no one has been killed during the bombings.
The Titanic tour is only offered this time of year because yesterday (the 15th) was the 97th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. This week every year is the Titanic: Made in Belfast week.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the notes I made during the tour, but here are facts I found interesting:
Titanic was built by the Harland and Wolfe shipbuilding company in Belfast. It was the second in a line of 3 commissioned by the White Star Line. The Olympic (nicknamed the Beloved) had a very prosperous 30 year career. Titanic (the Damned) obviously sank on her maiden voyage. The third ship, Brittanic was bealeagured into service as an army hospital ship in the first World War, never serving as a luxury liner (AKA The Forgotten).
200 men were injured in the making of the Titanic, and eight were killed. The ship’s hull held one and a half million rivets. I got to stand on the very slip in which the Titanic was built, and got to see the Thompson Dry Dock, where it was situated during the final days before it left Belfast while being fitted with cabins and engines.
The Titanic was officially launched (her hull put into the water-no cabins or boilers yet) on May 31, 1911 at 12:13 in the afternoon. Our bus made the launch on the dry dock in five seconds. It took Titanic a full sixty seconds to float back into the water.
The White Star Line did not believe in ‘christening’ their ships, therefore the Titanic was launched without the breaking of a champagne bottle on it’s hull.
Another ship built by H and W, HMS Formidable, launched itself! It was in the very minutes before it’s launch, and the dock workers were getting organized. The woman who was going to christen the ship had just got into place and was situating herself,when the ship gave a massive groan and began to slide backwards. Though shocked, the lady had presence of mind enough to heave the champagne bottle after it, only just hitting the hull.
The White Star Line was a crooked company. Crewman John Collins, a Belfast man who survived the sinking, was given documentation that announced his wages were stopped at precisely 220 am on April 15, 1912, the very moment Titanic sank. Then they had the audacity a few years later to come after the families of crewmen who lost their lives wanting compensation for the uniforms in which their loved ones perished!
It was really quite amazing to see where the Titanic began. Much of it’s gone, buildings crushed as progress took over, but the Harland and Wolfe cranes, Samson and Goliath, are still there, redundant and not of much use, but an important part of the Belfast skyline and therefore indispensable to the city. Looking at the Thompson Dry dock, I was in awe at getting a sense of the size of the ship. It’s tail end surpassed the end of the slip (impossibly long). It’s height measured in stories was near 4 stories, and the smokestacks were double that. Very impressive.
After my tour, I went back to my hostel and was picked up with two other women for my Black Taxi tour. I understand the troubles a little better now, I think.
The troubles started (in Belfast) in 1969. The Catholics, tired of persecution and fighting for the same civil rights as the English protestants, were beginning to come back and get good jobs, taking back their freedom. The Protestants began burning Catholic homes in a show of ‘who’s-in-charge’. Thus began the forming of paramilitary groups and fighting. It slowly turned from a religious fight to a fight for a united Ireland.
The Black taxi tour (not actually a black taxi, we ended up with a red taxi) takes you into the heart of the Troubles, the part of Belfast where the Catholics and Protestants are split clearly down the middle by what is called “The Peace Wall”. This 30 foot high wall has only three gates, and at 6pm each night the gates are closed until the next morning. As a result, any IRA (Catholic paramilitary) member of UDA/UFF (Protestant paramilitary) member has to go three miles to enter the other side in the city center. If they shoot up or otherwise wreak havoc, it’s another three miles to get out of there and back to their own side. That means their exposure time is elongated, and the risk of being caught by the police is higher. It hasn’t ceased attacks, but it’s slowed them down.
There were many fantastic murals just like those in Derry. Our driver let us out at the Peace Wall and gave us markers to sign our names. I signed with ‘HMA 4-16-09 Louisville KY’. I’ve made my mark in Belfast.
Random Troubles facts:
10 IRA members perished during the hunger strike. The hunger strike was initiated when an english woman, Margaret Thatcher, fought to have the title ‘political prisoner’ removed from imprisoned IRA members. Refusing to be called ‘criminals’, they went on strike. First they refused to wear the prison uniforms, only wearing blankets wrapped around themselves. When that didn’t work they began smearing their cell walls with their own shit (ew). When that didn’t work, the IRA put a stop to it all by proposing the hunger strike. One of the 10 men who died from it lasted 66 days. Another man died in 1996 as a direct result of the damage done to his body during the hunger strike.
A bill was passed in 1998 saying that all political prisoners, despite of the terms of their sentences (some of them with up to 15 life sentences) were to be released in the year 2000. Of the 450 people released, only ten have gone back to prison.
This wraps up everything but my last two days, which I didn’t journal about at all. I did a tour of the Crumlin Road Gaol (closed for the past twelve years, I was one of the very first tour groups to go through the day after it opened for tours). I went to the Belfast Zoo, which is HUGE and beautiful with some fantastic views over the city and harbor because it’s on a very steep hill (thus I was worn out by the time I finished). When I left the zoo I went back to the hostel and slept the entire rest of the day away. On my birthday.
My last day I did a day tour of the Antrim Coast. I saw Carrickfergus Castle, crossed the sixty foot Carrick A Rede rope bridge, tromped around the Giant’s Causeway, and passed through Bushmills with a quick stop at Dunluce Castle. It was a wonderful last day to a trip I will remember forever.
I’ve been home for weeks now, and not a day goes by that I don’t think fondly of my time in Ireland. It is a magnificent place and I miss being there. I can’t wait until the day comes when I can return with my special someone and enjoy it even more.