And so I present to you another entry I should have posted long ago.
October 18: Belfast
The number of unoccupied weekends before me is dwindling, but if I can, I’m going to have to come back to Belfast. It was far too much to try to take in in a single weekend.
We visited the Giant’s Causeway on Saturday morning, and I was enchanted. They gave us two hours, most of which were occupied by a guided tour; I could have stayed at least another three hours to explore.
The Giant’s Causeway is basically a big set of cliffs beside the sea. These are pretty awe-inspiring by themselves, but what’s really awesome about them is the rock formations. The cliffsides are largely composed of interlocking hexagonal columns of gray stone, though there are pentagonal, quadrilateral, and heptagonal columns as well. Each column could be circumscribed by a cylinder about a foot to a foot and a half in diameter, and most of them have curved horizontal divisions every foot or so. The overall effect was a lot like looking at a giant, petrified honeycomb, but none of the explanations offered involved behemoth prehistoric bees.
Explanation the First: Giants
This area was once home to the legendary Finn McCool, an Irish giant. Here he lived with his wife and grandmother and a slew of animals. The chimney to his house is visible in part of the cliffside, and he left behind other traces as well. His hunchbacked grandmother is now part of a neighboring hill, where he turned her to stone when she refused to deal with her drinking problem and returned after indulging her taste for uisce beatha one time. (Literally translated ‘water of life,’ the phrase is pronounced ish-kuh baha and is the origin of the English ‘whiskey’). His dog, duck, and camel, all proportionally giant-sized, were covered in lava once upon a time, and thus they are still visible as well. And then, of course, there’s the size 96 boot he left lying on the beach.
Anywho, Finn and his family weren’t the only giants in the vicinity—Ben something-or-other lived across the way in Scotland. Apparently he was a bit of a bully, and so one day Finn took it into his head to make his way over to Scotland in order to beat Ben up. And so he built himself a bridge, carving the columns that we see today. But when he made it across to Scotland, he found that Ben was quite a bit bigger than he. Since he had no desire to play David, he abandoned his plans and fled back to Ireland, with Ben in pursuit. Following his wife’s advice, Finn hid in the baby cradle to await the arrival of the Scottish giant. When Ben arrived at the house, Finn’s wife told him that her husband was out at the moment, but that he was welcome to come in and say hello to the baby. Ben took one look at Finn, curled up in the cradle with the blankets pulled up to his chin and a pacifier in his mouth, and decided that if the baby was this big, he didn’t really want to fight Finn after all. So he fled back to Scotland, tearing up the bridge behind him. All that remain now are the hexagonal columns at either end of the bridge, for the same stones are to be found at a site in Scotland.
Explanation the Second: Plate Tectonics
Northern Ireland and Scotland lie along the edge of the European plate, and when the American plate started to pull away millions of years ago, magma oozed through the resulting gap, covering the area in lava. These lavaflows became the basalt that is to be found throughout Ireland today, though in places it changed into other kinds of rock. The top- and bottommost layers of this lava cooled relatively quickly, forming your standard, rather amorphous basalt. The middle layer cooled much more slowly, however. It began cracking as it cooled, forming three-pronged stress fractures. These stress fractures grew eventually joined up, resulting in the geometric formations we see today.
There’s a path along the top of the cliffs, and I would have liked to hike it, but we hadn’t the time. On the way out, we stopped for a group photo at the ruins of Dunluce Castle. You had to pay to get into the castle itself, so we followed the footpaths around and under it instead. Here we were provided with a couple of irresistible opportunities to see just a little bit more. And so, in brazen defiance of the “no access” signs, we climbed down to the subterranean beach in a cavern below the castle, and up the cliffside along one of the walls. Dirt, a spectacular view, a rare sunny day, and the opportunity to scrabble up and down areas I probably shouldn’t be climbing—a good day, all in all.
I ran into Maggie towards the end of our time at the cliffs, and we made tentative plans to meet back up at the hostel, Unfortunately, these and subsequent plans to meet each other fell through due to the separation of the buses, my lack of internet access, and our mutual failure to include the country code when sharing our phone numbers. (I have since become far more proficient at making international calls). We shall have to be better prepared when she comes to Galway in two weeks for the Aran Islands trip.
Friday and Saturday afternoons I spent wandering the city with Celina, and part of the time with Jordan and Emily. The city center is beautiful, full of that juxtaposition of history and modernity that so characterizes European cities. It more what I expected Dublin to look like, and from what I had seen of the two cities at this point, I much preferred Belfast. With the exception of Grafton Street, I found Dublin rather dull and monotonously modern in its urbanity, with little of the historic charm I associate with European cities. Belfast seemed to have much more character, even though it’s a much younger city.
Sadly, I was once more disappointed in my quest to visit the great cathedrals. As at St. Patrick’s in Dublin, I arrived too late in the afternoon. The cathedral was closed, and I had to content myself with taking pictures from the outside. But I did get some lovely pictures of the exterior, for we arrived at that magical hour of the afternoon when the sun gilds it touches before sinking into the shadows.
Other highlights included the majestic town hall in the city center, and over on the banks of the Lagan, an enormous ceramic blue salmon and a modern statue of a woman on a globe, holding a ring over her head. She’s meant to represent peace and prosperity, but the locals refer to her either as “the doll on a ball” or “ the thing with a ring.”
Since we confined our wanderings to the city center, it wasn’t hard to forget that we were no longer in the Republic. The buildings were beautiful, the atmosphere vibrant, with no sign of the tumult the city has experienced. The only sign of this division we saw in our first two days was the bar across the street from the hostel. It was called The Royal, and both its name and the flags it flew (British, Ulster, Australian, and Confederate) proclaimed it to be a Loyalist establishment. We were advised not to go there.
For those unfamiliar with the politics of Northern Ireland, the country is divided between the Nationalists, who want the six counties it contains to be part of the Republic, and the Unionists, who want to stay part of the UK. Each of these sides is further divided between a more moderate faction and an extremist, paramilitary one. The extreme Nationalists are called Republicans, the associated paramilitary organization being called the Irish Republican Army; the extreme Unionists are called Loyalists, the associated paramilitary groups being the Ulster Volunteer Force and the UDD (Ulster Defense… something), or Ulster Freedom Fighters.
While the city center shows little evidence of the Troubles, as this conflict is called, the bus tour on Sunday took us out to Sandy Row and Shankill, old Loyalist areas where the conflict was literally splashed all over the walls. (Shankill, incidentally, is not a combination of the words ‘shank’ and ‘kill’ – it’s the English version of sean cille, Irish for ‘old church’). The walls here were covered in murals, some older and more violent than others. Depictions of Unionist heroes King William (or Billy the Bastard, as I’ve heard him referred to in the Republic) and Oliver Cromwell were popular, and one mural even asserted the right of children to a safe place to play—but others showed masked men holding machine guns. The spiked fences and barbed/razor wire that had only appeared occasionally in the city center were a lot more prevalent here, and we saw more and more of them as we approached the peace walls.
The walls were erected at the height of the Troubles to separate working-class Catholic and Protestant communities. The idea was that separating the two groups reduced the possibility of violence between them. What resulted were tall walls topped with spikes and razor wire and covered in murals. The spikes, images of weaponry, and overall dereliction of these areas served as a vivid reminder that Belfast has yet to finish recovering from its war-torn past.