Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Seduced by Ireland

I had been to Ireland before and thought it beautiful. However, for some reason I wasn’t overly thrilled with the prospect of returning, but was quite happily surprised by my reaction to our days spent there.

If Italy is a sophisticated woman with secrets, then Ireland is a wide open and genuine farm girl. I was disarmed by the smiling people immediately. I ran right into someone on O’Connell Street in Dublin and was expecting the colder Munich response and was floored when the gentleman apologized and we both ended up laughing!

There’s an ease and gentleness about the Irish people that is very appealing. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, laughing and grinning. How much of this happiness is Guinness driven I couldn’t begin to guess, but it is very engaging.

After our days at the wedding in Dublin, we drove down to the South for a few days of dramatic coastal scenery. To me, there is nothing like the combination of mountains and sea and West Cork and Kerry both delivered in this aspect. We spent an entire day driving around the Mizen Peninsula, which was full of rugged cliffs and secluded beaches. We stopped often to admire the jaw droppingly beautiful views. It was a great day for us, one I think we will remember when we are old.

We also spend a few days in the North. Chris’ friend Brian hails from Port Stewart, about 20 miles from Derry, but light years away in that it is an idyllic beach town whereas Derry has struggled for years with what the Irish call “The Troubles”. We spent a few days with Brian and his girlfriend Triona exploring the Causeway Coast, home of the world famous Giant’s Causeway and the surrounding area. The Giant’s Causeway is an amazing spot, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a formation of hexagonal basalt columns coming out of the sea.

There’s a charming fable surrounding this beautiful spot. In actuality it was formed by volcanic activity 60 million years ago, but I like to think it happened as follows. The tale is that it was built by an Ulster Giant named Finn McCool. He supposedly built it during an argument with the Scottish giant whose name is Benandonner. As the argument dragged on, McCool built the causeway. The folklore suggests that Finn became frightened of the immense Scottish giant and ran home when intimidated. Benandonner, however, followed him across the Causeway. This is where the story gets sort of cute. Finn’s wife disguised him as a baby, putting him to “sleep” in a crib. When Benandonner arrived and saw the size of the baby, he figured the father would be ten times his size, and went running back to Scotland, tearing up the Causeway on his way back. It’s a sweet tale, and to my mind, quintessentially Irish.

Our last day was spent in Belfast. We stayed at the Europa Hotel, which, though it once had the reputation of being the most bombed hotel in Europe, now has been redone to luxury standards. Our main reason for visiting Belfast was to see the murals in both the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. We had been reading about them, and thought that in addition to seeing all the homages to the famine, we ought to see something depicting the sectarian violence in Belfast. We took an hour and a half long personal black taxi tour in which the driver explained the nuances of the murals. It was incredibly fascinating as well as very sad. The tour took us through the Protestant neighborhood of the Shankill Road, as well as the Catholic neighborhood of the Falls Road. We were prepared for a somewhat grim and surreal experience by an earlier sighting of the Orange Order donning their regalia and getting ready for a march. For those of you unfamiliar with this group, the Orange Order is a Protestant organization which arose in the wake of the Battle of the Boyne which was won by William of Orange who successfully drove King James, a Catholic, into exile thereby establishing Protestant supremacy. It struck me that for Protestants in Northern Ireland, the day of celebration, July 12, is somewhat akin to our Fourth of July. I found the Orange Order to be very disturbing and think that their practice of marching menacingly through Catholic neighborhoods to be mean-spirited and violence inducing. Seeing tehm dressed in full regalia gave me the creeps as if I were seeing the KKK assemble. July 12 is a day of bonfires. In the Shankill Road neighborhood on June 6th when we visited there were huge piles of trash, furniture and pallets all stacked up somewhat haphazardly in preparation for the bonfires in which the tricolor flags of Ireland are burnt as well as effigies of the Pope, the head of what the Protestants refer to as the “Church of Rome”. I saw a little red headed boy of about seven years old playing atop the trash pile it was heartbreaking when I started to think about the larger picture.

The murals themselves were fascinating. I admit to a bias, but even Chris, who grew up in the Protestant Church of England, agreed with me that the Protestant murals were mostly of an aggressive paramilitary nature and appeared to extol violence. Their strident murals were full of hooded gunmen with weapons. There were several glorifying William of Orange, or King Billy, as he is “affectionately” known. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. We made a brief stop at the so-called Peace Wall, a huge partition separating the Protestant neighborhood from the Catholic. We then drove through the gates (which are closed at night) to the Falls Road neighborhood and saw the other side of the story. As I said, my bias has always been on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed Catholics. I am not sure if the painters of the Catholic murals have better advisors than the Protestants do, but their murals were of a more pacifist nature. Believe me, I know the violence that the Catholics have wrongly unfurled on the Protestants. I deplore it. Woven into the Catholic murals were paintings of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela. Do you see where I am headed? They were aligning themselves with the side of justice, or right. To me, it seemed brilliant. Paintings of famous hunger strikers such as Bobby Sand were decorated with doves and other symbols of peace. As I said, I just think the Catholics understand public relations much better.

On the Catholic side, homes backed right up to the Peace Wall, which was several stories high. The backs of the homes were fortified and the wall was scarred with black burn marks. Our driver, a Protestant, explained that the Protestants throw petrol bombs over the wall which bounce off the fortifications and explode against the Wall. Unspeakable. Kids live in those houses. Don’t let your lucky Haddonfield children complain about anything. They aren’t climbing on trash piles and having bombs chucked at their homes.

It was a tough tour to take, but a very eye opening one. I am glad I had a chance to see it. I think it’s really important to see the dark side of places as well as the beautiful scenic sides. For the same reason I felt it necessary to see Dachau, I felt it very important to see Belfast.


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