4. Land of Giants and Mortals

Belfast and Northern Ireland, Days 3 and 4

Our first north-bound destination is Belfast. I know very little about this city, save for the Troubles and the Belfast murals depicting them. We stop to visit the port, home to The Titanic (it was built here on the dry docks and set sail from Belfast). Harland and Wolff was the largest shipyard in the world when it built the famous ocean liner in 1911-1912. It is now home to the Titanic Belfast Museum, dedicated to all things Titanic. The gorgeous modern structure with impressive views overlooking the docks is well worth visiting.

 

Leaving the docks, we drive past the Belfast murals, a poignant reminder of Ireland’s violent struggles between north and south, and stop at the striking red brick buildings that house Queen’s University. We end the day with a dinner at Deanes and a visit to the Crown Liquor Saloon, conveniently across the street from the hotel. This place is drop-dead gorgeous. Ornate carved Mahogany panels, etched glass windows, lions, gryphons, and gas lamps adorn the pub, built in 1826. There are private drinking booths called snugs with Italian carved panels and leather seats for small parties of 4 – 6, with high walls and doors to maintain privacy. It is the most beautiful bar I have ever set foot in. The barman, however, has to be the rudest I have ever met (he’s not working for tips), but after a brief conversation with him, the ice is broken and he warms up to us. Turns out he has a very dry sense of humour, and his snarcasm – my word for snarky and sarcastic – wins us over. The patrons are friendly; we quickly form a large gathering of locals and tourists, all regaling each other with tales and buying each other drinks. Great fun. And so begins my love affair with Belfast.

 

 

Some interesting facts about Northern Ireland:

  • By 2014, the Catholic population of Belfast had risen to 49 percent, while the Protestant population had dropped to 41 percent.
  • Actor Liam Neeson was born near Belfast, and had his theatrical debut here at the Lyric Theatre.
  • Women could hold any office at Queen’s University (Liam Neeson’s alma mater) twelve years before they could study at Oxford.
  • There’s an annual bog snorkeling competition in Northern Ireland. In the bog. With a snorkel.
  • Game of Thrones employs more locals than the civil service.

Indeed, the North Antrim coast is Game of Thrones territory, rivaling only New Zealand for spectacular, ancient, old world-y landscapes. The series films here regularly. Easy to understand why: The Coastal Causeway, considered one of the world’s top drives, is breathtaking. Heading out of Belfast and along the coast, we stop to revel in the beauty. Scotland is visible across the North Channel – the peninsula where Paul McCartney famously found his inspiration for “Mull of Kintyre”. This is rocky, hilly terrain, with very few trees and stunning channel views at every turn in the road. The Atlantic is to the northwest of us; Iceland as well. UNESCO world heritage site the Giant’s Causeway is another show-stopper. I was not prepared for the sheer size and number of basalt columns thrusting upwards from the ground; no photos do it justice. Along our coastal drive, stunning views are accentuated by medieval castles, vast, sandy beaches that attract international surfers, mountains, glens, hilly golf courses, and water stretching as far as the eye can see. And the skies. The first time I notice is in Northern Ireland: how the wide-open, sky-meets-ocean-to-infinity vistas contrast so vividly with our narrow city skyscapes.

 

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Alright – enough raving about Northern Ireland – the biggest surprise yet on the tour. With any luck, I will make it back here again.

Quiet moments on the bus have me reflecting on the events that have led to this voyage. Two months before coming to Ireland, I decided to try to contact my birth father. Although it had often crossed my mind, I had never taken steps to contact him, choosing instead to put all my energies into searching for my birth mother. But after writing to her as a young pregnant mother, I was disheartened to discover that she did not wish to have contact with me. That discouraged me from trying for many years. But given the pending trip to Ireland and England, coupled with the facts that I am 56 now and can be singularly determined when I want to be, I decided to give it a try once again.

I’d had very little to go on previously, but during the search for my birth mother I received my adoption certificate and a letter which revealed my father’s name and age, that he was public-school educated (which means private school for us in North America), and worked for an engineering firm at the time of my birth. I had held on to this information for 20 years, choosing not to act on it. But I was now ready to give it a go, and sent another request to a London adoption researcher. And once again, I was in for a surprise – but of a totally different sort.

A month before the start of this trip, I received a phone call from a researcher with the BBC Television documentary series Long Lost Family. He had heard of my request, which had been forwarded and recommended to him, and wished to interview me to see if I was a potential candidate for the show. Six or seven emails and phone conversations ensued; he interviewed me extensively on Skype, then asked me to send photos of myself to the t.v. producer. After an initial search, the feedback I received was that apparently, my birth father was very difficult to find, given the number of people in London with the same name. I would only be selected for the program if they could make a match and felt the information found was show-worthy. Their modus operandi is to make a search, find out if the person is still alive (iffy in my case, given his age) and open to the idea of holding a reunion and having it televised. Understandably, not everyone wants the publicity. A month later and here in Northern Ireland, I am still awaiting news from the researcher. Have they decided to search for my birth father – or drop the case? Or have they searched and found nothing? With so many possible outcomes and no current information, I am once again kept waiting in suspense.

Our final stop in Northern Ireland is Derry/Londonderry. This unique walled city, preserved in its Renaissance style, dates back over 400 years. The gates are a relic of another, not-so-distant time: site of two sieges in the 17th century, the walls were later barricaded at night to keep sectarian fighting to a minimum during the time of the uprisings. Their history is eerily echoed in the US: In New Hampshire, there are two towns named Derry and Londonderry near the I-93. The municipalities were once united, but Derry split from Londonderry in 1827, following much political tension.

On our way out of the city, we pass the Hands Across the Divide sculpture, commemorating peace in Northern Ireland. The outstretched hands of the two men almost meet; just inches away from a handshake, it is a symbol of the long, complex, and tenuous steps toward peace. How many of us might see ourselves in this sculpture, I wonder – the profound longing for connection and reconciliation; almost there, but not quite yet.

Leaving Northern Ireland, we re-enter the Republic and head along the Wild Atlantic Way towards Sligo, our destination for the night.

 

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