Friday, July 25, 2008

Ireland: Day 5

This morning we checked out the Carrickfergus Castle, an intimidating, massive, and not particularly charming castle. Although not picturesque, the castle was full of mannequins enacting scenes from daily life in the middle ages, including the king taking a royal dump.

From there we drove into Belfast and found a Black Taxi Tour - basically a private tour for a small group with a knowledgeable driver who explained the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland, gave us some perspective on what life is like today in Belfast, and answered any questions we had. I was really impressed with how unbiased he was. We tried to speculate as to whether he was Catholic or Protestant, but we couldn't tell.

First he took us to a Protestant neighborhood to see some of the murals on the homes and buildings. Some of them depict historical scenes, while others are memorials to those who died in the conflict. One of the murals was in remembrance of a member of one Protestant militia group who was murdered by a different Protestant group. Sometimes it seems like the human capacity for discord and violence is endless. I also noticed racist graffiti and stickers in one of the neighborhoods we walked in. Seriously, why can't we all just get along?

Then we traveled into a Catholic neighborhood where the driver showed us some of the memorial gardens that the communities have established.

There's a huge wall between the Protestant and Catholic areas of the city. You can see here where the government has installed grates on the back of the houses near the wall because people on the other side will lob bricks and bottles, which were breaking windows and landing in homes.

Despite the relative peace for the last 14 years, the wall is being built taller and stronger all the time. Our guide seemed to think the wall contributed greatly to that peace, rather than any deep sense of love and understanding among the populace. According the driver, even streets that aren't behind walls are largely segregated, and Catholics and Protestants lead mostly separate lives within Belfast.

This graffiti stands for "kill all taigs," a slur against the Catholics. There's definitely still at least some anger between the two sides. It makes me hopeful though, that a new generation is coming of age without having experienced the bombings and killings.

These are murals by the Catholics in honor of other oppressed (or "oppressed" depending on your political leanings) peoples around the world with whom the Catholics identify and feel affinity, such as the Cubans, Basques, Palestinians, and Iraqis.

The Catholics also created murals commemorating their dead in the conflict, such as these in honor of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers who died protesting the treatment of Catholic political prisoners.

As our guide kept reminding us, people on both sides fought, killed, and died for their lives and freedom and homes because they believed what they were doing was right. I left Northern Ireland with the sense that many were also striving for peace, and I hope they prevail.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ireland: Day 4

I know the conclusion to our Ireland excursion is a long time coming, but it's because of a minor tragedy. I lost the book in which I chronicled our trip. It has to be somewhere here in the house, so I kept waiting for it to turn up on its own, figuring I would continue writing in the blog once I found it. That doesn't seem to be likely to happen any time soon, so I'll just get on with it, and my traveling companions can correct me or fill in any blanks I leave.

This was an exhausting day, but we saw so much amazing stuff. We left Donegal first thing in the morning to explore the northern coast. On the advice of our hostess at the last nights' B & B, we made a rare unplanned side trip in order to check out Slieve League. We were persuaded to make the harrowing drive partly based on the fact that Slieve League boasts the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Except they're not. If you believe Wikipedia they are only the second highest sea cliffs in Ireland, never mind the rest of the continent. Unfortunately, I didn't have my surveying equipment with me that day, so I can not independently verify any claim regarding the height of Slieve League.

The drive up to the cliffs was beautiful, exhilarating, and only a little bit terrifying. Since Ponylagoon had graciously offered to drive I really enjoyed this crazy ride more than our ill-advised jaunts through the narrow-laned countryside or the perilous trek over the Connor Pass. The roads were incredibly steep and just wide enough for one car in most places. Fortunately we didn't encounter anyone tearing through the villages and over the hills at insane speeds, so it felt safe if totally absurd.

The road afforded some gorgeous ocean vistas, and we stopped at a turnout to admire the view, but were completely distracted by the sheep instead and took about 1,000 pictures of them. Ireland is just lousy with the woolly things.

We proceeded onto the viewing area for Slieve League, which was very untouristy compared to many other sites. There were hardly any guardrails or parking lot and no interpretive signs or bathrooms. The hostess who encouraged us to check it out told us that the government had received a grant to develop the area for tourism, so I don't know how much longer it will be so natural. It was certainly beautiful and worth the drive, which was a big part of the fun as far as I'm concerned.

From Slieve League, we headed to Dunluce Castle, built on an outcropping over the North Channel. The castle is so close to the edge of the cliffs that in the 1600s the kitchen slid into the sea, killing several of the staff. Not only did I enjoy roaming freely around the ruins, but the views of the cliffs and the deep blue ocean were incredible.

I'm hesitant to even bring up this next incident for fear of Sealegs' head exploding. We attempted to traverse the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. About two minutes before the ticket office closed, we ran up to thrust our money through the window and pay for admission before it was too late. However, we overheard the vendor telling the people in line ahead of us that he wasn't selling tickets any more and we'd have to get them down at the bridge.

So, a whole herd of us positively stampeded up and down a kilometer's worth of hills and stairs to arrive at the rope bridge only to be told that they never sold tickets down there and we were all a bunch of lying liars who lie. The walk back to the car was the angriest kilometer ever.

Here's a picture of the bridge we did not get to cross and one of the lovely views I didn't get to take much time to enjoy due to all the furious stampeding and stomping.

We then shook off our disappointment and headed to the Giant's Causeway, which seemed to cheer everyone up except for The Husband who wasn't that upset about the bridge in the first place, nor that impressed with the Causeway. He's like a rock, that man.

Anyway, the Giant's Causeway may have been my favorite part of the trip, definitely in the top three at least. The Causeway itself was just amazing. It's hard to imagine that such strange formations are natural. But, I also enjoyed the time we took for a long hike along the cliffs above the Causeway. Many of my favorite vacation experiences have been just rambling along under the sky, through landscapes I may never see again.

In this one, you can see a lot of the path we followed along the cliffs:

I think we were standing about half way down the cliff on the first or second outcropping when I took the picture above:

Unfortunately, I'm not a very athletic duckling any more. This whole day, especially the hike down the Causeway and back up, very nearly killed me. Luckily, there was a grand old hotel on the grounds where we had dinner and some fortifying Guinness before driving on to Carrickfergus for the night.

P.S. Somewhere in there we visited the Bushmills Distillery gift shop, seeing as we were too late to take the tour. I don't have any photographs or happy/interesting memories of the Bushmills Distillery gift shop.

P.P.S. Evidently I started writing this post exactly a month ago, almost down to the minute.