Sunday, February 13, 2011

Belfast Mini-Trip

After a few weeks, we all felt that we needed to explore a wee bit further afield.  We reserved some beds in a hostel and dropped ourselves off of a train in Belfast in the afternoon, with no particular plan of action.  Our hostel, the Global Village, was a charming and slightly bohemian Victorian row house that had been refurbished; it was a great introduction to hostel living!  We were located in the middle of the Queen's Quarter, a lively neighborhood centered around Queen's University.  To orient ourselves and to find restaurants and pubs we walked the "golden mile," a vibrant section of various streets from the University to Belfast City Hall.  We also browsed through the free Ulster Museum of history and art and strolled through the lovely Botanic Gardens.

After dragging ourselves out of our beds the next morning, we ordered what we thought was a black cab tour of the city.  We had no idea that our tour would be exclusively a survey of "the Troubles" in Belfast!  What we saw on our tour was a poignant glimpse into a community still reeling from wounds of religious and ethnic conflict; a history of violence and segregation of which we, especially we young Americans, had no notion, nor vocabulary to express.  There's no way to sum up what we learned; I'm still turning it over and over in my mind - the dividing "peace walls," the cages perennially set onto the backs of houses to keep out nail bombs and molotov cocktails, our tour guides' (one Protestant, one Catholic) ambivalence toward the tributes given to militant sectarians.

To lighten up our trip, we spent some time shopping in the large, open-air Victoria Square plaza.  After grabbing a few souvenirs, we trekked to the train station and rode, nodding off, back to Coleraine and the university. 

It was just an introduction to Belfast, and I want to do it justice and revisit the city again, really spend time learning the history and culture of the town through a more traditional tour.  But in any case, our trip was an eye-opening, fun experience.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Giant's Causeway

Any trip to Northern Ireland would not be complete without a stop at the Giant's Causeway.  This attraction, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is just a wee drive north of the town of Bushmills.  (More on that famous distillery later!)  Our visit this past Saturday was nothing short of extraordinary.

You can study the site before your visit, but nothing can compare to a stroll along the cliff sides above the "Causeway Coast."  But instead of describing the sheer beauty of this ancient seaside volcanic formation (or the actual geological process by which this wonder was formed), I'll relate my favorite version of the local legend:

According to Irish folklore, the giant Finn McCool had a rivalry with his Scottish counterpart, the giant Benandonner.  Finn was renowned throughout Ireland for his feats of of strength, and he wished to cement his reputation by fighting Benandonner.  Finn built a causeway of stone from Ireland to Scotland so he could meet Benandonner in battle. 

However, he soon heard that Benandonner was indeed much larger and stronger.  Finn knew he could not win in a battle of strength, so he and his wife Una concocted the perfect plan.  They invited Benandonner to come and fight Finn in Ireland.  But before the Scottish giant arrived, Una dressed Finn in the clothes of a baby and placed him in a giant cradle.  When Benandonner arrived in Ireland, he found Una tending to an enormous child.  Benandonner assumed the child to be Finn's son.  He was afraid because, after all, if the baby was as big as a giant, how large must the father be? 

Benandonner, fearing a sound defeat from a supposedly enormous Irish giant, fled back to Scotland across the causeway; in his hasty retreat, the giant broke up the bridge, and all that remained can be seen today: two uneven remnants made of hexagonal basalt columns, stretching out into the sea, rising and sinking with the tide.

Even the most doubtful among us couldn't help but feel a bit of the magic as we climbed into Finn McCool's "wishing chair" (a man-sized seat that appears carved into the columns of the lesser branch of the causeway).  After all it's clear: Ireland is no place for the skeptic or the cynic.