Barry and I landed in Belfast yesterday after a very uneventful flight from Canada and uncharacteristically smooth transfer in Heathrow. The plane landing in Belfast had a “back door” and so we climbed down the stairs directly onto the tarmac. I didn’t think of it till later, but we should have kissed the ground – we were that thrilled to be on Irish soil at last!
As I think almost everyone knows by now, Barry left Ireland at the age of 12, and has never returned until now. It’s been a long held dream with a highly emotional waking reality. I am waiting for his accent to come flooding back along with all his memories, but so far, in vain.
Cousin Marie met us with a homemade sign of welcome, and took us out to her house for coffee first thing, with Barry interjecting “I remember that!” “Wow, that’s changed!” and “I used to know someone who lived on that street!” All phrases that I have heard several times since and expect to hear again.
We met several members of Marie’s family, including husband Michael, daughter Sarah and grandson Euan, who at age 5 is a little charmer with a great superhero-powered imagination (well, I’m partial to boys). Granddaughter Freya is also showing she has personality at the age of only four months. We’re so glad to be invited to come and stay with them starting Sunday.
Once we were settled in our hotel, we took off on foot in search of supper, and happened upon the Belfast Citadel of The Salvation Army, where Barry had been dedicated as an infant, and where his father had been the Young People’s Bandmaster. The building was replaced in the 1970’s after having been fire-bombed during The Troubles. I am learning that Ireland is every bit as religious and political as it always has been, and just because there is peace now doesn’t mean that people don’t still have strongly held opinions.
As it started to pour rain, we ducked into the nearest restaurant after that, which happened to be an American-style burger joint featuring videos of Laurel and Hardy, but with its own special Irish touches – such as a wide choice of how you wanted your potatoes cooked – and HP sauce served in a condiment bowl right on the table. No wonder I always have to buy it in the Costco-size bottle. The habit was formed in his youth.
We walked back to the hotel in a slight drizzle, vowing NEVER to go out in Ireland again without umbrellas, and enjoying the university area, which I’ve already begun to think of as “my” part of Belfast. Many, many houses and flats are empty or for rent at the moment, and I’m not sure if that’s because it’s the end of the academic year or a result of the hard economic hit that Ireland has taken in recent years. Some of them are even derelict, a sad thing to see.
This morning we had breakfast in the hotel – again with large helpings of HP sauce available. It’s known as “brown sauce” here, possibly because HP stands for Houses of Parliament (the British ones) and I imagine that wouldn’t be politically correct. Marmite was also on offer, so I tried a bit. It has a very sharp and salty taste, kind of unexpected, but I actually think it could be an acquired taste. IF I ever stay here long enough to acquire it.
The best seat on the double-decker bus is right up top, right up front, let me tell you! Belfast turns out to be a very livable city with the character of former times left intact, even through modernization. Traffic, though, is a little scary for one who has not experienced left-hand drive, and I keep looking the wrong way when crossing the street. Barry pointed out the place where his mother clerked in “Irish Linen Mills,” the building where he took singing lessons, and the pedestrian district. During The Troubles, the whole shopping district was fenced off and everyone was searched before going in. When you see it today, it’s hard to believe living conditions were ever that tense.
And yet the Irish are still cautious. As we went into the City Hall for a tour, we were told that it would be closed to the public starting tomorrow as the lead-up to the G8 conference next week. They hope there will be no trouble, but if there is trouble, they figure it’s likely to be there, so they close it pre-emptively.
Indeed, when we had finished the tour, there were half a dozen protestors at the front of City Hall, waving flags, wearing day-glo vests (for safety? For visibility?), speaking through a megaphone and singing some sort of song accompanied by an accordion. All of them were being watched surreptitiously by several police officers who were standing casually nearby.
The tour of City Hall included viewing the charter of the City, signed by King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England (the same person) in 1613. Also on view was a lovely cabinet, which had been intended for the office of the Captain of the Titanic. It contained map drawers and shelves for the Captain’s personal table linens. Unfortunately (for the Captain’s formal dinners) it was not ready until three days after the great ship had sailed, and that’s why it is on display today.
Speaking of the Titanic, the intricate decorative wooden carving in the Council Chamber was done by the same master carpenters who worked on the Titanic, and gave us some idea of the craftsmanship on board.
We escaped a bit of drizzle by having lunch in Marks & Spencer’s huge basement food court. You wouldn’t believe the long stretch of desserts on display, many of them various kinds of pudding, which I think explains why dessert is actually often called “pudding” here. The dazzling array of take-out foods meant that I changed my mind three times before settling on a “high-satisfaction Italian style chicken pesto vegetable pita sandwich.”
Then it was off to the Titanic Museum, built in 2012 just in time for the 100th anniversary of the launching of the ship. As trivia gamers will know, the Titanic was build by Harland and Wolff Shipyards in Belfast. The museum has a very moving exhibit that introduces us to several passengers on the ship of different status, and at the end of the exhibit you discover their fate; whether they lived or died, were heroic or died in shame.
For example, Mr. J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line (which owned RMS Titanic), realized early that the ship was doomed and got into one of the life rafts. He survived the sinking, but never regained social acceptability and was branded “The Coward of the Titanic.”
American socialite Mrs. Margaret Brown, on the other hand, totally took charge of the situation and helped load others into lifeboats. When she was finally forced onto Lifeboat no. 6 herself, she took charge once more and made the crew turn back to look for more survivors instead of rowing away from the sinking ship as fast as they possibly could. “The unsinkable Molly Brown’s” story of the good she did throughout her life doesn’t just stop there and is well worth a little research.
We wanted to go for dinner at “The Crown” tonight, Belfast’s most famous pub, but when we arrived (in the pouring rain; get used to it, because we sure are) we were told that the dining room was fully booked for the whole evening. When I laughingly accused the waitress of housing the G8 summit members for the evening, she didn’t answer, just quickly took off up the stairs, so it’s MY personal opinion that Mr. Stephen Harper and all his cronies were up there enjoying themselves. How that man keeps getting in our way when we are thousands of miles from home….! Except for President Obama – he is due to arrive at the last minute, as several people told us. I believe they thought we would be interested because we seemed to be Americans by our accent.
So “The Crown” will have to wait for another night – but I do hear that Ireland has several more pubs, so I’m not too worried.
Barry wants to know if I’m writing an encyclopedia, so I’ll stop right here.