I landed after a short and fairly sweet flight at Belfast International Airport too early in the morning, as me and my Dad made way into Belfast City. The landscape is as similar to Yorkshire as I expected, although the green fields are made slightly more illuminating through the systematic weather sequence of rain, then shine, then rain again. We firstly went by the Queen’s University (so titled as an old Commonwealth institution) which is a nice enough City campus, and soon realised the fact that both Philip Larkin and my own Grandfather would have been at the University around the same time (in the late 1940’s – Larkin as a young librarian, my Grandfather presumably, as an Army-man, being deployed to patrol the Ulster Streets just having got back from Burma in the War!). Interesting territory, which I didn’t feel related to at all.
We drove around the surrounding Town’s and greenery – the fields along the coast almost have the mythical charm of the sort which I felt at the Wicklow Mountains from my Dublin trip a few years ago – but the cosy Eire glow is soon distinguished when traipsing across the rugged, rather worn out settlements, like Larne or Carrickfergus or Lisburn (not that one). I visited the newly built (costing £97,000,000) Titanic experience museum, which was okay… a lot of information. Good for fans, but they don’t half publicise the story; I had to remind myself a couple of times that they are actually capitalising on a tragedy and quite a bad technical engineering feat as the conclusion and indeed, memory, of the mammoth saga. At night, we stayed at the Jury Inn hotel without many complaints (other than not being able to get into the room a couple of times), which was near the relatively famous Europa Hotel, which has been bombed a record of 28 times throughout the Troubles, and was also a residence where my (same) Grandfather occasionally happened to attend conferences in the 70’s. Great boozer opposite – called I think, The Castle – with amazing interior décor and a keen eye for taste with low lying booths and a good selection of bevvies; it is good to taste a real Irish Guinness once more. Here is another one I enjoyed in the Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen the next day, with a rather wonderful backdrop!
The Killyhevlin Hotel was also another old target for the IRA as it was bombed during a wedding party in 96’ and yet to stay here you would not know it for the peace and for children running around. The same can be said for the town of Omagh, very near the border, which of course suffered the worst atrocity of The Troubles in 1998 when a bomb killed 30+ people, and the Town of Enniskillen, when a bomb caused 12 casualties on Remembrance Day a decade earlier. The places are quiet, the people are friendly, with no hint other than a few obscure plaques than such atrocities had occurred – but the undercurrent of extreme Republicanism always feels present as a Brit walking these streets.
One of the most interesting places we went was the old country on the coast, right over to the Giant’s Causeway, where they’re currently building a visitors centre (modern, trendy) next to an aged hotel (old, retro, cosy). A pathway leads down the cliff face to the Giant’s Causeway (so called as a walkway to Scotland for the Irish warrior Finn McCool) which is a series of interlocking basalt columns from an old volcanic eruption which lead into the sea. It’s really nice to stand at the edge by the sea as shown below (straight ahead – the next land to hit would be Iceland) and have the spray blow into your face. Only slightly tacky is the fact that a paved drive leads all the way up to the site with buses coming back and forth!
As we left the area to go back home, we drove through the loyalist part of Town (in Belfast); the paraphernalia is mildly threatening and hostile over a grey sky backdrop but with what looks like any other council estate. Striking graffiti brings back the real situation of partition in Ireland – driving along the long stretch you can’t help but notice ‘Prepared for Peace – Ready for War’ in big lettering alongside pictures of men in balaclavas with guns – fairly typical imagery of the type you imagine. It still leaves that remaining impression in your mind that there is an undercurrent of what we might consider extremism. But with advancing years let’s drink a Guinness to the relative peace in the region!