Puffins and Seals Highlight Trip to Rathlin Island

I never knew that puffins and seals spend part of their lives breeding (or lounging) in Northern Ireland—but they do—on Rathlin Island.

Last weekend was (relatively) warm and not too sunny, a perfect opportunity to visit Rathlin Island, a community of about 120. With our friend Eileen, we took the slow ferry over from Ballycastle, which takes about 45 minutes and provides ample opportunity to take in some beautiful scenery along the way. Rathlin Island is shaped like Italy, only in reverse and much smaller.

We immediately hopped on a bus to the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre and Nature Reserve, where huge numbers of a variety of birds were nesting on large raised rocks or the cliff face. We smelled the birds before we saw them—something reminiscent of a pub toilet 15 minutes before closing time.

Once we became accustomed (?) to the stench, we grabbed binoculars and started looking for puffins. The rocks were swarming with black-and-white razorbills, auk family cousins to puffins, that from a distance resemble puffins. Only with the help of a docent did we glimpse the orange feet and beaks of the puffin. From our vantage point, they were few and far between, maybe 10 out of the thousands of razorbills, guillemots and two species of gulls (kittiwake and fulmar). The area is similar to the more famous Cliffs of Moher on the other side of the island, yet with far fewer tourists—even in high season.

The seabird centre is located around the Rathlin West Lighthouse, the country’s only “upside down lighthouse.” It took six years and a helluva lot of concrete to stabilize a cliff face and position the red light at precisely the right angle (62 metres above sea level) to warn ships on the horizon yet stay below the fog line.

And then, seals!

Our bus driver to and from the centre was a font of local knowledge and Irish humor. He said that Ireland and Scotland fought over ownership of Rathlin, which was decided by letting a snake out on the island to see if it could survive. It didn’t, which means it belonged to Ireland because it doesn’t have snakes either. He said the population was once as high as 1,200 but, like the rest of Ireland, people remain a big export.

We left the bus before it returned to the harbor and had a picnic lunch among the two dozen or so lounging seals who were soaking up the noonday sun. It was difficult to see them at first, they were so well-camouflaged against the rocks. You could get quite close, although no one wanted to disturb their sun-fueled dreams.

Before we took the fast ferry back, Marilynn and Eileen went for a walk while Declan and I checked out the HMS Drake exhibit at a local church. The Drake was hit by a German mine in the latter stages of World War I and limped along before sinking in the harbor. Although it was later exploded to reduce the chances of snagging other boats, the Drake remains a favorite spot for scuba divers.

On the way back, we went along the coast road through Cushendun to Torr Head, the closest point between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Torr means tall rock, and it was quite stark. We also treated Eileen to a meal before heading home as thanks for another fine road trip.

Pop-Up Pissoir Tames Wild Peeing

I thought it was a myth, this public urinal that rises gently each night from its underground cavern, ready to handle the No. 1 needs of passing punters. I had stood atop its daytime resting place, a slightly larger than normal manhole cover at the top of busy Shaftsbury Square, the intersection where Botanic Avenue meets the Dublin Road.

But at 10 o’clock each night, a curious transformation takes place as the three-man pissoir moves from its subterranean nest. I fail to push the iconic music from “2001: A Space Odyssey” out of my head. Daaa…DAaa…DAAA…PISSOIR! Kettle drums now beat a rhythm as the urinal locks into place, ready for Belfast’s passing drunks.

I feel the need, the need to pee

Drinking lots of tea in the mornings makes me appreciate such amenities as public toilets. I’ve written previously about how cities should provide more public toilets for tourists since we’re already paying taxes on our hotel rooms, transportation, food and attractions. There should be more toilets, and they should be free.

While discussing that initial column with a friend here, he casually mentioned the Shaftsbury Square pop-up pissoir, an entirely new concept for us. So, of course, we had to see it.

From the picture, you can see for yourself what it looks like, but it reminds me strongly of the upright cryogenic pods for space travel you see in the movies or the transporter room of the Starship Enterprise. Instead of “Beam me up,” however, it’s more “Pour me out.” But you’ll also notice there are no doors and no curtains. Two of the cubicles are fewer than five feet from vehicles waiting at the traffic light.

Belfast does a good job with public toilets, although I do object to the 20 pence it charges at standalone toilets. My motto is, “Free to Pee, You and Me.”

‘Urin-ing’ for the truth

I had to know more about the pop-up pissoir, so I called the Belfast City department of sanitation. It took several tries, but a man returned my call one recent morning. He declined to give his name because neither of us wanted to get the PR people involved, which an interview with a named city official would have necessitated.

The Urilift, as this particular model is known, is made by an English company called Healthmatic. It was installed more than five years ago in an area where many pubs are concentrated amid complaints about les pipis sauvages, or wild peeing.

This is verbatim from the Healthmatic website: “As men come out of the pub, the urinal is there in front of them tempting them away from shop windows and pavements.” So do they think men will pee anywhere and on anything? We will, but it’s impolite to point it out.

My friend in the sanitation department says that, anecdotally, the incidence of public urination in that area has dropped since the Urilift was installed. He also said it is moved into position each night by remote control once someone has checked to see whether any obstructions (bicycles, motorbikes, drunk punters looking to take a leak) are blocking the manhole cover.

Lavery’s is one of the pubs a pint’s throw from Shaftsbury Square. The night we went to see the pissoir up close at about 10:30, the sidewalk was overflowing in front of the pub, atmosphere that author Robert McLiam Wilson colorfully described in his 1996 novel, “Eureka Street,” set toward the end of the Troubles:

“I crossed Shaftsbury Square. Though early, the Lavery’s overspill was already out on the street. Groups of unusually dirty youths lounged on the pavement with beer glasses in their hands. As I passed the bar, stepping over their outstretched legs, a warm urinous waft hung in the air outside the doorway. I hated Lavery’s.”

While I have no opinion on Lavery’s, I can say we didn’t see anyone peeing in the streets, which apparently is progress.

Celebrating Father’s Day the Belfast Way

A cool card, a nifty tea mug and a literal walk in the park—what a way to celebrate Father’s Day. Unlike Mother’s Day, which in the UK occurs several months earlier than the US version, Father’s Day is celebrated on the same day on both sides of the pond.

First, Declan and Marilynn gave me a bicycle-themed card, a reminder of Belfast’s place in the annals of bicycling history. John Boyd Dunlop didn’t patent the air-filled tyre (that goes to some Scottish guy named Robert W. Thomson) but he is commonly credited with developing a practical tyre in 1888 to go with a new-fangled invention—the bicycle. Dunlop, who is also Scottish by the way, was a prosperous veterinarian.

Bicycles also play a role in our history with Marilynn’s playwright, Stewart Parker. His first play was “Spokesong,” a musical that takes place in a Belfast bike shop during the Troubles and also during the early years of the bicycle.

They also gave me a great tea mug, with Windsor Park emblazoned on it in the style of a Monopoly card (and one of the ritzy properties because the background colour is blue like Boardwalk and Park Place). We live on Windsor Park, although the post code on the mug indicates the Windsor Park in question is likely the national football stadium, a 10-minute walk away. Regardless, it will be a great reminder of our time here.

Botanic Gardens awaits

Thanks to fabulous weather, we got out and enjoyed the day in Botanic Gardens. We had a special Father’s Day “barbecue” in front of the Ulster Museum. Barbecue is in quotes because they were serving burgers and sausages. But I did discover a delicious new beer: Yardsman, a craft brew from local Hercules Brewing Co. that, according to the website, is filtered through Irish linen. Not sure what that adds to (or subtracts from) the beer, but it was quite tasty.

The 28-acre Botanic Gardens is where south Belfast congregates on nice days. We saw more white limbs than in an albino mannequin factory—there’s white skin, and then there’s Belfast white skin. Dogs playing fetch with their owners. A bridal party taking portraits in front of the Palm House, including two stretch limos I can’t figure out how they got inside the gardens. A woodwind band playing tunes in the gazebo. A line of people a dozen deep in front of the ice cream vendor.

Unfortunately, the bowling green is closed on Sunday. I’ve never lawn bowled, but it looks like fun and I want to try it. Instead, we walked through the gardens, including an out-of-the-way lane none of us had ever seen (where the photo was taken).

The city takes great pride in its parks, and for my money, Botanic Gardens is its crown jewel. Central Park is big and all, and Piedmont Park in Atlanta looks better than it has in the 25 years I’ve lived in Atlanta. But meter for meter, Botanic Gardens can’t be beat for its beauty, for the care city workers show it and for the appreciative, sun-seeking Belfast residents, students and tourists who enjoy it even on the cruddy, rainy days.

Many Trips Down, Many More to Go

Only 39 days left to our Belfast adventure. It seems like only yesterday we were on the front end of seven months in the UK. But now our thoughts already are starting to turn, half way at least, back to life in Decatur.

Restarting all those magazines we stopped. Arranging for our cleaner to go through the house to erase seven months of another family living there. Being reunited with Gunner, our beloved cat. Will she remember us? Will she leave us fecal presents to show her displeasure at our leaving? Going through seven months of junk mail. Reassembling my office. Wondering how many weeds have infiltrated the yard. Getting accustomed again to a humid Georgia summer.

A lot in the rear view

So far, including Northern Ireland, we’ve been in nine countries, seen four professional football matches and a similar number of big houses. We’ve glimpsed masterworks from Rembrandt, Picasso, van Gogh, Michelangelo. We’ve toured at least a half-dozen Gothic cathedrals and about that many scenic coastal towns. Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and London. Doolin, St. Ives and Falmouth. We’ve seen henges great and small.

We pulled 220-million-year-old fossils out of the sand and muck at Lyme Regis. We still talk about the fantastic (and cheap) sushi dinner we had at a Berlin restaurant that had reopened just that week.

I haven’t had the fortitude to map how many miles we’ve traveled in the UK and continental Europe, but I know it’s an eye-popping number. I shudder to recall the many roundabouts where I went the wrong way and had to turn around—especially in Cork.

We’ve dined with several noted authors, including poet Michael Longley, literary critic Edna Longley, fiction writer David Park, playwright Ann Devlin and historian Jonathan Bardon. And we can’t forget Stephen Rea, who helped launch Marilynn’s edition of the Stewart Parker novel “Hopdance” in Dublin on our wedding anniversary.

And more to come

And with just 39 days to go, it seems like we have an impossibly long list of things yet to do that don’t include packing up the flat, getting rid of what we’ve accumulated and making our way home.

We’re going with our friend Eileen to see puffins on Rathlin Island tomorrow. Marilynn has a book reading Monday in Dublin, and another one in Edinburgh on Friday, where she’s going to attend a Fulbright Scholar conference. At the end of the month, she’s off to Derry for a Canadian Association for Irish Studies conference.

At the same time, a good friend of mine from Murfreesboro, Tenn., Karen, will be in Belfast to take in the sights for a few days. As Karen leaves us for Kilkenny, Declan and I will join Marilynn in Derry to visit friends and (at least) see the Grianan of Aileach, a prehistoric stone fort that’s around 10,000 years old. Derry’s a great city we’ve visited several times but is always worth a look. We’ll also spend a few days in Donegal, the county in the northwest corner of the island.

We return to Belfast and leave two days later for eight days in northern Portugal. I really don’t know much about that since Declan planned this trip with Marilynn’s help, but I do know it includes a tour of a football stadium in Braga built at the edge of a rock quarry. And in between our return from Portugal and the flight home, Marilynn’s Belgian friend Béné will be with us. She was a fantastic tour guide when we were in Antwerp, and we likely will be feeble imitators. We also hope to see Stewart Parker’s old friend Sam Fannin, who’ll be visiting Northern Ireland from Spain.

After all of that, once we’re back in Decatur, I think we may need a vacation.

Putting Our Feet Up in Hillsborough Castle

We’ve been in our share of big houses in the past month, but we’d never been invited to actually sit on the furniture. So thanks, Queen Elizabeth!

On Sunday, we took a short bus ride from Belfast to Hillsborough to visit Hillsborough Castle, the Northern Ireland royal residence. It’s only been open to the public on a regular basis since 2014, but the castle is a definite must-see.

Unlike the other big houses we visited, the castle (actually an 18th-century Georgian mansion) sits just off the main drag instead of 12 miles down a winding country lane. In fact, the first marquess of Downshire, Wills Hill, purposefully situated the building so he could see the goings-on in the town. The road out of Hillsborough once wound right outside the back of the mansion, until a later owner paid to relocate the buildings (including a Quaker meeting house) and road farther away. The Quaker burial grounds couldn’t be relocated, so they remain on the property.

Wills Hill was the Secretary of the American Colonies near the time of the American Revolution, and Benjamin Franklin visited Hillsborough. Hill was blamed for “losing” the American colonies in the ensuing struggle. Fact: Hillsborough County, Florida (where I was born), and the various US towns spelled Hillsborough or Hillsboro are named for this Hill.

A nearly hands-on tour

OK, we actually didn’t put our feet up anywhere within Hillsborough Castle. But we were invited by the docent, Elizabeth, to sit on the furniture in the foyer as she explained the history of the building and also to sit in various other parts of the house. Certain furniture was off limits, but there wasn’t a rope barricade in sight. We wandered freely around each room as she explained more about the history of the building.

The castle was purchased by the monarchy as a residence for the Northern Ireland governor after the partition of the island in 1921. These days, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland lives in the castle, as do some junior ministers. But when the royals visit, they stay there, too. Prince Phillip visited Hillsborough just last month, as evidenced by his signature on a large, elegant note pad in one room.

Like other big houses, Hillsborough suffered a catastrophic fire during its history, this one linked to a Hindenburg. Following the death of the German President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, the warden (who was smoking a cigarette at the time) lowered the castle flag to half-staff, then unknowingly set the flag on fire. The spreading blaze devastated the building, with all ceilings falling save a small round one in a rear foyer.

Declan particularly liked the Irish elk rack over the entry way and the replica tiara (bling, he calls it) on a table in the throne room. Marilynn and I were taken by the portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth II painted by Lydia de Burgh, the first resident Irish artist to paint the queen. On a side note, her nephew is Christopher John Davison, a singer of some renown who took his mother’s surname when he began performing. Too bad Elizabeth wasn’t wearing red in the portrait.

Overall, we were taken with how ordinary the house was. Sure, the rooms are big and the furnishings are exquisite. But there are homey touches throughout, including a table loaded with royal family portraits in the same room where the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in 1985. One expects the queen herself to saunter in and put her feet up on a table (she’s allowed).

One final story: in the banquet hall, there was a fake pineapple on a sideboard. Elizabeth (our docent, not the royal) talked about the parties the Hill family threw that lasted deep into the night. A single pineapple would have fetched 5,000 pounds in today’s money, so a pineapple was prized as a symbol of wealth. Not that anyone ate it, however. Rich families would rent a pineapple, with the same fruit appearing at all the big parties that season, until it finally fell upon itself, spent and worthless at last.

UK Election a Tangled Web

If you thought James Comey’s congressional testimony was the political highlight of last Thursday, you better go back and read what’s been going on in the UK.

Teresa May’s Conservative Party already had a majority in Parliament when the prime minister called a snap election party leaders believed would tip the scales even further in their favor and help at the Brexit negotiating table. May was pushing for a “hard” Brexit after 52% of voters last year opted to leave the European Union.

The Tories’ main rivals are the Labour Party, led by a Bernie Sanders-like man called Jeremy Corbyn, a declared socialist. No one believed Labour had a chance, except those like our English friend Ian Almond.

Going door-to-door

Ian is a professor of world literature at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, but before that, he was at Georgia State University, where he taught with Marilynn. Despite his support for Arsenal archrival Liverpool, we quickly grew fond of this lad from Preston, who didn’t learn to drive until he lived in Georgia.

Leading up to Thursday’s vote, Ian spent several weeks going door-to-door for the Labour Party, which stunned the Tories by adding 31 seats, while the Tories lost 12. The result is a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives cozying up to Northern Ireland’s staunch Unionist party DUP in order to form a majority bloc. It’s an unlikely marriage and one that Corbyn intends to fight.

“Although it’s not a victory, it’s a huge step forward for the Labour party,” Ian says, “particularly since Corbyn was subjected to such an intense hate campaign and widespread demonization by, sadly, almost the entire spectrum of the UK mainstream media.”

He notes that only the Mirror and the Guardian endorsed Corbyn and that the TV channels were largely against him. The Labour Party’s gain, the biggest swing since 1945, was made more significant because few believed Labour had any chance before the votes were tallied, Ian says.

Strange bedfellows

The DUP is the same party that in Northern Ireland can’t agree to share power with the republican party Sinn Fein, following its own snap election earlier this year after Deputy Minister Martin McGuinness resigned (and then died). DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, has been in the cross-hairs recently for her dictatorial management style and a funding scandal related to when she was enterprise minister. The parties have missed a deadline to form a power-sharing government, and a second deadline is looming. Failure to agree would mean either another snap election in Northern Ireland or the return of direct rule.

Many of DUP’s stances (denying climate change, refusing to recognize LGBTQ people) are out of step with a majority in the UK, one of the many reasons Corbyn is looking to form his own coalition government. Although Sinn Fein won seven seats, its MPs won’t participate, owing to their longstanding stance against UK rule.

The prospect of a “hard” Brexit has been taken off the table since the Conservatives no longer have a majority and Labour favored staying within the EU.

This election should be a wake-up call to Democrats in the US that change is possible, one person and one issue at a time.

I’ll let Ian have the final word, commenting in a recent Facebook post about going door-to-door:

“It’s a curious thing, this canvassing business: some people argue, some don’t say anything, some are lonely and drag the conversation on, some just tell you to piss off, some people don’t answer the door at all – you turn around and see a flicker of the curtains as you walk away. Going door to door, you see the damage twenty years of consensus, cross-party politics has done – so many people see no reason to vote at all. Does make you reflect on a system which actually preserves itself through its own ineffectiveness.”

Troubles Live on in Murals

Belfast and Derry are known for their colorful murals, many of which still provoke strong reactions that depend on your position in relation to the sectarian divide. Since the end of the Troubles, however, some murals in Belfast have been repurposed to support other causes and peoples. Using funds from the national lottery and with community support, these have been replaced with more positive messages.

But after a 90-minute black taxi mural tour, we were left with the distinct impression that, while the Troubles themselves may be over, a powder keg of discontent remains in the divided communities along the Falls Road and Shankill Road. That division is readily apparent in the gates and high walls that separate the communities. Even today, the gates are closed at particular times to limit movement between the areas.

According to our driver, the communities were asked a couple of years ago whether the walls and gates should come down, and the collective answer was, “No.”

Seething under the surface

Even Declan has a more-than-a-tourist understanding of the Troubles, but this issue had not been apparent in our relatively insular neighborhood near Queen’s University or at Declan’s school. The UK held parliamentary elections Thursday, and during the run-up we listened to an interview with an Alliance candidate who said that only 7% of Northern Ireland’s schools are integrated. Remember, we’re talking Catholic/Protestant. Lagan College, which Declan attends, was the first planned, integrated school in the north. (Although that didn’t stop Declan’s classmates from asking directly or indirectly about his religious background.)

So, again, while our part of the city is fairly integrated (as far as we can tell), the Falls (Catholic) and Shankill (Protestant) areas are dominated by folks of one religion, with little mixing between the two. An insular upbringing, pervasive poverty, the continued existence of paramilitary groups and lingering bitterness over the Troubles stoke resentment between the groups.

Gangs of mainly younger people have been known to throw rocks at passing cars near the gates right before they are closed, and violence between feuding groups is not uncommon. As we passed the Holiday Inn Belfast City Centre last Saturday, we saw the burned-out shells of two coach buses in the hotel car park. Arson is suspected, either post-Troubles hooliganism or warring factions of competing  commercial coach companies, according to our driver.

Despite the cessation of the Troubles, paramilitary groups on both sides continue to operate. Occasionally, you’ll read about an attempted bombing by the Real IRA. Our driver tells us that businesses along the Shankill Road still pay protection money to paramilitary groups. And feuds break out among rival groups, often over the drug trade that has replaced terror attacks.

Getting the hell out of Dodge

In the Holiday Inn car park, we also saw a huge amount of debris piled up in anticipation of the July 11 nighttime bonfires that mark the start of the Protestant marching season. Nothing like lighting a huge pile of crap on fire to mark the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne more than 300 years ago on July 12, 1690, huh? During our tour, we passed more than a half-dozen bonfire sites, where the debris piles have been growing since Easter and are guarded 24/7 between now and the time of lighting.

Owners of many of the bonfire sites don’t like these events occurring on their property, but are you going to tell a paramilitary group that they can’t do it? No, I didn’t think so. Last year, two houses were destroyed and a third badly charred, victims of the bonfires.

There’s a good reason so many Belfast residents schedule vacations during this time. I wanted to stay and see what the fuss was about, but it wasn’t possible given a tight schedule between now and when we return to the States, incoming guests and planned trips to Donegal in the Republic and northern Portugal.

Upon further reflection, though, I’m glad we’ll be away. I don’t want my memories of our time in Belfast tarnished by partisan posturing.