Feuding, Fighting and Other Effing in Game of Thrones

I’ve never seen “Game of Thrones” nor read the popular books, but I know it’s hot stuff in Northern Ireland, where a good bit of the series is filmed. From Belfast, you can take “Game of Thrones” bus tours to various filming sights, combining that (or not) with other Causeway Coast attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway, Old Bushmills Distillery and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

So apparently in “Game of Thrones,” there’s fighting …

So despite my ignorance, I felt compelled to glimpse the Northern Ireland Games of Thrones’ Tapestry while at the Ulster Museum earlier this week. You can see it for yourself through March 4, 2018 at the Ulster Museum. But for those not planning a visit to Belfast while it gets dark by 5 p.m. this time of year, you can see it here.

… and feuding …

From what I can gather from the tapestry, the show entails lots of fighting, feuding and other “f” words I’d rather not write out. Below, you’ll find pertinent information about the tapestry, quoted from the museum, along with my commentary.

The tapestry is “a 77-metre long, medieval-style wall-hanging that brings to life the events, locations and story of the most popular television series of all time.” What? No M*A*S*H?

… and effing (is that two dudes?) Hard to tell …

Recalling the island’s textile manufacturing past, “the tapestry has been hand-woven and hand-embroidered using linen sources from one of the last surviving linen mills in the area. Much of the tapestry contains the same linen that is used to create the costumes and sets for the series.

“Each key scene and character in the tapestry is hand-drawn by artists and illustrators. Then, the drawings are brought to life (or death, as a quick viewing revealed) by hand-weaving experts using a state-of-the-art Jacquard loom, ready for hand-embroiders who meticulously embellish the finer details – from King Joffrey’s golden crown to Daenerys’ shimmering white and silver hair.”

… and blood, lots of blood coming out of dudes.

And blood. Lots of blood. And dudes on fire. And blood coming out of dudes.

Despite having no idea what was going on, it was cool to look at. And it smelled like a feed sack, minus the feed.

Trump Tales Follow Us to Emerald Isle

Although we’re nearly 4,000 miles from home, we can’t escape the specter of Donald Trump. He’s seemingly everywhere, whether he’s pooping out Armageddon on his throne at the Ulster Museum or acting eerily like Santa Claus in the Lyric Theatre production of “What the Reindeer Saw.”

While Marilynn was in Dublin giving another public “Hopdance” lecture, Declan and I had the day to ourselves. After a somewhat lazy morning, we headed to the Ulster Museum to see art from our friends Marcus Patton and Joanna Mules. They are part of a Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) 136th annual exhibition at the museum. The Ulster Museum is free to visit and always fun.

Get yours in the gift shop

Marcus and Joanna were friends with Stewart Parker when he studied at Queens University Belfast in the ‘60s and were invaluable to Marilynn’s biography of the playwright. They live a few blocks from the museum (and Queens), and no visit to Belfast would be complete without stopping by their imposing Victorian duplex (not kidding) for a gin-and-tonic, a warm fire and good craic.

Marcus is a talented illustrator who is showing an architectural watercolor in this year’s exhibition. Joanna submitted two bronze sculptures, a medium she took up recently. Joanna is a skilled painter and portrait artist who did a rough sketch of Marilynn this summer for a series of portraits of writers reading from their work. There is a future column on that experience coming up.

While perusing this year’s artwork, we came across this multimedia work of Trump pictured at top. Whether you think Trump will make America great again or drive us all off a cliff, you must agree that Kyle Alexander Lundy’s representation certainly is provocative. According to the description, photo prints are available, if you’re interested in adding to your art collection.

Santa Trump?

A Trump-like character in the guise of Kris Kringle made an appearance later that night in the Lyric Theatre’s original production of “What the Reindeer Saw.” It’s no coincidence that the ascendant Santa happens to be the 45th incarnation of Claus who wants to break all the rules before understanding why the rules exist in the first place. Maybe it’s to make the North Pole great again, but it didn’t work any better in the play than the US president has managed thus far in real life.

Instead of learning how to drive the sleigh and making his list (not to mention checking it twice), Santa prefers to spend his time at his own Mar-a-Lago, the reindeer shed. There he plays reindeer games with Prancer and his pals, although games are difficult to play among those lacking opposable thumbs.

Much PG-14 hilarity ensues, including liberal use of the “f” word at one point, a succession of fart jokes and a randy Santa wanting to make merry on his desk with Mrs. Claus, who was played by a dude. For good measure, throw in fractured Christmas tunes, local references (many of which flew right over my head) and a lot of snow at the end.

While not a panto, I guess every Irish Christmas play must have its own version of a dame (who is always a dude in drag). And like a panto, the play had a happy ending. I sure hope we can say the same thing about a Trump presidency.

Once Not Enough for Family Belfast Adventure

Apparently 205 days overseas in 2017 wasn’t quite enough of an adventure for my family, because here we are back in Belfast.

Declan and I have returned for a little over a week, while Marilynn is here for much longer, researching her new book on the literary responses to the peace process in Northern Ireland. She’s doing archival research to establish historic timelines for the books, plays and poems she’ll include in this project.

Marilynn’s also interviewing authors she wants to feature, including poet Michael Longley and novelist David Park. OK, we hosted and were hosted by both writers and their spouses several times while we were here earlier this year. However, it’s quite different to exchange pleasantries and a glass of wine with someone in their house versus querying them about works they wrote decades ago. The earlier encounters set the stage for the current ones.

Marilynn’s also giving public lectures on Hopdance in Belfast and Dublin, in conjunction with Lynne Parker, artistic director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin. Lynne is also the niece of the late Stewart Parker, the subject of Marilynn’s second book and the playwright who also wrote Hopdance, a semi-autobiographical account of the amputation of his left leg from cancer when he was 19.

Different this time around

Although fewer than four months have passed since we left Northern Ireland on July 25, it’s a much different experience. We swapped our Queen’s University accommodations along the tree-lined Windsor Park for a serviced apartment along the busy (and certainly not tree-lined) Lisburn Road. Fortunately, the traffic dies down in the middle of the night, but the Tesco truck unloads outside until 11 p.m. or so, with much beating and banging, and the traffic picks back up about 6. Despite being four stories up and behind double-paned glass, we hear nearly everything.


The weather has been dank since the moment we touched down. And while the cold is OK for a little while, it grinds down one’s psyche day after day. The not getting light until 7:30 a.m. and the darkening by 4:30 p.m. certainly doesn’t help.

But that hasn’t stopped Declan and me from exploring our adopted hometown further. We spent several hours our first day looking for Declan a pair of shoes and both of us thermal shirts but to no avail. Then yesterday, we went shopping for Thanksgiving dinner supplies with our friend Eileen.

Gardens and markets

Eileen then drove us to Antrim and dropped us off at Antrim Castle Gardens while she attended her gardening course nearby. The castle itself was destroyed by fire in the 1920s, but the expansive gardens alongside the Sixmilewater River that date from the 17th century remain. It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours, particularly watching the river meander toward a bridge, where it picked up speed due to an elevation change past the bridge. As a heron watched from the shore, children atop the bridge dropped leaves into the river to watch them bob in the now-turbulent waters.

After her class, Eileen joined us for a cup of tea in the gardens’ tea room before dropping us off near the Belfast city centre, where we met Marilynn for dinner at the Christmas market.

I’ll have to admit I had higher hopes for the market than reality revealed. After a time, all of these public events and festivals take on a certain sameness. It wasn’t much different than the Easter market we saw in Prague, save for the lack of a Belfast culinary “delicacy.” But you could gorge on food from around the world, including one stall that sold burgers formed from a wide variety of critters, including kangaroo, wild boar and crocodile. I wasn’t much taken with my cowburger, but Declan liked his Asian noodles and Marilynn enjoyed her footlong German sausage served on a baguette.

While I didn’t see any unique Belfast cuisine, we weren’t surprised at the number of stalls selling items made from wool. And Declan, for perhaps the first time ever, saw his name on one of those personalized tchotchkes every tourist shop has. A small triumph, to be sure, but one more indication that we are back home.

Goodbye, Belfast

After 205 days, 11 countries and I don’t know how many miles, we’re flying home today. It’s a bittersweet day for all of us, thinking of what we’re leaving behind while looking forward to getting home.

The bags are repacked, ready to go into the taxi that will take us to George Best Belfast City Airport for the short hop to Heathrow in London, then it’s on to hometown airline Delta for the final push to Atlanta.

The assorted items we bought during the trip have been used, sold, donated or tossed, save our dishes and a few other items (including an oscillating fan!) that our friend Eileen has agreed to keep for us.

Lifetime of memories

For per diem purposes, we kept a calendar of where we were on each day. Mostly we were together, except for a couple of Fulbright conferences in the UK and an Irish studies conference in Kansas City that Marilynn attended alone and the weekend in April when Declan and I saw Arsenel play Manchester City to a tie at the Emirates in London.

But we were together someplace other than Belfast for 50 nights, seven weeks’ worth of trips to Italy, mainland Europe, Portugal, Dublin and the Dingle peninsula in the Republic and a week in England’s Cornwall district. We also spent a weekend in the natural beauty of Donegal and another visiting Big Houses in Enniskillen.

Declan spent a semester at a different school, where he excelled in Spanish, Irish history and religion. He also saw lots of professional football, including the local Linfield Blues (twice), Hertha Berlin and Bristol City.

I learned, despite the occasional technology snafu or time zone crisis, that I can work from truly anywhere. And Marilynn immersed herself in Northern Irish politics, which have been particularly turbulent these past seven months, and dived deeper into the publications she plans to include in her next project, on literary responses to the peace process.

We take with us memories of our travels near and far, as well as the people we met and those we’ve gotten to know much better. We think back to those who have opened their homes and their hearts to us and how we tried to reciprocate. But we also look forward to reconnecting with our US family and friends, to chance encounters with neighbors in the street, at the grocery store or at the gym.

We miss our cat, our big American washer and dryer, American plumbing and central A/C, although I do enjoy needing a light jacket in July. Later this week we plan to enjoy milkshakes at Cook Out, share a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eat out at Mellow Mushroom and Sushi Avenue. Declan and I also want to split a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal (with Crunchberries, of course).

And then diets beckon for the adults, as do the prospects of returning to their jobs, and Declan heads back to school, just a month after getting out of school in the UK.

Thanks so much for coming along on this journey to Europe and back, although the journey doesn’t end today. No, there are more stories left to tell, so stay tuned. But for now, I’ll leave you with the same scene that we started with on January 3, although this image was taken this morning, our final morning in Belfast.

Thinking of Home on Independence Day

In Belfast, the Fourth of July is … Tuesday. Just a Tuesday.

No fireworks. No smoked or grilled meat on the Big Green Egg. No bonfires (those happen next Tuesday when, thankfully, we’ll be in Portugal). Marilynn and I worked today after spending the weekend in Derry in the north and County Donegal in the Republic.

But that doesn’t mean that Declan and I didn’t get into the Independence Day spirit here in Belfast—albeit a couple of weeks early. Marilynn was at a conference in Scotland, but Declan and I attended the Independence Day celebration at the US Consulate General’s residence with about 500 other mainly Irish people and a smattering of Americans on June 23.

Even though it’s not a holiday here, Irish schools let out on June 30, so everyone goes on holiday right after, making a celebration on the actual day impractical. It was more networking than celebration, anyway, so think suits and ties rather than ballcaps and shorts.

Old friends and new

Declan and I immediately ran into author David Park and his wife, Alberta, who were talking to one of David’s former students and his American fiancée. The Parks have hosted us for dinner at their home in County Down, and we reciprocated with brunch on a spring Saturday. David attended Marilynn’s talk on “Hopdance,” and we all attended his reading at No Alibis promoting the paperback edition of his short story collection “Gods & Angels.”

Declan then wolfed down a hamburger and made a beeline to the back yard of the residence, where he played basketball with the consul general’s kids. With a growing thirst, I passed the Guinness booth in search of my new favorite Irish beer, Yardsman, brewed in Belfast by Hercules Brewing. I had seen a Yardsman glass and was determined to have a pint. Their booth was located in a corner of the yard.

Life, liberty, healthcare

Joining the queue, I overheard a few people on the side talking about healthcare. I joined that conversation, hoping to meet fellow Americans talking about Trump’s effort to undo the Affordable Care Act. Most were non-American officials from the Belfast Titans, the local ice hockey team whose mascot is Finn McCool, the mythical giant who created Giant’s Causeway. One, a former player who played in seven countries (including for the Gwinnett Gladiators in the north Atlanta ‘burbs), relayed the story of an American friend hit by high medical bills when his insurance ran out.

Say what you will about the National Health Service, but no one is turned away. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are codified in the preamble of the US Constitution. But how can one have those things without health insurance? I posit that healthcare is a fundamental right and firmly believe that everyone should be covered.

So on this day of celebration, think about our country and how we treat the least among us. Is it with respect or with contempt? Then think about our country’s place in the wider world and Americans living outside the US, because we certainly are thinking about you on this day of independence.

Sun, Fun (and Birds) at Wetland Centre

Saturday was for the birds, literally. We did the major attractions of Belfast years ago and have visited many others during our nearly six months here. So what’s left to do?

With Marilynn at a Fulbright conference in Edinburgh, the weekend belonged to Declan and me. The nice folks at the Visit Belfast Visitor Centre suggested a day at Castle Espie Wetland Center in Comber, which none of us had heard of. But our road-trip friend Eileen and bird-watching friend Joanna both said it was great, so away we went.

First off, you have to want to get there. We rode into city centre (bypassing the close-by Europa Bus Centre), then walked 15 minutes to the Laganside Bus Terminal near the Titanic Quarter. A 25-minute bus ride landed us in Comber, where we had to find a taxi office and wait 15 minutes for a ride. Fortunately, on the way back, we could pre-book the taxi to arrive minutes before the bus. And, for some reason, the bus delivered us back to Europa, from where we could walk home.

Hides to seek birds

Although it sounds like another big house, Castle Espie has no house—although it once did. Its most significant history was as a limestone quarry and brickmaking works. A recently constructed visitor centre helps set the stage for the wetland centre on Strangford Lough.

After paying for admission and an additional 75 pence for a bag of bird food, off we went. Declan tried to feed the mostly ducks and geese in the captive bird area, but they weren’t having any of it–again, literally. We spent several minutes there before moving into the conservation area, where no bird feeding is allowed.

The meandering waterside pathway through the conservation area is dotted with observation areas and indoor hides where you can watch the birds unobserved while (given the Belfast weather) keeping dry. The first hide looked across the lough. Others looked across the saline lagoon and the limestone lake. The impressive Limekin observatory featured a large standing telescope where Declan could watch the cars on the nearby road.

Former home to limestone works

But from the raised observatory, you could see both across the wildlife centre and across the lough to nearby Scrabo Tower, built on a hill in 1857 to honor “Fighting Charlie,” the third marquess of Londonderry, Charles Stewart. These are the same Londonderrys that built and lived in Mount Stewart, an actual big house we visited last month.

From the observatory, the focus changed from birds to the limestone works, including water inlets, the remains of the brickworks and a pump house. Finally, the path wound through grassland and woods, with lots of areas for young’uns to play and explore.

Since the path through the conservation area begins and ends at the visitor centre, Declan had another opportunity at bird feeding, which was more successful this time. Declan said it tickles when birds feed out of your hand. I’ll take his word for it.

While waiting for the cab back to Comber, we enjoyed snacks in the Kingfisher Kitchen, which looks out over a pond and the lough. Ducks and geese roam freely and even come up to the windows.

I’m not a bird person, per se, so I have no idea what we saw. But I did enjoy them nesting and flying in a place I know is protected.

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.