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.

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.

7 Ways to Help You Make it Rain

As a marketer, helping my wife Marilynn Richtarik with publicity for her edition of “Hopdance” has been a hands-on learning experience. Here’s what I’ve learned from those experiences—and how they can help you, too.

1. Start with quality

You can craft a successful campaign around a crappy product, but you better have lots of money. I’m fortunate that my wife has a strong track record of research and is a noted authority on the late Northern Irish playwright whose stylized autobiography she prepared for publication. And Stewart Parker was a craftsman whose words pop from the page. A reputable product from a reputable source.

2. Work your network

Marilynn has built up an impressive list of friends and acquaintances that she’s cultivated over a lifetime, not because of what they can do for her but because she likes to keep in touch. We’ve stayed with a woman and her family in Madrid who Marilynn had met once 25 years previously. Almost everywhere we go, she knows somebody. But the network isn’t just one way—Marilynn will do whatever she can to help her friends and colleagues. We send upwards of 120 snail mail holiday cards each year with family picture and letter.

3. Don’t wait to be asked

“Hopdance” is published by The Lilliput Press, an independent press that took a chance on a one-off project from a deceased playwright. Their resources are limited and concentrated on Ireland, not the UK, so much of the initiative on publicity is left to authors. Marilynn has contributed articles to The Irish Times and the Culture Northern Ireland website, been interviewed on a well-regarded arts radio program, and arranged three “Hopdance” readings in Belfast and at least one in another UK city. More events, interviews and contributed articles are in the works but not yet finalized.

She developed contact lists for Dublin and Belfast to publicize these events with press releases and also created a list of possible readers/reviewers for the press. She knew the presenter of the arts program and the editor of the website, but the Irish Times piece and the ones in the works are with people she hadn’t met and contacted out of the blue.

4. No square pegs for round holes

By focusing precisely on the sweet spots, Marilynn has been able to maximize her efforts. Not every publication, website or bookstore will be interested in the book, so we’re not wasting time trying in those areas.

5. Think outside the box

But it pays to think about the larger possibilities. The appearance at the Belfast Book Festival is a direct result of my research. We’ve contacted several other book festivals I found out about, although those are longer-term projects. Marilynn parlayed her last book project, the 2012 biography Stewart Parker: A Life, into three years of Thanksgiving break university visits. She’s already making plans to take “Hopdance” on the road this fall.

6. Reuse, revise, leverage

Reusing content is all the rage in marketing circles, such as turning the seven points in this blog post into a graphic. Think about how you can leverage what you have in new and different ways. For example, Marilynn persuaded a local arts and culture website to post a recording of her first public talk about the book. Now when approaching bookstores and book festivals about potential events, she can point them to the website to hear her performance.

7. Ask for help

Not everyone has in-house marketing resources. You marketing efforts must be concise and well-targeted to succeed, so if you don’t have those skills within your company (or within your household), consider bringing in an expert.

You likely know your product and your market better than a marketing writer, but a professional writer knows how to speak to your target audience(s) in ways that you don’t.

Marilynn is an incredibly talented academic writer whose work also appeals to a wider audience. But she knows squat about marketing writing. Even she needed a little help to publicize the readings, find new audiences and discover new potential sales avenues.

Visiting Large at Big Houses

After our adventures at Crom on Sunday, we retired to our rooms at Derryvree House & Cottage, mainly so Declan could kick a football around with the owners’ boys. The B&B is a working sheep farm, and we could hear the sheep bleating from our open window—quite a change from the road noise outside our flat.

Wendy was a great hostess, welcoming us on Sunday morning with tea and treats—even though we were just dropping our bags. She recommended the Bush Bar & Bistro for dinner, which was superb. After a good night’s sleep, we all enjoyed a traditional Irish breakfast, with Irish bacon and sausages, eggs, stewed tomato, mushrooms, soda bread and toast, along with cereal, fruit and yogurt.

But Monday’s main attraction was two big houses, both part of the National Trust. The Big House novel is a genre of Irish literature, where the action unfolds in a generally rundown building that falls apart (or burns) by the book’s end.

Upstairs and downstairs

On the tour of Castle Coole, home to the earls of Belmore, we were ushered in the big front doors as honored guests at an evening fete. The 100-room Georgian mansion was built in the late 1700s with symmetry in mind, false doors and fake columns used as needed to maintain the overall balance.

The mansion seems to pop out of the top of the field where it sits, which was the intent of the design. There are no doors at the back of the house where people could wander outside and spoil the view. However, strategic floor-length windows did open out to wide steps, so authorized wandering actually was possible.

After seeing how our betters lived, we were ushered downstairs to the servants’ level. The National Trust had to pour a lot of concrete to level the steps, which had been worn down by constant use. The docent turned out the lights, simulating the semi-darkness where servants worked, low candles doing little to dispel the gloom. She said a worker interviewed in the 1950s said servants would walk down the main corridor with a hand lightly touching the wall as a wayfinding device.

We saw the kitchen, wine corking room and housekeeper’s room. The butler’s rooms will be open soon, a reason to come back.

FlorenceCourt (2)
Florence Court suffered heavy fire damage in the 1950s.

Burning down the (big) house

After a leisurely lunch, we visited Florence Court, which actually did burn in the 1950s, damaging two-thirds of the mansion. Fortunately, many of the baroque plaster ceilings survived, including the elaborate ceiling in the dining room that was saved when workman drilled several holes into it to drain water from the upper story after the fire.

The fire broke out in the wee hours of March 22, 1955, caused by faulty electrical wiring in the floorboards near Lady Enniskillen’s bedroom. She was no spring chicken, but she raised the staff, then ran a half-mile in her night clothes to summon the fire brigade from the nearest telephone. Our docent said the lord had only just reluctantly allowed electricity in the house but drew the line at a telephone.

Although Florence Court looks bigger from the outside, we were surprised to learn that Castle Coole actually has more rooms. But Florence Court does have a large, tri-sectioned walled garden that was a perfect way to cap the day.

A special thanks to the National Trust staff at Crom, Castle Coole and Florence Court for warm welcomes, tasty treats and overall good craic. We are especially grateful to the staffer who drove us in a golf cart from the car park to the mansion at Florence Court so we could catch the next tour and later cycled around the grounds to find Eileen and deliver the book she had bought because the visitor center was about to close.

Driving the Boat. That’s the Way You Do It.

I finally got to drive the boat. It only took 52 years, two disinterested women and a boy too young to steer, but hey, I’ll take it.

Brits also got the day off Monday, courtesy of a second bank holiday in May. Our friend Eileen offered to drive us to Enniskillen in County Fermanagh to visit several National Trust properties and overnight at a B&B.

That’s how we wound up Sunday afternoon on Upper Lough Erne at the Crom estate, me at the helm of a small aluminum boat with a standard outboard motor. I know, small potatoes, but these small pleasures were denied me growing up.

Chores, I’ve done a few

As the youngest of five, I always got the ass-end of the chore stick. Washing the dishes? No, I had to dry them, the dish cloth becoming sodden with each plate or bowl, forcing me to wipe more and more to get them sufficiently dry.

Drive the tractor on the farm? Of course not! I was the boy pulling the weeds in what seemed to be a 10-acre garden that was perpetually in sunlight.

Actually, we didn’t do much (OK, any) boating after we moved to Tennessee when I was 9, but I do remember Dad or my oldest brother puttering us around Lake Juliana in Florida during family vacations in an aluminum boat with an Evinrude outboard at the rear. Or fishing with our grandfather (Pooch) and his reminders that one peed off the side of the boat. Anything more substantial required a trip back on land, which was greatly discouraged.

So driving the boat was a big deal. And a whole lot of fun. The lough is wide, with floating reeds and lilypads everywhere. We saw swans, swan nests, ducks, a heron flying low and a couple of cormorants. The estate features a home still in family hands and off limits for tours, but you could see the remains of the former home and learn more about the history of the estate in the visitors’ center, located in a former stable.

The estate has several holiday cottages, a campsite and a handful of “glamping pods,” basically small, semi-circular concrete tunnels below the visitors’ center with no windows save for the front door and sidelights. We found out from a worker that the glamping pods were former pig sties.

Sunburn? What sunburn?

Our afternoon of boating flew by, with us zipping to and fro in the Matt-led boat. At the risk of boasting, I felt like a natural boater, even when my companions tried to convince me a rush of reeds was a continuation of the lough and I had to carefully back our way out of a tight spot.

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the sun. The morning had been gray, and showers were forecast. So none of us thought about sunscreen—until the brilliant sun shone through the clouds not 15 minutes after we started a two-and-a-half hour boat trip. I did my best to block the sun and did a fairly good job—except for my rudder hand, which had turned bright red by the end of our journey.

A little sunburn, however, was a small price to pay for my first boat trip in the captain’s seat.