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.

Making It Rain, One Event at a Time

From my wife Marilynn Richtarik’s previous books, she’s learned that if any significant publicity is going to happen, she has to make it happen. It doesn’t hurt that she’s married to a journalist-turned-marketer who knows a little something about making the phone ring and the inbox fill.

So in the month or so since “Hopdance” was published, here’s what has happened.

Thursday, May 4 – Marilynn and a Fulbright Scholar poet shared the stage at the Crescent Arts Center as part of their postings at Queens University Belfast. Marilynn read from the book, describing the circumstances surrounding each scene. A recording of her presentation was later made available on the Culture Northern Ireland website to accompany an article about “Hopdance” she wrote specifically for the online publication.

Saturday, May 6 – Enthusiastic review of “Hopdance” by Sarah Gilmartin in The Irish Times.

Wednesday, May 10 – Marilynn could be heard on The Arts Show, presented by Marie-Louise Muir on BBC Radio Ulster. A recording of her portion of the program is here.

Friday, May 12 – The Irish Times publishes a commissioned article from Marilynn about the 20-plus years she spent researching Stewart Parker that resulted in her award-winning 2012 biography, Stewart Parker: A Life, as well as this edition of “Hopdance.”

Friday, May 12 – Dublin launch hosted by The Lilliput Press, featuring Stephen Rea.

Saturday, May 13 – Marilynn and Lynne Parker (Stewart’s niece who wrote the foreword for “Hopdance”) are heard on The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1.

Tuesday, May 23 – Publication of the aforementioned article on the Culture NI website.

Tuesday, May 23 – Linen Hall Library event in Belfast. Author Glenn Patterson was the host, with Marilynn discussing the book and reading from it. Audience members included Stewart’s brother and sister-in-law, as well as Stewart’s first college girlfriend, who flew over from England for the event.

Thursday, May 25 – Insightful review of “Hopdance” on the Culture NI website written by Connal Parr, vice chancellor’s research fellow in the humanities at Northumbria University.

Sunday, May 28 – Third review of “Hopdance,” this time from Deidre Conroy in the Sunday Independent. Three reviews, all positive!

More to Come

  • Review anticipated in the Irish Independent on June 3
  • “Hopdance” will be featured in 15-minute increments Monday-Friday on The Book on One, a radio show on RTÉ Radio 1. The show is an abbreviated reading of a book, one book per week. We’ve been told it will be featured the week of June 12.
  • Marilynn will read and talk about the novel as part of the Belfast Book Festival, June 10.
  • Marilynn will read and sign books in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 23.
  • She’s also trying to arrange a bookstore reading in Dublin in the next few weeks and is working on coverage of the book in Culture Hub, a magazine and website that covers Northern Ireland arts.

All in a day’s work for an English professor and a marketer—well, except for our real jobs.

Let There Be Light, Lots of Light

The picture was taken at 10 p.m. a few nights ago. It may not be light enough for a vigorous game of football (that occurred earlier in the field beside the flat) but certainly light enough to walk outside without bumping into anything.

And if you happen to be up at 4:30 a.m. or so, you’ll see a similar scene, the light coming up over the nearby hills to infiltrate the valleys below. In short, there’s too much darkness here during the winter months and way too much light during the summer ones.

As latitude lines go, Ireland is significantly north of everywhere in the US except Alaska. During previous two-week visits to Ireland during the summer, late-breaking sunsets meant we could enjoy more of each day. If I was having adjustment difficulties, it was easy to chalk them up to jet lag.

Throwing off one’s rhythm

But it’s much different living here. Our circadian rhythms are influenced by sunlight, both positively and negatively. According to the National Institute of Health, circadian rhythms “can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and other important bodily functions. They have been linked to various sleep disorders, such as insomnia. Abnormal circadian rhythms have also been associated with obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder.”

For most of my life, I’ve had one foot in the insomnia trench. The reason may never be known, but it doesn’t help that I’m a light sleeper who worked weird newspaper shifts (5 p.m.-1 a.m., or some such) for half his career. If you’ve never worked the night shift, you may not realize that people don’t go home and go to bed. After working the day shift, do you go home and go immediately to bed? Of course not. Same rules apply here.

You sit and have a drink. Watch a little TV. Read. I’ve been to great dinner parties that didn’t start until 2 a.m. (or later). I’ve seen the sun rise more times than I can count, simply because I couldn’t get to sleep.

Anything that works

I’ve tried a light box over the winter, burning my retinas out with UV light in a (mostly) vain attempt to reset my internal sleep clock. I’ve tried melatonin and tryptophan, the ingredient (wrongly) linked to sleepiness after you’ve eaten more turkey than you should have on Thanksgiving Day.

Nothing worked, until my doctor started exploring off-label uses of anti-depressants. One of them knocked me out cold. Another worked great, lulling me to sleep, then gently waking me eight to nine hours later with soft whispers—for 30 days. On the 31st day, the pill stopped working.

Finally, third time being the charm and all, we hit upon something that has worked for several years. I take an infinitesimally small dose (smallest pill made, cutting it into quarters with an X-acto knife). I sometimes wonder whether a sliver of a pill should work at all—until I forget to take it and wake up at some ungodly hour.

However, even that isn’t helping at present. Marilynn is trying melatonin, and we both have sleep masks. But still the dawn breaks ever earlier—for at least the next month until the summer solstice.

Cutting Line Just a Fantasy

Tourists getting way too close to you on all sides? Do you crave personal space? If you answered “yes,” then Elbow Knives® are for you! Elbow Knives strap to your arms and snap into place when you need them. Simply bring your arms in front of your chest and extend your elbows, and Elbow Knives open instantly to help you slash your way to the front of the queue or create a patented “Zone of Safety” around you. Think of switchblades for your elbows instead of your hands, and you know how Elbow Knives work.
With Elbow Knives, you can cut your way to the front of the line. Elbow Knives. Get yours today!

Elbow knives, a mad idea born of frustration with crowds and those who disrespect personal space. I think the idea has been brewing since we arrived in Northern Ireland in January. It certainly was informed by the crowds during our Italian vacation in February, particularly during the mad crush at the Vatican to glimpse the Sistine Chapel. I mentioned on Facebook at the time that I had to hip-check a couple of queue-hopping Asians, which, if anything, was an understatement.

The idea grew more solid on the jam-packed train from Olympic Stadium in Berlin last month after watching the Hertha Berlin match. And I believe the idea emerged fully formed in my mind at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which packs in tourists like sardines in a can. That experience contrasted with a visit earlier the same day to the Rijks Museum, which attracts as many visitors as the Van Gogh Museum yet does a much better job of crowd control.

I started pulling Elbow Knives on Declan, raising my elbows up and fake stabbing him to create more space for myself. There’s even a theme song. Think of any product jingle that’s merely sung, with a little bass and a lot of bravado, and you know the theme song for Elbow Knives.

But wait, there’s more!

OK, I’ve thought about this enough that there’s a commercial for Elbow Knives, too. I haven’t worked through all the details, but I imagine someone with the flexibility of a ninja twirling, whirling and slashing their way through a crowd of people, bodies piling up in the user’s wake. There’s a particular move in my head I can’t name. The ninja bends over at a 90-degree angle—elbows out, of course—then jumps in the air and rotates 360 degrees, Elbow Knives glinting in the light.

It’s no secret that I hate crowds and will go to great lengths to avoid them. For me, Elbow Knives are the answer. I can see it now, hucksters selling Elbow Knives instead of selfie sticks and those blobs you plop on a surface and watch resume their former shape while emitting a high-pitched whine. But I already have my Elbow Knives, so I slice, dice and julienne my way through a bunch of sidewalk sellers.

Fortunately for my fellow travelers, we will be relatively stationary until early July, save for a couple of weekend trips. So Elbow Knives will remain just a fantasy, at least until then.

Samson, Goliath: the Also Ran Photos

I didn’t want to sully yesterday’s post of the perfect Harland & Wolff gantry photo with the earlier (and crappier) attempts. So here are those photos, the trees in the way, blurry out of a car window and many more. See captions for the description of their awfulness.