What Do You Call a One-Legged Woman…

I knew something was off about this sign in the Belfast International Airport, when it occurred to me: the women’s toilet is only for monopod women! Or amputees! Or only for women who stand on one leg like flamingos! Or for one-legged women who walk like Egyptians!

Just remember, somebody got paid to design that sign…

A World Away, But Close to Home

We were so glad to welcome family friend Carina Gold to Belfast last week. OK, she didn’t stay with us or anything. She’s a freshman (woman?) at Agnes Scott College, just two blocks from our home in Decatur.

Marilynn and Carina’s mom, Katy, went to school together in Lawrence, KS, from elementary school through high school, and Katy attended our wedding. I’d only met Carina once before she came to visit the campus last spring, but we’ve gotten to know her much better in the short time she’s been in Atlanta.

An interest in the North

Freshpeople at Agnes Scott, a female undergraduate liberal arts college, go on trips during their first year, and Carina’s trip is mainly to Belfast and Derry with another two dozen young women led by professor Christine Cozzens. Christine has an interest in Northern Ireland, so of course Marilynn knows her. In fact, Christine hosted a speaker last fall that Marilynn brought to town as part of Ireland’s world-wide commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising last year.

We met Carina at her hotel, a short walk from our flat, and went next door to The Botanic Inn, a 150-year-old pub better known as The Bot. We’ve been coming to The Bot since Marilynn first hauled me to the island 17 years ago now because it’s where Stewart Parker drank. Except she recently remembered (from rereading her own book on Parker), that his preferred watering hole (across the street) was The Eglantine Inn, better known as The Egg. But tradition is tradition, and even Declan has spent many a day at The Bot, so The Bot remains our favorite local.

Friends of friends

We ran into Christine at The Bot, and she invited us to a talk by Northern Irish writer Anne Devlin that evening and the nationalist/unionist/British Army roundtable the next morning. We had to decline the reading because Marilynn had book proofs to look over, but I agreed to attend the roundtable.

As we were chatting with Carina at the hotel, Marilynn noticed Anne waiting in the lobby, so she went over and struck up a conversation. Marilynn says she met Anne at the Stewart Parker conference in 2008. She’s also met Anne’s son Connal Parr, who’s a researcher at Northumbria University and who wrote about Stewart (thus referencing Marilynn) in his forthcoming book. It’s a small world here, where academia and culture mix liberally.

I’ll never forget the first time I came to Ireland with Marilynn. She ran into someone outside Christ Church Dublin that she had attended Oxford with. Later, in Belfast, someone was yelling her name in the street, an acquaintance from the Institute for Irish Studies who saw us walking past.

In Ireland, it’s not six degrees of separation. It’s more like three.

About the photo: Declan and Carina at The Bot. A later photo series will feature Declan in the vicinity of tasty brews in some of our favorite watering holes.

A Grand Day Out to Newtownards

We were told at semester start that Declan didn’t need a PE kit at Lagan, given he was just there for the semester. But he came home last Monday and announced that he was being picked to play in Thursday’s football match and did need a kit—immediately.

Declan in his Lagan College football kit.
Declan in his football kit.

Unlike the school uniform, which could be purchased in at least three places in Belfast, there was only one outlet for the PE kit, 12 miles east of Belfast in Newtownards (pronounced Newton-ards). A quick search of bus routes showed that it would take 75 minutes and two busses to get to Newtownards, then the same amount of time and busses to get back.

So I asked a family friend, Eileen, if she would kindly drive me. Eileen had been instrumental in hooking Declan up with a local academy football team, even driving him to the first practice, so she was happy to help.

Detour to Ikea

We set a plan for Wednesday, but on Tuesday night, the third of six Ikea bowls we purchased in early January failed, so I asked if we could go to Ikea, too. Eileen invited another family friend, Joanna, so we set off on Wednesday morning, first to Ikea. The Ikea customer service rep was happy to replace the bowls while Eileen and Joanna shopped the scratch-and-dent furniture and purchased a few items.

The route to Newtownards took us past the Stormont Estate, where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, so we took a quick detour to see Stormont and Stormont Castle.

Upon arrival in Newtownards, we quickly bought the kit and had a quick meal at Haptik, a local coffee shop. I had one of the weirdest-sounding but greatest-tasting brunch dishes—waffles and maple syrup topped by a fried egg, with bacon pieces sprinkled around the plate. It also had sesame seeds sprinkled on top. I did everything but lick the plate afterward.

Garden center? No shit.

Eileen warned me in advance there would be a garden shop involved, but fortunately not the manure she had previously mentioned. Walkers Seeds & Paints is also in the city centre, but we drove there because Eileen sensed there was a big shopping trip ahead. She wasn’t kidding.

What a great, old-fashioned store, full of things a gardener needs as well as many things a gardener didn’t know he needed until seeing them. Oh yeah, and paint, too. I saw nearly two dozen varieties of seed potatoes and hadn’t realized before there were so many. I knew the Irish liked their potatoes, but two dozen kinds?

Half a day after we started, we arrived back in Belfast, lighter of wallet but fuller in friendship. And that’s the best part of a grand day out.

P.S. Declan did play in the match, and his team won.

Remember the Venues Less-Visited

In the two months we’ve lived in Belfast. I’ve walked past the historic Palm House in Botanic Gardens at least a dozen times. I know how cool it is to walk among the tropical plants and marvel at the architecture of the steel and glass structure. You can see for yourself what an impressive structure it is.

But I’m always on my way to somewhere else, either the PEC (gym) to work out or a shop along Botanic Avenue, the garden being a popular, tree-lined cut-through when it’s open during daylight hours.

Declan and I made a point to go by there on Sunday after we visited the Ulster Museum, also located within the gardens. But the Palm House closes at 4, so we missed it.

Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda. Haven’t.

We have notched many “firsts” during our extended stay in Belfast, including visiting Belfast Castle and Cave Hill, attending a pantomime performance at the Grand Opera House, as well as events at Ulster Hall and the Linen Hall Library. But in the search for the new and the wow, we’ve lost touch with the familiar-but-still-impressive.

At a former job, I sat among the managers and heard them talking about flying in such-and-such job candidate, putting him/her up in a hotel, arranging dinners, etc., when I knew there were qualified, in-house candidates who were getting the short shrift. But the new and shiny has the power to grab and hold our attention much more than the familiar.

I’ve lived in in-town Atlanta for nearly 25 years, most of that within four miles of Zoo Atlanta and the former Cyclorama. For many of those year, we’ve been members of the zoo. And for the last four years, Marilynn, Declan and I have been Zoo Atlanta volunteers who were able to get into Cyclorama for free.

How many times did I go before the big Civil War canvas was rolled up and carted to the Atlanta History Center? Exactly zero. Marilynn and Declan saw it on the very last day it was open.

I was born in central Florida and still have relatives there, but I’ve never been to see the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. Declan has never smelled the sour mash fermenting at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, despite the fact we get to Murfreesboro fairly regularly, and it was a favored destination when friends or relatives visited Fayetteville. And I’ve still never been to Tims Ford State Park in middle Tennessee, near where I grew up.

More on the Palm House

The two wings of the Palm House were completed in 1840 for the sum of 1,400 pounds. Each is 65 feet long, 20 feet wide and 20 feet tall. The central dome rises to 46 feet and was constructed in 1852 and ties the wings together perfectly.

One wing houses more temperate plants in a cooler controlled climate, while the other contains tropical plants in a heated environment. The central dome houses a range of both temperate and tropical plants, with tall trees that tower over visitors.

Like the Ulster Museum, the Palm House is free to visit. And the very next time my feet take me past the Palm House, I’m pushing the door open and walking in. I promise.

Walking Between the Raindrops

If you were a tourist in Belfast today and doing anything outside, you’d have hated the weather. Fortunately, we aren’t tourists, so it was a wonderful day. If you stayed inside every day it rained in Belfast, you’d become a hermit in short order.

We entertained guests at the flat last night and slept in later than normal for a Sunday. I’m fighting a cold and welcomed the extra slumber. But when we got up, the rain was slanting sideways across the bay window in front. A crappy day, to be sure, and not one that screamed, “Let’s spend the day outside!”

For the love of crisps

But the flat is small, and one can only lie around for so long. So between downpours, we walked down the Lisburn Road to Poundland to buy weird crisps. This will be fodder for a future column, but Brits love odd-flavored crisps. Prawn. Lamb. Worcestershire sauce. Ham and pickle. Steak.

On past trips, we’ve become quite taken with the Meal Deal, which normally consists of a sandwich, crisps/dessert and a drink for a low set price (generally 3-4 pounds). Great for eating lunch on the go. I always try to buy the oddest crisps I can find that don’t contain onions (I’m allergic). But I have been unmoved by the selection at Tesco (local grocery store chain). Then we wandered into Poundland a few weeks back, and there, in all their glory, were the odd crisps I hadn’t yet encountered, many of which I likely won’t love. But I will try them all.

We bought a half-dozen bags (at a pound apiece, of course), went hairdresser window shopping for Marilynn and bought a few sundries at Tesco, before returning home.

Poop and polar bears

The rain started coming down almost the second we reached the flat. But it soon let up again, so Declan and I spent some time at the Ulster Museum, which is free and near the flat. The Ulster Museum is a joy to visit, and the exhibits feature a little something for everyone. You’ll find contemporary art and sculpture, Egyptian mummies, artifacts from Ireland’s rich history, ammonites, dinosaur bones, dinosaur poop and Peter the Polar Bear, who lived life at the Belfast Zoo and now lives on in death in a prominent place at the museum. You’ll also find an Irish elk (pictured), more accurately described as an Irish giant deer.

We stayed for about an hour, leaving right before the museum’s 5 p.m. closing—and yet another rain storm.

Meal Deals aren’t just for lunch, either. For dinner, we had a Marks and Spencer 10 pound dinner deal—whole roast chicken, rosemary potatoes, apple tart and a surprisingly good bottle of wine. And there is half a chicken left over.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a rainy Sunday in Belfast.

Friends with Stewart, 30 Years On

Although none of us ever met playwright Stewart Parker, he’s largely responsible for us being in Belfast and knowing as many people in the city as we do. So it was like homecoming on Friday when we attended a staged reading of Stewart’s final play, “Pentecost,” first performed 30 years ago.

Among those in attendance were Stewart’s niece, Lynne Parker, who is artistic director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin, and her parents, George and Margaret Parker. Lynne was helping members of PintSized Productions, a troupe of up-and-coming performers, as a veteran presence among the younger artists.

Fortunately, Stewart remains a fantastic playwright whose work is just as fresh and vibrant in 2017 as it was when it premiered. Who needs a set when you have a talented set of performers and a sizzling script?

A little backstory

Marilynn’s second book is a critical biography of Stewart, “Stewart Parker: A Life.” Published in 2012, it was enthusiastically reviewed on both sides of the pond and won awards from the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) and the American Conference for Irish Studies.

She discovered Parker while researching her first book, about the first five years of the Field Day Theatre Company, an influential outfit that staged plays and published books and other materials from both sides of the sectarian divide in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Parker died tragically at 47, just as he was hitting his stride as a writer. While researching the book, Marilynn interviewed 150 or so of his friends, relatives, school chums, other associates and former teachers. And many of those people are now our friends–hence the homecoming with the Parkers, with Lynne’s parents treating Declan like another grandchild.

The script’s the thing

This was the third time I’ve seen “Pentecost” in some form, including two staged productions—one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Belfast in 2008. “Pentecost” is about life, loss and redemption as glimpsed through the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974. Each of the five characters (including the ghost of the woman in whose house the play is set) has secrets that are exacerbated by the backdrop of the Troubles.

I’ve also seen his plays “Spokesong,” a musical about bicycles set against the Troubles; “Northern Star,” about the 1798 rebellion; and a staged reading of “Catchpenny Twist,” about songwriters who get in trouble by penning ditties for both sides during the Troubles.

The version of “Northern Star” I saw was in London, where it was in repertoire with another play that had a real set. “Northern Star” was staged on the other set that looked like a rich man’s study—and it mattered not one whit. The brilliance of the writing and a talented actor who portrayed Henry Joy McCracken carried the day despite the odd setting.

Marilynn and I have seen countless plays that start off strong (or have a good premise) only to disappoint by the time the final curtain falls. The sets can be fantastic and the cast Broadway quality, but if the script doesn’t deliver, then the play ultimately fails.

We’re fortunate that Stewart Parker is that rare combination of great playwright and great guy, as evidenced by the quality of his plays and the abundance of friends and family who still recall him fondly.

About the photo: This is the picture of Stewart we have in the living room of our house. He looked down on us from a wall in Marilynn’s open office into the dining room of our house in Atlanta for the 13 years we lived there.

When we moved to Decatur, Stewart’s photo was moved to her new office, a suite on the main level. But after two weeks, I asked that he be returned to his rightful place in the center of the action.

Muslims Are People, Too

Visit My Mosque day had already been scheduled for 150 mosques in the UK when Donald Trump announced the immigration ban on seven majority Muslim countries. If what we heard on Sunday while visiting the Belfast mosque held true in the other 149 locations, local residents and visitors like us turned out in record numbers.

We went to support the local mosque and Muslims in general, showing them that not all Americans hate them and their religion. Sure, certain Muslims want to do us harm. But so do people from all walks of life and religions, including people born and bred in the US. As a Christian, I feel it’s important to acknowledge and respect other religions—especially those unfairly under persecution.

Taking such broad strokes in the name of preventing terrorism only makes the world mad at us—it does nothing to make us safer. Do you really feel safe after you pass through airport security, or just dirty and degraded?

Leave your shoes at the door

The Belfast mosque is located along a residential street a few blocks from our flat. Upon entering, we removed our shoes just inside the front door (photo). Women on hand in the first room to our right plied us with tea, coffee and biscuits (it is the UK, after all). Then we went upstairs to the prayer room, where a mosque leader gave a 10-minute presentation about Islam, the Prophet Mohammed and the Quran, then took audience questions. A local man asked about how his son, who is dating a Muslim woman, could marry her. The response was that the man would have to convert.

I’m glad we visited, but I won’t be converting to Islam—ever. God issues aside, I could never practice a religion that subjugates women. My deceased mother, grandmothers and aunts would claw their way out of their graves and smack me upside my head—not to mention what Marilynn would do to me if I ever told her to shut the hell up and make me dinner.

As we were leaving, a nice Muslim man with a distinctive Belfast accent was coming toward the mosque and engaged us in conversation. We explained why we were there and talked a bit about the US political situation/attitude toward Muslims.

He said Trump’s executive order could be a blessing in disguise, because apparently the attendance at this event was up considerably over past years. At one point, he also said, “We are extremists. Extremely nice, extremely caring and extremely compassionate.”

And after talking with him and visiting the center, I couldn’t agree more.

Enjoying a Sunny Day at Belfast Castle

Although this weekend has been one of the coldest we’ve experienced in Belfast, it’s also been the sunniest. So what to do when it’s cold and sunny? Go for a walk in the park, of course.

And not just any park, but Cave Hill Country Park, steeped in history and steeped in, well, steep. The paths are generally unpaved muddy trails carved into the side of a mountain. While the views are spectacular, the footing was treacherous.

The park includes Belfast Castle, where we had lunch, as well as the Belfast Zoo. Declan and I visited the zoo on a previous trip, but you could see bears and deer of some sort from our vantage point high above Belfast Lough while walking along the Cave Hill path.

‘Citizens of Belfast, Unite!’

Our destination was McArt’s Fort, a promontory about halfway up the trail. We were interested because it was here where United Irishmen, including Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken, first pledged to fight for Irish Independence in 1795. It was also where McCracken was arrested in 1798 after a failed uprising. The evening of his capture forms the basis of the Stewart Parker play, “Northern Star.” Parker is the subject of Marilynn’s second book, so anything Parker-related is interesting to us.

However, we gave up a decent way into the climb. The footing wasn’t getting any better, and we knew that however far we went up, we would have to walk that far back down. It didn’t deter the locals, though. Despite the slippery conditions, we saw literally dozens of peoplemost with either kids or dogsclimbing all over the mountain. It’s heartening to see so many people out on such a fine day.

A walk back in time

Cave Hill Country Park also encompasses Belfast Castle, which serves as the focal point of the park. This is at least the third castle on the site, dating to the Normans in the 12th century.  In 1611, the Baron of Belfast, Sir Arthur Chichester, built a new castle on the site, but it burned a century later.

The current castle was completed in 1870 by descendants of Chichester, now known as the Donegalls. A few generations of aristocrats later, it was donated to the city in 1934 and plays a prominent role in the city’s cultural life as an event space. Prospective brides even have their own toilet, although I didn’t open that door for a peek. Forgot to take a photo, too. Sorry.

Some aristocrat had a thing for cats, because there were two cat mosaics on the grounds to go with a cat topiary, a bronze statue on the base of the central fountain, a concrete cat to one side and an engraved marker featuring a TS Eliot saying that could have marked a feline grave.

Taking in the sun in such beautiful, but muddy, surroundings, made us feel like the localsSouthern accents, notwithstanding.

Happy Chinese New Year … Well, Kinda

Welcome to the Year of the Cock, Belfast style. At least on the streets around Queen’s University, you can see a fair number of Asian students, so maybe it’s not surprising that the city has a Chinese New Year celebration.

But what you may find surprising is that less than half the acts we saw during a public event at the Ulster Hall were Asian. The reggae band didn’t qualify. Neither did the Polish dancers. Or the belly dancers, for that matter. But what about the Scottish dancers, the Irish dancers or the break dancers? No. No. And, ah, no.

So Chinese New Year in Belfast was more of a melting pot event. Some of the acts were surprisingly good. Others were decidedly less so. But it was all good fun nonetheless. Marilynn just called it, “Sweetly multicultural.”

Reggae? REGGAE? No feckin’ way!

My favorite Internet radio station is Radio Paradise, but every time I hear a song from anyone named Marley, I hit the Play Something Different button as quickly as possible. I don’t necessarily hate reggae (love the Peter Tosh take on “Johnny B Good” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Downpressor Man”), but all Marley music sounds the same to me. Maybe I just like reggae remakes.

But the reggae act was by far my favorite. Not because I like reggae, but because of the lead singer, who played the bongos with such gusto and got the crowd on its feet. The break dancers were, good too. All Irish (I assume), and all together every step, pop, drop and cartwheel of the way. Maybe I liked it because it was the most surprising part of a very surprising event.

Among the expected (i.e. Asian) part of the show, of course I liked the Chinese dragons best. Since they were on the playbill, we would have been greatly disappointed not to have seen them. The show included three, actually, that performed both on stage and up and down the aisles of Ulster Hall.

‘Stairway to …’ Belfast?

Speaking of Ulster Hall, we stumbled upon a timeline of the venue while we were leaving. It opened in 1862 after construction that cost under 14,000 pounds. While not as grand as the Grand Opera House, it still is a great place to see a show.

And over the years, it has played host to a wide range of events, including the first Northern Ireland appearance of a British band called Led Zeppelin. On that night, March 5, 1971, the band performed live for the first time “Stairway to Heaven.”

You can hear that version on You Tube, but it’s not very good quality. Instead, I’d recommend this reminiscence from a writer for the Belfast Telegraph who attended the concert as a stubbly faced 18-year-old.

“That night in the Ulster Hall was the first public performance of Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and we didn’t like it. Too ‘ballady’ for Led Zeppelin was our thoughts.”

Maybe someone will be talking about the 2017 Chinese New Year celebration 45 years later. Not likely, but few in Ulster Hall that night in 1971 thought that about “Stairway to Heaven,” either.