(delayed) Planes, (wrong) Trains, (hired coaches), and Snow!

Getting to Belfast this time proved to be an adventure.

Maybe it’s the post-pandemic travel period. Perhaps it’s the lack of a working cellphone. But definitely it’s bad luck as Marilynn and I set off on our Ireland adventure on Thursday and Friday.

The plan was to fly into Dublin, take an express bus to Belfast, then a train to Helen’s Bay along the coast, where our great friend Eileen would pick us up in time to hit the bank by 4 p.m. to straighten out our UK account. But nothing went according to plan.

The Delta flight out of Hartsfield Thursday evening was 45 minutes late because of bad weather delaying connections, then the plane sat on the tarmac in Dublin because we were behind another plane that had lost hydraulic steering and needed a tow. What’s the Irish equivalent of Bubba the (airplane) tow truck driver? Padraic?

Looking out the window as the plane approached Dublin, all one could see was snow. As many times and as many different times of year I’ve visited Ireland, I’ve never seen more than a smattering of snow. What should have been a patchwork of green fields, with more green hues than the human mind can contemplate, was, instead, a uniform white, punctuated by stone fences that separated one field from the next.

Every Step Is Another Adventure

In a positive post-COVID sign, passing through immigration and customs was a breeze, taking under five minutes. Collect the bags, hop on the next Aircoach to central Belfast, and let the adventure begin, right? Well, no. Most coaches require advance purchase these days, and the weather delays out of Dublin meant that people who paid for earlier busses were catching later ones.

Note to self: Get a UK SIM card ahead of time. We had a UK phone for years, but with the long delay between trips, I knew the SIM would no longer be valid and the phone likely was outmoded. But it sure would have come in handy to keep our friend Eileen informed about our delays.

We felt fortunate to get a bus to Belfast. Marilynn did some fast talking to the bus driver, and I could see his lips moving as he counted the empty spaces on the bus. So again, we’re good, right?

After arriving in Belfast and a quick pit stop, we purchased our tickets for Helen’s Bay, went to the correct platform and got on the train. We were home free … or so we thought. Come to find out, there were two trains on the same platform, and we got on one headed in the opposite direction.

The train’s wayfinding signs were out of order, so we didn’t discover our error until after several stops. A nice conductor told us to get off at Antrim, cross over the tracks and take the 17:14 train back into Belfast. But that train was delayed by 25 minutes, then 30, then 33, 35, and finally 39 minutes. There was WiFi on the trains, so I could keep Eileen apprised, but there was no WiFi in the Antrim station.

Finally, at 18:56, we alighted at Helen’s Bay where our friend was waiting for us. Twenty hours after our journey started, Marilynn and I were finally back where we belonged.

No Place to Poop: Crumlin Road Gaol

For how many years did the Crumlin Road Gaol (Jail) have working toilets in its cells during 150 years of operation? Would you believe none? There was running water in the cells in its early years, but the facilities were taken out because inmates were clogging the lines.

It is unfathomable that inmates in a prison that didn’t close until 1996 were still using slop buckets. It might be OK if you were the only person in a cell designed for one person. But, for much of its history, the 550-cell prison was overcrowded, with nearly 1,400 prisoners being housed in the facility at times.

While I could possibly serve a prison sentence for some criminal offense, I’m not sure I could poop into a bucket while my cellmates watched. That would likely be difficult for even the most hardened criminal.

In later years, there were a few working toilets in each wing for the guards, and prisoners could put their names on a waiting list to use them.

We learned about much more than the scatological details of prison life during our tour yesterday of the Crumlin Road Gaol, listed on TripAdvisor as the most popular tourist destination in Belfast. Although certainly interesting, we remain unsure how the gaol tour earned the top ranking.

Famous ‘guests’

Over its history, men, women and children were housed at the facility. Suffragettes were particularly troublesome for the prison guards because they took turns screaming, which upset everyone. They also were the first hunger-strikers, according to our tour guide. The women were sent home when they became too weak, with directions to come back once they were better. Needless to say, few women returned.

The gaol opened in 1846, a replacement facility for a medieval prison in Carrickfergus, nine miles away. Inmates were marched between facilities at the opening. During the potato famine, people committed crimes so that they would be imprisoned and thus get a roof over their heads and a meal a day. But they also were put to work, in harsh conditions designed to make life outside prison walls more attractive than staying inside.

We learned that sayings we use all the time originated in punishments given to prisoners. “Cat got your tongue” refers to whipping prisoners with a cat o’ nine tails, nine pieces of cotton cord with knots on the end to inflict pain. This was often used on insolent prisoners. “Turning the screw” refers to a hand-cranked device that does absolutely nothing at all. An unruly prisoner would be told to turn the crank of this device 12,000 times a day, and, if the job seemed too easy, a screw on the device would be turned to make it harder. This practice also explains why prison guards are called “screws.”

During the Troubles, the facility housed both republican and loyalist prisoners. The factions generally self-segregated, which caused problems later when bombs were smuggled into the facility that were designed to go off when one group was in a particular place. Famous “guests” included the Rev. Ian Paisley, unionist leader Peter Robinson and republican leader and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness. The latter two helped open the gaol attraction in 2012 as first minister and deputy first minister, respectively. In 2014, they returned to give Queen Elizabeth a tour of the facility.

Meeting one’s maker

The tour of C Wing ended in the execution chambers. Seventeen prisoners were executed at the goal, but the first several were hanged outside, in public spectacles. People often got drunk at public hangings and missed work the next day, the genesis of the word “hangover.”

For executions inside the prison, the inmate was brought to a special double-sized cell two weeks prior and watched 24/7 by two guards there to ensure he did not cheat the hangman’s noose. It was common for guards to talk and play checkers, chess or cards with the condemned man while they bonded. The night before, the inmate was given a last meal, which often included a half-bottle of whiskey.

The morning of the execution, the inmate was offered breakfast but usually decided to spend more time with the clergyman who heard confessions or took final notes to loved ones.

Unknown to the inmate, the death chamber was right beside where he had been living. A bookcase on rails pulls back to reveal the gallows, the noose swinging slightly in the breeze generated by the moving of the bookcase. The noose and support structure are the actual ones used at the gaol.

And that’s where I’ll leave you, looking at the noose and contemplating the last seconds of your life.

Famous (not really) by Association

My wife, Marilynn Richtarik, is a rock star. Admittedly, her rock star world is relatively small, Irish literature, but it’s neat to be near the spotlight and see someone receive the accolades she richly deserves.

Not only are we in Belfast because she won a Fulbright Scholarship, Marilynn has a new book out. She has two radio interviews lined up for next week (one for RTÉ and one for BBC Northern Ireland) in conjunction with “Hopdance,” a semi-autobiographical novel by the late playwright Stewart Parker that she edited for publication.

The guest speaker at the Dublin book launch on May 12 (which also happens to be our wedding anniversary) is actor Stephen Rea. Northern Irish author Glenn Patterson will help Marilynn launch the book at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast on May 23. She’ll also be reading from the novel next week at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre as part of a Seamus Heaney Centre Fulbright program.

Finally (for now, at least), she will appear at the Belfast Book Festival on June 10, talking about and reading from the book. And before I forget, a big shout out to David Torrans from No Alibis Bookstore for the great display in his store and for agreeing to sell the book during Marilynn’s Belfast appearances.

Now for a little perspective

The six degrees of separation on this island is more like three. Let me explain. “Hopdance” was written by Parker about the amputation of his cancerous left leg at age 19. He wrote the stylized, vignette-driven novel around the 10th anniversary of the amputation, returning to it during times of great stress or when he had absolutely nothing else to do. After receiving a second cancer diagnosis, he started preparing the manuscript for publication but died in 1988 before advancing very far. However, since the novel is scene-driven and jumps around before, during and after the amputation, it can be viewed as a complete work.

Parker is the subject of Marilynn’s second book, the acclaimed “Stewart Parker: A Life,” published by Oxford University Press in 2012. She’s had a copy of “Hopdance” since the research phase of her second book, and she quoted liberally from it in the biography. Following the publication of the biography, she decided to ask Parker’s executor for permission to prepare “Hopdance” for publication.

Parker’s final play, “Pentecost,” was commissioned by the Field Day Theatre Company, co-founded by Stephen Rea. Field Day was the subject of Marilynn’s first book, and she interviewed Rea for it. When Rea was asked to help launch “Hopdance” in Dublin, he said simply, “Anything for Stewart Parker.”

Marilynn met Glenn Patterson at the 1998 Belfast Festival, where he read and talked about his work. The two hit it off and have kept in contact since. Patterson was a guest in our house when Marilynn helped put together a Belfast issue of the literary journal “Five Points,” which included an interview with Patterson, who came to Atlanta for the launch.

Mary-Louise Muir is the host of “Arts Extra” on BBC Radio Ulster and also appears on TV arts programs. She’s interviewed Marilynn about Parker for the program several times, the last time in 2013 at her home, while Declan and I sat quietly in an adjacent room.

Sinéad Gleeson hosts “The Book Show” on RTÉ Radio 1. Actually, Marilynn hasn’t met her, and this interview was arranged by Marilynn’s publisher, Lilliput Press in Dublin. But I have no doubt the two will become fast friends—it’s just the way things go on this crazy little island.

First-Hand Stories from the Troubles

My editor would have killed me, if I still had one of those. I attended a roundtable discussion among a republican, a unionist and a British Army soldier who fought during the Troubles and didn’t get anyone’s names.

I was a guest of the Agnes Scott College group visiting Belfast and Derry earlier last week at the session and didn’t want to intrude. I was more interested in what they had to say than who they were. And they said a lot.

The Roots of Riots

At least two of the participants were from lower socio-economic classes, the disaffected more prone to do what’s necessary instead of what might be necessarily right. The British soldier, who did two tours in the North before quitting, was a council house kid who dropped out of school at 16 and apprenticed with a butcher’s for a year, because the local mine was closed.

So the British Army was a step up, despite the misogyny, the beatings and the “you’re not paid to think” mentality. “We were given no Irish history—we were ignorant of the situation,” the former soldier said. “The Army doesn’t do complicated. It was black and white to them that the republicans were the enemy.”

They were taught that anyone is a possible suspect, even children who could grow up and become IRA soldiers. In open areas, they were taught to surround themselves with women and children to deter potential snipers.

He eventually came to realize, “We were part of the problem.” He left the army in 1996, got his qualifications, an education, settled in the North and started a dialog with former combatants.

Hey, hey, mister union man

The unionist also came from a working-class Protestant background and was indoctrinated into the unionist cause by an uncle who was a staunch supporter of Ian Paisley. He joined the youth wing of the UDF, a paramilitary organization, and later volunteered to be a gunman in 1981. He admits to being involved in murders, attempted murders and armed robberies and pled guilty to murder after being arrested. He was given four life sentences and imprisoned for 16 years until after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 that, for the most part, ended the armed conflict.

About five years into his sentence, “I began to see Paisley as part of the problem.” While still in prison, he began to work for peace, and he still does. Spotting a trend here?

Getting to the heart of the conflict

The nationalist joined the IRA as a teen-ager after seeing how the British Army treated residents in the Short Strand area of East Belfast, an island of Catholicism in a deep sea of Protestants. The Short Strand backs up to the Lagan River.

Basically, he saw an occupying army come in and take over houses, schools, hospitals, sports grounds and parish halls, turning them into fortresses. “Soldiers are not trained to keep the peace, they are trained to kill,” he said.

Like the soldier, the former IRA man said that everyone was treated as a threat. Teen-agers were targeted, forced against walls, searched and questioned. And if they gave the soldiers any “cheek” they were taken in for interrogation that lasted four hours or more.

He got arrested in 1973 and spent most of the next 26 years in prison, also being freed after the Good Friday Agreement. At first, those arrested were treated as political prisoners, which afforded them certain rights. But in 1976, the UK withdrew political status and started treating them as criminals, including taking away the right to silence and allowing torture, the nationalist said. At one point, he says 85% of people appearing in court were convicted by their own statements, most of which were obtained through torture.

The situation resulted in the hunger strikes in 1980-81, in which 10 men died. Although the government never did return political status to the prisoners, the hunger strike did shine a harsh light on the worst practices.
“Troubles” doesn’t adequately explain the circumstances that caused more than 3,600 people to be killed over a 30-year period. “I refer to it as the Conflict,” the republican said. “Trouble is what you have with a neighbor or when kids are fighting. It doesn’t capture the depth and gravity of what was happening here.”

Panto is a raucous good time

A pantomime—or panto, as it’s commonly known in the UK—must be experienced rather than described. It’s equal parts beauty and bawdry, seasoned with large dollops of music, topical humor, sight gags and fart jokes. It’s the closest thing to a vaudeville performance you’ll find these days. The narrator is usually a man in drag, contrasting greatly with the fair stars of the production.

Going to a panto is a holiday tradition in the UK, much like we’d go to see a production of “A Christmas Carol.” On our trips to Europe during American Thanksgiving, we had noticed adverts for pantos on buses and in train stations in the cities we were visiting. One year, the star was John Barrowman, who many sci-fi and fantasy fans know from his portrayal of Capt. Jack Harkness in “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Although some of the actors can be from the B list, the narrator usually is the real star.

On our first bus trip to the city centre, I saw an advertisement for “Cinderella” at the Grand Opera House, a venue that truly lives up to its name. The production extended well past Christmas, so I figured there wouldn’t be a more appropriate time to experience this UK tradition.

Trying to get tickets, however, was a challenge—even three weeks after Christmas. This was closing week, and many of the performances were sold out. The performance we attended, a Friday afternoon matinee, was full except for the neck-turning, slightly obscured tickets we managed to purchase.

For the Grand Opera House production of “Cinderella,” take a well-known story, mix in a handsome prince and a fresh-faced lead actress. Throw in a cross-dressing fairy godmother with half-moon disco balls on her dress where her breasts would be and Princess Leia bun hair with another disco ball on top. Top that with generous amounts of slapstick, familiar tunes with new words and loads of audience participation (the louder the better), and you get some idea of a panto.

The fairy godmother, May McFettridge, embodies the spirit of the panto at the Grand Opera House. She’s been starring in pantos here for more than a quarter century, honored in 2014 with a bust permanently installed in the theatre opposite that of opera house architect Frank Matcham.

The jokes flew fast and thick, poking fun at everything from the current political climate to Donald Trump. Talking about her origins early on, the fairy godmother says she “wakes up every morning where everyone hugs and kisses—Stormont,” a reference to the current political climate where the power-sharing agreement is in jeopardy.

Several jokes were aimed at Gareth Gates, who played Prince Charming. He was a runner up to Will Young in the UK’s “Pop Idol,” then lost out to him again for best-selling song of the year.

In all the raucous action, you could have missed the Grand Opera House Dancers and future stars who gyrated, pranced and tried to keep pace. But you couldn’t have missed the 10 school groups who packed the 1,100-seat venue. Not only did the fairy godmother call out each group, he also brought four pre-teens up on stage for some alliterative fun, repeating variations of “One smart fellow, he felt smart.” Say this out loud to yourself a couple of times, and you’ll get where the gag is going.

The first girl, a knock-kneed 8-year-old with long straight hair that kept getting into her eyes, failed miserably, substituting “fart” for “smart” each time, much to the crowd’s delight. Another boy started to say the “f” word, before stopping himself and repeating the phrase correctly.

If you’re looking for high theater, a panto will never be your thing. But if you want to experience a beloved holiday tradition like the natives do, a panto definitely is worth a look.