Puffins and Seals Highlight Trip to Rathlin Island

I never knew that puffins and seals spend part of their lives breeding (or lounging) in Northern Ireland—but they do—on Rathlin Island.

Last weekend was (relatively) warm and not too sunny, a perfect opportunity to visit Rathlin Island, a community of about 120. With our friend Eileen, we took the slow ferry over from Ballycastle, which takes about 45 minutes and provides ample opportunity to take in some beautiful scenery along the way. Rathlin Island is shaped like Italy, only in reverse and much smaller.

We immediately hopped on a bus to the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre and Nature Reserve, where huge numbers of a variety of birds were nesting on large raised rocks or the cliff face. We smelled the birds before we saw them—something reminiscent of a pub toilet 15 minutes before closing time.

Once we became accustomed (?) to the stench, we grabbed binoculars and started looking for puffins. The rocks were swarming with black-and-white razorbills, auk family cousins to puffins, that from a distance resemble puffins. Only with the help of a docent did we glimpse the orange feet and beaks of the puffin. From our vantage point, they were few and far between, maybe 10 out of the thousands of razorbills, guillemots and two species of gulls (kittiwake and fulmar). The area is similar to the more famous Cliffs of Moher on the other side of the island, yet with far fewer tourists—even in high season.

The seabird centre is located around the Rathlin West Lighthouse, the country’s only “upside down lighthouse.” It took six years and a helluva lot of concrete to stabilize a cliff face and position the red light at precisely the right angle (62 metres above sea level) to warn ships on the horizon yet stay below the fog line.

And then, seals!

Our bus driver to and from the centre was a font of local knowledge and Irish humor. He said that Ireland and Scotland fought over ownership of Rathlin, which was decided by letting a snake out on the island to see if it could survive. It didn’t, which means it belonged to Ireland because it doesn’t have snakes either. He said the population was once as high as 1,200 but, like the rest of Ireland, people remain a big export.

We left the bus before it returned to the harbor and had a picnic lunch among the two dozen or so lounging seals who were soaking up the noonday sun. It was difficult to see them at first, they were so well-camouflaged against the rocks. You could get quite close, although no one wanted to disturb their sun-fueled dreams.

Before we took the fast ferry back, Marilynn and Eileen went for a walk while Declan and I checked out the HMS Drake exhibit at a local church. The Drake was hit by a German mine in the latter stages of World War I and limped along before sinking in the harbor. Although it was later exploded to reduce the chances of snagging other boats, the Drake remains a favorite spot for scuba divers.

On the way back, we went along the coast road through Cushendun to Torr Head, the closest point between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Torr means tall rock, and it was quite stark. We also treated Eileen to a meal before heading home as thanks for another fine road trip.

Nobody knows the Troubles they’ve seen

No trip to Belfast would be complete without learning more about the deep, rich and often painful history of Northern Ireland. It’s a complicated interplay among the North, the Republic of Ireland and England that stretches back centuries.

The story you’ll get depends on who you ask, more specifically, the religion of who you ask. While there are no absolutes in religion or politics (just ask pollsters before the US presidential election), generally Protestants support the union with England and Catholics want Ireland to be one country. There, 350 years of Irish history wrapped up in a bow, just for you.

But you’ll get widely divergent takes on the same historical events by visiting the Museum of Orange Heritage and the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum, which we did over the past several days.

The origin of ‘hillbilly’

The Museum of Orange Heritage is all about how King William of Orange beat back the Catholics in 1690, how they again were victorious following battles during the early Irish republican rebellion of 1798, how the Orange Lodges got started around the same time, their participation in the first World War and how they came under attack during the Troubles. There’s more to it than that, obviously, but that definitely hits the highlights.

Opened in 2015, the museum was built, in part, through the support of the European Union. We paid 10 pounds for a family ticket, and the museum has regular museum-like hours, Tuesday-Saturday. We were surprised to discover that football great George Best (for whom Belfast City Airport is named) was a member of a junior Orange society when he was a lad.

You can see parts of King William’s saddlecloth, a pair of gloves and a letter he wrote. If you look closely, you can see an American connection—Protestant immigrants to the US were called “King Billy’s Men from the mountains or hills” because, like at home, they celebrated significant Protestant war victories with music. This was later shortened to “hillbillies.”

Prison life detailed

On the other hand, the Irish Republican History Museum is open four hours a day, Tuesday-Saturday, takes no government money and is run by an all-volunteer organization. Admission was free, but we kicked 10 pounds into the donation box to even things out between the Unionists and the Republicans. The museum was founded by (who else?) Eileen Hickey, a Provisional IRA leader who spent more than four years in Armagh Prison between 1973-1977, during a time in which hundreds of people (mostly Republicans) were jailed—often without charge.

After the end of the Troubles, she started collecting artifacts and stories from those who had been imprisoned, along with other Republican history. The museum opened in 2007, one year to the day after her death from lung cancer, in a former social hall (read: drinking establishment).

While there were few visitors at either museum when we visited, the Orange museum seemed rather sterile, artifacts under plexiglass with museum-quality interpretation beside them. Other than the nice woman who took out money, the only other museum person we saw was a maintenance man swabbing down a hallway.

The Republican museum was chock-full of objects, including a fair amount of weaponry and a ton of artifacts made by prisoners. Harps galore, banners, furniture, mirrors, Celtic crosses. These people obviously had a lot of time on their hands.

You can see artifacts from Long Kesh and Armagh prisons, including a recreation of an Armagh cell and Eileen Hickey’s prison card. Hickey’s sister was there on the day we visited, showing obvious enthusiasm for the museum her sister founded as a way to tell the Republican story.

But when Marilynn asked about the current political climate, days after the Republican party Sinn Fein triggered early elections, she was more circumspect. The Troubles impacted the lives and outlooks of an entire generation, but today’s teens are growing up in a time when they know nothing but peace.

And perhaps that’s the best place to leave it, both this column and the Troubles, with wishes for continued peace.

Photos: The one to the left is an example of an Orange arch located outside the Museum of Orange Heritage. The one to the right is a mural of Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA who died during a hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze in 1981. This mural is just off Falls Road about two blocks from the Republican museum.

Interesting times … on both sides of the pond

Just two weeks ago, we were looking forward to getting away from the tit-for-tat government spats that were occurring during the presidential transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Inauguration? What inauguration?

And then Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned a week ago, which has triggered a new Northern Ireland election for March 2. Oh boy, just in time for my birthday.

It’s hard enough to describe the political situation in Northern Ireland during tranquil times. But the past two months on the island have seen a sharpening of the divide between the Democrat Unionist Party (DUP) and nationalist party Sinn Fein. The two parties had been running a coalition government in Northern Island under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which ended decades of direct rule from London and is generally considered to mark the end of the Troubles. The resignation of one of the main ministers can trigger a snap election after one week in the absence of a replacement being named, which is what happened earlier today.

Try to keep up

Ostensibly at the heart of the debate is the renewable heat incentive (RHI), a scheme that Arlene Foster set up as energy minister before being named first minister last year before the May 2016 election. The terms of the scheme seem to have been quite generous, especially in light of drastically falling fuel prices. That’s not to say that all who received RHI funds—mainly farmers who also invested heavily in new technology—were doing anything wrong. But the terms were extremely favorable to those who participated in RHI, with a total potential outlay to taxpayers of nearly £500 million.

When details came to light, Sinn Fein asked Foster to step aside while an investigation took place. She refused, setting the stage for last week’s showdown. Fueling the flames, so the speak, during the so-called “ash for cash” scandal was the DUP communities minister’s decision to cut £50,000 out of a program to help Irish language students visit the Gaeltacht region of Donegal, where Irish still is spoken. This happened on the Friday before Christmas. Nollaig Shona, indeed!

The week between McGuinness’s resignation and the calling of early elections saw a flurry of he-said, she-said between the parties. The money for Irish language instruction, a key point for Sinn Feiners, was returned. Foster refused to step aside, and Sinn Fein declined to name a new first deputy unless she did.

But wait, there’s more!

A snap election suspends the power-sharing agreement for the first time in more than a decade, and Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, will cease operating in the next couple of weeks. Will it mean the reimposition of direct rule or could it tip political power in another direction?

A change in the constitution aimed at gradually reducing the size of the legislative body also means that there will be 18 fewer representatives, which could hurt fringe parties but could also rebalance power among the main political parties. In a world where virtually no one predicted Brexit or in the UK or Trump’s election in the US, we’ve all learned that anything is possible.

Finally, the new election puts in doubt Northern Ireland’s solution to the bedroom tax, which taxes people for having unused bedrooms in an effort to get them to downsize. Large carveouts were made for pensioners, but there just aren’t enough smaller homes to go around—despite the threat of taxation. The collapse of power-sharing also leaves this issue up in the air.

In announcing the mandated election, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire expressed hope that the parties could “… find a way forward to secure the continuation of devolved government.”

Can you image power-sharing between Republicans and Democrats? When considering how this issue will affect Northern Ireland over the next six weeks, remember how far both sides have come over the past 15 years.