Meeting a US Ambassador (Kinda) Certainly a First

Being married to a Fulbright Scholar has perks beyond living for six months in Belfast. We were part of a group at a reception Monday night for the US ambassador to what’s officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pretty cool, huh?

Officially, Lewis Lukens is the chargé d’affaires-ai, a hoity-toity term that Wikipedia says means interim until Trump’s nominee is approved. But hey, he has the same privileges and immunities as the ambassador, so that’s good enough for me.

Hanger-on-spouse or trailing husband?

Of course, other than a brief handshake and a quick “nice to meet you” I spent all of my time talking to other people and figuring out what their connections were. But I did meet two other Fulbright Scholars, learning more about them, and spent time with the husband of the Fulbright Scholar who lives across the courtyard from us. At these events, he calls himself the trailing husband, while I prefer hanger-on spouse.

The Fulbright Scholars were guests of the host, Consul General Dan Lawton and his wife, Paula. Declan was specifically invited because the Lawtons have teen-aged children, so the kids could hang out while the adults mingled. Declan got his own tour of the mansion (yes, counsul generals live in mansions) and munched pizza upstairs.

Paula is also a Stewart Parker fan, and we’d already met her and Dan when they attended the staged reading of Parker’s play “Pentecost” last month at the Linen Hall Library. She has been recommending Marilynn’s book to people, which has greatly endeared her to us.

Where’s the Guinness?

OK, it was much like any other reception I’d ever been to, but with a few twists thrown in. For example, there was no Guinness but there was Budweiser. We’ve been to events at the Irish counsel in Atlanta, and there’s always Guinness. And with apologies to Marilynn’s cousin who works for InBev, yes, Budweiser is getting popular over here, although I cannot imagine why.

After initial pours behind the bar, the gregarious bartender made the rounds offering refills. I finally had to cut myself off. And the wait staff was among the most pleasant I’d ever met.

The ambassador’s staff photographer from London also was on hand. He had actually been in Atlanta for a religious studies conference and commented that it was weird seeing a downtown skyscraper that looked derelict, with boarded-up windows. Marilynn and I independently thought about the Westin-Peachtree, which had several boarded-up windows for a couple of years after the 2008 Atlanta tornado.

About the photo: I’m not the kinda guy to take selfies with the chargé d’affaires (although others were), so while chatting up the photog I asked about getting a reception photo for the post. They’ll be on Flickr, he said, but I’m still waiting, so I stole this one from when Lukens visited the RAF Museum.

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.

For the Love of a Feline

It’s not all raindrops and roundabouts here in Belfast, because we left a cherished family member back in Decatur—our beloved cat, Gunner.

Even Marilynn, who wasn’t much of a cat person before she met me, quite likes our mainly black, mainly Burmese (according to the vet) cat. It’s funny, but despite growing up with cats and living around them all my life, she is the first cat I’ve ever picked.

And Gunner definitely is Daddy’s little girl, racing me up the stairs (or down) from my office or seeking attention while I’m in the office. Most afternoons, after her nap, she will either stretch out and knead the back of my chair or sit beside my chair and touch my elbow with her paw until I respond.

It’s to my advantage with Gunner that I’m home all day, since my office and house are the same place.

New house, new cat

Our old cat, Bogger, died a few years back, and we already were considering moving from Atlanta to Decatur and didn’t want to get a new cat immediately, much to Declan’s consternation. And when we did move, we rented the house for several months while old house was on the market.

But the weekend after our house closed, Declan and I went to Petco to see the adoption cats, to just look, you know.  We often visited the PetSmart near our old home on the weekends, so I thought all pet stores did this. Apparently not, so, not wanting to disappoint the lad, I suggested visiting the DeKalb shelter. I knew that cats had been free during November and were just $10 in December, including shots, fixing, microchip and certificate for follow-up vet visit.

Don’t tell Gunner this, but we actually picked another cat that turned out to be adopted before picking Gunner. It was destiny, though, that we found Gunner, who was called Jenny at the time. Declan and I are fans of Arsenal in the English Premier League, and we knew any animal we adopted would be called Gunner.

She took to us immediately. When Gunner was smaller, she’d stand on the supports under the chair and walk among the chairs that way. She would also sit in in the well of the front-loading washer and watch the clothes spin or climb the floor fan in our bedroom, wrapping her paws around the motor and hanging on.

Gunner loves to play laser mouse, sometimes jumping half way up the wall in the TV room. She also likes looking out the window (especially with the window open), chattering at the birds gathered at the feeder or flitting around the yard. And she knows how to get what she wants, with a look or a well-placed paw. She’s like the dog we’ve never had.

When needs must

But as any animal owner knows, adulthood can be somewhat different than a pet’s childhood. Gunner has mellowed somewhat, and we really didn’t want to move her while we were in the UK, but one of our renters is allergic to cats.

After a few false starts, Gunner has found a temporary home with one of Marilynn’s grad students, who has an older cat that apparently doesn’t care there’s another cat living there.

Here’s part of Nancy’s mid-January report: “But to be honest, she hasn’t made herself completely ‘at home’ at this point; she stays upstairs, in my room the majority of the time, but has been slowly venturing forth (especially when she’s in ‘Jungle She-Cat’ mode!). That said, it’s not like she’s ‘unhappy.’”

Nancy reported several days later that Gunner and her cat Malachi were sharing the bed with her, albeit on opposite sides, so progress continues to be made.

So while we’re having a blast here in Belfast, we have mixed emotions about leaving Gunner behind.

A Room with a View (and Culinary Delights)

This ain’t your Irish grandma’s fry-up. During our recent trip to Cork and thereabouts, we were very surprised by the quality of the accommodations and the food. Even at the B&B we were least impressed with, we had options beyond the traditional Irish breakfast, which usually includes fried eggs, sausage, bacon (the Irish kind), black and white pudding, stewed tomato and/or mushrooms and soda bread. If there’s a hint of baked beans on the plate, run like hell, because that’s not part of the Irish breakfast.

Fine dining in Cork

In Cork, we stayed at Garnish House, a guesthouse right next to University College Cork, where Marilynn gave her talk. The food was, in a word, sublime. After the four-plus hour drive to Cork (wrong side of the road/roundabouts/time crunch because of when Marilynn’s talk was scheduled), we were ecstatic to be offered afternoon tea, with scones, biscuits and other delights. What a refreshing way to be greeted.

During tea, we also had a chance to peruse the breakfast menu. Traditional fry-up? Or how about one of about six fish choices? Omelets? Porridge? Fruit? Pancakes? Several of the above? I had a half fry-up one day and an omelet the next. Marilynn had an omelet, then poached fish. She also had a bowl of porridge spiked with Bailey’s Irish Cream. Declan had pancakes both days.

While in Cork, Declan and I went for pizza one night while Marilynn was being schmoozed by the university folk, but the next night we all walked in the pissing rain to Feed Your Senses, a tiny tapas restaurant on the main drag that only has a half-dozen tables. It was the best tapas we’d had since a trip to Spain in 2015. A plate of Iberian ham, cheese and bread, an order of olives, one of patatas bravas (fried potato cubes, topped with spicy sauce) and a bottle of wine filled us to great satisfaction. Fortunately, the rain had (mainly) stopped on the way home, so my somewhat drying trousers didn’t get any wetter.

Dingle was great, while Doolin was so-so

And in Dingle, we were treated to not only an ocean view room at the Dingle Harbour Lodge, but also some fine vittles the next morning. The photo at top was the view from our room. We hadn’t booked in advance, so snagging a primo room (for under 100 Euros, nonetheless) would have been an impossible dream during high season. Again, breakfast did not disappoint. Declan and I had delicious waffles made from the lodge’s own recipe and Marilynn had a bagel with smoked salmon.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all high living and fine dining during our Ireland journey. The final stop, in Doolin, was supposed to cap a fine trip. The standard for fine B&B lodging and dining, for us, was set in Doolin in 2002, when we took Walker to the Cliffs of Moher. We still recall the American-style pancakes with delight, amid all the fry-ups we had that journey. The fry-up, while an all-time favorite of mine, loses its appeal as your waistline gains circumference. But that B&B was closed for the winter.

Although this B&B had Doolin in its name, it was nowhere near town. There would be no going to hear local music in the pub, then walking home pleasingly buzzed, as we did the last time. First we had to find it, since there was no address associated with the booking. Up through the main part of the village, down the next … nothing.

So we go into pub and ask the barman, who knows where it is and gives directions. I won’t bore you with the details, but they involve signs that got turned around in the wind; nearly driving onto the beach as pavement gave way to gravel gave way to a muddy mess; turning the car around more times than I care to remember; asking directions at another B&B (bless that woman); and a near meltdown by someone in the car—all in the dark—before we arrived.

OK, so it was me who was close to a meltdown. I tell the proprietor about the signs, and he says something to the effect of, “Aye, it’s been windy lately and that happens.”

What I wanted to say was, “You feckin’ idiot!! If that’s a problem, don’t you think you should have checked that before your guests arrived!” But we were staying in his house, so I kept my mouth shut.

I’ll save those comments for the booking website I used to make the reservation.

When it rains, it pisses rain

I think southwest Ireland is cursed for me. Fifteen years ago, when Marilynn and I were showing Walker around the island during a driving vacation, I messed my back up so much that we had to stay in one place for several days. What did we miss during the downtime? Driving the Ring of Kerry.

So here we are again, same couple, different kid in Cork, our first foray from Belfast since our arrival three weeks ago. Marilynn was giving a talk at University College Cork, then we are off to see Cobh, Kinsale, the Dingle peninsula and the Cliffs of Moher. That was the plan, anyway, until the 30-plus mph winds and the torrential rains hit.

The first day was OK except for the wind. While Marilynn gave her talk, Declan and I checked out St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, the city centre, the indoor food hall and the Scout store. For dinner that night, we ate at a college pub where I had a meat pizza that included black pudding. The pizza was OK at best, and the black pudding neither added nor detracted from it.

Titanic’s last port of call

Yesterday, we went to Cobh (pronounced “Cove”) to visit the Cobh Heritage Center, which has a rich maritime history. It was the final port of call for Titanic before it sank in 1912, and many of the survivors of the Lusitania also were housed there. But it should be known for much more than shipwrecks. The city, known as Queensland then, transported indentured servants to America, slaves hither and yon, criminals to Australia and emigrants fleeing the Potato Famine.

The Titanic exhibit is long on pictures, thanks to those of Frank Browne, whose uncle paid for Browne’s journey on Titanic from Southhampton to Queenstown. Browne was an avid photographer and thoroughly documented his relatively short jaunt. A wealthy American couple offered to pay his passage to New York, but when the theological student sought permission from his Jesuit Superior to journey onward, the response was “get off that ship!” Which, of course, proved fortuitous for Browne.

Among the few artifacts is a bottle found near Cork in 1913, bearing a message from Jeremiah Burke, a Burke of Glanmire, Cork, and tossed overboard a day or days before the disaster.

Although the Titanic exhibit in Belfast is vastly superior to this small presentation, the Cobh Heritage Centre proved worth a visit.

Let it rain. Let it rain.

Until the skies let loose, anyway. It had been so windy the previous night that Declan got blown off course a couple of times. Combined with a driving rain, unfamiliar streets and an unfamiliar road layout (left lane! LEFT LANE!!), the drive to Kinsale was nothing short of perilous.

Marilynn wanted to see Charles Fort (place, not person) to get her in the right mind to write about Brian Friel’s play “Making History,” a play about the Earl of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill) who led Irish and Spanish forces against the English during the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. His troops endured a long trek in crappy weather like we were experiencing, so it did inform her thinking. It was miserable for us, and we had modern rain jackets, a car and the ability to drive into town for lunch. This fort was built 75 years after the battle but is in the same general area.

We decided to bag seeing the fort and drive home when we chanced upon it anyway. However, the rain was slashing diagonally across the windshield, and Declan and I declined to get out. Marilynn took a two-minute peek and high-tailed it back to the car.

Note on Cobh: The town originally was called Cove, before it was renamed Queenstown in 1849 following a visit from (wanna guess?) Queen Victoria. It became Cobh in 1920 when Ireland became an independent state. “Cobh” is a Gaelicized rendering of “Cove” – it has no meaning in Irish.

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.

10 days before liftoff

Setting up a blog site may not be the best use of one’s time, 10 days before embarking on a seven-month journey to Belfast and beyond. But here it is nonetheless.

My wife is a Fulbright Scholar at Queen’s University Belfast for the spring semester, where she will teach two classes and do research for her next book on literary responses to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Oh yeah, and she’s got another book that she edited coming out this spring with an Irish publisher. It will be much easier to go on a book tour when you’re on the east side of the pond.

Although we are not Irish, we named our son Declan to honor my wife’s research interests and our favorite place to travel. Little did we know he’d have auburn hair like many Irish kids to go along with his Irish name. Although we still don’t have a school nailed down for him yet, we know he’ll fit right in. It was in Derry during summer 2013 when he pledged allegiance to the EPL team Arsenal  and asked for his first jersey. Four Arsenal jerseys and those from nearly a dozen other teams later, he’s still into football (the world kind).

And I’m merely a humble writer, with a newspaper background and my own marketing communications company that specializes in technology and healthcare writing. It means that I’m infinitely portable in terms of work, which helps make this odyssey possible.

The photo is of Giant’s Causeway, taken in 2013. It’s a World Heritage Site and did not disappoint. Most people opt for the package bus tour, which includes a tour of the Bushmill’s Distillery. We hired a car for the day from Belfast, so no distillery for us.