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.

A Soggy (Though Glorious) Time Had by All

When we last parted, gentle reader, it was pissing rain in Cork. While bouts of rain continued to pelt us over the next several days, we soldiered on with single-night stays in Dingle and Doolin, before hitting Newgrange on the way back to Belfast on Sunday.

I never thought I’d think this, but the Cliffs of Moher could have been a bit more overcast. While the UNESCO heritage site is among the most beautiful things I’ve ever laid eyes on, it’s even more stunning through a bit of cloud. Marilynn and I last visited here with Walker in 2002, and it was on our short list of things to show Declan during our trip.

Back in Cork, though, the rain was driving down amid 20-plus mph winds when we headed out to eat Thursday night. We waited as long as possible before leaving, but hunger prevailed. By the time we got to the restaurant, our trousers were soaked from jacket bottom to knees. I tried to dry my trousers using the hand dryer in the bathroom, to little avail. The tapas meal was among the best I’ve ever had, but that’s fodder for a future column.

The Ring of Dingle

Hiring the car allowed us the leisure to explore after Marilynn’s talk in Cork. Rather than drive the Ring of Kerry, which I hear is beautiful but is also too touristy for our tastes, we went to the Dingle peninsula, staying in Dingle Friday night.

The drive along the ocean was stunning, and very, very treacherous. At least the road was paved, in sharp contrast to our last vacation to Flagstaff when Marilynn wanted to take the Apache Trail from Phoenix instead of the interstate. As the single ribbon of increasingly rough asphalt turned to gravel and sand (for the next 23 miles, the sign said), two things happened simultaneously: 1) the mountainous road became more twisty; and 2) the dualie pickups hauling boats started appearing around what seemed to be every bend.

So, pavement good. But straining to see around every curve from the wrong seat in the car while grasping the steering wheel with enough force to bend iron (and in the rain, nonetheless) not so good. However, we arrived in one piece and even managed to snare an ocean view room at a local hotel.

On Saturday morning, we drove the “ring of Dingle,” which is what Marilynn called it. Officially, it’s the Slea Head drive, a 50-kilometer loop that goes through Dingle. Our name is better, though. The ocean views were gorgeous, and in most cases we had the road (and the sights) to ourselves. One of the highlights was the Gallarus Oratory, a 1,300-year old triangular stone worship building that remains watertight despite the lack of mortar between the stones.

Natural, man-made wonders await

Then we drove to the Cliffs of Moher, a dramatic cliff face worn away by millions of years of ocean wind and rain. It’s truly beyond words, as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon in its own way. So I’ll shut up about it.

And then yesterday, we stopped by Newgrange, also a UNESCO heritage site. It was built an estimated 5,200 years ago and features intricate Irish swirls and patterns that still inform art today.

It’s only a guess what went on there, our guide says, although a few sets of bones were discovered when the site was excavated, strengthening the argument for religious temple. The most distinguishing feature of Newgrange is its alignment with the winter solstice. A light box above the entrance is perfectly aligned with the horizon, allowing sunlight to enter the temple at sunrise for about six days around the winter solstice. When that occurs, the chamber is awash in light, our eager guide says, shining off the walls in the alcove farthest away.

Newgrange is a feat of neolithic engineering for not only the know-how required to move massive kerbstones from more than 12 kilometers away and create a watertight structure but for the precise measurements required to capture the morning light of the winter solstice.

Two awe-inspiring, renowned ancient wonders in two days. Not a bad way to end a trip to the south and west of Ireland.

About the photo: Cliffs of Moher, nearing sunset on 1/28.

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.

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.

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.

To let or not to let …

OK, this is the ubiquitous words-have-different-meanings-in-different-countries post that every tourist with a blog probably has written. Run if you must … I won’t blame you, but I promise to only look at the interesting words.

If you’re still here, look at the picture. Did you think “toilet”? I’ve been in Europe a half-dozen times in the past decade or so, and this one throws me every time. It looks like the “i” went missing. And it’s doubly confusing, because the “bathroom” or “restroom” is called the “toilet” over here.

I thought it was just me, but my Rhodes Scholar wife says it throws here, too, which means either (a. My mind isn’t as far in the gutter as I feared; or (b. I’ve dragged my wife down to my level. That one’s likely a tossup.

We actually read by quickly deciphering the shape of words rather than the individual letters. Here’s a Scientific American article that explains what I’m talking about, and why it’s perfectly natural to interpret “to let” as “toilet.” Aside from the fact it’s really, really funny, that is.

The way our brains interpret words is also the reason it’s harder to read CAPITAL LETTER WORDS and, perhaps, the reason why capital letters piss so many of us off.

For me, I’ll take a for rent sign over a to let sign every single day.

What’s in a name?

From my experience, I will say that Brits and the Irish do better than we Americans at describing things. It makes sense … they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years longer.

I’m not going to write about the obvious word differences (chips for fries, crisps for potato chips), but I will never understand why cookies and crackers are both called biscuits. I was looking for crackers in the local Tesco the other day, and Declan had to direct me. “Crackers are biscuits for cheese,” Marilynn says. In other words, no support from the missus on this issue.

But, as I’ve said, they’ve got a lot of the terminology spot on. Where do you park in front of Wal-Mart (OK, here, Marks & Spencer)? Why, the car park, of course. And that big road you drive on to get from city to city? The motorway.

Lift does describe what an elevator does better than, say, elevator.

I will have to quibble over clothing terms, however. For his uniform, Declan needed specific type/color of trousers, blazer and jumper, according to the handbook. We’d say pants, jacket and sweater. Although please don’t say “pants” here when you mean long trousers. Pants here mean underwear.

A few years ago while visiting friends near Oxford, I mentioned that I had forgotten my comfy pants at home and wanted to buy some when we went shopping. I was referring to the nighttime/morning pants I sometimes wear with the elastic waistband and drawstrings. They thought I meant something very different.

It was so embarrassing, I sought refuge in the bathroom. Or was it the to let?

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.