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.

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.

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.