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Titanic memories of my trip to northern Ireland

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In my last column I told you I’d had the privilege of traveling to Ireland in early September for nine days filled with amazing experiences. This trip was indeed the icing on my cake, largely due to the passion I have for my Celtic ancestry. I left off in Dublin where a friend and I had joined the rest of the fifteen-person tour group, led by Mary Batinich of Lake Vermilion, who had departed the States two weeks earlier and toured Scotland and Wales.

After two nights in Dublin, we departed the Harding Hotel and boarded a chartered tour bus and headed north to Belfast, located in a lough (sea inlet) which leads out to the Irish Sea. We stopped at a few interesting places on the way, the most fascinating being Knowth, one of Brúna Bóinne’s three great megalithic passage tombs/ancient burial sites in Ireland. Knowth consists of one large mound surrounded by smaller mounds. These sites were built by an ancient culture who revered the earth, nature and their ancestors, who they buried in these structures. I was amazed how the huge carved stones that encircled the large mound came to rest there. The tomb is located on high ground and there are no other large boulders in view. This was before John Deere, flatbed trailers and heavy equipment! Information at the site states the tombs are associated with the people of the Goddess Danu, a race of supernatural beings who according to tradition ruled Ireland before the coming of the Celts and afterwards retreated into the fairy mounds and forts. All cultures have myths and beliefs. It was another experience where I question how advanced we earthlings of today really are. We hiked the area for a couple hours, breathing in the fresh Irish air and enjoying the super-green surroundings before boarding the bus to continue to Belfast, the largest city in Northern Ireland.

Belfast has been occupied since the Bronze Age (3000 BC-1200 BC). How could I even comprehend that? Soudan, Minnesota, in contrast, has been occupied only since the Taconite Age (Fictitious, late 1800’s)! Ireland is SO ancient. We drove along the shore of the lough, past Titanic Studios (where Game of Thrones, the popular TV series, is partly filmed!) on our way to the Titanic Museum.

One of the travelers in our group had an uncle who died in the sinking of the Titanic so we added it to our tour and I was glad of it. The Titanic was built at Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast in 1909 (launched 1911).The six-floor museum is built on the site of the former shipyard and resembles four hulls pointing skyward. It is uniquely impressive with its jagged aluminum exterior that catches the light and greatly resembles ice. One of the most impressive sights in the museum was the full-scale replica of the ship’s original oak grand staircase. Of course, me being Scarlet, I have always given a damn about grand staircases! On a serious note, there are so many mostly sobering thoughts about the Titanic. While reviewing the list of the names of those who perished, I saw two sisters with the surname Jussila, a name in my father’s lineage, and I wondered if they might be related. I felt a chill thinking about those poor sisters. After seeing the museum and heating up our credit cards with lovely Irish purchases in the gift shop, we headed into the city center to learn more about the history of Belfast and tour a couple more buildings.

When I was a high school girl in the 1970’s there often was coverage of the conflict in northern Ireland on the six-o’clock news. Known as the “Troubles,” I recently learned.  The period of conflict from 1969 to 1998 between Catholics and Protestants made Belfast one of the world’s most dangerous cities. In conversations I had with our Irish bus driver, Mick, these tensions still run deep but more silent these days, yet never forgotten. Mick felt compelled to bring our group to the city of Derry, known as the “cockpit of the Troubles.” It is an important part of Northern Ireland and the only remaining completely intact walled-city in the country. It took more imagination than I had to see the worn rock walls from 1619 and imagine how frightening it would have been to live there in the past during times of siege between warring clans, Viking waterway invasions, and the religious Troubles.  

Our driver, Mick, having lived through times of tension, shared his memory about Sunday, January 30, 1972. It was there in Derry, when 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers during a civil rights march in an event known as Bloody Sunday. He took us to the street where it happened. On that sunny day it seemed so peaceful and serene. The violence in Derry eased in the 1990s and gradually moved to Belfast. Before we departed the city Mick showed us the Peace Bridge that was built and opened in 2011 on the River Foyle to commemorate the Bloody Sunday event and to help link the divided east and west populations of Derry.

We left the tragedy and tensions behind and traveled further west and north to sheep-friendly County Antrim to stay in a white-washed stone bed and breakfast on the coast where we would relax for the evening. Travel partner Julie and I found our room on the second floor of the rambling old B&B. We dropped our suitcases on the floor and flung open our shutter-style windows to reveal the straw colored long grass blowing in the sea breeze, rolling tree-free hills that met the dark blue ocean as it slammed on the craggy cliffs and rocks below. There were no screens on the windows and no mosquitos either. I chuckled at the vocals of the sheep calling on a nearby hillside...”Maaaa, maaa.” Julie and I headed down to the pub for camaraderie and cheer.

The next morning after a hearty breakfast in the sunny dining room, with a rainbow in the sky adrift out over the sea, we headed off to see the Giant’s Causeway. I’ve never seen anything closely resembling it! It’s a formation on the shore made of 40,000 hexagon-shaped basalt pillars of varying heights, like steps. They were formed by volcanic activity sixty million years ago, although Irish folklore says the causeway was built by giant Finn McCool to be used as stepping stones to cross to Scotland to fight big man Benandonner after the two hurled one too many insults back and forth. Benandonner is said to have been angered and torn up most of the walkway to Scotland leaving what remains today. Fun stuff! After a busy day and sensory overload we sat in the pub...again... and sipped, then listened to a female Celtic guitarist sing her beautiful songs. 

The next day, we’d head off down small country lanes to see castles, poets’ graves, charming picture book towns, and other very Irish things. It was my intensifying hope to find some Irish sweaters ON SALE; after all I still had room in my suitcase while others in the group were buying extra luggage to carry burgeoning amounts of treasures. But WAIT.... this will all be part of my final column about traveling in Ireland. Scarlet heads to the Aran Isle of Inishmore by ferry, purchases a magenta fascinator (hat) in a shop in Ballina, finds sweater-sale heaven, and sucks down some mead at Bunratty Castle near Shannon, while steering clear of the dungeon.  

Again I must say it is so enlightening to see how other cultures live, to see where historic events happened and, in the case of Ireland, to have experienced things mystical. To travel for just nine days is like the saying about eating one potato chip...just a taste that leaves you wanting more! 

Wikipedia and other online sources used for information not born of Scarlet’s head.

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