After docking at Belfast, we met our driver/guide and headed out of the city to the Antrim Road. It runs right along the coast of the Irish Sea and is strikingly scenic, with bays and green hillsides studded with sheep and little seaside villages.
The weather was beautiful. All of the meteorological reports we heard in London a week or so ago were gloomy. Record rains. Floods. Cold. But it’s actually been pretty nice, at least where we’ve been, and today was gorgeous.
We paused in Carnlough for a break, and, while we were there, watched a funeral go by. It was an Irish wake, with four pallbearers carrying the coffin of an elderly man, followed by perhaps a hundred or a hundred and fifty mourners, walking very slowly behind the hearse. When they reached a small bridge, they put the coffin into the hearse, but they continued to walk slowly until they passed from view.
Carnlough also has a small salon called “L.A. Beauty.” It was gratifying to see that my hometown is having an international cultural impact.
At Carrick-a-rede, we walked a couple of miles along a spectacular coastline to a rope bridge and over to a small, slightly offshore island, from which we had a magnificent view not only back along the Irish coast but across to Rathlin Island and Scotland and the Hebrides. It was a marvelous place, with soft spongy soil, incredibly green grass, and a beautiful sea.
(I’ve given up on trying to post photographs from the ship. The Internet onboard is incredibly slow. I’ll try to make up for it when I return. We’ve seen some wonderful things.)
From Carrick-a-rede, we went to the Giant’s Causeway, a striking coast of volcanic basalt laid down upon a base of limestone sixty million years ago. It evidently extends all the way over to the Hebrides, although I couldn’t get a very clear idea of the natural history of the place from the new visitors center, or our lengthy walk along the coast or the map that they gave us. Accordingly, I bought a small book on the local geology – a strong hobby interest of mine.
We had lunch there, and then drove over for a quick look at Dunluce Castle. Funny story there: The family that owned the place was having a party when, suddenly, the castle’s kitchen dropped into the sea, taking seven cooks with it. (Okay. Maybe it’s not all that funny.) So they decided that it was no longer safe and moved out. But the ruins, on a cliff above the sea, are breathtaking.
We ended our tour of the city with a drive around Belfast itself, visiting both Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, looking at political murals from each side, passing through the separation fences and gates – walls, really, all too sadly reminiscent of the Berlin wall and the Israeli “peace fence” — that still divide the two communities in certain areas of the city. Our driver/guide, a Protestant, said what I have long maintained: The struggle is not, and never was, about religion; the “Protestants” and “Catholics” who did the violence – it’s pretty much over, now – were never churchgoers. But he was quite willing to say that Northern Irish Protestants had indeed discriminated against Catholics in grievous and shockingly brazen ways. It was amazing, though, to see how thoroughly ordinary the most afflicted portions of the city were. And, on such a beautiful day, it was difficult to imagine the murderous hatreds that boiled here and that, evidently, still simmer in some hearts.
We visited Queen’s University, Belfast, drove past the area where the Titanic was built, talked about C. S. Lewis (who was born in Belfast, but left when he was young and had no particularly happy memories of the city and never expressed any real fondness for it).
I have to say that I wasn’t expecting much from our stay in Belfast, but I enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated. I had expected the scenery of Ireland to be captivating, but, to this point, it hadn’t captivated me. Today, though, it made a very serious effort to do so.
Thirteen hours out of Belfast, Northern Ireland.