As both sides of the family are beneficiaries of the Irish export industry, we were glad to be back in Ireland.
We were on a cruise and had just one day in Belfast, but it was a pretty one. We took a free shuttle bus provided by the city tourist bureau into the center in the morning and then took a commercial tour down the Ards Peninsula in the afternoon.
On our driving trip (see September 2011), we arrived in Belfast late in the evening and left early the next day, so we had no idea what we had missed. It turns out our hotel on that trip had been right in the center of things.
This time, we did better. Our shuttle let us out across from the 1906 City Hall. It was built in an “exuberant” manner in celebration of the earlier elevation to “city” status by Queen Victoria. Constructed during a period of prosperity, they paid it off with two years’ revenue from the local gas works.
We then walked through modern Belfast, actually a mix of modern and old buildings, to Belfast Cathedral. It must be difficult to drive the narrow lanes of central Belfast, but it was great to walk on the wide sidewalks that make those traffic lanes so narrow.
Belfast Cathedral, the Church of St. Anne, is a mishmash of architectural styles and not very attractive, but it had many interesting things inside that made a two English pound self-guided tour worthwhile. I had not realized the Germans bombed Belfast in World War II, but there were photos of bombed out buildings next to the cathedral. There was also an American flag in the Ambulatory commemorating the fact that the first American troops to arrive in Europe landed in Belfast in 1942. Our imaginations were caught by a prayer book meticulously handcrafted at great risk by two prisoners in a North Korean prison during that war. We were also struck by the beauty of the “Titanic Pall,” a wonderful tapestry of merino felt with 1517 crosses and stars of David hand-embroidered in gold silk thread. This was just one of several memorials we saw to those who died on the Titanic.
There is also a huge modern building near the dockyards, “Titanic Belfast.” It is a little ironic that a tourist site was created because they built a ship that sank. But it has been more than a
hundred years, so now it is a museum. Our ship was across from the White Star dry-dock in what is still a very active port. The two giant cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, Samson and Goliath, can be seen from miles around.
In the afternoon, we took a tour down the Ards Peninsula, a thumb of land that runs between the Irish Sea and the Stangford Lough (a bay) for about thirty miles south of Belfast. On our way out of town, we stopped at the Parliament buildings where the North Ireland Assembly meets. The buildings were built in 1932 and used until 1972 until the time of the “Troubles.” Northern Ireland was then ruled
directly from London until 2008 when locals took control again in a joint rule by the contesting parties that came as a result of the 1998 Northern Ireland Assembly. Former U.S. Senator Mitchell played a significant role bringing peace after about three hundred years of strife.
We stopped on the land side of the peninsula to see Grey Abbey, the ruins of a Cistercian abbey founded in 1193 by Affreca, wife of the Anglo-Norman invader John de Courcy, supposedly in thanks for her safe arrival from the sea. Grey Abbey is probably the first church in Ireland built in the Gothic style. De Courcy, however, was expelled from Ulster by King John in 1205.
The abbey may have been caught up in general Irish strife over the years, but it came under the patronage of the O’Niells. Nonetheless it continued to decline and ceased to operate in 1541.
The O’Niells burned the abbey in 1572 to prevent it from getting into the hands of a Thomas Smith who proposed a colony in the area. [The “troubles” date back to English lords establishing Protestant colonies in Catholic Ireland with Scottish settlers. Many of those “Scotch-Irish” subsequently left for better and more peaceful opportunities in America.]
Despite all the destruction over the years, today we have a pretty good idea of what the abbey looked like originally because the Cistercians tended to build according to a standardized plan, and the remaining foundations fit that plan.
We crossed the peninsula passing “mouse-hole cottages,” tiny little homes once occupied by villagers and now vacation homes, to the seaside town of Donaghadee.
Donaghadee was a major port in the days of sail because it is just 21 miles from Scotland. It finished its new seawall just in time for the invention of the steamboat which sent the traffic to Belfast. Now it is a beautiful vacation spot.
We had been disappointed in Belfast to find the Crown, one of the city’s oldest gin mills, not open yet for the day. But we did get an Irish Coffee in Donaghadee in Grace Niell’s Bar, established in 1611, the oldest pub in Ireland.
Northern Ireland has about 1.8 million people, the majority living in Belfast. Londonderry and Bangor are also towns, not villages. Going back to Belfast, we passed the hometowns of Van Morrison and Rory McIlroy. There were lots of banners out for McIlroy who had just led the successful European defense of the Ryder Cup.
However, there are 48 million people of some Irish descent in the United States. Ireland’s greatest export has been people. My own Scotch-Irish ancestors arrived in the 18th Century. Alie’s grandfather was among those to flee the poverty and famine of the 19th Century. So it is not just the joy we get from an occasional drop of Bushmill’s or Jameson’s in our coffee that makes us beneficiaries of the Irish export industry.