The only thing Belfast does in moderation is moderation.
Always, it has been Brobdingnagian in spirit. Always, it has lived large.
Belfast, reaching for the sky, Photo by Didrik Johnck
Once it was the largest linen producer in the world. And had the largest ropeworks. It was the largest manufacturer of fizzy drinks; largest shirt maker; had the largest flax machine works; largest tobacco factory; largest handkerchief factory. Jonathan Swift, when he was living at Lilliput Cottage near the bottom of the Limestone Road in Belfast, imagined the nearby Cavehill Mountain a sleeping giant. Big in Belfast is the roar. Annalisa Wray of Belfast holds “The Guinness Book of World Records” for the loudest shout on Earth, a deafening 119-decibel effort.
My friend Virginia Moriarty, born and bred in Belfast, has a theory, which she espouses while I pay a visit. She calls it the “Second Child Syndrome.”
Throughout the 16th century, the Noble families of the British Empire (Barons, Viscounts, Earls, and Dukes) would grant their first son title and estate inheritance. Second sons were out of luck. But since 1603, when a victory over the Irish in Ulster allowed Britain complete control of Ireland, the Lords of Scotland and Wales and other parts of the Empire would often send their second sons to the remote, rocky, incommoding land to stake claims. And, these second sons, denied the attention or privilege of their older brothers, set out to prove themselves. Pop psychologists call it an ingrained inferiority complex that drives a compulsion to do things bigger and better, often, though, without self-examination. Sigmund Freud said the Irish were “the one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.”
When I ask Virginia, who happens to be second in birth order, about this she says there are many manifestations of the Second Child Syndrome, and certainly over-compensation is one; equivocation is another. “I used to be indecisive; now I’m not sure,” she volunteers.
Whatever the reasons, Belfast remunerated with bigness. Beyond-the-pale amplitude. It was a town with few natural resources…everything from coal to timber to iron had to be imported. And yet for a time, a century ago, it was the world’s leading industrial city, anchored by the biggest shipyard in the world, and there it created the biggest man-made moving object in history…the ocean liner Titanic.
Watch Birthplace of Titanic Video here:
Writer Andrew Wilson in a 2012 article in “Smithsonian Magazine,” speculated that “Titanic” is the third-most widely recognized word in the world – trailing only “God” and “Coca-Cola.” Daniel Allen Butler said the same thing in his 1998 book, “Unsinkable.” My reaction: Really? Outflanking 9/11 or Michael Jackson or JFK (of Irish descent), Barry Obama (his great-great-great grandfather was Irish), Bono, Van Morrison or Guinness? What about Noah’s Ark? Regardless, I would hazard that most, until recently, would not have associated the city of Belfast with Titanic. Certainly Southampton where most of its passengers made way into the fatal ship; or Liverpool, where it was registered, and which was emblazoned high on its stern to be seen in a raft of recreations and films, including James Cameron’s little contribution. Or Cherbourg, where it made its second stop and some of the wealthiest and best known passengers boarded. Or even Queenstown (Cobh), in the south of Ireland, its final dock, where a large number of third class passengers emigrating to the United States fed into the bowels, sort of like the lower-deck passengers on an a380 today.
And then there is Newfoundland. The doomed ship was in near constant communication with Cape Race on its Marconi wireless prior to hitting the iceberg as passengers passed along greetings to folks all over North America; and Cape Race coordinated the rescue efforts with other vessels after the incident, just 300 miles off the Newfoundland coast. So, at the end of the day, Belfast was not a big part of the popular story, its coordinates invisible to most narratives.
And after the disaster, Belfast went quiet. Titanic was a dream not remembered.
Beforehand, the city was unbelievably proud of what it had created in Titanic and its sister ship, Olympic. Some 15,000 shipbuilders won a living fashioning the “unsinkable” ship, something aloof to weather, with the strength to ignore such bagatelles as icebergs. It was not just the biggest, but the most luxurious liner ever willed to existence, incorporating the most advanced technologies of the time. Belfast beat the world. It was their place, their time.
It’s easy to imagine the inflated chests, the crow and brag that infused the city on April 2, 1912 when, at 8:00 pm, Titanic’s giant screws thrashed through the waves and the ship blinked its farewell as it vanished into nothingness.
But, with the unfathomable death of Titanic, swallowed by the sea as if a pill, accusations were leveled at all parties, including the shipbuilders and their materials, the design, the size of the rivets and general craftsmanship. The reply was, “there was nothing wrong with the ship when she left.” But, again with the pop psychology, the second sons, under the pressing weight of conscience, felt ashamed and Titanic was a subject not to be broached in Belfast for many, many years. Optimism and sense of purpose drained away like water from a punctured container. Greatness had passed.
Cut to the present. Now, it might be said, the city should be called Titanic Town. Just as James Joyce jibed, “It would be a good puzzle would be to cross Ireland without passing a pub,” it would be a puzzle today to cross Belfast and not pass the word Titanic.
Even when it’s not there, Titanic dominates Belfast, Photo by Didrik Johnck
Somewhere along the way somebody had the bright idea of turning lemons (there were 16,000 on Titanic) to lemonade, not only embracing the Belfast association with the tragedy, but turning the “built here” stamp into its main tourist magnet. It was an attitudinal sea change. Today the official slogan is “Our Place, Our Time,” and the city is awash in exhibitions, tours, cruises, concerts, collectables, drinks (Titanic Tea, Titanic Whiskey and Titanic Quarter Ale), snacks (Titanic potato crisps) and folderol, all branded Titanic. There is the Titanic Light Show, the Titanic Bike “N” Boat tour, the Titanic iPad app, the Titanic suite at the Europa Hotel, the Titanic Road Rally, Titanic Triathlon, Titanic Cemetery tour. Down the road, at the Grand Opera House, “Titanic, the Musical” is playing. Even the grocery stores feature iceberg lettuce.
The cornerstone of the jamboree is Titanic Quarter, formerly Queen’s Island, and the great display case is Titanic Belfast, an angular, silver-colored construction that some think suggests an iceberg rather than the bow of a mighty ship, as was intention. I mistakenly call the 150 million dollar, ineluctably grand edifice a “museum,” and am promptly chastised by one of the staff… “It is not a museum. It is an Experience.” That approach might be because there is little actually of Titanic to see in the building, or even around town. On the whole, Belfast is more about the spaces Titanic left behind.
One, of course, is the 880 foot-long Thompson Graving Dock, where Titanic was hauled to check and clean its hull and fit the propellers. Standing on the edge of this naked 44-foot deep footprint one at last gets a sense of how huge this ship was, or at least it allows imagining. And Colin Cobb, a self-professed Titanorak who runs Titanic Walking Tours, brings it home sharing that the dock could hold 21 million gallons of water, or, in terms better understood in Ireland, 168 million pints of Guinness.
But that’s just it…Belfast is more about the idea of Titanic than the tangible. It’s the absence that teases, inviting us to color in the book, to put ourselves in the story.
Thompson Graving Dock held Titanic, and could hold 168 million pints of Guinness, Photo by Didrik Johnck
Watch Northern Ireland Overview Video here:
While searching for Titanic I did find some memorabilia at Robinson’s Bar on Great Victoria Street in Belfast. On the wall monitor, the one that in most pubs would be featuring a rugby or football match, the 1958 film “A Night to Remember” is unspooling. In a glass showcase is Philomena the Titanic Doll, reputed to have been found floating amongst wreckage in the aftermath of the disaster by one of the ships passing through the area some time later. Then there is an S.S. Titanic nameplate, supposedly from one of the lifeboats; and there is a White Star Line publicity booklet promoting both the Olympic and Titanic and their many upscale amenities (Turkish bath, dining salon, grand staircase). Other than that, the bar features oceans of Guinness.
Not far away the handsomely-styled palace of government, City Hall, is known as The Stone Titanic, nicknamed by William Pirrie, the chairman of Titanic builders Harlan and Wolff, because he often sent shipwrights from the yard–plasterers, wood carvers, joiners, painters who were decking out the giant steamship–to work on the building.
Pirrie was an original version of characters in the Final Destination films in that he was to sail on Titanic, but illness laid him low at the last minute, preventing him from joining the ship- but then later Pirrie died at sea while on a business tour of South America.
Pirrie’s civic architectural confection—it looks a bit like a giant wedding cake– also has a Titanic Memorial located on its grounds, including a statue that pays tribute to 22 Belfast men who lost their lives on the ship (by way of comparison, some 549 from Southampton died.) A new adjacent memorial garden features 15 bronze plaques on a plinth listing a comprehensive catalogue of those lost on Titanic, though Dutch Uncles claim nobody really knows all who were on board as the record-keeping was hardly air-tight (no sign of Rose DeWitt Bukater or Jack Dawson, though there was a Joseph Dawson, 23.)
Then there are Samson and Goliath, the twin yellow shipbuilding gantry cranes that dominate the Belfast skyline with the gitanic letters H & W telegraphing to anyone with a view. They look eerily like the invaders from World of the Worlds, or perhaps characters in Transformers. And they have a tenuous link to Titanic. They didn’t exist in 1912, but they are owned and operated by Titanic builders Harland and Wolff, but are used today mostly for ship repair.
Another not-quite-Titanic-but-worthy-of-suggestion is the nearby SS Nomadic (all the White Star Line creations ended in “ic”). Titanic was operated by the Liverpool-based White Star Line, owned by American J.P. Morgan, and its last floating vessel was the Nomadic. It was built alongside Olympic and Titanic in Belfast in 1911 at Harland & Wolff, designed to tender the Gilded passengers out to the large liners too big to moor alongside the dock in Cherbourg. It was designed by Thomas Andrews, who also designed Titanic, and to insure a consistent quality experience for the higher-end clients, many of her interior fixtures and fittings were selfsame to Titanic, and were made and installed by the same craftsmen. It was, in short, a taxi, sort of like the Mercedes S350s that usher guests from the Hong Kong Airport to the downtown luxury hotels.
After Nomadic made its one tender to Titanic (carrying, among others, the industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim; America’s richest man, John Jacob Astor; and the Denver socialite who would become known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”), she went on to serve in both World Wars, then returned to her original duties ferrying the well-heeled out to Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. Among her clients: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Madame Curie, Lord John Astor, and Richard Burton with Liz Taylor. Her last ride was in November, 1968.
Bought by a French businessman, she was converted into a floating restaurant and moored just opposite the Eiffel Tower from the early 1970s until 1999, when she was forced to close due to legislation change by the Paris port authorities.
In January 2006, Nomadic was purchased at auction by the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development, who returned her to Belfast. At the beginning of August 2009 Nomadic returned to her birthplace at the Hamilton Dock to undergo restoration.
Today she is more like an old shell than a breathing Titanic mini-me, and a tour is mostly about imagining the stain-glass, shiny brass, polished wood and fine appointments that are her future. But, it is a draw, and since she touched Titanic, it does feel, when running a hand along her sandpapered gunwales, that there is somehow a tingling reach back through time to the edge of tragedy.
Watch Nomadic Video Here:
There is one view that celebrating a tragedy of this scope with commercial tours, tributes and knick-knacks is somehow disrespectful and gauche, like grave dancing. But those who subscribe to George Santayana’s trope, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” rationalize a nobleness in the exercise. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is built on a site where over 250,000 people were buried in 1994, and is now the major tourist attraction in the city. And it works. It does shock any visitor into some kind of awareness. The popular Tunnel Museum in Bosnia’s capital is a keen reminder of the mid-90s Siege of Sarajevo in which over 10,000 people, including children, were sniped or blown up. You can’t leave without questioning the price of ethnic-based aggression.
But Titanic seems different. If anything, it is a crime of audacity, the nothing-succeeds-like-excess dynamic, another manifestation of the Second Child Syndrome, some say, over reaching to get the attention unreceived when young. Its modern analogue might be the brass behind “Too Big To Fail.” Over and over the mantra with Titanic was “it is practically unsinkable.”
We heard that refrain with mortgage companies and banks in 2007.
So, it’s time to check out the unmissable non-museum, the six-story high Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest Titanic visitor attraction, whose four prows radiate from a glass core like the points of a white star. Even on a cloud-streaked day it sparkles, and cajoles, beside the Belfast Lough dockside where the 46,329-ton doomed vessel was built from 1909 to 1911. Bursting with attitude, there is a frozen-in-flight energy about the building, as though about to sail into the heavens. In the absence of the sacred for the ship Titanic, this is the new church. And it does seem the gamble is paying off. The place is packed…as I try to squeeze into one of the exhibits it is so crowded I’m tempted to yell, “Women and children first!”
Titanic Belfast, Photo by Didrik Johnck
It does, however, live up to promises of being an “experience.” And, it is indeed moving, especially the Shipyard Roller Coaster – a dark ride that uses special effects, animations and full-scale reconstructions to recreate the reality of shipbuilding in the early 1900s. There are historical grace notes of recordings and re-enacted performances; video projections of actors in period costumes, pulling to the surface submerged filaments of the actual participants; interactive touch screens and quizzes (I was disappointed to learn there was not a cursed mummy smuggled onboard by an unscrupulous art dealer.) In one room a chilly piped-in breeze mimics deck-side the fateful night. The suspense is terrible, turning the corner to find what happens. Then there is a vertigo-inducing glass floor that allows stepping over high-definition imagery of Titanic today, its ghostly deck and taffrail almost touchable, as it rests two and half miles down in the benthos of the Atlantic. In all, it seems a giant paperweight holding down memories of the moment a grand escort descended from the world of the ideal.
The displays have a dignity unexpected. There are “authentic representations,” however oxymoronic that may seem, in which models and elaborate CGI imagery illustrate the ship’s opulent interior, including exact replicas of the first, second and third class cabins, and journeys through the dining areas, the ship’s engine rooms and working interiors. It is a signal experience, and I am not at all ashamed to say I am transported, almost hypnotized, by its spot-lit renderings of the ship of dreams and the nightmares it passed.
Watch the Titanic Lives at Titanic Belfast Video here:
And Belfast again is furiously alive with pride, and optimism…it is full stern ahead, Back to the Future, one more time (the city was home to the DeLorean Motor Company, which sank in 1982.) Belfast is rising on the back of the most notorious wreck in history. Its ship has come in, it is hoped. And the brio can hardly be gainsaid. It is palpable, and exhausting.
Suffering from Titanic fatigue I stop in a local pub and order a Gin & Titonic, the nightly special. Like its namesake, it goes down well.
The next day Virginia offers to show me some non-Titanic facets of her cisatlantic city. With Ruby Murray in the CD player (Celine Dion safely in the trunk), we roll down some strategically plotted side streets.
It is, indeed, a good-looking conurbation, with a pleasing geometry of avenues and boulevards, ribbons of parks, gardens and promenades, expressive bridges and statues (an evocative modern sculpture on the River Lagan is called The Thing with the Ring, or The Doll on the Ball), and murals.
The murals of Belfast draw some commonalities with Titanic, in that they were once scars of shame for many in the community, with some trying to erase or block, but now are tourist attractions. Throughout the politely-termed “The Troubles,” between the late 1960′s and 1998, both sides (Nationalist Catholics and Unionist Protestants) painted large murals on buildings, particularly in residential areas on houses at the end of terraced rows. They acted as beacons, declaring allegiances from one area to the next, but also created a sense of belonging and identity. Not all were designed to incite. Some show a Celtic flair, some feature sports figures, one depicts the mythical Irish hero Cuchulainn; another shows two smiling children in front of flowers and a lion. One is a Picasso reproduction, painted by artists from both sides of the political divide. And one on Downing Street features the Titanic before the downing. All inject color into neighborhoods, and make Belfast a living outdoor art museum. And what color! My image of Belfast is from old black and white newsreels, and video shot by daring journalists at night. But now, here, we’re in color!
The most colorful may be The Red Hand of Ulster, which is more legend than politics, depicting a severed seaside hand on a rock with its former owner in an approaching boat. Ulster is the province of Ireland (there are four in total) that makes up Northern Ireland. One of the counties of Ulster is County Donegal, which is part of The Republic of Ireland, or Southern Ireland. Oddly enough, parts of County Donegal lie further north than Northern Ireland.
Anyway, the mural depicts the Irish-style over-reaching that Virginia has described. The story goes that long ago the kingship for Ulster was up for grabs between two rival princes. After much debate, it was decided to have a boat race. The first to touch land would be king. As the race was nearing completion, the second son was falling behind. Not to be outdone, the lagging son cut off his hand and threw it up on the shore, making him the first to touch land, becoming, hands down, the new King of Ulster.
Watch the Murals of Belfast Video here:
In the afternoon we take a ride about town, and often Virginia has me avert eyes, or look at the floor mat, so as to avoid Titanic exposures. But she allows me to look up as we pass the Obel Tower apartment building, at 279 feet the tallest building in Ireland (we’re back, baby, bigger than before), past the peculiar McDonald’s (what they call the American Embassy), and by the Clifton Street Cemetery in North Belfast, home of the original body snatchers. “The Black North” was an expression used for time by the Republic of Ireland referring to the majority presence of Protestants in Northern Ireland, though earlier references suggest a nod to the soot that blacked the buildings and the air at the height of Boomtown Belfast’s era as the world’s leading industrial city. Others submit it had to do with the 19th century black side of Belfast, with its surfeit of hangings, beheadings, brothels and body snatchers.
The ‘resurrection men,’ as they were known in Victorian Belfast, dug up corpses and shipped them out to medical schools in Edinburgh. A single cadaver could earn the equivalent of three-years’ wages, so, of course, the practice provokes private moral questions, as they still do as we imagine ourselves on board the tarry night Titanic sank with too few lifeboats: what would I have done?
So, we make it through the day without bending towards the brand Titanic, and I’m hungry like the sea. To celebrate, we head to dinner at The Merchant, the former Ulster Bank in the Cathedral District, now a swank hotel and restaurant. We sink into ‘The Great Room Restaurant,’ and before we can rejoice in a thoroughly unTitanic day, we’re presented with a prix fixe tasting menu inspired by the final meal at the Captain’s Table on the steamship Titanic. Before I can shutter my eyes the waiter submits a sheet showing that last supper:
As served in the first-class dining saloon of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912
Cream of Barley
Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers
Filet Mignons Lili
Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise
Vegetable Marrow Farci
Lamb, Mint Sauce
Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce
Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes
Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes
Roast Squab & Cress
Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette
Pate de Foie Gras
Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly
Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs
French Ice Cream
All I can do is think double sorrow for those who said, “No, thank you,” to dessert that night.
Up to that ultimate dessert the passengers on the Titanic canoe ate like locusts (consuming their own weight daily). On board the boat were 75,000 pounds of fresh meat, 11,000 pounds of fish, and 40 tons of potatoes. There were 1,750 pounds of ice cream, and 400 asparagus tongs. There was a ton of coffee, and enough flour for 60,000 loaves of bread. And, of course, 35,000 fresh eggs and 10,000 pounds of sugar. Then the liquid franca: some 1500 bottles of wine. All for 2223 passengers and crew on a five-day cruise.
Now fully victualed, we decide to head out for a nightcap, and walk down the street to the Oh Yeah Music Centre, a former bonded whiskey godown, now a charity for budding musicians, offering cheap rehearsal space, a recording studio, a song writing room, and tonight, live music and a bar featuring Punch Romaine. Yup…the same Punch Romaine that was the sixth course on the Titanic meal, meant as a palate cleanser between the meat and pigeon. There is no escaping Titanic in Belfast; resistance is futile. But the punch is pleasant, and the barkeep shares the ingredients: 20 ml Sauvignon Blanc; 10 ml Havana Rum; 35 ml fresh orange juice; 15 ml lemon juice; 10 ml cane syrup, topped off with champagne. It is, dare I say, to die for.
Watch The Last Drink on the Titanic Video here:
In the sweet liquid light of morning Virginia schemes a journey up the shoreline, beyond the shadow of Titanic, she says, up the Causeway Coastal Route, 120 miles to the walled city with two names, Derry (as Catholics sound it) or Londonderry (as Protestants claim). We’re joined by friends Cynthia and Didrik Johnck, she being an overachieving second child who has trekked to some of the most remote nooks on the planet, is a super mom, and a talent wrangler in the design world; he the exception that proves the rule, a first son who has climbed Everest and won awards as a photographer/filmmaker, always in search of the perfect Irish Coffee.
Under a watery sun we spool up the road, with gale-blown salt grass and a vaguely crinkled blue Atlantic on one side, green hills dotted with plump lambs and little Dexter cows on the other. Everywhere spread fields of heather, furze-covered pitches and barren bogs, sloping upwards to ice-gouged valleys.
About half-way up the Antrim coast we stop for a bio-break at the chocolate-box village of Carnlough, on the edge of an uncongenial harbor bobbing with blue and white boats. We are in the middlemost of the rainy season, but the weather doesn’t know it. The sun is beaming, so I sprawl on a picnic table for a few minutes, close my eyes and sail away. Virginia brings me back to reality with a nudge, and a minute later we are back in the car, pointing up shore. As we pull away Virginia points out the Londonderry Arms Hotel, an old coaching inn where Winston Churchill slept…because he inherited it in 1921 from his great grandmother, Lady Londonderry. But Churchill was a first-born, of aristocratic descent, born in a palace in Oxfordshire, England. An inn in Northern Ireland wasn’t a vital piece of his portfolio. He sold it off in 1934.
The road now seems less a motorway than a feature of fantasy and we abandon ourselves to the journey. On our left there is a blending of lines and folds in the cliffs and valleys, and the color saffron fills the space between earth and sky; on our right the sea shimmers as a pane to the Scottish coast, creating an illusion of both proximity and depth, as if the shore could be reached in a moment, or never at all.
Then mid-afternoon, beyond a swatch of scotch pines, we stop at Cushendun, where it is refreshing to find something that is not the biggest in the world…Mary McBrides, where the leprechauns and Lilliputians hang, a bar claiming to be the smallest in Ireland, where we fuel up on wee Irish Coffees, to which I have now developed an unhealthy attachment.
Not long after we pull into a parking lot, the smell of the sea margin everywhere, the dialogue between wind and water almost clear. We step down to Carrick-A-Rede, a gossamer basket of a bridge, connecting the mainland to Carrick Island, where local fishermen for 300 years pulled in salmon. The salmon stock has diminished, but the numbers, and income, are more than made up with tourists, over a quarter million a year, who thrill with the swaying ropes 100 feet above the rocks and filigrees of spindrift.
Carrick-A-Rede, Photo by Didrik Johnck
Then, as if to prove we are still in an oversized land, our final stop for the day is the Giant’s Causeway…a place that looks like Hell with the fire put out.
It claws into a dark tranche of sea towards Scotland like an unfinished bridge, a honeycomb stretch of oversized basalt columns organized like stepping stones. How did this happen? Well, doyens of the region say rival giants, Irish Fin McCool and the Scottish Benandonner, once taunted one another from their respective shores. Finn’s resourceful wife is said to have disguised her husband as a baby and hid him in a crib. When Benandonner saw the ‘giant baby,’ he hightailed it back to Scotland, not wanting to encounter the dad, and in the process, tore up the causeway so that Fin McCool could not follow. Lesser minds suggest it is all the result of a pool of bubbling lava slowly cooling into 40,000 columns 60 million years ago. Whatever the origins, it is a dark reach totally subordinated to Nature.
Watch Giant’s Causeway video here:
The wane of the afternoon is boisterous, the winds sitting sore against the shoreline, though the low sun burns clear. I find a sheltered throne of hexagonal pilasters of basalt, and stretch out, skin bathed in the sun, the horizon in my view finely curved with distance. Seagulls swoop and skirl and keen. With the warmth against my face, and the soothing sounds of the sea, I close my eyes and fall into the sleep of a giant baby. When I awake, the sun is making its last skids along the seam of water and sky. I pick up, race up the hill to the car where Virginia meets me with a face of dismay: “Oh my…you’re sunburned! In Northern Ireland!”
For the night we make our way to the Bushmills Inn, on the River Bush, near the oldest licensed distillery in the world. It was 1608 when King James I granted the original warrant to express “Acqua Vitae,” and the same year the inn opened as a coach house and stables. It reeks of antiquity, with open peat fires, gas lights, walls of stripped pine, and good craic in the bar. Of course, there is no choice but to order for dinner the fillet of beef flamed in Bushmills whiskey. It is a night to remember.
The morning next, after a light plate of rashers and potato bread, we trek to the city that with the elisions of politics is more often called Derry than its official name, Londonderry. It was earlier known as the Maiden City, by virtue of the fact that its walls were never breached during the Siege of Derry in the late 17th century. Almost a mile in circumference, the walkway on top provides a promenade, and spawned the word “catwalk.” For a time the wealthy would parade the perimeter in their finery, and the less fortunate would hiss and make cat calls.
Derry is the second city of Northern Ireland, after Belfast, but is glazed with no less the ambition in its history. It is the little legend that could. It claims the world’s oldest independent department store, Austins. And Virginia contends it holds title as having fired the first email…in a cannon.
Watch First Email Video Here:
Virginia’s friend, Michael Cooper, a local blue badge guide, wants to offer proof, so he leads us to St. Columb’s Cathedral, and there points to an iron 270 lb. mortar cannonball, on a stand, with a hollowed out shaft, like the thumbhole in a bowling ball, where James the II (the converted Roman Catholic monarch who abdicated the throne to his Protestant son-in-law) inserted his message containing terms of surrender, which he shot across the river and over the walls. “No surrender” was the legendary reply, and the phrase has been the Protestant slogan ever since. And, it spawned a suggestion for a compromise coinage for the divided city, in use today by progressive locals: “Legenderry.”
After scones and a near-perfect Irish Coffee at Cafe Del Mondo, we head down to the River Foyle and jump on a little blue boat for a tour in the crisp Legenderry air. As we glide beneath the Peace Bridge, a complex curving link in which genius has lent an appearance of simplicity, and a handshake between Catholics and Protestants that preponderate respective banks, the captain turns up the volume on his tinny PA system. It’s Enya, singing “Sail Away, Sail Away,” which, with the hiss of the bow slicing through the waves, the breeze and engine din, sounds unnervingly like “Nearer My God to Thee,” supposedly the final song played by the orchestra on Titanic, the soundtrack of disaster. I tap the captain on the shoulder and ask that we cut the tour short.
As we make our way to the car a siren wails and a police car zips by, urging a speeding vehicle to pull over. Just a few years ago, during the peak of The Troubles, the siren sounds were the elevator music of the city, so common as to be almost invisible, but now, with the Peace Dividend, the police car squeal is a thankfully rare event. “Not so over the hill,” says Virginia. Turns out just to the north is County Donegal, a part of Southern Ireland that is north of Northern Ireland. But, says Virginia, the cops there do quite well…not because of a high crime rate or political activities, but because the speed limits change from Northern Ireland’s 60 mph to the Republic of Ireland’s 100 kph, and unwary motorists get trapped and fined.
We take the night at the Beech Country House Hotel, once a camp for US Marines during WWII, and of late a haunt for the rich and famous, as the portraits in the hallways attest. Will Ferrell, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tommy Hilfiger, Sam Shepard, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, John Hume have all settled in for the night. At the bar I’m told we just missed Ethan Hawk and Stephen Rea. Having no glossies or even extra passport photos, I feel a bit aspirational, but still very much delighted with the accommodations, and the barkeep’s seigniorial assurances that “we are all V.I.P.s here.”
With the welcoming light of the new day it’s time to begin the ambit back to Belfast. We decide to double back for a stretch to see a site missed on the upward journey, the skeletal remains of the 17th century Dunluce Castle, a hauntingly beautiful roofless ruin of battlements and towers teetering on the brink of a high basalt promontory where the grass cuts off as with a blade. Virginia says that in 1639, a storm blew the castle’s kitchen into the sea taking with it the cooks and the evening’s dinner -the world’s first ‘take away order.’
It’s wildly windy throughout the ruins, and a ghost-like wail seems to sweep about. It’s a banshee, says Virginia, the spirit of Maeve Roe. The only daughter of Lord McQuillan, Maeve was imprisoned by her father in a tower due to her refusal to marry his arranged choice, one Rory Oge. She and her lover Reginald O’Cahan attempted to escape by descending to a cave and rowing to the mainland, but a storm caught the boat and they were lost against the cliffs. Now her spirit lives in the tower, and on blustery days like this we can hear her calling for her absent lover, an eidolon unstuck in time.
Watch the Banshee of Dunluce Castle Video here:
In a way Dunluce reminds me of Titanic Belfast in that each professes detachment, not so much from insensitivity to their respective tragedies as from a desire to deflect the grief we would face if we left ourselves open to all of the many absences. Each recalls the fugitive parts of ourselves.
Big brother Scotland is practically a stone’s throw from the edge of the Dunluce cliff across the North Channel, and the connective tissue is deep of battles, conquests and reconquests between the tides. And they used to be connected, literally.
Until about 9,000 years ago, the end of the last ice age, the Atlantic was lower, and Ireland, like Great Britain, was part of continental Europe. Now, of course, the shores have unzipped, and the seas are rising, whether an anthropogenic result or not, and it would be expensive to reverse the drift. But how much? I briefly worked on a film many years ago based on Clive Cussler’s best-seller, Raise the Titanic. It was, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever made, and it was a box-office disaster. Lew Grade, the major backer of the film, said it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic. I never got that number, though.
From here we head down south, through a sort of magic glass, to Downpatrick, in County Down up the Hill of Down to the Down Cathedral, where the Patron Saint of Ireland is allegedly buried. Dr. Tim Campbell, the director of the nearby Saint Patrick Centre, offers a tour of this thin place “where heaven and earth are very close together,” starting with the gravestone itself, a large grey slab from the nearby Mourne Mountains, the hills where Saint Patrick banished snakes from Ireland; where Liam Neeson and CS Lewis were born; and where Game of Thrones was filmed (standing in for Vaes Dothrak.) But it’s the rock that makes the Mournes the merrier. St. Patrick’s granite sepulcher is of the same stone used in the London memorial for Princess Diana. And when it became evident too many American tourists of Irish descent on pilgrimage were scooping up earth from St. Patrick’s burial site, a big boulder from the Mourne Mountains was placed on top.
Inside the cathedral our every step echoes brightly, and we can’t resist a bit of chanting and throat-singing, which sounds appreciably better than Auto-Tune. “Everything sounds good in here, except bagpipes,” Dr. Campbell chimes. And he continues, “Do you know the definition of a gentleman? Someone who can play the bagpipes but chooses not to.”
As we make our final drive, bringing souls to Newcastle, we pass a fence made of sticks, and Virginia looks past and says, “Most everything in Northern Ireland is beyond the pale. That’s part of the Second Child condition.”
I’m not sure what she means, but she goes on to explain that John Harington, the man who invented the flush toilet, was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s 102 godchildren, and most certainly not the first. He was dispatched to Ireland during the Nine Years War (1595-1603), and later wrote a poem using the term “beyond the pale” in which those who go outside the boundaries suffer consequences.
“Wait till you see where we’re staying tonight. It’s beyond the pale.”
And as we round the bend there she blows, the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, huge and magnificent on the edge of the crashing Irish Sea, looking very much like a terrestrial version of Titanic. It was opened in 1898, 14 years before the Titanic went watership down, but the same year Morgan Robertson wrote a book about a ship called the “Titan” that crashed into an iceberg and sank.
The book is Futility or The Wreck of the Titan. In addition to having the same outcome, the two ships had other bizarre similarities. They were both over 800 feet long. They both were known as “unsinkable”. In the North Atlantic they both sunk. They both could hold 3000 passengers. And both didn’t have enough lifeboats.
Like Titanic, the Slieve Donard was the pinnacle of architectural majesty and technology. It had its own bakery, vegetable gardens, pigs, laundry, power plant, and the bedrooms were beautifully appointed with Chippendale furniture, Persian carpets and baronial fireplaces. There was a Turkish bath, as had Titanic. But unlike Titanic, it remains in fine fettle over 100 years after its launch. There have been no consequences of note for exceeding the margins of common sense, for boldly building as none before, only rewards…so far. It is validation, of sorts, that second sons who toil in unceasing efforts to compete with the license of earlier birth order sometimes succeed.
Virginia says she used to come here as a little girl, and wander about the cavernous halls in awe. Her parents couldn’t afford the grand hotel, so they took a cottage down the road, and would then step in for high tea. Virginia wished upon stars that someday she could stay here, and now it has happened and she is giggly with delight, and not disappointed. But it does not seem a palace for young tastes…as we sit for dinner in the wood-paneled Oak Restaurant we notice we are among an almost exclusively septuagenarian pack.
Virginia used to guide bus tours in England, mostly for the retired set, and slags that the in-company term was “grab-a-granny tours—the sex may not be good, but the breakfasts are great!”
The distinction between air and sea is lost as I look east, out the car window streaked by a soft rain, on the way to the airport at dawn. Virginia, tussling the wheel like a captain in a storm, asks me, “Why did you come to Northern Ireland, anyway?
With trackless symmetry to Virginia and Belfast and the giants of Northern Ireland I confess, “I’m a second child. How could I resist?”
Richard Bangs in Northern Ireland, Photo by Didrik Johnck