Ireland part III: Northern Ireland
Immediately after arriving in Ireland we left the country — that is, we drove to Northern Ireland. Many mistakenly think of the entire Emerald Isle as a single country when it is comprised of two similar, but distinct countries. The country of Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom along with Scotland, Wales and England. They proudly fly the British flag and still use the English Pound Sterling as their currency rather than the Euro. These days, those are about the only differences the casual traveler might notice. That said, don’t judge a book by its cover.
This is a complicated issue, but here is a summary of “recent” events. Prior to 1922 all of Ireland fell under British rule. Beginning with the Easter Uprising in 1916, the Irish fought for and eventually won their independence from England — at least most of them did. As part of the peace negotiations, however, the signed treaty allowed Northern Ireland the opportunity to opt out of the newly created Irish Republic. Composed of a Protestant majority loyal to the crown, they exercised this option.
The two countries coexisted peacefully until tensions began to rise in the 1960s as the Catholic minority began to feel oppressed by the Protestant majority.
Known as the Troubles, the minority challenged Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom rather than part of the independent republic that comprised the rest of the island. Many of the Catholics desired to see all of Ireland united as one common republic (the Unionists) while many of the Protestants remained in favor of maintaining ties to the United Kingdom (the Loyalists). Groups such as the Irish Republican Army fought to sever Northern Ireland’s ties to England. Up through the late 1990s, bombings and riots, like those now regularly witnessed in the Middle East, were quite common in Northern Ireland.
An agreement was entered in 1998 that mostly ended hostilities, with Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom. But no agreement can suddenly eliminate decades of ill will, and in some cases all out hatred between the Loyalists and Unionists. Even today one best not breach the subject of religion or politics with locals who may have strong feelings on the issue.
Though border checkpoints are gone, murals around Belfast still tell the story. Meanwhile, groups work to nurture understanding and acceptance among Northern Irish youth in the hope the conflict will remain a chapter in the history books and not resurface in tomorrow’s newspaper headlines.
The largest city in Northern Ireland is Belfast. Traditionally an industrial and shipbuilding center, it was the port in which the Titanic was built. The city now hosts a brand new museum describing the creation of the ill-fated, first-of-its-kind luxury liner.
The ship took 26 months to construct and was the largest of its time. The local shipyard constructing the Titanic employed 15,000 men, eight of whom perished in the process. The ship was built on what is called a slipway. Once the exterior was completed, 22 tons of soap and tallow were spread on the slipway to lubricate the surface and allow the 46-ton ship to slip into the water with 100,000 onlookers celebrating the occasion. I need not describe how this story ends.
A scenic drive up the coast takes travelers to a unique feature known as Giant’s Causeway. This small section of coastline is famous for its hexagonal shaped rock columns that rise out of the ocean. A bird’s eye view shows a repeating honeycomb pattern that was created when volcanic lava slowly cooled under water and then cracked to create over 40,000 vertical columns. Similar rocks can be found on the Scottish coast just a short distance off in the horizon.
This was our first opportunity to enjoy the scenic Irish coastline. A strong and steady wind howled from the east and pushed away the ominous and dark clouds that greeted the day. With regular rainfall and mild temperatures characterizing their maritime climate, every surface that can possibly provide plant life even the most meager foothold is green with summer growth. The parting clouds allowed the sun to illuminate the hillsides and provided us the best photos of the trip.
Sheep and cattle grazed the nearby hilltops. Traditionally, it wasn’t unheard of for a cow to get blown over the edge of the coastal cliffs should they dare to stretch for that luscious grass at the edge at the same moment a big gust comes by. Now-a-days fences guard against such a bovine tragedy.
Northern Ireland is also home of Bushmills Distillery — the oldest whiskey distillery in Ireland, chartered in 1608 with a license from King James the First. During our tour we learned that many of the barrels in which they age their whiskey are imported from Kentucky after first being used to age Kentucky Bourbon. That immediately brought to mind the Staggemeyer Stave Mill — where the white oak pieces for many of the barrels used in Kentucky are first milled from local hardwoods. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that my complimentary tasting of Bushmills 10-year-old aged whiskey spent some quality time soaking in the aromas and flavor of our local tri-state oak trees. It’s a small world, indeed.
The whiskey wouldn’t be our last run-in with traditional Irish alcohol — the best was yet to come.
Slán go foil.
Greg Schieber is a Caledonia native and recent graduate of Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa