Saturday, October 19, 2019

Invisible Sun


This is the last post about my trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland. It's been the most difficult and most personal to write. And it's long. Apologies in advance.

Growing up in England in the 1970s I hated the Irish. Or at least that's how I probably would have explained it to someone who asked how I felt back then, as if a boy of 10 or less could even express what it was like to really hate. I thought Irish people killed English people. I thought they were scary. And stupid. All the "stupid people" jokes we told back then as kids has an Irishman in the punchline, just like after we moved to the United States we found people told "stupid people" jokes about Polish people.

In all reality, I understood very little of the conflict going on between some Irish people and the UK government. All I thought I knew was Irish people were mailing letter bombs to British people and exploding cars and dustbins in cities every now and then and that was scary. We knew all this because it was on the television and the people reading the news seemed to be talking about it all the time. Either that or that was one of the few news stories I could comprehend back then.

As if it weren't bad enough to hear all this stuff on the news, sometimes we got mail from Ireland and I feared the worst. Every time we got an envelope with an Irish stamp on it I thought it had to be a letter bomb. After all, weren't all things Irish dangerous? Back then I didn't really understand that a bomb couldn't realistically fit inside a standard envelope. 

We never ever received a letter bomb that I know of. I mean, why would we? 

Murals are everywhere in Northern Ireland. These from the catholic neighborhood in Derry.
America made my feelings about the Irish worse. When we moved to New England we found a general hatred of the English, something held on to by kids and teachers from two wars both about 200 years old in a time and a political environment that was very different from the late 20th century. It made no sense. 

That enmity towards Britain that we found when moving to this country seemed to translate to the conflict going on in Northern Ireland. We found pretty much everyone living around us identified as having some Irish ancestry (which also made no sense and still doesn't) and their take on the British government vs. the Irish Republican Army (or IRA) was that everyone living in Ireland and Northern Ireland was Catholic, didn't want to be governed by Protestants and that Britain should just give Ireland back to the Irish. I at least understood enough to know that the conflict wasn't that simple. And I was only 11.

I figured a trip to Northern Ireland might be an opportunity to understand a little bit more about the conflict that I lived through as a child, albeit really just as a spectator through our television set. From my perspective growing up in the midlands of England, the IRA was an organization that had formed in the 1970s and started trying to get Northern Ireland wrested from the clutches of the British. Of course, it wasn't. It was formed decades earlier and the conflict had been going on way longer than I understood as a child and way way before the IRA was involved. And what they were fighting for was not a simple thing at all. Most conflicts like this aren't. 

Oh, and of course, Irish people are not stupid, just like Polish people aren't stupid. The only thing that's really stupid are the biases we carry around with us. Sometimes when we are kids we can't help it that much. As adults we can't continue to do that to ourselves and others, particularly our children. 

Belfast. William of Orange mural on the left. The FTA appears unrelated to the Troubles.
Before I set foot in Northern Ireland (or Ireland for that matter), I thought I better get a little smarter on the history of this whole conflict, which to me decades removed from my English childhood now seems to be all about power and less about Protestants vs. Catholics. I'm not saying the fighting isn't or wasn't happening between Protestants and Catholics; I'm just not sure that's what it was really about. It seems to me that the poor (meaning not wealthy)  Protestants have way more in common with the poor Catholics than they do with the Protestants in power. Although I will say that those who have the power seem to do an awfully good job of pitting the people they are governing or ruling or whatever you want to call it against each other along religious lines. Better keep us in power or the Catholics will be in charge!

Call me ignorant here but I assumed that the split between Ireland and Northern Ireland had been in place for a long, long time. It hasn't. Try since December of 1921. For many Irish people, that agreement was a long time coming. For some, it came way too soon. The event that precipitated that split was the Easter Rising of 1916, although really it had real tangible roots a couple of years prior, just before the outbreak of World War I.

In 1914, the British Parliament approved the idea of home rule for Ireland, all of which at that time was under control of Great Britain. Home rule isn't independence; it means that the country would be legislated by a separate governing body (a separate Parliament) located in the country itself, rather than being legislated from London. Scotland and Northern Ireland have this same arrangement today. Then war broke out and the enactment of home rule was forgotten in favor of stopping Germany from taking over all of Europe. Priorities, right?

The 1916 Proclamation. One of 2,500 original copies in the Kilmainham Gaol Museum.
Of course, the postponement of home rule didn't sit well with some of the Irish, and on Easter weekend of 1916, revolution was declared. Seven men signed a proclamation setting up a provisional government of the Irish Republic which was read aloud on the streets of Dublin right before bullets between their supporters and the British government started to fly. It didn't last long. The rebellion was crushed and the leaders, including all seven men whose names were at the bottom of the proclamation, were executed, just like Britain had done to end uprisings throughout the empire for decades or centuries. Want to crush a movement for independence? Cut off its head. Execute those responsible.

The executions didn't work. Instead of making people afraid, they seem to have steeled their resolve. Some Members of Parliament elected in Ireland after the Rising refused to sit in London. Instead they set up their own Parliament in Dublin and authorized mobilization of guerrilla-style warfare against Great Britain. The group carrying out the war was the Irish Republican Army, formed from a number of different militant groups and re-branded with a new name. Less than six years later, they had won. And Ireland became an independent country.

Mostly, that is. Not the whole island. Six of the thirty-six counties in the north of Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland (initially the Irish Free State) had been created, just not as everyone wanted. But instead of carrying on the fight to get those last six counties, the newly created Irish Parliament devolved into bickering between themselves about whether they should or should not have agreed to the 26 in the first place. Eventually they moved on.

Northern Ireland didn't.

The wall painted to announce the entrance to Free Derry.
By the 1960s, the Ulster Unionist Party had controlled Northern Ireland's Parliament since it was formed following the split of Ireland in 1921. They had done this behind a population that was about 60% Protestant, but they also had their thumb significantly pressed down on the scale. 

Unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, the right to vote in Northern Ireland resided with property owners only. Property ownership was in part granted through Government-directed housing allocations, which favored Protestant applications over Catholic applications. How did they do this? Simple. Most of the government employees were Protestant. By design, not by accident. And if there was any other assistance needed, voting districts were carefully gerrymandered to ensure that the votes of the Catholic population were marginalized to the greatest extent possible. In the city of Derry, for example, the Catholics outnumbered the Protestants by about two to one, yet the Ulster Unionist Party was in charge.

Don't like that if you're Catholic? What can you do about it? If you can even vote, you have no real representation in the government of the country where you live. Want to march or protest? Go ahead. You'll have to deal with the police or the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which was typically 90% Protestant and convinced by their own government that Catholics needed to be kept in line.

Things might have been just fine in the Republic of Ireland by the time we got to the late 1960s. They were anything but in Northern Ireland.

Driving around Belfast in a black cab. Story chasing.
In the late 1960s, a series of non-violent protests inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States were staged in Northern Ireland. The protesters and marchers were often students and they were met with violent resistance, either by the RUC or first by a paramilitary Protestant organization like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) or the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV) and then the RUC. In some cases, it appeared that the RUC deliberately waited until the UVF or UPV had a shot at the marchers first before moving in.

I know what you are thinking: why are there paramilitary organizations attacking and beating non-violent student protesters? There just are. And they probably exist to this day along with caches of weapons ready for any sign that it's time to remobilize and start killing the other side.

The British Government's response to all of this was to sit and wait until it got really bad, which it did in August of 1969 in Derry. For three days, rioting and conflict between the RUC and residents of the Catholic bogside neighborhood raged, with residents setting up barriers and obstacles to maintain what they referred to as Free Derry. After that, the British government sent in troops. In response, the IRA, which had been dormant but certainly not extinct, remobilized. The Troubles had started. And that's pretty much where my childhood picks up.

We picked three places to engage with the struggle for Irish independence and The Troubles: Dublin, Belfast and Derry. We planned to visit Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, site of the executions following the Easter Rising of 1916, but that didn't work out for reasons I will expand on later. We did see an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation in the museum (we saw another at Trinity College's Old Library) but did not visit the spots where events following the rebellion actually took place. 

But Belfast and Derry gave us a lot to think about.

The Museum of Free Derry. One of the best museums I've visited recently.
We spent our four nights in Belfast in the city centre, close to pubs and restaurants and all manner of Game of Thrones sights. We wanted to see the parts of Belfast where the roots of The Troubles were buried deep into the subconscious of the population, but that was definitely not the city centre. It was also probably (in our mostly-uneducated-but-right opinion) not a place to just roam around by ourselves. So we took a taxi. Not just any taxi. A black cab set up specifically to take us to some spots in the city where the impact of The Troubles could be felt. And driven by a guy who had lived through the whole thing. 

A couple of hours after we checked in to our hotel, Robert showed up and piled the three of us into his cab.

For the next 90 minutes or so, we were driven around mostly residential neighborhoods and were told tales of how things worked back in the 1970s and 1980s and how they work today. I say work today because it was clear from listening to Robert that there are people all over Belfast in Catholic and Protestant communities who haven't accepted that The Troubles are really and truly over. 

In that hour and a half, we saw lots of walls and fences. We passed through gate after gate after gate to move between neighborhoods. We saw murals boasting of victories over neighbors and advertising violence against fellow citizens. We drove past propaganda and graffiti. We talked about segregated schools based on what particular brand of Christianity your parents practiced. We heard stories that made no sense but which we didn't doubt were true and tried to make a some sense of it all. It was difficult because honestly, it makes little sense whatsoever.

We spent time with Robert in Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. We got out of the car and stood and walked and listened and looked. We listened to Robert but we also listened to and saw nothing. No activity whatsoever. Maybe it was because it was a Friday afternoon and kids were at school and adults were at work, but there was nobody around except for us. And no sound. It was eerie. It was like everyone that lived there was waiting for us to go away.


On the Protestant side of the city, we gazed at giant murals covering the ends of buildings paying tribute to fallen servicemen or celebrating William of Orange's victory at the Battle of the Boyne. We did this while Robert told us about likely arms stashes and what could happen if you strayed from where you were supposed to be and how the gunmen would get away. Yeah, the silence didn't make that talk any better. I was waiting for a gunshot to ring out, despite the fact that it's been about 20 years since this war had stopped.

We also passed more Union Jacks on that drive than I have ever seen in a single location. They seemed to serve no purpose other than to mark territory. It's overkill and intimidation. I've never felt a flag be so menacing. Oh...and that Battle of the Boyne victory. 1690. Not a typo. Not supposed to be 1960. Sixteen. Ninety. Let it go. Protestants still wave it in the face of the Catholics every July when they have a parade in celebration. Like it's even relevant any more.

On the Catholic side of town we saw more murals and monuments immortalizing fallen martyrs killed in the cause. The portraits and names on the walls were offset from a neighborhood named Bombay Street in a small court. The mood here was somber considering the entire housing development had been set alight one night by Protestant mobs hell bent on taking revenge over the riots happening in Derry. Riots going on in another city two hours away seems like no good reason to me to burn a neighborhood less than a mile from where you live. But that's what happened. Senseless.


To get to the Catholic neighborhood we had to drive around one of the Peace Walls, barriers erected to keep the two sides away from each other. There are 50 or more of these things. located all around Belfast. They were initially built in a few locations in the 1920s and 1930s but they were erected in force in 1969 after the start of The Troubles. They were literally put in place to keep people from fighting and killing one another because they happened to believe in religion (the same religion by the way) a little bit differently. 

The photograph above seems to show a concrete section of wall about maybe 12 or 15 feet high topped by a metal section maybe another 10 tall above that and then finally a maybe 15 to 20 foot high open metal fence. It seems to show that because that's exactly what it is. The concrete portion is the first wall. But people wanted to fight so badly that the height wasn't sufficient. So the government extended it. And it still wasn't high enough to stop people from throwing or slingshotting (or catapulting in Ireland) stones and other projectiles over the top.

This is all crazy, right? Right on the other side of the Peace Wall are the homes on Bombay Street. And the wall isn't enough. The houses right next to the wall have metal fencing over their windows because despite the 45 or so foot high fence, there are people on the other side determined enough to chuck stuff over the giant wall.

The other side of the Peace Wall. Note the extra protection for the houses in the back.
So here's what we've discovered so far. There are two sets of people who share the same religion but differ on the precise interpretation of that religion. Same God. Definitely same God. They are both likely working-class peoples yet they are investing significant time, effort and likely money figuring out how to bomb, shoot, burn, maim or just plain kill someone who looks like them but just believes in a Pope (or doesn't...depending on which side you are coming from). It can't be that we are still invested in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, can it? That seems a little farfetched.

It's messed up, right? Like really messed up. It would be easy to dismiss the insanity of all this and tell both sides to forgive and forget if it weren't for people like our driver, Robert. For him, the consequences of this war / disagreement / whatever you want to call it are super real. His father? Killed by the IRA. Brother-in-law who was a member of the RUC? Killed by the IRA. Robert himself? Three attempts by the IRA to kill him. It seems easy for someone like me, who has no real skin in the game, to take the position that what they are doing to their neighbors is ridiculous. Not so easy if you have had family killed over being the wrong religion. Or whatever it is they are really warring about.

So how the heck did it get this way in the first place? I mean I understand the conflict was divided along religious lines but I don't really still believe it's about religion. The answer may lie in the Museum of Free Derry. If we didn't read every word in that museum, we came pretty close. There were a few sentences on the walls that hit home pretty hard.
"Unionist leaders ran the north on the basis that to give something to the Catholics was to take it away from the Protestants. Working-class Protestants were urged to see equality for Catholics as a threat to their position."
"In August 1963, 200,000 civil rights supporters gathered in Washington to hear Martin Luther Kind proclaim "I Have a Dream," and Bob Dylan unveil "Only a Pawn in Their Game," highlighting the manipulation of the white poor by racist politicians." 
Look, I know only one of those quotes was specifically about Northern Ireland but it seems pretty clear to me that the reason working-class Protestants wanted to keep the Catholics oppressed was because the people who were running the country (the Ulster Unionist Party) were telling them to do it so the Party could remain in charge. And they fell for it. Essentially they got the poor Protestants to side with the rich in power against people who likely had way more in common with them than the government did. Kind of sounds familiar in the 2019 version of the United States to me.

The Bloody Sunday Obelisk Memorial, Derry.
If there's a more effective museum in delivering a message than the Museum of Free Derry, I don't know where that museum is. This place was phenomenal! The entire building is devoted to telling the story of what happened in Derry on Sunday, January 30, 1972, including the events leading up that day and the aftermath. That day is otherwise known as Bloody Sunday, and to many of us it was made famous by the U2 song of the same name on their 1983 War album.

Bloody Sunday started as a peaceful protest march on the streets of Derry under the close watch of British troops. Eventually, some of those troops opened fire on the crowds of people. In all, 28 people were shot and 14 died either that day or later as a result of their injuries. The soldiers claimed the protesters had guns and bombs and that they were under attack. Oddly enough, no soldiers were killed or injured in any significant way.

The British government investigated immediately and cleared all troops of any wrongdoing, believing their stories wholeheartedly with little dispute. The investigation lasted 10 weeks and included paraffin testing to identify lead residue on clothing of 11 of the deceased. 10 of the 11 tests were negative. There was also clear evidence that some of those killed were shot in the back. The names of all the victims on that day are on the Bloody Sunday Obelisk Memorial in Derry. Seven of the 14 were aged 19 or younger.

In 1998, the British government took another pass at the investigation. It lasted 12 years and produced very different results. Even with decades-old (rather than really recent) evidence, the investigation concluded the shots fired by the troops that day represented nothing but cold blooded murder. Prime Minister David Cameron in commenting upon the report called the actions of British troops that day "unjustified" and "unjustifiable". The Museum of Free Derry ends with a video of the story of the end of the second inquiry. It provides incredible closure to the story.

The H-Block Memorial, Derry. In memory of those IRA volunteers held as criminals, not prisoners of war.
When studying the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, it is easy to take sides. The story there is of an historically and institutionally oppressed minority of the population protesting peacefully and facing violent response from both local and state law enforcement and armed civilian groups that could literally get away with murder time and again. On the face of it, the struggle for equality for Catholics in Northern Ireland is remarkably similar: the Catholic population was deliberately denied rights and suffered violence and oppression at the hands of the RUC, British troops and local armed paramilitary groups like the UVF and the UPC.

But The Troubles were different from the Civil Rights Movement for one reason: the Irish Republican Army, the same group that made me terrified of Irish people as a child.

From the very beginning of the Easter Rising of 1916, the war between armed groups on both sides of the conflict in Ireland and Northern Ireland was brutal. The IRA's tactics in targeting civilians just simply working for the British government and their methods employed like kneecapping (being shot in each knee and sometimes the elbows and ankles as well) to inspire terror in anyone not actively collaborating with their cause are legendary. 

I'm not saying the ferocity and cruelty the IRA brought to the fight was not matched by the other side because it was. To combat the Easter Rising, the Royal Irish Constabulary (the predecessor organization to the RUC) established a Special Reserve made up entirely of World War I veterans so affected by the trench warfare in Europe that they welcomed any opportunity to be as violent as they could be. This unit, named the Black and Tans after the color of their uniforms, was deliberately established to face violence with more violence.

I'm also not necessarily faulting the IRA for targeting innocent civilians in their fight and I can't believe I just wrote that. After all, the RUC and the British government, particularly by allowing private paramilitary organizations to operate without any real punishment, did the exact same thing. There may be shades of grey here but there is no real high ground to be claimed on either side. The real losers of The Troubles were the people not involved in the fight that were killed or the regular people and families living in the center of the conflict whose lives were ruined or hijacked just because they happened to live in Belfast or Derry or wherever. The IRA's participation, though, puts blood on the hands of both sides. 


Considering my childhood and what we were taught as kids about the IRA, I have to say it was jarring to see "IRA" graffiti out in the open in Derry. This is an organization that killed people just to terrify other people. By that definition, they are a terrorist organization. Plain and simple. Hold that thought just for a few paragraphs.

Our last stop on our Black Taxi Tour was at the Sinn Fein headquarters, which was the political arm of the IRA, or maybe the other way around. On the side of that building is a mural showing Bobby Sands, an IRA volunteer who starved himself to death over a 66 day period in 1981 to protest his incarceration as a common criminal and not a prisoner of war.

Hunger strikes were a brutal and (at least in the 1970s) very public way to make a point. They involve fighting against the urge and need for food and having your own body cannibalize the fat and then muscle off your frame to keep your brain alive as long as possible. It causes bodily function failure, tooth loss, blindness and ultimately death which was the fate of Sands and three other IRA hunger strikers that year.

But while Sands was starving himself to death, the IRA was still out there being the IRA. The most senseless act of violence perpetrated during the strike was the murder of Joanne Mathers, a 29 year old mother of one working as a census worker in Derry. She was shot simply because she was collecting census forms from houses and the census represented in the eyes of the IRA a system of British government oppression.

I said a few paragraphs ago that seeing "IRA" graffiti was jarring. I was no less shaken by murals painted on the sides of buildings showing men in gas masks with bombs proclaiming that the Ulster Volunteer Force will defend their homes if anyone threatens them. This is current, not a remnant of the past that hasn't been painted over. There were (and are, if Robert is to be believed) terrorists on both sides of this conflict. My labeling the IRA as a terrorist organization doesn't mean that I support the other side. I could easily argue that civilian based terrorist organizations that are tacitly supported (or at least allowed to operate) by the government are even worse.

Bobby Sands. Hero or no? To me, it's a no.
Sometimes travel makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes that's good. It builds character and makes us better able to deal with new situations. Chasing The Troubles made me a different kind of uncomfortable but it was worthwhile just the same. 

Some of this came from my own bias as a kid growing up English. I was really not thrilled about being inside the Sinn Fein headquarters and I really didn't want to take the postcard of Bobby Sands that the woman in the store offered us. She did it with the best intentions. I just didn't want to deal. Throughout our black taxi tour there was a palpable sense of danger and conflict, although I'm sure it was imagined on my part. I felt similarly in Derry, although I'm sure it's because I felt like I had a sign on my back saying I was born in England. My own imagination, I'm sure.

I walk away from this experience unnerved by what both sides of this conflict did to each other and to people who had no involvement whatsoever. I'm embarrassed by what my home country did in the name of keeping all their territory intact and under control on their terms. But more than anything else considering that neither side really got what it wanted, I'm thinking how senseless it all was and how all the old feelings are still there. It's been more than 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement essentially ended the conflict but I think Robert's right that there are people on both sides ready to start killing each other again. It's clearly going to take more than a generation to kill this thing completely.


How We Did It
Kilmainham Gaol was active as a prison from 1796 to 1924. It fell into ruin and then was restored throughout the 1960s before opening as a museum in 1971. It's located about 3.5 kilometers west of the city centre of Dublin. Take the Luas (Dublin's light rail) to the Suir Road stop; it's about a 15 minute or so walk from there. Opening hours vary by season. Check the website for the latest information. 

The property features a guided tour of the Gaol and a separate museum. The website advises you to book in advance for the guided tours and I can attest that they are right. We got there in the afternoon about 90 minutes before closing and found the tours sold out for the day. The museum does not require advance purchase and admission is free. Silver lining, I guess.

There are a number of black taxi tours that will take you and educate you about The Troubles in Belfast. We chose Black Taxi Tours Belfast and they were terrific. Robert was just a fantastic tour guide. This is definitely an experience you have to book in advance. The great thing about Black Taxi Tours Belfast was that they picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel. These kinds of experiences are only going to last so long in the way we experienced it. Once all the people who lived through The Troubles are gone, the experience won't be the same. I can't recommend these guys enough.

If you head to Derry, I'd strongly recommend a visit to the Museum of Free Derry. It's located outside the city walls down the hill to the north in the Bogside area of town (so named because the River Foyle used to flow in the area before it turned into a bog). Just start heading downhill and follow the signs. Along the way you'll pass a series of murals. Keep going past the Museum and you'll find many more.

We did not stay in Derry but took a bus day trip from Belfast. Buses leave from the Europa Buscentre right behind the Europa Hotel in the city centre. It takes about two hours each way on the bus and it's an easy trip. We took the 10 am bus and were back in Belfast before five. You won't need long in Derry if you are just going to see the Museum. 

The Europa Hotel, by the way, is the most bombed hotel in the world. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Limerick


We didn't visit the town of Limerick on our trip to Ireland. But we did pass a bunch of signs for the place on the way to the Cliffs of Moher. So I thought I'd take an opportunity to use that as an excuse to take a shot at writing a limerick about this blog. Why not, right? It's just one.

I'm sure most people know what a limerick is but just in case...it's a five line poem with seven to ten syllables in the first, second and fifth lines (all of which rhyme with each other) and five to seven in the third and four lines (which also rhyme with each other). The meter of the first, second and fifth lines is supposed to be similar as is the meter in the third and fourth lines. 

And it's most often humorous and rude. I'm unlikely to be rude, so I'm going for self-deprecating instead in a nod to my...shall we say...parsimonious tendencies.

There once was a man who was thrifty
Who thought it could be kinda nifty
To put aside all his fears
And see the world in Five Years
And hope he's not broke when he's 50

Of course, I didn't stop when I was fifty years old like I planned to. Hey, I still had a couple of bucks left in the bank, I guess.

That's all I got for this post. Back to our regularly scheduled programming soon.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Cliffths Of Insthanity


The big debate for me in planning our trip to Ireland this year was do we visit the Cliffs of Moher or do we not? When I first started sketching out agendas for eight nights in country, I had us in Dublin and Belfast for three nights each and Galway for two. The idea was that two nights in Galway would get us to some spots over on the west coast of the country and allow us ample time to visit the Cliffs.

Ultimately, our wish list in both Ireland and Northern Ireland and the logistics of moving from one place to the next combined with a desire to not move hotels that much (just did too much of that on other trips earlier this year) ruled out a night or two in Galway. The debate remained: Cliffs of Moher or no?

The Cliffs are undoubtedly one of Ireland's top tourist attractions, drawing well more than one million visitors per year. They are located on the Atlantic (west) coast of the country facing the open ocean and are an imposing five mile long wall of rock, emerging straight out of the sea and topping out anywhere between 500 and 750 feet in height and pretty much purely straight up vertical. On a clear day from the top of the Cliffs you can see clear across the Aran Islands to the West, way up to Galway in the north (maybe about 20 miles away) and even the all the way to the Dingle peninsula to the south, about three times the distance to Galway.

In the summer months, the Cliffs are teeming with sea birds and the beaches and ocean below host many different species of land and marine mammals. Approximately 30,000 pairs of puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes nest on the sheer sandstone and shale walls of this spot. In the Atlantic, you can spot minke whales, dolphins and seals and on the beaches foxes, badgers and feral goats.

O'Brien's Tower, the highest point at the Cliffs of Moher.
Despite all that hype, I still questioned if we should go. I was concerned that I would not be impressed by some cliffs. How special could these things be? I mean they are just cliffs, right? And they are not even that high. We decided a day trip from Dublin was probably worth taking a chance on it. We could spend a couple of hours at the tops of the Cliffs, head up to Doolin to hop on a boat ride to see them from the bottom and then hit Galway on the way back for some fish and chips.

Sometimes, we don't get what we want when we travel. This is especially true of sights that involve nature or that are heavily weather dependent. I have used language like "in the summer months" and "on a clear day" in this post so far. The day we visited the Cliffs was anything but clear and the summer months for the birds doesn't include September.

I grew up in England. As a kid, I always thought that the natural side of my home country was pretty vanilla. England can be beautiful, scenic, quaint, very very green and vegetables and flowers can grow gloriously based on the soil and the frequent waterings from the heavens. But when it comes to superlatives, it falls a little flat. I loved animals when I was growing up and the best mammals we could find in England in the wild were probably badgers and hedgehogs. Yawn! Add that to the fact that there are no mountains to speak of (the Pennines which top out at less than 3,000 feet do NOT count), no grand waterfalls, no great rivers and trees and forests that were just sort of normal and I wanted to get out of England to see nature.

That is how I felt about the Cliffs of Moher on a rainy day on the first day of September of 2019. It might be unfair but that's how I felt.

The Cliffs as seen from O'Brien's Tower. The best spot to see most of the Cliffs.
I tried to be impressed. I swear. We walked along the Cliffs' edge to get views from multiple points. We climbed to the top of O'Brien's Tower to get what was supposed to be the best view of the rock walls (it pretty much was, by the way). We got on a boat and motored to the base of the Cliffs rooted to the top deck of the ship the whole way so we could take everything in as much as we possibly could. It didn't work. It just wasn't happening that day for me.

I will say that the boat ride was fun. Sure, it was so rough that day that we had to be told to sit down rather than stand on the top deck for our own safety and that was probably good advice, although it was difficult to actually just put butt in seat because of the way the boat was rocking. There may have been a few sore spots from the rail we were sitting back against and holding on to (mostly) with two hands. I can attest that we were definitely more comfortable than some other passengers on the boat.

Because of the seas, it was difficult to truly appreciate what we were looking at as we cruised at the bottom of the Cliffs. We didn't even have time to take in the fact that we were looking at the Princess Bride's actual Cliffs of Insanity. Yep, these very same Cliffs were the one that Fezzik hoisted himself, Vizzini, Inigo and Buttercup to escape (momentarily) the man in black. Couldn't even bathe in the glory of that fact.

Now as we turned to head back to Doolin, we did get a sense of how awesome these cliffs could possibly be. There's a spur of land down below where O'Brien's Tower is located called Goat Island. It's a thin slice of rock topped by grass used by puffins as a nesting ground. Adjacent to Goat Island there's a shard of rock sticking straight out of the sea. The sense of mass and the vertical striations visible in the cliff face were impressive against the daintiness of those two pieces of land. We could also see a couple of stray seabirds circling around, a remnant of the thousands that had already moved on. This experience did provide some manner of salvation for our day at the Cliffs.

View of the Cliffs from our boat, the Jack B. Wet, rough and grey.
View of Goat Island and O'Brien's Tower from the south.
As the dock at Doolin came into view, the sky brightened just a bit. It was the brightest our day would get from a weather perspective. If it had only been like that all day or just for the duration of our 60 minute or so long boat ride, I'm sure our experience at the Cliffs would have been changed for the better. I'm also supremely confident that if we had been there two months earlier, sunny or not, during prime seabird nesting season, that the Cliffs would have been amazing. Missed opportunity. You can't always get what you want.

I debated whether I should write this post or not. As a rule, I've generally not written about days traveling that were not amazing. Well, other than our continual quest for our first real mass of flamingos (or is it a flamboyance?) which is still unfinished. I don't like to be negative in life but I decided to go ahead and write this anyway because there are places in this world that can be incredible one day and a complete let down the next. For me, the Cliffs of Moher were almost a complete disappointment on the day we were there. If I were doing the whole thing over again, I'd make sure I was there in July when the place is beset with puffins and all manner of other ocean birds. I bet it's totally different. That's all I got on this one.

Our ride to the Cliffs. No complaints here.

How We Did It
Making a day trip out of the Cliffs of Moher from Dublin is a long day, especially if you choose to do everything we did in this post in addition to stopping by Poulnabrone Dolmen (totally worth it by the way) and Galway. I'd say it was a good 13 or 14 hours of total time out. There are all manner of bus tours which run to the Cliffs every day from Dublin and some even stop at Galway. We decided to do it at our own pace and rent a car which I think (just like going to the Giant's Causeway) was the right call. I did not want to be rushed on someone else's schedule on this day.

The opening hours for the Cliffs vary with the seasons. In winter, they are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; in summer, they are open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Check their website for opening hours. Apparently they start getting crowded around 11 a.m. although we didn't find them any more full of people when we left than when we got there. There is a separate admission to O'Brien's Tower. I thought it was worth getting a little history of the property and what is truly the best view of the cliffs but it's just a 30 minute experience.

I would suggest you head to the town of Doolin to catch a boat ride to the base of the Cliffs. I could see this kind of trip being awe inspiring if it's not raining and the sea isn't choppy. We chose to sail (or more accurately motor) with Doolin2Aran Ferries who in addition to running tours to the Cliffs also ferry folks to (you guessed it...) the nearby Aran Islands. There is a schedule of departures listed on their website. We found this schedule in no way corresponded to the actual departure times, much like we found live music at pubs was not guaranteed if a pub advertised music every night on line. Don't believe Irish websites with schedules. I'd suggest you just show up and get the next boat. There are other companies right in the same spot that run similar tours. 

I know the weather was terrible when we went but I truly believe that this place would be way more interesting during seabird nesting season. I also truly believe it would have been way more crowded. I still wish it had been nesting season.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

One Potato, Two Potato


Not every trip I take gets a food related post. This year I've been lucky in the grub department. Our trips to New Zealand and Peru each got me writing a few hundred words about the local fare and if I got nothing else awesome out of our trip to Ireland at the end of the summer, I figured I'd be in for some delicious nosh. I mean after all, British food is my ancestral comfort food. I can eat this stuff anywhere and at any time. If the rest of the trip was a total and complete disaster (it wasn't), I knew I'd be well fed.

Let's stop right there. I know what you are thinking and it's likely something like 'ang on a second...British food? You went to Ireland, not Britain, right? Why on Earth would you think you'd get the same food on both sides of the Irish Sea?

Well, I did think that. I figured I'd be dining on pies and bangers and mash and sticky toffee pudding all washed down with cask beer and when I got peckish in the afternoon I could just nip into a Sainsbury's or Tesco and grab some Monster Munch or Hula Hoops. I just assumed Irish food would be the same as the food of Britain only maybe with more potatoes. I was wrong. Pretty much totally dead wrong!

Now, while I did enjoy some good bangers and mash and found at least one decidedly non-amazing-like-in-England sticky toffee pudding, I found out pretty quickly that Ireland is not a pie country. And by that I mean pastry on all sides of meat, veg and gravy pie. Walk in to any English pub and you are pretty much guaranteed to find a scrumptious pie on the menu. Not so much in Ireland and crossing the border into Northern Ireland (which is actually part of the United Kingdom) doesn't do you much good in this department either.

And cask beer? No, sir! Pretty much all keg over there. We asked the bartender in Dublin's Swan Bar about this and he told us if they ever get a cask it's either gone immediately or they throw most of it away. The better thing for them is just to stick to kegs. Yikes! There goes that assumption!

So here's some of what I downed while I was in Ireland and Northern Ireland a week that wasn't pies and cask beer. Admittedly there are some similarities to being in England. After all, it's difficult to deny no shared heritage there. And I should point out that I was not totally wrong. There were a lot more potatoes.


Boxty

Before every trip abroad that I take, I inevitably make a food checklist of local dishes I HAVE to have while I'm going wherever I'm going. Number one on my food list for Ireland was the boxty. As it turned out, it was the first (and best) meal we had all week. A landing at Dublin airport at about 10 in the morning, clear customs, grab a bus downtown and check in to the hotel and I don't know about you but I'm ready for a meal. Boxty time!!!!

What's a boxty, you might wonder? Well, it's kind of like a crepe, except made from (are you ready for this?) potatoes. I've had these things in local Irish-type pubs around Washington D.C. so I just had to seek at least one of these out during nine days in Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

News flash: boxtys are hard to find. They are not like crepes in Paris that are available pretty much everywhere. Fortunately for us, we found a place called Gallagher's Boxty House right in the Temple Bar area of Dublin. This had to be right.

Little did I know but the term boxty can be applied to a variety of dishes. Three, according to Gallagher's. All three of us opted for the familiar crepe (or pancake in Ireland) form, rather than dumpling or boiled form. Chicken with bacon and leek cream sauce for me (and shown above). It almost made me want to trade off any form of pies for this dish, and that's saying a lot for someone raised with English blood. If I'd known I wouldn't be served a better plate of food in Ireland I might have been both disappointed and completely satisfied at the same time. This is some good stuff.

Note: not all boxtys are created equal. We had one later in the week in Belfast. Not only was it not crepe-like, it just wasn't delicious like our experience at Gallagher's. I recommend Gallagher's. Highly.


Beer

Apparently they have beer in Ireland...imagine that!

Most people who travel to Dublin make it one way or another to a spot where they can have a pint of Guinness. We made it to a lot of such places. I had at least one pint of the black stuff every day I was in Ireland except for our departure day (when we caught a bus for the airport at 7:30 a.m.). I had Guinness in pubs, in restaurants, in the lobbies of both hotels we stayed in and at the Guinness Storehouse, the tourist attraction that serves as the clearinghouse for most tourists' most intimate Guinness experience. Guinness is so ingrained into the personality of the country of Ireland that I could almost have made a separate category for that drink on this post. I decided not to. Because Guinness was not the best beer I had in Ireland. 

I like Guinness. It's good stuff. I hope that was obvious from the fact that I had at least one pint for eight straight days. And it's not like it was the only stuff available.

But before I get to that, I have to say a few words about the Storehouse. The reason I used the word "experience" to describe this place is that's just what it is. It is not a brewery tour. It's a multi-story narrative about the product, history and business of the brewery set up by Arthur Guinness in 1759. If you've been through a brewery tour before (and I have been through many) and you don't like crowds (I don't), I'd probably recommend you skip it entirely. Other than the opportunity to sample some Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (gorgeously bitter chocolate flavor) and Citra IPA (super restrained use of the citra hops that American breweries use with too heavy a hand) I got nothing out of this. Plus it's expensive. It was cool to make a pilgrimage near to the brewery but it had little other value.

The best beer I had in Ireland came with my first meal in Ireland at Gallagher's Boxty House: a Jack Smyth Porter. It was to me a great balance between a classic porter with a perfect finish of hops in the English brewing tradition. Porter is my favorite beer and the English style of brewing (as opposed to German or Belgian) is my favorite tradition. This beer was set up to win. Beer in Ireland was good. But this one was the best. 


Cottage Pie

Let's get back to the potatoes shall we?

I'm sure most people who head to Ireland look for some shepherd's pie on the menus of pubs and restaurants. We certainly did and didn't find it that often mostly because (and I'm assuming here) what people think of as shepherd's pie is actually cottage pie (shepherd's pie is made with lamb; cottage pie with beef). We did find that. And it was really pretty darned awesome.

Cottage pie is a mixture of ground beef and diced vegetables in gravy baked in a dish with a topping of mashed potatoes, although the stuff we found in Dublin at The Hairy Lemon (apparently named after a local dog catcher) was topped with cheese over the mash and came with optional gravy. Want to know how to make cottage pie better than regular cottage pie? Top it with cheese, that's how.

This was likely the second best meal we had in Ireland although it's a close call with a couple of others. I have to point out the excess in the picture above. Cottage pie in Ireland doesn't just come with mashed potatoes on the top of the pie. It also comes with a side of chips. Love those spuds!


Fab Food Trails

Given our limited time in Dublin (just four nights but with two day trips in there), we thought it might be a good idea to take a food tour. The theory here is it would get us off the beaten path into some local spots away from tourists and give us a slice of Irish food different than pub fare. It worked!

We found a company through Lonely Planet that runs food tours on Saturday mornings in Dublin's city center: Fab Food Trails. Their website was pretty effective at selling their tours on us so we decided we'd spend about three hours with one of their guides (Tom, as it turned out) walking us around to some places we ordinarily would have just probably walked right by without a second thought.

We got a quick history of food in Ireland from Tom (it went like this: a nation of subsistence farmers saved by the potato which grows remarkably well in poor soil followed by famine leading to emigration for more than a century until the technology boom brought people back who wanted to spend money on good food spurring a culinary renaissance of sorts) and then we were off. The focus of our tour would be on slow food and seasonal ingredients. Sounded great to us.

I won't give a blow by blow of this tour. Part of the secret of a tour like this is the itinerary, and I won't spoil it. I'd say the highlights were the Coolea cheese, the Power's Three Swallow whiskey, the brown bread at the Pepperpot Cafe and the veal burger (don't knock it until you've heard the explanation) at Broughgammon. There is absolutely no way we would have found all these places (and more) in what effectively was two days in Dublin. Definitely worth the experience and the price of admission especially on the whiskey front. I have never ever bought booze at the duty free on a trip. I bought some Three Swallow at Dublin airport. It's like drinking caramel. 


Fish and Chips

Go to pretty much any non-fine dining restaurant in Ireland and you'll probably find fish and chips on the menu. Why not? I mean the place is completely surrounded by the sea. Between the three of us, we must have had fish and chips at four or five different places in a single week. 

Ideally fish and chips is cod (nothing else is right) in batter (not breading) dipped in bubbling oil. You want a thinnish batter so the fish can cook without the batter soaking up too much of the oil before getting to the fish. Oily batter is not good. No way! But you also want batter thick enough to be crispy and crunchy for texture before you get to the succulent juicy cod beneath. Add some salt, vinegar (none of that lemon stuff), chunky chips (not fries) and ideally and if you are oh so lucky...some mushy peas.

Where's the best place to get fish and chips? Well, a fish and chip shop of course. We did some homework and went to just one: McDonagh's in Galway, a place that's been open since 1902. We figured if it was able to stay open for the last 117 (!!) years, they had to be doing something good. 

All that I hoped for came true here. Fish. Chips. Peas. The batter was good and crispy and the fish was freshly prepared. A little vinegar and some salt on the fish and in the mushies and I was well taken care of here. Maybe top 10 fish and chips ever.


Black Pudding

Over the past few years during my travels, I've made a point to eat food that ordinarily I would not put on my dinner menu at home. Guinea pig in Ecuador, blood sausage in Cologne, springbok and crocodile in Zimbabwe. I mean if you are there, why not? I chickened out on the snails in Marrakech and I've never forgiven myself.

In Ireland, my choice was black pudding, a sausage made from pork blood, some fat and a cereal of some sort, typically oats. It's cooked when it's made into sausage form and then sliced and typically heated up somehow, usually by frying. Because our friend Bryan came along with us on this trip, I made him have some too. Bryan hates all kinds of pudding, but I'm not sure his hatred ever contemplated any pudding like this. :)

Now I kind of cheated here. I picked a place where I could get the pudding in sandwich form with some acid (pickles and tomato relish in the particular sandwich I chose) to cut what I assumed would be a stodgy, fatty meat-ish substance. Plus I sort of hoped the bread might hide any sort of objectionable texture we might encounter. 

I should point out that I've been at a number of tables with black pudding before since I am English. In most cases, they have been fried black with white speckled discs about one inch in diameter and cut maybe one eighth of an inch thick. I've balked every time.

We found the kind of sandwich I was looking for at Oxmantown in Dublin. The four inch or so diameter pudding was slightly warmed (I don't think it was fried) and presented between two slices of untoasted sourdough with the aforementioned relish and pickles along with some aioli (more fat) and rocket (or baby arugula for those of you who don't speak English). The pudding was soft, pretty tasteless and sort of loosely glue-y and chewy. The skin provided a little textural variance but not much. About what I expected and I'm not eager to try it again. I would have appreciated some toast on the bread. That would have added a little crunch which would have been welcome.

Back to normal food. Or if not normal, at least something with potatoes.


Potato Bread

One of the very last meals we had in Ireland was at Belfast's St. George's Market from a place called Sizzle & Roll. St. George's is an 1890s brick and cast iron (assuming there...) covered market in the heart of Belfast. It is the very last of several markets like this built in Victorian times. It's only open on Fridays and weekends so we had to wait until our last day to visit before heading off to Derry for a couple of hours.

Our intent in visiting was to grab some local breakfast from one of the many stalls at the place (it's not all food, to be clear) and see what else was going on. A quick tour round the place got us a look at a number of different types of breakfast dishes and sandwiches. We settled on Sizzle & Roll for just one reason: they sold sandwiches on potato bread. And by potato bread I don't mean the kind of potato bread we get here in the United States. I literally mean bread formed from some kind of mashed and formed potato.

Fried egg, tomato, cheese and more rocket between two patties of potato. I would have liked a riper tomato, a runnier yolk on the egg and there was some kind of sourness in each bite that might have been the potato bread. It was different but it was completely Irish in it's potato-ness. A good last breakfast in a great setting.

Tired of potatoes yet? You might think I was with seemingly every other dish I had included some taters but honestly, despite the focus on spuds, I did not feel like I overdosed on potatoes. I do, though, think I got an honest to goodness Irish potato experience. Interestingly enough, the last two trips I've taken (this one and our Peru trip in May) have been to two countries where potatoes are an integral part of their national food identity. Ireland blew Peru away in the potato category. They know what they are doing over there on the emerald isle.

I came to Ireland with a definite opinion about how my food experience would go. It was different than I thought but similar enough to the comfort food I love and grew up with to make me feel very comfortable. I didn't get cask beer much over in Ireland which surprised me. I also only managed to find one truly English style pie in my week plus there (it was in the same place I found the cask beer).

There was one other notion I was quickly and brutally disabused of and that was that if I needed a snack, neither Monster Munch nor Hula Hoops are readily available. This was almost catastrophic. It took until the very last day of our trip for me to find some pickled onion flavor Monster Munch and then it was only in a 12 pack which I refused to buy because I'd either end up eating them all or throwing 11 of them away (OK, maybe just 10). Hula Hoops were a little easier to find but then again they are made of potatoes rather than corn. We found some of the most excellent BBQ beef Hula Hoops on the way to the west coast. And no, the "most excellent" appellation isn't intended to differentiate those I ate in Ireland from those I've eaten in England. The BBQ beef ones are just freaking awesome all the time. As snack foods go, they are pretty much the apex snack. Unless pickled onion Monster Munch is in the room.


A few last thoughts about our food odyssey in Ireland.

First, we ate way more than I've discussed above but this is long enough already so I had to cut some things out. I did have some Irish stew along with some beef and Guinness stew. Neither dish stood out. We did have some excellent Indian food in Belfast at Nu Delhi. I could go back there about once a week.

Second, despite all the potatoes and other sorts of pub fare, I didn't gain a pound in Ireland. We are typically pretty active when we travel. I'm sure the slightly more than 50 miles we walked over the seven full days we were over there helped tremendously. I ate not much more than bread and cheese in Paris three years ago and had a similar experience. I was a little shocked on this one but I'm glad I stayed the same weight. 

Third (and almost final), most restaurants and cafes we ate at in Ireland had a number coding system for allergens in their dishes and it seemed to be pretty consistent from place to place. I'm not intending to make light of food allergies but I'd honestly never heard of a lupin allergy. Aren't these things flowers? The lupin allergy seemed to be number 14 on most menus we read (see cover pic of this post). We didn't see any dishes marked with a 14 as I remember.

Finally, while I was writing this post I discovered that both pickled onion Monster Munch and BBQ beef Hula Hoops are available on Amazon. I now have a six pack of each en route to me now. I will enjoy. 

Go to Ireland for the potatoes or the beer or whatever. You will eat well. I did!


How We Did It
I think every food traveler has to seek out what speaks to him or her, even if it's pickled onion Monster Munch and BBQ beef Hula Hoops. But if you want to have any of what I found truly remarkable on this trip, here are some thoughts.

First and foremost, I'd highly recommend a food tour with Fab Food Trails. They will for sure get you to some spots you wouldn't find on your own and you may learn a little or a lot about the history of Irish food along the way. There are some really special spots along the two plus hour walk. They operate tours on most all Fridays and Saturdays starting at 10 a.m. as of this writing in addition to some other days of the week. Check their website by clicking their name in this paragraph for complete availability. If you get Tom as your guide, say hi from me.

Gallagher's Boxty House is located at 20-21 Temple Bar in Dublin. You might want to consider a reservation here when you visit. We didn't have one when we walked in and my impression is that it was almost a mistake. We waited maybe 10 minutes maximum and got a seat at the bar but I'm not sure a table was available to us any time soon. Again, this was the best meal I had in Ireland or Northern Ireland. I'd definitely recommend you stop here. And get the Jack Smyth Porter, which is apparently brewed specifically for Gallagher's.

The Hairy Lemon was probably our best pub experience in Dublin. It's located down near St. Stephen's Green a bit off the beaten tourist path (which is good I think) but the food and drink was worth it. We also heard our best trad music of the entire trip (which we found incredibly difficult to find as it turned out) here on a Monday night. I'd definitely consider a return trip here if I were ever in Dublin again. 

McDonagh's is an institution in Galway. I don't know what more proof you need other than 117 years in business. Get the mushy peas. Please. They are like the cheapest thing on the menu. Even cheaper than water, cole slaw and curry sauce. They are open seven days a week. McDanagh's fish and chip bar is open seven days a week (the restaurant is closed on Sundays) on the very pedestrian friendly Quay Street. If you are searching for some trad music, this street seems like the place to hear it.

I'd recommend a trip Oxmantown in Dublin. I know my review of the black pudding was a little lukewarm but honestly I think that had to do more with the black pudding. The list of sandwiches they had on their wall sounded awesome. I'd certainly be up for giving it another shot. Oxmantown is located at 16 Mary's Abbey in Dublin.