Sunday, June 12, 2011

Memories of Northern Ireland, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

You'll have to excuse me if I keep using the words "generous" or "friendly" or "welcoming" as I write about the Northern Irish. I don't mean to repeat myself--I only mean to record my honest memories and impressions of my time in the North. And even 15 years after living and working there, those words are the ones that best describe my experience.

In County Down, 2006

People in the North always seemed to be giving things to Barbara and I just out of the blue. Barbara dated a local fella over the summer whose mother knitted her a jumper. One weekend when Bernie went to a big market away from town, she brought back some yellowman--a locally famous homemade honeycomb-like candy--just for me. If you casually mentioned plans to spend the next day at the beach down the road in Newcastle, the next morning as soon as you started to get up and go someone would come running with a packed lunch of sandwiches and crisps for you to take with you. Once after chatting to a couple old ladies from Portstewart, County Derry (farther north) for maybe 20 minutes total, they invited me to come visit them, and one of them even gave me her address where I could stay if I visited. This is a gesture I find it hard to imagine your average American making to a foreign visitor, even as open-hearted as many Americans can be.

"Steps" at the Giant's Causeway in Antrim

At Giant's Causeway

Giant's Causeway

Because so many tourists avoid the North when they visit Ireland, they miss out on all this genuine friendliness. Even the few people I have met who've gone to the North while visiting Ireland tend to limit themselves to just Belfast or the Giant's Causeway. On the plus side, this makes for a much more tranquil setting at so many of Northern Ireland's tourist spots. Time and again during my summer in County Down and during all my repeat visits there since, I found myself grateful for the peace and quiet I enjoyed while touring all the local famous sights, both historical and natural, while also wondering why on earth no one else thought to come see them too.

Dunluce Castle in Antrim

Slemish, the mountain where St. Patrick lived in captivity

Case in point is the North's association with Ireland's most famous historical figure, St. Patrick. I wonder if many visitors to Ireland are even aware of this--that the country's most important figure spent much of his holy career there. Armagh (in County Armagh) is where Patrick founded his bishopric, and the church that was built for him is still there (restored and added upon and now housing a Church of Ireland congregation since the days of the Protestant Reformation). A newer Catholic cathedral dedicated to Patrick also exists in Armagh, built on a site where it's said Patrick saw a miraculous appearance of deer and her fawn on a walk one day. In County Antrim (where Giant's Causeway and Dunluce Castle are the usual big draws) is where Patrick was first brought to Ireland from Britain as a slave, to a mountain called Slemish, where he herded sheep for years before receiving a "dream from God" that showed him the path to escape from slavery. And in Down is a small town with such strong associations with Patrick that the town has been named for him: Downpatrick. In Downpatrick is a cathedral with a stone that is believed to mark Patrick's grave (he is believed to have died in the neighboring town of Saul), and beside Patrick are said to be the graves of Ireland's two other most prominent saints, Brigid and Columcille. Downpatrick also boasts a visitor center devoted to the life of Patrick. I once spent a day walking all over Downpatrick checking out its sights, tramping up and down its hilly, winding, narrow roads and being greeted by nearly everyone I passed, the only visitor around so it seemed.

St. Patrick's gravestone in Downpatrick

Cross outside cathedral in Downpatrick

Old grave outside cathedral in Downpatrick

And this is just the history stuff. There's a saying often used to describe Ireland's countryside: "40 shades of green." It's something of a cliche and the kind of expression I admit I would be inclined to dismiss as a tourism catchphrase--but since spending time in the North I know it's a description that rings true.

In Down I got to look at mountains every day. Not just any mountains, but the beautiful Mournes. I even got to climb a couple. One summer my friend Declan helped get me up the highest of the Mournes, Sliabh Donard. At over 2,700 feet it was a high enough climb for a native-born flatlander like me, and while it wasn't a rocky climb it was a slippery one, the mountain being carpeted with spongy green grass and earth. It took Declan a half day to help me up and down Sliabh Donard. Not bad. But I'll never forget when we were pulling up to the car park near the start of the mountain trail--Declan pointed out a girl who had just come down from Donard, a local girl who had already been up and down the mountain that morning, even though it wasn't yet 9 AM.

Me climbing up Sliabh Donard in 2001. Excuse the hairdo--it came from Dublin

Me at summit of Sliabh Donard, 2001

We made an easier climb up a smaller mountain, Sliabh Croob, a few years later. This time Declan's young kids came along, one of them still in the stroller. It was a bit of a spontaneous climb. I had spent the day in Belfast, shopping and riding double-decker buses and the like. Declan brought me back to Castlewellan in the late afternoon, but there was still a bit of a gap before my friend Lisa, Declan's wife, would be finished with work and dinner would be ready. Let's use the time to climb a mountain, Declan suggested, like a true County Down man! (Mountain people are mad, my flatlander mind thought.)

It was early November, just a few days after Halloween, also known as Bonfire Night in Ireland for the celebratory fires folks throughout the country still light on that holiday. There were patches of ice on the trail up the mountain, and while there were no bonfires on this particular night, we still had some daylight to show us the way around the ice. Half-way up we began to pass a dozen or so woolly sheep on the mountainside and had to dodge their "leavings" on the path. The sun was beginning to set behind us, casting a red and purple stain on Croob and all the other mountains around us. And as we approached the summit, we could see the moon rising ahead of us, like a white balloon slowly floating up to heaven, as the sun behind us sank to sleep. We made it to the top, had a look around, and then made the descent with the moon lighting our way. I was quiet, struck silent by the magic of it all, and Declan and the kids mistook my silence for being frozen and miserable. Are you kidding, I told Declan. This was wonderful. Nearly 5 years since that climb, it's still one of my favorite memories of Ireland, of my friends in the North, of my travels, and of my life so far.

Sliabh Croob, photo from Discover Northern Ireland
Go raibh maith agat as na cuimhnĂ­ cinn, mo chairde Tuaisceart. (Thanks for the memories, my Northern friends.)

Me in County Down with two happy locals, 2006.

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