Day 7. The Ulster Museum

May 24, 2015
Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. It has a troubled history, but today it seems a quiet, industrious, and almost genteel town. And our tour guide proclaimed it, “the best big city in the world”. They sure seem to love Queen Victoria. Many institutions are named for her and there are many monuments honoring her. We stayed at a youth hostel that was just down the road a ways from Queen’s University. So, having just one day to explore Belfast, we shied away from the more touristy Titanic Experience, and headed instead to the Botanic Gardens, and The Ulster Museum adjacent to the University.
It was a blustery day, so we only spent a little time in the gardens. We did enjoy seeing a statue of Lord Kelvin. It is great to see a scientist being honored along side royalty and writers, even if it only because he was a chancellor of the university. The museum, like the TARDIS seemed to be bigger on the inside. There was much to see, so we happily whiled away the day looking at artifacts and learning more about Irish and Egyptian history and culture.

Queen's University
Queen’s University

Ulster was the name of an ancient kingdom in the northernmost part of the island of Ireland, roughly equivalent to what is now the country of Northern Ireland. Ethnically the people of Ulster are more closely related to the Scots than to the people of other parts of Ireland. Ancient Ulster was known for the tenacity of its fighting men. The symbol of Ulster is the red hand, a simple drawing of a hand held up so that the palm is facing the viewer, colored red. They say that this stems from a contest between two kingdoms to decide who would win control of a contested island. it was decided that there should be be a race between two teams of rowers, and whichever side was first to lay a hand on the shore of the island would win it. As the boats drew close to the island, one boat pulled into the lead, the other boat teamed by the men of Ulster just could not catch up. So in a stroke of madness or genius, or both; the Ulster King drew out his sword, cut off his hand, and threw it onto the shore, thereby winning the island. They say that this tale illustrates the determination of people of Ulster to get the job done, no matter what.
In the 1700’s there was a mass exodus of folk from Ulster to the American Colonies to escape religious persecution. These people came to be known as the Scots/Irish. Many of these immigrants took an active role in the struggle to win independence from England for America. And, they claim that fourteen American presidents had Ulster/Scots roots.
Ulster thrived during the Industrial Revolution and its capital, Belfast, is known as the birthplace of the ill-fated Titanic.Since then it has had more than its share of troubles.

I'll drink to that!
I’ll drink to that!

Day 6. In the Footsteps of a Giant

Legend says it once went all the way to Scotland. Ireland is probably happy it doesn't anymore...
Legend says it once went all the way to Scotland. Ireland is probably happy it doesn’t anymore…
Pony trying to shove the Giant's Causeway over
Pony trying to shove the Giant’s Causeway over
Pony considers taking some of this home for the garden
Pony considers taking some of this home for the garden

Pony strolling where giants tread. For some reason.
Pony strolling where giants tread. For some reason.
May 23, 2015
Northern Ireland

Finn McCool aka Fionn Mac Cumhaill was one of the great heroes of Irish legend. He was big (size 47 shoes) and strong and a skilled warrior, but not very wise. Lucky for him, he had a very smart wife. When he heard that there was another great giant living across the sea channel, he decided to challenge this other giant. He wanted to secure his reputation as the biggest and baddest of them all. so he broke loose columns of basalt rock and threw them into the sea to form a causeway, allowing him to stroll over to Scotland to find this giant. When he got there he realized that Benendonner, the Scottish giant was much larger and more powerful than himself. So he hightails it back home, with Benendonner in pursuit. His wife comes up with a plan and puts a bonnet on him and tucks him into bed. Benendonner arrives, she tells him her husband is out and invites him in for tea. She tells him they must talk quietly because the “baby” is sleeping. Benendonner sees Fionn lying in bed, and thinks to himself that if the baby is that large, the father must be truly formidable. So he excuses himself and heads back to Scotland, never to be seen or heard from again.

The one thing I knew from the start that I wanted to do/see in Ireland was the Devil’s Causeway.
It is a fascinating and unique geological phenomenon on the northern coast of Ireland. I had seen pictures of it and wanted to see it for myself. What I didn’t realize, until I started planning this trip is that the Causeway is in Northern Ireland, not in the Republic of Ireland. No problem, there are ways to get there. Surprisingly, although it is a popular destination, there is not a lot of tourist accommodations nearby. There are lots of companies that provide day trips from Dublin, but the drive is so long that they need to start early in the day and they can’t spend much time there. So I added Belfast to the itinerary and booked a day trip from there. The Giant’s Causeway did not disappoint, it is a fascinating and beautiful site. Well worth a visit.
The tour company also took us to the Bushmill’s factory where we got to sample some 12 year old whiskey. I have never cared much for the taste of whiskey, but this was a entirely different from anything i had been exposed to, smooth and delicious. The bartender explained that Irish whiskey is the best because it is triple distilled, American whiskey is distilled only once. Unfortunately, you cannot buy the 12 year old Bushmill’s, it is only available for tasting at the distillery!

Entrance to the Bushmills Distillery and Tasting Room where we had a wee dram of the good stuff
Entrance to the Bushmills Distillery and Tasting Room where we had a wee dram of the good stuff

We also stopped to walk across the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. A high, narrow bridge to a small island that was first built centuries ago, by and for the local salmon fishermen. The official story is that they needed passage to the island to tend to their nets, although it has also been suggested that the island was used by smugglers, pirates, and other tax evaders. It has been rebuilt, made stronger and safer, and is now a popular tourist attraction.

The History of Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Wish to escape taxation - sometimes you have to do it the HARD way
Wish to escape taxation – sometimes you have to do it the HARD way

Day 5. A Most Unusual Man

Irish rail Dublin to Belfast

We had the pleasure of sharing a cubicle with a nattily dressed older man. His well fitted black suit and narrow tie gave him the look of an old-fashioned train conductor, so I was not surprised to learn that he works for the railroad. What was surprising is that he runs the Irish Railroad! He often rides the rails to observe how things are operating, and actually knows many of the employees by name. And if that was not impressive enough, he is also a lawyer, and runs a few small businesses. All that, at the age of 79. He also has traveled the world as a consultant and has worked for most of the communist governments in the world. He states that he got on well with both Fidel and Raul Castro, and Moammar Gaddafi. He says that their governments, and their railroads are well run and efficient.
What he has not been able to rectify is the relationship between the railroad systems of Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland! Although the run from Dublin to Belfast is jointly run, the two systems give out different information about it with slightly different timetables!
Anyway, our round trip went smoothly, although the train from Dublin was a little late leaving the station. The trains are clean and comfortable and the scenery is fantastic. It is a great way to travel.