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Irish Travel Journal, Day 4

This post is part of a series detailing my trip to Ireland. You can view the whole series here.

The group convened early for a walking tour of Derry. Our tour guide, Garvin, was fabulous.

The one and only Garvin.

The one and only Garvin.

Not only was he incredibly knowledgeable, funny, and gifted with impressions, but he had also lived through much of the history he was telling us about. As we stood at the Bloody Sunday memorial in the Bogside, he told us about his cousin who had been killed that day, and about the reactions of his family when they heard the news. Garvin was 14 when it happened, and his cousin who was killed was only 17. If Garvin himself had been only a few years older, who knows if he still would have been here to tell us the story.

The Bloody Sunday memorial in Derry.

The Bloody Sunday memorial.

Garvin began the tour by walking us through the events depicted on the many murals around Free Derry corner (the Bogside was also known as “Free Derry” because during The Troubles, the police wouldn’t go there).

While all of the murals have fraught histories, one story stood out as more tragic than the others.

"The Death of Innocence"

“The Death of Innocence”

The mural depicts 14-year-old Annette McGavigan, the first child casualty of The Troubles in Derry. In 1971, she was walking home from school when she bent down to pick up a rubber bullet in the street. Caught in the crossfire between the British Army and the IRA, she never stood back up. Her death was never investigated and no one was ever charged with her murder. The mural commemorating her was painted in 1999, although it looked different then than it does now. The rifle to her left was originally black and unbroken, and the butterfly over her right shoulder was black and white. In 2006, the mural was re-painted with a colored butterfly and a broken rifle, representing progress in the peace process. Garvin told us that after the mural was painted, Annette’s father would come every day and sit on the low wall across the road to talk to his little girl. He continued to do this until he died.

In addition to walking us through the heartbreaking history of The Troubles in the Bogside, Garvin took us up to walk to the old city walls of Derry.

His love for his city – despite its troubles – was both evident and infectious, and he truly brought all of the stories he told to life. His was one of the best tours I have ever been on.

The tour ended in a little tea shop, where we stayed for a pot of tea and a scone. Then it was time to get back on the bus and leave Derry for Drumcliff.

At Drumcliff, we stopped under the shadow of Ben Bulben (a table mountain in Sligo) to visit W.B. Yeats’ grave.

The final resting place of W.B. Yeats.

The final resting place of W.B. Yeats.

The location and epitaph of the grave are drawn from Yeats’ own poem, “Under Ben Bulben”, in which he considered his own mortality. Here is the final verse of the long poem:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

After paying our respects to Yeats (and eating a spot of lunch), we continued on to Mohill, in County Leitrim, where we would be spending the night in Lough Rynn Castle.

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The castle was, predictably, amazing. It looked more like a manor house than a bona fide medieval castle, which makes sense since it was built in the early 19th century. While there were no ghosts haunting the castle itself, its history was a haunted one. The 3rd Earl of Leitrim, William Sydney Clements, was a ruthless landlord and pitiless evictor who had a reputation for abusing the wives and daughters of his tenants. After several assassination attempts, he was ultimately ambushed at killed by 3 of his tenants in County Donegal in 1878. Hatred of the man was so intense that his funeral in Dublin was marked by riots, and none of the 3 murderers were ever convicted of his death. His murder was widely publicized in Ireland and beyond, with proponents of land reform using it to argue that tenants needed to be better protected from the abuses of tyrannical landlords.

Now, however, Lough Rynn Castle is better known as one of the best wedding venues in Ireland, topping the Castle division. That, I could certainly believe. Cigi’s and my room was spacious and beautiful, with a jacuzzi we never got a chance to use and towels folded into the shape of swans on each of our beds.

Swans!

Swans!

As beautiful as our room was though, Cigi and I quickly abandoned it to explore the rest of the castle. Our explorations quickly brought us to the bar, where the bartender offered to give us a tour. After walking through the blue sitting room, the reading room, and the library, and walking down to see the formal ballroom, we saw the honeymoon suite and the secret private balcony outside it.

Eventually we returned to the bar, where Dean Killen made good on his offer to buy me a wonderful whiskey (Midleton!) as a thank you for rescuing us all from a passport disaster.

We stayed in the bar chatting until right before dinner – Cigi and I practically had to run to change and round up the freshmen.

After dinner, it was finally time for me to lead a discussion of Claire Keegan’s novella, Foster (you can read the original short story, which was published in The New Yorker in 2010, here). All of the freshmen crowded into a corner of the main room, tucked away behind the piano, and we began. Everything went smoothly, everyone participated, and the time flew by. Finishing up the discussion left me giddy and triumphant, and after hearing from the students how much they enjoyed it, I was practically jumping up and down.

After the discussion, it was time for a little Ragtime.

After the discussion, it was time for a little ragtime.

Continue on to Day 5

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Irish Travel Journal, Day 3

This post is part of a series detailing my trip to Ireland. You can view the whole series here.

Breakfast at the hotel was wonderful. Fried eggs with runny yolks, sautéed mushrooms, tomatoes, and baked beans. Plus porridge with a little whiskey in it! I obeyed the signs direction to “Try some Bushmills Irish Whiskey with your porridge.” With cream, a little honey, and a generous splash of whiskey, porridge was delicious! Something to try at home.

Don't mind if I do!

Don’t mind if I do!

The day began with a bus tour of Belfast.

Along the way, we saw Divis Tower, the only remaining building of a block of flats that was occupied by the British army during The Troubles due to it’s siteline over the city (for more information about what Belfast was like during The Troubles – and the way that history continues to be felt today – check out this incredible long read in The New Yorker).

During The Troubles, fighting was so bad around the Divis Flats that the British Army could often only reach their outpost at the top of Divis Tower by helicopter.

During The Troubles, fighting was so bad around the Divis Flats that the British Army could often only reach their outpost at the top of Divis Tower by helicopter.

We also saw the peace wall on Divis Road (so named because its obstructing presence kept the peace between neighborhoods), which was full of murals, and reminded me a bit of the East Side Gallery in Berlin.

The driving tour eventually brought us out to the Titanic Museum (the Titanic was built in Belfast).

It was one of the best-designed museums I have seen in a very long time. It was similar to the Guggenheim in New York in that the architecture of the museum propelled you through the exhibits in order. The exhibits themselves were very hands-on, and designed to appeal to learners of all types – there were text panels, images, dioramas, video, objects, interactive touchscreens, quizzes, audio recordings – and even a Disney-style ride that took you through the experience of working in a Belfast shipyard (complete with heat from the furnaces).

The museum began with the greater context of the history of Belfast and the shipping industry, and then moved through the construction and furnishing of the Titanic, the lives of the passengers, their daily routines, and then finally to the sinking of the ship and its aftermath – the collection of the bodies, the experiences of the survivors, and finally depictions of the tragedy in popular culture and the search for the wreck itself.

After the Titanic Experience, we left Belfast for our next destination – the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. The views (and the wind!) were incredible.

From there, we hopped back on the bus and drove out to Giant’s Causeway, which was fascinating from both a geological and mythological perspective. The unusual hexagonal flat stones of the Causeway were formed when hot lava shot up from the bottom of the sea and cooled incredibly quickly, before the hexagonal columns had a chance to melt and lose their shape.

Possibly the only time I will ever be excited about basalt.

The only time I will ever be excited about basalt.

More interesting to me was the story that rose up to account for the geological oddity. The area is called Giant’s Causeway because, according to legend, it was once a bridge all the way from Ireland to Scotland. A Scottish giant, Benandonner, once used this bridge to walk over to Ireland, with the intention to fight the Irish giant, Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool). Knowing that he would not be able to defeat Benandonner in physical combat, Fionn asks his wife Oona for help. She advised him to dress as a baby and sit in a cradle. Then, when Benandonner arrives, Oona tells him that Fionn is out but will be back shortly. Eyeing the “baby” of considerable size before him, Benandonner reconsiders his ambition to fight the father, so he high-tailed it back across the causeway, breaking it up behind him so that Fionn couldn’t follow.

After spending some time exploring the beautiful, fascinating basalt formations and enjoying the sunny, breezy weather, we reluctantly headed back to the bus for the ride to our next stop, Derry.

A landscape with grandeur.

A landscape with grandeur.

On the way, we passed through the village of Bushmills, where Bushmills whiskey is distilled. Apparently, the word “whiskey” comes from the Irish words uisce beatha (“iska-bah”) meaning “water of life” – just like eau de vie or aqua vitae. In fact, it’s where the concept originally came from! Once Christianity – and with it, Latin – reached Ireland, the term was translated into the Latin, which then evolved into Italian, French, and so on.

Once in Derry, we checked into the hotel, ate dinner, and headed out into the town for our first evening out. Cigi and I spent the evening pub-hopping and talking to everyone we could. One of the most interesting conversations of the evening was with a bouncer outside of one of the pubs. When he asked where I was from and I said the US, he seemed surprised. “But you sound English!” he said. “No offense meant.” I was far from being offended by not being immediately perceived as American, but it was a fascinating cultural moment to understand that merely calling someone English on the Catholic (and therefore Republican) side of Derry could be an insult.

After that, Cigi and I wandered further afield to see what else was out there. Eventually, our wanderings took us deep into the Bogside (the neighborhood in Derry where Bloody Sunday occurred), and murals depicting scenes from The Troubles stared down at us.

The Bogside by night.

The Bogside by night.

It was a very different experience coming across them without context, in the middle of the night, than it was seeing them during the day as part of a tour group, as we would the next morning.

Continue on to Day 4

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