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An Innocent in Ireland



 Getting off the bus, at one in the afternoon, we inquired when the last bus for Galway left and the answer the driver gave us was an hour.  This seemed like enough time as I was imagining the Cliff’s attraction being comparable to Niagara Falls; “Wow, that’s a lot of water.  Can we go get something to eat now?”. Patrick and I walked out of the parking lot and towards the Cliffs.  This required an uphill climb past some vendors and guitar players.  It was nothing like an American tourist attraction though, with info boards, bad t-shirts, “adopt-a-cliff’, and fences keeping you back.  At the top of the path, which was beaten down dirt surrounded by emerald grass, we stood on a large flat rock.  The rock was the size of a baseball infield.   From here we had the best views of the Cliffs of Moeher.  It was a religious experience.  Each cliff was a bit longer than the one in front of it so you could see the Cliffs for couple of kilometres. They all had grassy tops and jagged, black rock sides leading down hundreds of feet into the crashing sea.  This was thought to be the end of the earth and it is understandable, as the sky and ocean reached west for infinity.  Wanting to get away from the standard point of views and from the small crowd, Patrick and I followed a path that brought us along the Cliffs.  This path was obviously travelled regularly, but not by the elderly, the young, the phobia- prone or the drunks, as it was mere feet from the ocean, three hundred feet up.  Patrick had all his belongings in the world still on his pack and he didn’t like the extra fifty pounds on his back.  We strayed into the pasture that was behind the cliff and hid his bag behind, surprise, a stonewall.  After a sometimes-unsteady hike of twenty minutes we found our perch.  The grass was extremely long and comfortable.  We sat on the edge of the earth and just took it all in.  Patrick began to sing his song and though sitting and just listening to a man’s voice singing in a dead language is not usually conducive to great memories, it fit this moment.  After his song I lay back in my lush bed of grass, closed my eyes and had the greatest nap of my life, despite the fact it lasted only twenty minutes.  Patrick was sleeping when I woke up so I started to snack on my cheese and onion crisps and my bottle of coke, and it refreshed me greatly.  I took out On the Road and began to read but put the book down quickly when I realized I was reading about hitching around the U.S. when I was sitting on the edge of Europe, an exercise that seemed incorrect.  I said out loud, “I cant imagine how anyone can look at this and believe that a God created every aspect of this.”
“How can you say that?” Patrick asked, waking up.
“Well if we were created in God’s image, that means that we have the abilities of that god, and that god has the abilities we do, which means that humans have the potential to create something beautiful, intricate and natural, which I don’t believe.”
I realized then that I had officially entered a theological debate with a student of God.
“I look at these cliff s and see the face of God, as these cliffs are something perfect and beautiful and awe inspiring.  I couldn’t believe that these are just the random shaping of rock, based on random tides that are affected by a rock that luckily got caught in our gravitational pull.  No, this is sculpted my friend.  Sculpted by the hand of God”
Patrick said. Not looking for a debate, or possibly not ready for one, I rebutted.
“I thought you had questions about your faith?”
“I thought I did too,” he replied.  “What time is it?”
“It’s uh…Shit!’  It was five to 1:00pm.  The bus would be gone before we got back to the parking lot.  This didn’t bother me a bit though when I thought about it.  Why would I want to leave my summit for an uncomfortable bus ride back to a city?  Patrick saw it a little differently.  He saw it from the point of view that we were a solid four hour walk from a room for the night, and even then, we still would have to get to Galway as that was the closest bus station that could get you all over Ireland.  I tried to calm him down but he wanted to instead sprint back to his bag and try his luck at catching the bus.  I wished him well, we exchanged emails and he was on his way, leaving me with my thoughts; about a million subjects that were now being challenged after seeing this spectacular site.
I chilled for another half hour at the edge of the old world before coming out of my meditated state and remembered I needed a way back to Galway before things started getting dark and night-like.  I made my way back to the parking lot and asked the attendants at the gift and teashop if they knew of any special coaches that came. They said the only busses out of here were private tour lines.  So I started to walk through the parking lot, asking the tour lines operators if they would give me a lift for a pint of Guinness at the journey’s end.  All denied me, saying they weren’t insured for the plethora of problems hitchhikers can cause.  Short of selling my body, it looked as though a motor coach away from the cliffs was out of the question.  So I left the parking lot and made my way out to the long road that took the busses along the coastline and back to Galway.   I stuck out my thumb and hoped for the best.  The “best” came in the form of rain falling down on me and a half-dozen cars going by every hour.  I walked for nearly three hours along the beautiful coast of Ireland.  There were farms with tough looking sheep and stonewalls, cottages with roofs of straw and small bed and breakfasts with the proprietor at the window.  And of course the ocean; vast and green it rolled slowly onto the beach. Was any of this have been appreciated at the time?  Of course not!  I was cold, wet and  low on cash.  I eventually made it to the small town of Doolin.  Population unknown yet obviously below 100. 

There was a convenience store, a post office, 3 pubs, a hostel and a classy hotel up on a hill about a 30-minute walk out of town.  By the Hotel was an artisan shop (the type where I usually break something and try to put it back without anyone knowing.  Something like a glass butterfly) and a tiny yellow church with a cemetery littered with Celtic crosses.    All these stores were on the one road going through Doolin, which was now sunny and pretty damn pleasant to be on.  After a badly needed Guinness at the pub, I moved to the hostel to see what they could do for me in the way of sleeping.  The owner was out mowing his lawn with his dog at his heels.  He said he had a bed for me if I had cash cause he did not accept credit cards.  I had a wee bit of cash but it was my lifeline back to Galway the next day.  The innkeeper couldn’t help me out.  I tried referencing the bible, hoping his Catholicism would remind him of some other travellers who had no room for them at the Inn.  He advised I move along and that I did.
I made my way out of town and up the hill to the hotel.  I was assessing my situation on the way up.  I had enough cash to get to Galway the next day, a day bag with a book and a coke, a credit card, which was worth the plastic only and a killer smile.  It was a bad situation. 
I immediately brought down the property of the hotel upon entrance.  It was grey stone outside and nice red rugs and wooden walls inside.  There was a classy dining room and the type of sitting room one would order a port in, complete with leather chairs with the buttons all over it.   A 50+ woman who was weary of me piloted the reception desk.
“Do you take Visa?”
“Yes we do!”
Thank God!  I was going to have a place to crash after all.  In a classy hotel too.
“It’ll be 100 euros for the night, please.”
That’s right!  I forgot.  This wasn’t a hostel where 25 people share room and only half of them sleep.  This was a nice hotel on the coast of Ireland.  Reaching, I inquired about a student discount and was quickly shot down.    We then entered negotiations for my employment.  In exchange for my slave labour for the night I would get a bed.  She said the best thing she could do for me was provide me with the cardboard and permanent marker one would need to make a sign reading Galway.  Frustrated with the lack of hospitality in the Irish hospitality business, I left the hotel and found myself back on the road.  Darkness was about two hours away and I was still with out bedding.  Here were my options:  Break into the church (even if you aren’t religious, you have to be afraid of those consequences) and crash there; keep hitching and hope to get to Galway (the likeliness of success for this plan was low as I was at a crossroads extremely remote from Galway) or beg for the help of  a barkeep in town.  I did what I learned in first year University: I was in doubt, so I picked C.

Belfast

My hostel in Belfast was different than anyone that I hade ever been in before.  It was a part of a long strip of town houses right near the university.  It was obviously student housing as it exhibited the same characteristics that students houses have worldwide.  The houses had a pile of beer bottles outside the front door, flags as curtains or the only form of wall decoration other than posters, couches on the porch and poorly kept lawns.  The interior of the hostel was more house-like than any of my past hostels.  It had no T.V. too, which was great.  When there is a T.V. people just tend to stare and never meet each other.  This place had board games and cards and a piano, all great conductors of social relations.  The kitchen felt like the kitchen at home, including the wooden table with wooden benches that six people could sit at and talk.  The bedrooms all had three bed high bunk beds, which was a tricky obstacle to negotiate after too many Bushmills.  The bathroom was hideously small but it had the flusher that hung down from the ceiling, so it redeemed itself.  There were two Jack Russell terriers which made it feel very homey indeed.  It was great to have to fight something away from your plate too!

Belfast is the center of the infamous Protestant-Catholic feud that has consumed Ireland for years.  This conflict has even been exported to North America with the large amount of immigrants.  To break it down, as I understand it, Catholics were putting along fine in Ireland for years and years since St. Patrick.  Then the English came over, Cromwell heading them up, and did what he could to eradicate the Catholics and establish Protestantism as the dominant religion.  Ireland was British up until the early 1900’s when Michael Collins, heading up the IRA, the Catholic Para-military group, led a war against the British and gained independence.  But the British refused to let go of the North, and it remains British.  The Catholic habitants were not big fans of this at all and that is where things got really violent.  Things have calmed down a lot in the years since the Good Friday agreement saw the disarming of the IRA, but there is still a great deal of tension come marching season, when Protestants march through Catholic neighborhoods and violence flares up.  I wanted to see it all up close and that’s why I was here.  I wanted to get close to something that I had no comprehension of understanding, but relatives of mine had died for.

I had bought a pack of those mini cereal boxes to eat for breakfasts.  I had a couple bowls worth and jammed a couple more in my day bag.  I hit the street and walked downtown Belfast.  Downtown the tension isn’t so obvious but you know that everyone is censoring what they say and what they wear.  Patrick, from the Cliffs, warned me that even calling out someone’s name could end you up in trouble because certain names are Catholic or Protestant.  Pubs have banned football jerseys because wearing a Celtic’s jersey (Catholic) or wearing a Rangers jersey (Protestant) would likely start a riot.  While downtown I caught a glimpse of a Belfast police car. It was an armored car with steel grating over the windows to ensure they were not smashed. This was as small as police cars come in Belfast. I also noticed that there were no garbage cans lining the streets.  This is because garbage cans were popular places for the IRA to hide bombs.  I wanted to get to the troubled areas, as that is where things are most colorful.  The Protestant “headquarters” was around Shankhill Rd. and the Catholics set up shop around Falls Rd.  Seeing as it was a rainy day, and I felt I could do it, I hailed a cab and started to tell him what my mission was; see Belfast from the citizen’s point of view.  He said he would take me through the troubled neighborhoods for an hour for twelve pounds.  I said that that was a little much.  He advised that without him, I would walk myself into trouble in no time, taking pictures of the wrong houses, cutting across the wrong lawns etc.  His points were valid and a quasi-tour guide was probably a good thing to have around so I hopped in the front of the black cab.  Aside from the drivers seat, all the seats were just padded boards that folded up when no one sat on them which made me think of the orthopedic value of such a device.  The cabbie’s name was Walter and he said he used to be a tour guide of sorts.  He got out of it because of the health risks involved.  He explained to me that the Protestants tried to enforce a fee on him for bringing tourists in.  Of the 10 pounds he charged to bring travelers (tourists didn’t go to the troubled neighborhoods), the Protestants wanted 5 pounds.  When Walter refused to budge, they began to pelt his car with rocks with a promise to get him at home.  He came back for a couple more weeks but decided to quit the business when the Protestants held a gun to his head.  He also felt it necessary to get out of the country for a while, so he laid low in the Republic for a few months.  It was at this point that I realized there was a real tangible danger that came attached to visiting here.  I was in a neighborhood that had a bomb explode in it daily and where kicking something with the wrong foot could get you shot.  As we entered Shankhill, I noticed all the curbs, lampposts, parking meters, mail boxes, stones and everything else was painted red white and blue; the colors of the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom.  The second thing I noticed were the murals on the sides of the houses.  All the houses in this neighborhood where fairly modern and ugly townhouses and at the end of the row, where a large blank wall usually would be, the Protestants had painted murals.  Some murals depicted Para-military soldiers while others had the Queen.  One depicted Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant hero, and another showed a row of crosses in the ground with Catholic names on them.  These were the names of IRA members responsible for bombings and whom the Protestants had marked for death. There was one with a large soldier whose gun was pointed outwards.  Wherever you walked in the neighborhood, which had a large green park in the center, the gun would follow you.  Walter explained this was to remind you that all visitors were being watched as potential enemies.  The residents would watch through windows, follow in cars or just sit out front and make sure you weren’t a threat.  Also watching you was the British army.  Miles away from this neighborhood was a tall apartment building that was above the rest of the Belfast skyline.  This was a Catholic apartment building.  However, the British Army rented the top third of the building and at the very top was a surveillance base with some of the most advanced audio and video spying technology in the world.  The British put the base on top of the Catholic building because the IRA would never dream of bombing a Catholic residence.  The only way in and out of the surveillance base was by helicopter as all stairs up to the top had been welded shut to protect the soldiers from the Catholics.  Walter said that the cameras in that building could see the make of the camera and the microphones could hear my camera rewinding.  It was with this technology that the British had arrested one of the most notorious Protestant organizers, Johnny Adair.  Seen as a martyr for the Queen, Johnny Adair was pictured in murals saying, “His only crime was loyalty” or “Free Johnny Adair Now!”  His house, which I was told to stay well away from, was covered in Union Jacks in preparation for the party that would occur when he was released in a week.  Walter shared more with me about Johnny Adair.  The green area in the center, which I thought was a nice park, used to be full of houses.  These houses were homes of those who didn’t agree with him.    Houses were not the only places with murals though.  They could be found on sewage treatment plants, drug stores, pubs and even on the side of the KFC.  The fact that illegal murals depicting what most people would call terrorists were on the side of the KFC showed me just how deep this struggle went.  Many houses were also flying Israeli flags.  Walter, who I was beginning to think was Catholic, explained that the Catholics had begun flying Palestinian flags as they likened themselves to unwilling refugees in their own country, being oppressed by a powerful minority.  In response, the less clever (Walter’s words, not mine) Protestants, began flying Israeli flags, not completely aware of the stigma that this carried. 

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