Saturday, April 23, 2011

Escaping the Wedding - Ireland

21 April
Scooting through some of the lesser populated areas of the country yesterday was a significant relief after some of the heavy traffic and congested country lanes we have had to contend with of late. A quick visit to Carlisle Castle and a stroll around Dumfries, visiting Robbie Burns memorials, was all accomplished with a minimum of fuss. From Stranraer we jumped a ferry bound for Belfast. We couldn't have hoped for a better crossing. Flat as a billiard table.
Belfast Port/inner city is not a pretty sight in the dwindling twilight! Even though it is a major port, there is a significant area of industrial wasteland surrounding the city. However, most of the traffic had gone and it was an easy trip to our Caravan Park at Dundonald on the city's outskirts.
Armed with yet another bargain bus pass, we headed into town this morning to enjoy what is fast becoming the best spring on record in the UK. It was 27C in London yesterday and by mid- afternoon today in Belfast, it was only a few degrees below that.
Union Jack bunting was being hung along Dover Close in the Shankill district of inner Belfast today in preparation for street parties to celebrate the Royal Wedding next weekend. It is unlikely that Union Jacks will be going up in the Falls Road area though. These inner suburbs were the centre of sectarian violence (“The Troubles”) during the 1960's and '70's. Loyalist Protestants and Nationalist Catholics living just streets apart, were drawn into a violent struggle between two lawless and extremist para-military organisations, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the IRA (Irish Republican Army). Between them was the British Army trying to keep the peace. Naturally, they ended up embroiled in an undeclared civil war that raged for decades.
It is peaceful now on the Shankill Estates and the Falls Road, but there is still a certain discomfort to be felt in these streets. Both are poor neighbourhoods. Just after the Second World War, 30,000 men worked in the shipyards of Belfast. Most of them came from the Shankill area. These shipyards, in the early part of the 20th century, were the largest in the world. The Titanic and the Lusitania were both built here. During WWII, six aircraft carriers and hundreds of other warships slid down the slipways at Harland & Wolfe shipyards in that short 5 year period. Today, fewer than 100 men work in the H&W yards.
Now 'The Troubles' are more likely to be felt by both Catholics and Protestants. The problems of unemployment and poor services, compounded by the current economic malaise of the UK economy in general, know no sectarian boundaries.
22 April
Finished the day today with a long walk around the Giant's Causeway. Believe it or not, another fine warm day! Sadly, there is an increasing haze as these still warm days go on. It probably isn't smog this far away from civilisation, but it does significantly reduce visibility.
We escaped the “big island” in favour of Ireland to avoid the Easter weekend crowds. Good call as it turned out. Most of the roads in the UK are chocked with holiday makers today, but here in Northern Ireland, the traffic is light and the crowds at attractions like the Causeway are not overwhelming.
First off today, we escaped Belfast with extreme ease! The Irish aren't early risers, so a 9:30am drive across the city was a breeze. Just for something different we visited – YES – another castle. Carrickfergus is reputedly the best preserved Norman castle in Northern Island – so there! Not only that, but we discovered another family link.
But first, a little family history. The O'Neills were once the rulers of most of current day Ulster. The family crest features the same Red Right Hand that adorns the Ulster crest today. For those who don't know, the Red Hand story itself is topical, but that's even another story! So how did this dynasty end with us?
In a nutshell, the O'Neills had a real knack for backing the wrong side. More about this later as we move south, but for now the story of Con (Connor) O'Neill of Castlereagh will suffice as an example of the legendary bad judgement that saw our direct ancestors' status fall from being rulers of much of Ireland, to becoming squatters in a 19th Century Dublin slum, waiting to jump a ship to Australia.
In the 16th Century, Elizabeth I established the first English claims to land in the area of Carrickfergus by taking territory from the local O'Neill chieftains of Clandeboyne. Con O'Neill was tricked into forfeiting even more of his holdings as a a result of a fracas between his retainers and English soldiers during Christmas celebrations 1602. Seems Con and his friends ran out of wine during a 'bender' at his ancestral seat of Castlereagh and sent some 'lads' off to find more. Sadly, the 'lads' were as drunk as their masters and they ended up in a brawl with English soldiers. One thing led to another and more was made of the incident than was necessary, but it was all to the crown's advantage and Con found himself deposed and imprisoned in Carrickfergus. From here on, the story gets a little confused, but the most romantic version (and the one we favour) is that Con was helped by a young lady friend who smuggled in a length of rope in two large cheeses to help him escape. Nobody is really sure what the cheeses were for, but the rope would have been an absolute necessity! We've seen the cell he escaped from!
What happened to Con from this point fades into the mist of history, but it's a great story about a poor dumb Irish lad duped by the evil English. And - Con is the only person ever to escape from the castle dungeon.

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