9/29 - County Antrim Day Trip - Crossing Borders, Cross Tempers, and Giant’s Causeway
More pics here.
The next morning, our first priority was finding a laundry in town. This required several circles through the one way streets of the old part of town, getting stuck in drop-off-the-kids-for-school traffic, getting stuck in funeral traffic, and some anxious “maybe we should find breakfast first/no that will just take longer” debates. It was a long morning. We finally found the laundry and the breakfast – a modern deli attached to a grocery store with regular sized bagels and porridge (oatmeal) that seemed amazing after 2 weeks of sturdy Irish breakfast.
We then set out for Derry and Giant’s Causeway, now that we knew the border crossing was a nonevent. Derry/Londonderry is right on the border of the Republic and Northern Ireland, and the site of both historic and recent battles for the religion and identity of Ireland. U2’s song Bloody Sunday was written about the 1970’s IRA bombing here, and similar Catholic/Protestant animosity dated back at least as far as the 1600’s. We walked the old walls of the fortified city, looked out over the formerly segregated Catholic settlement outside the city (now absorbed by modern sprawl), saw active IRA flags, signs, and graffiti, and walked the Peace Bridge over the river to the former Protestant side of the city. We wondered how the Catholics felt about a peace bridge put up in the 2000s by the British Government, while they were still to some degree struggling for equal pay and housing, even if the actual “Troubles” of the 1970s had simmered down. We later listened to an interesting podcast about someone growing up during this time, when to be proud of your flag and country was to be labeled an IRA terrorist. It was fascinating and sad, and clearly more complex than we understood. There was a palpable heaviness, despite the old part of town being taken over by high end shopping and a giant mall (which we spent half an hour trying to exit due to tourist confusion about how to pay for our parking space a different and ridiculous kind of trouble).
On someone’s suggestion, we stopped at a small beach town called Portrush for lunch. It looked like a cold Santa Cruz and didn’t feel worth the extra side trip – although we did eat good food, have a lovely view of the beach and ocean at the restaurant, and did enjoy the relative levity after Derry. It was here that we finally realized that "pie" means "with potatoes." So fish pie (see photo) is a mashup (get it?) of shepherds pie and clam chowder. Ty reports it was quite tasty and very rich. I had chicken tikka - the first food with any spice to it whatsoever and was happy as clam. However, the day was getting away from us, and we had our one and only driving fight trying to get from Portrush to Giants Causeway. I think we recovered well and decided to press on to Giants Causeway although we’d only have about 90 minutes to see it.
It was a rushed trip but worth it – Giant’s Causeway is a section of coast with strange hexagonal rocks that form towering clusters in some places, and a natural checkerboard jetty in others. The hexagons are fun to scramble around upon, and full of tourists – but we were happy to be somewhere beautiful and not full of war and abuse. Because there is a similar area just 30km across the sea in Scotland, the legend developed that this “causeway” of stepping stones use to connect the two countries until two giants had a fight that broke the connection. Cute myths are not a bad way to recover from true sad history.
The gift store and educational center was also beautiful, modern, and thoughtfully done. Although we didn’t have much time there, I was able to appreciate a modern take on connecting tourists to the landscape – they repeated the hexagon shapes and the tower motif in the architecture, branding, and gift shop. I am a sucker for a well-executed theme!
We then promised not to kill each other on the drive home and raced for the day’s last Lough Foyle car ferry. This would save us over an hour of driving, great for Ty’s tired brain and my car sickness, as well as making the day more pleasurable. Why drive through Derry when you can take a ferry across the bay from one country to another? We also have a bit of a boat theme in our trips an this was our chance to be on a boat – even if only for 15 minutes. We raced through the countryside and made it to the ferry launch 3 minutes ahead of the last scheduled departure. Whoo! And….the boat was 20 minutes late. Figures! But the ride was beautiful, with the sun lowering through gorgeous clouds and the warm weather holding enough for us to get out of the car and enjoy the ride.
Instead of sensibly heading home, we decided to make a pass through Malin Head, just in case we would run out of time to see it. This is the northern most point of Ireland, where rumors of northern lights and basking shark viewings had grabbed my attention. We saw neither, but instead took in a glorious sunset (Ty’s highlight of the trip) on top of the cliff, and watched dolphins leaping in the waves below. Because we were out on the head, the sunset was unobstructed 360 degrees around, and because it was Ireland, there were gorgeous puffy clouds throwing the light and colors all around.
During the sunset spectacle, we chatted up a local who lived down the road and invited us back to bottle feed his calf. Bob the calf was 3months old, pure white, and much like a dog to James, the friendly local. We fed him around 4 gallons milk in just a few minutes, then played with James’s cat and chatted up his neighbor while James’ playfully chased Bob back to his barn. We were too tired to take James up on his offer of coffee in the house – which was hard to do, but we hadn’t eaten and it was already dark, and we were still almost an hour from home. This was definitely a highlight of the trip- meeting and hearing about James’s life (he is roughly our age, and works various jobs to make ends meet in addition to small scale farming), feeding the calf, and generally taking strangers up on offers we wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing at home. In the photo below you can see about 3 houses. One of them belongs to James. The other presumably belongs to another James, since in a town so small there aren't house numbers, there are four James Donaghues).
On our way back, I stumbled upon a high point for me: on the side of the road, just a block outside of downtown Carndonaugh, sits the Donagh Cross, the oldest celtic cross in Ireland, dating to the time of St Patrick. While I’m not convinced of the sainthood of Patrick, I am a sucker for religious archeology, and spent a good while pondering the iconography of Jesus, ravens, and King David carved by much older hands into this beautiful 1200 year old cross, which resides next to a crosswalk in a tiny town that, according to James, thinks its just a silly tourist spot but a handy way to remember where to turn left to get to Buncrana. Only recently did I realize the Donagh cross and the Donaghue Jameses are the same Donagh. Ireland, so small.
Ah Buncrana, where you can’t get food of any kind after 7:30pm. We drove to three restaurants who were advertised as open until 9pm, but whose kitchens were all closed at 8:30. We ended up at our hotel, munching on peanuts and drinking silly girly cocktails (well, I was, and to be honest they were really tasty in a fruity slushy sort of way…and a nice break from beer. Ty still drank beer). Of course as we were wrapping up the bartender finally was willing to chat with us. Turns out he grew up in Derry and had apprenticed in the hospitality industry in Boulder CO after college. So we had plenty to talk about, despite being tired and starving. This is pretty much how I will remember Buncrana: harder than I expected, and more rewarding than I could have asked for.
I had been so flustered by Buncrana at first (no tourist-friendly food, sterile lodging, confusing roads), and so concerned about the toll that driving was taking on both of us (we had a 4 hour drive from Buncrana to Dublin a few days ahead) that I had spent a good hour one tired night trying to find a halfway point where we could lodge on the way back to Dublin, instead of staying longer in Buncrana and making the big drive in one day. But nothing looked more reliable, and we’d be forfeiting a prepaid night in Buncrana, so we stayed. How lucky for both of us that we did.