BELFAST ... ... and Beyond: The Charm of Northern Ireland

Article excerpt

Byline: JUDY WELLS

BELFAST, Northern Ireland - Trouble, almost as prevalent as the native love of music and fun, seems to have stalked Northern Ireland since mists turned grasses emerald green. Celts, Vikings, Normans and English all left their marks on the land and visitors need only look to the walls - hedgerows, stone, poignantly painted plaster and ugly steel - to see those marks.

PROUD REMINDERS

Belfast is a changing city where buildings share the landscape with cranes, from standard construction size to Samson and Goliath, the yellow giants by the Lagan River that are permanent souvenirs of its former ship-building fame. The Titanic and her sister ship Olympic were built here. It took six men to form and secure each of Titanic's 3 million rivets and as Belfastians say, "She was good when she left here."

In 1801 the population was 20,000. As the city became the world center for shipbuilding, rope-making, linen, printing and tobacco, it almost doubled every 10 years until in 1901 there were 303,000 inhabitants. Today, the number is similar, 305,000, but banks have become luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants are booming, the waterfront is being turned into an entertainment and condo center.

"The Troubles," as the fight between Protestants and Catholics came to be known, are largely over now and tourists have replaced militants. They find a warm welcome from its genial people, a wealth of natural beauty and a fascinating tangle of history and myth outlined by the walls. The battleground that was the walled-off inner city - the Protestant's Shankill Road, the Catholics' Falls Road - is now on the tourist bus route. You won't soon forget the International wall, a tribute to civil rights struggles from the African-Americans of slavery and the Spanish Civil War to a local view of the quagmire in Iraq.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER

Celts never wrote anything down but left a wealth of fanciful superstitions and mythology. Vikings had little lasting effect on the Christian institutions founded by St. Patrick but they did develop trading centers that became cities. The Normans destroyed and rebuilt in their own style.

The dark green of hedgerows, like stitches edging a crazy quilt of fields, look quaint to tourists but remind residents of English laws imposed to defeat the clans. Where once the eldest son inherited the clan's land, the English decreed that estates must be divided equally among male heirs. The Irish, known for producing large families, soon found lands that had supported an entire clan so fragmented that one holding barely supported a small family. Now the divided lands fill visitors' cameras with bucolic images.

DIVIDE TO SURVIVE

Rain is blowing at the Giant's Causeway, which is Ireland's most visited spot and justifiably so. Strange is the word for the 40,000 closely packed hexagonal columns of basalt that thrust up like multi-height pilings for a giant bridge. Only the most sure-footed venture out far on the rain-slick pedestals.

Much easier to believe than the scientific explanation of cooling lava is the Irish myth of the giant Finn McCool, who built it because he wanted to walk to Scotland, first to woo his wife, Oona, then to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn challenged Benandonner, but wasn't ready when he showed up, so Oona put Finn in a baby crib. When Benandonner arrived he was so shocked by the large baby he wanted no part of its grown father and ran home, ripping the causeway apart as he went.

DIVIDE AND RENAME TO MAINTAIN

Derry has been a settlement since the 6th century. In the 17th century King James set it up as a city, renamed it Londonderry and gave it to the London guilds to settle. The famous walls surrounding it were built between 1613-18 as protection from the rebellious Irish. When the Catholic King James II was deposed, the Irish supported him but the Protestants within the walls did not. …

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