It’s early in the trip; day three I think. We’re heading east along the south side of the Inveragh Peninsula (aka, The Ring of Kerry). It’s a ’soft’ morning, rain on and off, so we’re constantly donning and doffing rain jackets. As the road angles away from the coast and climbs higher, the rain stops, and the fog starts to lift. Jodi and I are riding together. Adele is somewhere ahead (as usual) and Ed is somewhere behind (again, as usual). Since we’re climbing, we are getting warm in our rain gear, so we pull over in front of a cottage to strip off the jackets and stow them away.
Two old men come out of the cottage and while one of them passes us by with a friendly hello and continues on his way, the second one stops and answers our ‘Good Morning’ with a question about where we’re going. I struggle at first to understand our new friend, his brogue is so thick. We start with some conversation on the weather. Then he comments that our bikes look quite expensive, and he ventures that they might have cost “as much as 300 euro.” He seems quite flabbergasted when we tell him they cost more like 1,000 euro, but he allows that “they look like nice machines.” Finally, we ask him what he has planned for the day. “A little bit of farming and a little bit of fishing,” he says.
Eventually, he tells us that property here is getting terribly expensive, because the Germans are buying up everything for vacation cottages. He also says the fishing is no good anymore. The sea level is rising. The weather is changing. And he allows that it’s all due to people “mucking up” the world. (Actually, I couldn’t quite understand him, but ‘mucking up’ is what I eventually decided he had said.) I feel a bit guilty, thinking perhaps he’s alluding to Americans and our selfish life-styles. But it is also very heartening to think that this simple-looking man living on the windswept coast of Ireland is well aware of something that the “Leader of the Free World” apparently can’t comprehend.
Later, on Sunday. We spend the morning cycling along Galway Bay, and finally riding the dual carriageway (divided highway) into downtown Galway. It’s now around 1:00 in the afternoon, we’ve had a bite to eat at the pub of a local hotel, and we’re walking our bikes around a bit exploring before we have to leave town and continue on our way to tonight’s lodging. We hear some incredible jazz music coming from a bar, so we lock our bikes together on the sidewalk and try to get inside. The place is jammed, and we squeeze just inside the door where we can see the band. They sound so good, and the vocalist has a gravelly voice that makes me think somehow Louis Armstrong himself is here. It’s quite a shock to see that the musicians are all Irish.
It’s so steamy and jam-packed inside that we retreat to the sidewalk and lean against the building listening. Some people walking by stop to listen. Others dance a bit as they continue on their way. And still others walk by oblivious. Finally the band takes a break between sets, and we mount up and make our way out of town.
It was on a Tuesday afternoon that we approached the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Everyone I had talked to previously that actually knew anything about Northern Ireland had assured me that traveling there was no big deal. But lots of people who knew absolutely nothing about it were not so sanguine. Some thought we were risking life and limb by coming here.
I had my worries. But they were rather minor ones. If I had to ask directions from people, how would I know whether to refer to the city as Derry or Londonderry? Republicans called it Derry, and Loyalists called it Londonderry. One of the local radio stations referred to it as Derryslashlondonderry. The other thing that nagged at me was my wardrobe. I traveled with a minimal selection of clothing. My off-bike ensemble consisted of one pair of shorts for warm weather, one pair of long pants for cool weather, one coolmax T-Shirt, and one long-sleeve button-down shirt. No problem. Except that the T-shirt was orange. Would my orange shirt be interpreted as a political statement?
So, it was a rather long day riding from Dungloe to Derry. As we approached the border in the afternoon, I was starting to wonder what we would find. Army check points? Warning signs? Anything? We started seeing British plates on the cars, so knew we must be getting close to the border. We were on the road following the river towards Derry.
We didn’t get much help from the folks at the TI. All they told us was that there was no way we were going to find anything inside the Walls. They tried to steer us to B&B’s out in the suburbs. Not willing to take no for an answer, we took one of the free tourists maps of downtown, locked our bikes up outside, and walked up the hill and into the old walled city. We spotted a hotel on the tourist map and headed that way. Walking in off the street, we asked if they had any rooms available for tonight. Just one, came the response; 30 per person bed and breakfast. Sold! We even lucked out and a cancellation came in as we were registering. So, we booked the second room for Ed, then headed back down to the TI to retrieve our bikes and gear, and to leave word for Ed where we would be.
During the afternoon the streets are bustling with people. All the shops are open, but a private security guard watches every door. And at six sharp, everything but the pubs close, and the steel shutters come down. After eating in the hotel bar, we head out for an evening walk. The streets are nearly empty now, and it is easy to notice the cameras everywhere. They’re in the hotel lobby, the bar, on the outsides of buildings. Near the center of town, there’s a huge tower with an enclosed platform protected by chain-link fence suspended about 10 feet out from it, where, we presume, the police and/or soldiers can surveille while being protected from thrown objects. And the top of this tower is festooned with dozens of cameras pointed in all directions.
Just down the street from our hotel is the central square of the old walled city. From here, you can see all four of the original gates in the wall. We saunter down towards one of these gates and climb the stairs up onto the top of the wall. As you circumnavigate the wall, there are plaques at various places that explain the original fortifications as well as some of the history that has taken place here. But most interesting is looking out into the neighborhoods below. Outside of the walls on either side of the town center are big housing estates. On one side live the Republicans. On the other live the Loyalists. Between the two areas, there is a 12 foot chain-link fence, topped with some kind of net fencing that rises to probably 25 feet or so. The ends of some of the building are decorated with huge murals celebrating heroes of the cause. And everywhere, there is graffiti proclaiming allegiance to the various factional groups.
On this evening, at least, all looked peaceful. There were a bunch of kids playing soccer in a vacant lot directly below the wall. At either end of the field, fires burned in barrels. We could hear the kids calling to each other and laughing occasionally. But I’m happy we weren’t out walking through the streets of the housing estates. How odd it must be to live under constant surveillance, behind razor wire, in a place where the pub restrooms are kept locked and you must get the key from the bartender, so he could watch to make sure you didn’t carry any packages into the restroom with you.
The next day we took the train for about 30 miles, to avoid some boring suburban riding. The door from the waiting room to the train platform is kept locked until the train arrives and the platform can be watched over by train personnel. And later we noticed that most towns proudly proclaimed their allegiance to one side or the other in the form of banners and flags; “Welcome to Loyalist Larne”.
Even in the tiniest hamlet, chain link and razor wire fences surround the local police station. If you want to stop in and ask directions, you must first press the buzzer and explain your business, before being allowed through the locked gate so you can approach the building. We were warned not to take photographs of police stations.
But this is also where we saw the ruins of ancient castles. Where we scrambled around the rocks of the Giant’s Causeway. Where we crossed the rope bridge at Carrick-a-rede. And it is also the place where we spent our last day flying into Belfast on the dead flat road hugging the east coast with a great tail-wind pushing us along.
In Belfast, the police patrol the streets in armored cars. The British army patrols the streets wearing Kevlar and carrying submachine guns. Every few yards, the column stops and the soldiers scan the nearby rooftops, then continue on their patrol. And we sit on benches in front of the city hall and watch them go by, enjoying the lovely evening.
This is the place our President referred to as “Merry Old Ireland” when he landed there this past summer. What a twit.
Copyright © 1996 - 2011 Allen F. Freeman