Monday, 4 August 2008

On colours, services and heights

TotS Irish Adventure: Days Four and Five

August 2nd and 3rd

‘Brigadoon’ is a Lerner and Loewe musical about a small town in Scotland, not on the map, which appears for only one day every 100 years. The inhabitants of the town experience each intervening hundred years as if it was overnight, but this is not a curse, instead it helps them to preserve their heritage and their village. For us, Rathdrum has become a sort of Brigadoon, proving almost impossible to find, yet a place of peace and rest at the end of a day. Basically, we chose to stay here because it was reasonably priced, centrally placed, and available (a difficult set of things to find during peak season in Ireland). However (like most places in this part of the world) Rathdrum also has a history, largely associated with Charles Parnell, as it is the site of the “Parnell National Memorial Park”.

In brief, Parnell (1846-1891) was described by the Prime Minister of England at the time, William Gladstone, as the most remarkable person he had ever met. Although an Irish Protestant landowner, he was also a nationalist political leader, land reform agitator, Home Rule MP in the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and both the founder and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. His career fell apart, at the height of his powers in 1890, because of an affair with Kitty O’Shea (a married woman) and his naming as the co-responsdent in her divorce. He married her in June, 1891, but died in October of that year after catching pneumonia at a public meeting trying to resurrect his political career. He featured on the Irish £100 note before the change to Euros. Although his birthplace was a property called Avondale, in Rathdrum, he is buried in Dublin where there are also numerous memorials, statues etc. to his life. Hopefully, our journey from Rathdrum to Dublin, this morning, will not be quite so momentous.

The weather is bright and sunny as the day begins and we repack Kylie with all our luggage. Unlike travelling into Rathdrum we have no trouble getting out and the relatively short journey up to Dublin is accomplished relatively quickly. Although we travelled this road before only two days earlier, on that day we were very tired after the long journey so it feels like we are experiencing things as new. The outer suburbs are much as outer suburbs anywhere we have been and the boys comment on the similarities with parts of Brisbane. Interestingly, like Brisbane, there is apparently a strong divide in the city depending on whether you come from North or South of the river, although in Dublin that river is the Liffey.

When we get into the city centre we park in the car park at the Westbury Hotel, opposite St. Stephens Green. This is a 22 acre space in the city centre and Ireland’s most prominent Victorian Park. It contains memorials to the victims of the Famine; to the father of Irish Republicanism, Wolf Tone; James Joyce; and W.B. Yeats. For us the most obvious feature is the Fusilier’s Arch, commemorating the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died during the Second Boer War. In between the park and the hotel is the final stop for the tram line into the city, which we contemplated riding because Meg and the boys had not been on a tram before. However, the tram had stopped service for a short while as we arrived so we postponed this idea.

Instead, we walked down into the main shopping precinct of Dublin, Grafton Street. Perhaps it was because it was the middle of summer but Dublin had a very relaxed and comfortable feel to it. People were smiling and happy and it felt like you were visiting someone’s home town. There was a busker dancing with his life sized puppet in the centre of the mall and people were standing around relaxed to watch. Many of the retail outlets were ones that we were used to, both from Australia and England, although occasionally we would happen across a different sort of shop, such as a cheesemongers. The architecture that surrounded the shops was certainly different to anything you might find in Brisbane, Sydney or Adelaide. We wandered down to the end of the mall to see some of the buildings from Trinity College, Dublin and the statue of Molly Malone at the bottom of Grafton Street, before entering the Tourist Information Centre, which is situated in a former church.

One of the things that we have discovered about Ireland is that they seem to have a thing for doors. Perhaps it is their reputation for friendliness and one way of capturing that is in making the entrances to their houses attractive. No matter how shabby the rest of the house might look the doors usually are well maintained and interesting. It is possible to buy calendars, books, postcards, posters and various other mementoes which feature the doors of Ireland. Wayne and the boys know this because Meg purchased a couple of these products herself. This didn’t, however, stop us from taking photos of other interesting doors during our travels and Dublin was an excellent place to undertake such activity. Various of the public buildings in Dublin were photographed, along with horses and carriages outside St Stephens Green, as we headed back to Kylie to begin the next part of our journey, up to Belfast.

As we look back upon our Irish Adventure this is one of the most stressful moments on the entire trip. There were two things which made it particularly so; petrol and Gaelic Football. You might remember from the previous e-letter that Kylie had been getting quite low on fuel as we approached Rathdrum the previous evening. As it turned out she had enough fuel to get us in to Dublin the next morning without refuelling, but that once we left the hotel it was imperative to refuel as soon as possible. As we made our way out of the city, northbound on Bolton Street, Dorset Street and Lower Drumcondra Road (it is all the same road, but it changes names every hundred metres or so) all of us were looking determinedly for somewhere to refuel the car. While the distance to Belfast is amazingly short, particularly for those of us who are used to Australia, where driving from one capital city to another takes many hours, we knew we did not have enough petrol to get us even halfway there.

How did Gaelic Football make this trip more stressful you might be asking? As it turns out, this weekend saw the beginning of the final series for the All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling Championships being held at Croke Park in Dublin. Croke Park is, according to the information we have been given, the fifth largest stadium in Europe. If you have attended any sort of major sporting event (such as a Swans - Collingwood game at the Olympic Stadium) you will know that this can have dramatic effects upon the traffic in the area local to the stadium. A quick glance at a map of Dublin will likewise inform you that Croke Park is a block away from the route on which we were attempting to travel. You will understand, then, that what would have been a few minutes drive under normal circumstances took significantly longer on this day, hence the increase in our stress levels as we searched desperately for fuel.

Australians are noted for their fanaticism about sport. If anything (perhaps because of the size of the country and the proximity of one county to most of the others) Ireland seems to be even more so. Everywhere that we went we could tell when we had moved from one county to another because of the change in the colours of the banners that we came across. Some places (such as Wexford County, which we visited on our first day in Ireland) were awash with flags, banners, signs and other paraphernalia proclaiming the owner’s allegiance to the local team. In Wexford this meant lots and lots of Maroon and Yellow; in most of Dublin we had seen large amounts of Dark Blue and Light Blue. As we got closer to the stadium it appeared that a rainbow had eaten something unhelpful and projectile vomited over the area. Everywhere we looked there were people wearing (and selling, and carrying) all sorts of different colours representing their team.
Eventually, we made it out of the immediate area (which extended a few kilometres past the park corresponding, as it did, to the distance normally sane people are prepared to walk in order to not have to pay extra to watch their football team) and our drive north was less restricted. What it was not, however, was blessed with an abundance of service stations. Nor even one. Much as we have discovered in England, in contrast to Australia, it is frequently very difficult to find somewhere to refuel in Ireland because there just aren’t as many service stations around. Perhaps it is something to do with the distances involved. Possibly it is because much of the area was already built up before the domination of the motor car and, therefore, there were a much more limited number of sites available on which to build one. Maybe it is just that we haven’t worked out the complex radar necessary for detecting a service station that only a local would have. Whatever the case, we managed to make it from the centre of Dublin all the way along the main route out on to the M1 Motorway heading north to Belfast without passing a single one.

Surely, we thought as we neared Dublin International, there will be a service station (or services as the British call them) near an airport. After all, people who have got off an aeroplane need somewhere to refuel their car before they head home. Brisbane Airport has a service station in between the Domestic and International Terminals. The entrance to Adelaide Airport has one. Kingsford-Smith in Sydney feels like it is on top of all the fuel reserves of NSW when you are flying in and out of there. Yet we passed the turnoff to Dublin Airport without a single indication of anywhere to refuel. By this time, Kylie was not just running on the smell of an oily rag, but on the dream she had once had of an oily rag being waved vaguely in her direction. Then Quinn noticed a sign indicating that fuel was available at the next turn off. We coasted in holding our breath as to whether we would make the last few hundred metres and filled Kylie. As we drove away, recovering from the stress, we noted that we didn’t see another indication of fuel for at least 50 kilometres. Thank goodness for Quinn’s eyes.

It is not that long since that a journey from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland would involve having to stop at checkpoints and producing identification, possibly even having the car searched. Both Meg and Wayne had grown up with stories on the news at night about the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and could name many of the towns and areas based upon where bombings took place. It is possible that 10 years ago, if we had brought the boys to Ireland, we wouldn’t even be attempting the journey we were making because of concerns for our safety. We were explaining these things to Brock and Quinn and we cruised across the border at Short Bridge without so much as having to touch the brakes. Indeed, the only real indication that anything had changed was that the name of the road became the A1, and all of the signs now had distances (or speed limits) which were in miles rather than kilometres.

Having had mostly reasonable weather up until now (alright, there was some rain every day, but nothing that had really caused too much grief) we were somewhat concerned to see massive storm clouds over the mountains (or hills, it was hard to tell from this distance) to the north and east of us. However, as we skirted Dundalk or our way up through Newry and Banbridge toward Belfast, we realised that most of the storm activity was over Carlingford Lough up to Newcastle, well to the east of where we were heading. It was only when we listened to the news the next day and heard about the flooding that took place in Newcastle (where many people were evacuated from their houses) that we realised how fortunate we were.

The reason that we had chosen to come to Ireland for this break was largely because of our friend Julie Boyd. If you have been reading our e-letters regularly you might recall that she was staying with us when we made our trip to Oxford a month or so earlier. Julie is originally from Belfast (although we met in Brisbane) and is currently there for a few months to be with her daughter and lovely new granddaughter, as well as looking after her grandparents. Her gracious invitation, and the promise of some accommodation, meant that we were all looking forward to catching up with her some more. As we got closer to Belfast we decided to check exactly where it was that we would be staying so that we might navigate ourselves in the right direction, so we pulled into the car park of a Sainsburys (a supermarket chain) to see if we could lay our hands on some sort of street directory or guide to Northern Ireland. Sadly, neither Sainsburys nor Argos had one; neither did the service station that we stopped at next. Meg asked the attendants but they did not know, however, another customer heard and gave us directions (indeed, we are of the opinion that if he hadn’t had to be somewhere else he would have driven there with us to make sure we were safe).

Moneyreagh (also spelt Moneyrea) is a small village in County Down, to the south east of Belfast near the northern end of Strangford Lough. Although it is possible to get to it from the south without going into Belfast at all, for us it was easiest to drive to the edge of Belfast and then drive along the A55 Ring Road before heading out to Moneyreagh. At this point we were fortunate to be able to talk to Julie on the phone and have her give us directions for the last couple of miles and then have her waiting out the front so that we knew we had made it safely. Although they weren’t there when we first arrived, we soon got to meet Zoe (Julie’s daughter) who also made us welcome, and Alyssa (Zoe’s daughter) who was initially shy but eventually warmed to us. Julie had warned us that she had to be out that evening but that meant an early night for us which was good because we all needed the rest.

The next morning we woke looking forward to a day without the pressure of travel. Julie cooked us a lovely fry-up which had sausages, eggs, tomatoes, bacon, mushrooms, potato bread, and soda bread. Then we needed to decide what we would do with our day. Unfortunately, Julie was busy but Meg had thought that a bit of retail therapy would help her to relax and Brock, Wayne and Quinn really wanted to see ‘The Dark Knight’. It was therefore decided to go down into Newtownards (called ‘Ards by most of the locals) to a combined cinema and shopping complex. The way into Ards took us through the town of Comber which, although small, has a number of claims to fame. Firstly, it was home to the man who built the Titanic, Thomas Andrews, who sadly went down with his ship. His brother, John Miller Andrews was Northern Irelands second Prime Minister between 1940 and 1945. Also, there is racing driver Jonny Kane who won the Formula Three championship in 1997 and is currently racing in the FIA GT Championship. There are other people and things connected with Comber as well, which is amazing given the size of the place.

The movie was ready to begin as we arrived, was very cheap and the boys all thought the movie itself was fabulous. Similarly, Meg had been on a shopping orgy so we were in a very good place on the way home (although somewhat concerned about how cramped Kylie was going to be in the future). Consequently, we decided to take a slight detour to one of the local places recommended to us by our hosts, the tower at Scrabo. This involved a drive up to the top of the hill which is part of Scrabo Country Park and parking in the car park of the golf course (which has fabulous views and would be lots of fun to play). There was then a fairly substantial walk up the remaining part of the hill which involved a couple of rest breaks for some members of the family along the way. Finally, there were the 135 steps up to the top of the tower itself, which Wayne, Meg and Quinn all ascended. Brock remained at the base of the tower largely because, for the first time in what seemed to him like forever, he had a clear signal on his mobile phone and was able to send messages to his friends.

The view from the top of the tower was magnificent and aided by the signs placed on each wall we were able to identify distant objects that we could see. This included a westerly view down the 10 miles or so into Belfast itself; some amazing views to the east over the Strangford Lough and the islands within it; to the south-west we could see the water tower at Moneyrea, to which we would be returning; and to the north east, so the map told us, the land we could see in the far distance was the coast of Scotland. Most fun, perhaps, were the views of the nearby airport and, for Quinn, being able to see his brother far below. The tower itself was built on a volcanic plug above Ards in 1857 as a memorial to Charles Stewart, who was the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry and one of the Duke of Wellington's Generals during the Napoleonic Wars.

Julie’s son, Martin works at his local church leading services and singing, so we had been invited to go to church that evening. After we had got back to Moneyrea we showered and changed in order to be ready to leave. As well as Julie, we were also accompanied by her grandmother and her auntie, the latter of whom normally lives in England but was over to visit. The service was held in a hall belonging to the Orange Order, which was interesting in itself, and Martin also did a good job leading the service. Afterwards we were asked the standard questions, initially about why we were in Northern Ireland, then why we had left Australia to go and live in England. Having had an excellent day we returned home to another good nights sleep in a house.

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