We Canadians like to think of ourselves as northern. Our national anthem even tells us we live in “the true north strong and free.” Well, I’m about five degrees further north than I would be at home, and I’m planning to go further north over the next several days.
I’m currently sitting in a suburb of Belfast called Newtownabbey. It’s a pleasant, tidy, ordinary place, and I expect most of the people here are pleasant and ordinary. They go to work, come home and eat dinner, tend their gardens, and some nights go down to a local pub for a few pints with their friends. They watch movies that make lives like theirs look like a crime. They laugh at the dumb suburbanites, who are very much like them, when they are the butt of the film’s jokes, and then they continue on as before. Wash, rinse, repeat. I know. My own neighbourhood, my own life, is not so different. And it’s not so bad, either.
I woke up early this morning, and got myself ready for my last full day in Ireland for the next couple of weeks. Tomorrow I’m off to Scotland (and hopefully not to hail storms like they had today!), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today is what we need to deal with now. Tomorrow can wait.
After getting the bike mostly packed, I went down for breakfast in the hotel. If you find yourself in Bundoran (god knows why you would – but if you do) you could do worse than to stay at Fitzgerald’s Hotel. The barman/proprietor is friendly and gregarious. He remembers something about everyone, and makes it seem like he’s talking to an old friend, even when it’s just a guest he met less than an hour ago. The staff, generally, are helpful and pleasant, if not quite as affable as their employer. The rooms are spacious, the price is pretty good. The one downside is their proximity to a country & western bar, down at the end of the block. But you can’t choose your neighbours. Thankfully, as a motorcyclist, I travel with earplugs. Even better, last orders came relatively early – around one, I think, but I fell asleep with my earplugs in, so don’t hold me to that.
Anyway, breakfast. Which didn’t come with – or didn’t have to, anyway – beans, various “puddings” (really sausages), fried tomatoes, and so on. I ordered two eggs, scrambled, and bacon. They were puzzled that I didn’t want cereal to start. As it was, they brought me a basket of toasted breads (dry, as is the fashion here), a croissant, and a small dish of butter, along with my coffee and orange juice, prior to my order. That’s more than I normally eat in the morning as it is. I can’t imagine adding cereal and yogurt to that.
Once breakfast and the hotel bill were sorted, I set out through the north of Ireland, not to be confused with Northern Ireland, although that was my destination today. The GPS led me along the northern coast, past Letterkenney and Derry, across the international border on my way to the Giant’s Causeway. The morning was grey and cool and damp, like the day before, only this time it didn’t burn off until I was in Co. Antrim, and even then, it kept the temperature to 17C.
Along the way, I noticed that sheep had come to outnumber cows, as they had in Connemara the day before. In most of Ireland, cows are the dominant livestock. Dairy, I expect, is one of Ireland’s top exports, the others being Guinness, whiskey and Irishness (a.k.a., “charm”). From the sheer number of B&Bs, I’d say their main import is tourists.
I arrived at the Giant’s Causeway a little after noon. This is no €8 tourist attraction, let me tell you. It’s an £11.50 tourist attraction. When you work out the exchange… But why? It’s a holiday. We’ll count the cost later.
Anyway, it’s a spectacular site, the result of ancient volcanic activity creating the interlocking basalt pillars that seem to form enormous stepping stones. Of course, the less prosaic explanation is that an ancient Irish giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn MacCool) was challenged to a fight by an ancient Scottish giant named Benandonner. Fionn builds the causeway so the two giants can meet. There are similar columns from the same lava flow on the Isle of Staffa, and that may be how the myths originated. There are variations on how this turned out. No spoilers here, you can look it up for yourself. (I’d start with Wikipedia, and then look at the source materials.)
The causeway itself is a short distance from the village of Bushmill’s, where they make, of all things, Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey. The parking lot of the distillery was at least as full as the parking lot for the causeway, so I rode on past. As I did, I remembered being told that Bushmill’s was ‘Protestant whiskey’, while Jameson’s (and I assume this goes for all the others made in the Republic) is ‘Catholic whiskey’. I’ve never thought of whiskey as being associated with a religion, myself; although, it could arguably be a religion in its own right. I did notice in some of the pubs I’ve been in over the past few days that Bushmill’s, if they had any at all, was kept behind the other whiskeys. I haven’t noticed any similar religious or political tendencies with beer here. Guinness is just Irish.
There was a street festival of some kind in a village I had to pass through that required the GPS to do some recalculation of my route to Newtownabbey, where I’m staying for the night. Again, it sent me careening along narrow country roads, between overgrown hedgerows and beneath the verdant canopies of arching tree limbs, the motorcycle whirring happily along beneath me.
Tonight I sat for a while in a pub near the water and wrote postcards home. I had some ecumenical beer, and bangers and mash. It’s hard to believe this is my last night in Ireland for the next couple of weeks. I’m sad to leave it behind, but also looking forward to new roads and adventures.
The thunderstorms threatened by the weather forecast this never materialized. I hear they did in Scotland. With hail. In the Highlands. Where I will be heading tomorrow. I hope my Irish luck with the weather follows me!