September 3, 2008

Are we still in Northern Ireland? “God, no...this is the Republic!”

Still searching for ancestors, we headed for Northern Ireland. Griffiths Valuations had also listed a couple of George Tanners in County Tyrone, so we went to get a feel for the place. Along the way we stopped first at the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast – an amazing place of towering hexagonally-shaped rock formations that are unique in the world. On the hike down the hillside, Jim found a rock face he declared the "most realistic, naturally occurring stone human face he'd ever seen" I must admit, I was less impressed, so I include it here so you can decide for yourself. We stayed the first night in Ballintoy in a hostel overlooking the sea. I found it an amazingly clear and restful place and decided to set up a desk in front of the window so that I could look out over the sea while I caught up on some writing. Jim hiked along the coast. In the evening we went to the pub to hear a local musician (who sounded like Willy Nelson) sing country & western, Elvis and traditional Irish songs. Jim and I watched as four local lads vied for the attentions of two pretty girls. The whole place had a ‘Local Hero’ sense to it including - when I stepped out of the pub - a motorcycle that roared past out of nowhere. Next morning we headed for Omagh and planned to stop on the way at Beagmore. I’d heard of Beagmore and was looking forward to – what I thought would be a powerfully wild and remote site. What we found was a gentrified and emasculated series of stone rings and cairns that seemed more like decorations for the tidy gardens and lawns that surrounded them – than the other way around. I said to Jim that the whole place felt to me like a sort of Megalith Disney World – soulless, heartless and flat. We looked around for a bit, but were not unhappy that the driving rain and cold whipping wind prevented us from spending more time there. We headed instead to the Ulster American Folk Park. Funded by the Mellon foundation, the park is a kind of living history museum (similar to Colonial Williamsburg) where a number of 19th century houses have been reconstructed and park employees dressed in traditional clothing tell visitors about the lives of the houses inhabitants.

Jim and I were interested in trying to determine which of the structures and lives depicted might have been similar to our ancestors’. Fueled by our experience at the Famine Museum, we were curious, as well about how the famine had effected the district. I asked one of the employees whether landowners in Northern Ireland had established workhouses and funded ‘assisted’migration as they had in the south and she seemed to bristle. She insisted that, while there had been migration, she’d never heard of any of it being forced. As we walked away, I said to Jim, “Is it my imagination, or was she defensive?” We were both surprised, particularly given our experiences in the Irish Republic where – not only were the questions we asked answered beyond our wildest dreams, but also some questions we hadn’t known to ask. The same experience was to be repeated several times before we left the park. There was a guardedness, a wariness that absolutely reflected the recent and very painful history of the place. Wounds are still fresh and the realities of the conflict too close for comfort here – the Omagh bombing that saw 30 people killed – happened just 10 years ago. There seems a reticence to talk too loudly, to let down your guard, to smile to freely, too relax too much. We felt tense and intrusive – and in the case of the Folk Park, like we were being fed a particular and prettified version of the past that repelled any attempts to look below the surface. Like Beagmore, it presented a history that was wrapped neatly and tied with a bow.

The next morning, we’d meant to drive through the town of Pomeroy – a possible ancestral homestead, but couldn’t wait to get back to the Irish Republic. We jumped in the car without breakfast and headed for County Meath. An hour or so later, in the town of Monaghan, we were starving and so stopped at a little café. We asked the waitress if we were still in Northern Ireland and she (almost horrified) said, “GOD, no...this is the Republic.”We laughed, relieved and felt like we’d come home.


Katie and Emir said...

i think it looks like a bearded man with a receding hairline...pretty good in my opinion, but i can't say I have many to compare it to. Those hexagonal rocks are unbelievable!

ibu kate said...

Oh like this is a rorschach test? One way up it looks like an old fat man eating a sour orange wedge. The other way up it looks like a pile of rocks.

BTW you are glowing in all the photos. Whatever you're on, I want some too....