Saturday, 28 June 2014

IV Ireland: St Columba's Gospel Book

   The crossing didn’t throw up many surprises, thankfully, and we reached Belfast at about 6o’clock in the evening. Happily finding that I could start walking straight away, within 10 minutes of disembarkation I got an excellent view of a Common Tern, which duly took its place in my burgeoning stockpile of photographs. I recalled a joke one of the presenters on BBC Radio Scotland had come out with some weeks before:  

“I once ate a seagull for lunch – but then I had a nasty tern.”

Common Tern (Sterna Hirundo)

   The weather was showery, sometimes heavily so, but this meant another, almost neon rainbow above a former tobacco factory. I judged that a residential area I came to was probably loyalist, if the profusion of union jacks and pro-Northern Ireland/UK murals were anything to go by. One of the most striking, though in retrospect not surprising things about Northern Ireland, was the extent of security measures surrounding police stations, and their fortress-like appearance – forbidding observation towers, narrow slits in reinforced concrete rather than windows, and more razor wire than you could shake a stick at. Getting somewhere near the centre of town, I reconnoitred a possible sleeping place or two, amid and underneath a tangle of motorway flyovers. Visiting a mall to find something to eat, a security guard greeted me with a jocular ‘Hi Clint’ when he saw me arrive in my over-sized poncho. In a burger bar there I took the opportunity to update my diary, then eventually found a suitable ‘camp-site’, accessible via some thicket, underneath a railway bridge and just out of sight of a motorway slipway.

   It wasn’t a great sleep due to exposure to cold wind, but on the morning of Tuesday 14th May, St Matthias’s Day[1], I made my way to St Patrick’s RC Church for what turned out to be a funeral Mass. Subsequently reinvigorated by a cup of coffee in a nearby caff, I also wrote a couple of postcards; reproductions of an exquisite painting which hangs in the church by Sir John Lavery, ‘Our Lady and the Lakes’. My next assignment was to find Belfast City Post Office, in order to pick up a batch of ‘Child 31’ DVDs that had kindly been sent to me from Craig Lodge, for collection poste restante – these would prove to be super gifts. Then I went to Belfast’s main library to spend some time on a computer, establishing the whereabouts of the city’s main youth hostel, on route to which I walked along Great Victoria Street and past the Europa Hotel, reputedly the most bombed hotel in Europe[2]. Nearby, I took a photo of Belfast City Hospital, which is a dead ringer for a building called ‘The House of Soviets’, alias ‘the monster’, in Kaliningrad, Russia. The ‘Titanic’ connection between these two cities is also perhaps of interest – the doomed ocean liner was built in Belfast, hence the city has at least one restaurant named after it. The Hollywood film of 1997 however was made largely in Kaliningrad, for which reason one used to able to see a ‘Titanic’ restaurant there too, until it went under.[3] After checking into the multi-storey hostel, another thing of note I did that day was phone a travel clinic whose number I’d obtained from Belfast’s main tourist information office. The NHS receptionist however said I’d need to wait a fortnight for an appointment, which was a non-starter, but my fortunes would improve in this respect next day. Meanwhile the tourist office also had orientation info, relating to pilgrim trails associated with St Patrick, but my compass clearly needed to be set for Dublin, via Armagh.
Belfast City Hospital

The House of Soviets

   On the internet before setting off next day, Thursday 15th May, there was quite an entertaining news story about a CIA agent (Tsyerye’ushchnik in Russian) being caught red-handed in Moscow, with some rather chortle-worthy accoutrements, including wigs and several pairs of sunglasses, though the spook himself didn’t appear to see the funny side. Unusually, directly outside the hostel that morning there was a bomb scare; once given permission to escape from the temporarily closed-off area, my rucksack got caught slightly as I tried to bow down under a police cordon. Heading south I came to a place called Dunluce NHS Health Centre and, thanks be to God, was able to make an appointment to discuss inoculations at 10.30 on the next day morning (Friday). Near the edge of town I identified a bothy behind a derelict house which might later prove useful, and continued on through the pretty village of Moira, amid a welter of union jacks. An information hoarding provided details of a major battle here in AD637, fought between the forces of King Congal of Ulster and his rival Domnall II, High King of Ireland, of the Uí Néill (O’Neill) clan, who is believed to have emerged the victor after a fearful week-long fight. Then, not particularly late, reaching Magheralin I decided to settle for a place to sleep in a disused garage, whose walls were daubed with Loyalist graffiti which fell somewhere short of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.[4] Before Bedfordshire I enjoyed reading part of a mill-dewed copy of Sir Robert Louis Stevenson’s Galloway-set adventure story The Master of Ballantrae which I found there.

[1] The Apostle whose appointment by the drawing of lots is described in the Book of Acts, and who is traditionally believed to have preached the Gospel, and suffered martyrdom, in Africa. 
[2] Apparently this was because the pub opposite was a favourite haunt of journalists, so an explosion in the Europa Hotel would be certain to generate headlines in the next day’s paper.
[3] ‘The Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic was built by professionals’.
[4] A question which arises here, perhaps – what hope would there have been for a Good Friday Agreement, if the opposing factions were still celebrating Easter on different days?

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