The Ireland Series: So You Think You Can Drive?

I drove in Ireland. For those of you who have never done this, it is no small feat. Adopting the opposite side of the road was an easier than thought adjustment, but the narrow width of country roads in addition to that is a harrowing experience — my passengers would likely agree.

Stressing about my upcoming foray behind the wheel for weeks, nay, months before actually doing it, I was determined that fear would not hold me back from discovering every part of my destination: County Clare.

Being on the opposite side of the road itself only worried me when in connection to bustling city streets and traffic — if I could survive the roads leading out of Belfast, I could survive anything. Voices and fists raised in road rage were a common theme to my imaginings of what it would be like. Visions of my head out the window, teeth gritted, yelling “I’m doing my best!” accompanied the potential spectacle.

Three nights before I took the wheel, my cousin Danny gave me the best advice that made driving a snap. “Not problem at all, Tara. Just keep the center line to the driver’s side of the car and you can’t go wrong — that’s what I do when I’m in America.” He was right… in the city and highways.

It turns out, country roads are selective regarding the center line. Some divide roads into impossible expectations, others are missing altogether where I’m guessing even locals know it would be laughable. Many roads, such as those we explored off the coastal highway, are the width of a single lane.

It was day three of our driving adventure, we were wrapping up day two of exploring scene locations for my novel, and I was doing great! My passengers lived through some bushes and branches grazing their windows a couple times when we passed other vehicles, but they were supportive of my newly acquired skills. We all agreed that the tour buses were trying to kill us — you’ve never truly tested your driving skills until you’ve driven a small SUV toward a bus full of tourists in western Ireland, one side of the road a rock cliff going upward, the other side a drop to the rough Atlantic Ocean beating itself in harsh wind against boulders.

Flat tires on ocean side cliff roads are a funny thing… there is nowhere to pull over other than the three inches hugging a shrub covered rock face.

The Airbnb I had rented in the sleepy hamlet of Fanore is run by an amiable Belgian named John. John is the proprietor of three well appointed apartments, two with sea and Aran Island views and one with a Burran view, above Siopa Fán Óir, a little shop which doubles as the Craggagh Post Office, next to Vasco’s Cafe and Restaurant.

If you are driving the Wild Atlantic Way in County Clare, you’ll know Fanore, found between Ballyvaughan and Doolin, by O’Donoghue’s Pub, a bright blue fixture you can’t miss. Locals and tourists alike sit outside enjoying the extended daylight hours or inside imbuing camaraderie as they listen to local musicians. Expect relentless wind that wraps the scent of salt water around you, through your hair, and up your nose. It is alive. Oh, and don’t forget the pints.

Stranded on the cliff road north of Fanore with the aforementioned flat, traffic not giving a damn that we were taking up one side as they continued flying alarmingly close to us at 60 mph, research assistant #2 — a.k.a. my boyfriend — decided that there was no way he was letting research assistant #1 (see previous post) or I out onto such a treacherous road to help while he changed the tire. It was also life threatening to change the tire and handle such traffic singlehanded.

We called John.

What we didn’t know is that John’s sons, whom hadn’t visited in about five years, had arrived that morning. This is how we found ourselves on a perilous Irish cliff road, cursing a careless driver as well as a wayward rock, living its dream to be part of the road, welcoming the chivalrous aid of three Belgian men. One directed traffic while two put on a spare more suited to a bicycle rather than a car. Research assistant #2, use to getting me out of these situations, was forced to accept that Ireland and hospitality go hand in hand. They wouldn’t let him help — such acquiescence not easy for a hands on guy.

Donut affixed, we doddered the ten minutes to Fanore facing the fact that it was 7 pm on a Sunday and we had to find a replacement tire. Technically, we needed to find a “tyre” we learned, as that is how it is spelled in Ireland. There was no way research assistant #2 was going to fly off to his business meeting in Germany the next morning leaving us with no transportation, so the quest began.

It turns out, the man who owned the shop below our apartment knew a tyre guy. Of course he did — that shop has everything, including handy local contacts. A tyre guy who works on Sunday evenings? You can’t even find that here. Problem was, he only takes cash.

Scraping together what funds we had between the three of us, research assistant #2 and I ventured off with three goals in mind: 1. Fix the tyre, 2. Find an ATM to replenish our Euros, and 3. Take up John’s recommendation: Seeing the Cliffs of Moher at sunset, after hours, when most people think it’s closed.

It’s not closed — How do you close a cliff? A little known fact is that the Cliffs of Moher, which charges by the person and not by the car at the gates to the parking area, are free to the public after the parking attendants and shopkeepers leave for the day (which varies upon the season).

The shop owner also told us where we could find an ATM — Ennistymon or Lahinch, both 35 minutes away. Tyre guy on a Sunday night? Sure, 10 minutes away. ATM? At least 35. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that one.

John Sparry sells and changes tyres out of a stone, single room, single story barn that is a couple hundred years old on his family farm land in Doolin. He is everything a writer wants to find when exploring the Irish countryside. At a guess, I’d say he was close to 70, good-natured and stoic with a dash of sarcasm, wearing a wind-blocking jumper, flat cap, and boots stained by years of hard work. The man is strong as an ox, despite his slightly bowed frame, and can put a tire on a rim and have it on your car in 10 minutes flat. He’s even been to Boston, twice.

As a bonus, he has a persistent dirt clogged, dreadlocked farm dog named Ozzy who will bark non-stop at you and paw your leg countless times if you stop petting him.

During the short time we were there, John received a call about a flat tyre, and while he was giving these kindred souls directions on the phone, another car pulled up to procure his services proving I am not a bad driver of Irish roads at all. John is clearly making a killing in this side job of his.

There wasn’t much distance from John Sparry’s between Ennistymon and Lahinch, but since Lahinch is just south of the Cliffs of Moher, we headed that way. The wind had died down and the coming sunset was golden, reflecting off the water at Lahinch Beach as we parked.

Sunset comes late in Ireland in the summer, close to 10 pm, so it was an easy decision to stop along the boardwalk for some prosecco on a pub veranda before hitting up the ATM. If you’re ever in Lahinch, do it. Time stands still.

It stands still so long that you nearly forget the entire reason you’re there, which is how we found ourselves scrambling to find the ATM about 30 minutes later so that we still had time to make it to the Cliffs.

We found the ATM — it was broken. This is how we learned that Lahinch only has one ATM. At that point we either lose seeing the Cliffs at sunset, or go to Ennistymon so that we were prepared for the next day.

We headed for the Cliffs of Moher.

 

It was all worth it.

(Side note: If you find yourself along the Wild Atlantic Way, I recommend John from Airbnb for your accommodations — he is attentive, communicative, and knows interesting secrets about the area that only locals know. John Sharry, honest and a good man, can fix your tire, even if it’s on a Sunday evening. And don’t forget Siopa Fán Óir, the little shop that has everything that you forgot to bring. It has everything you’ll need… well, except an ATM.)

The Ireland Series: Have Times Changed?

Research trip to Ireland — check!

Sell the house — check!

Resume blog posts — and…check!

My research trip to Ireland, over three weeks in duration, was geared at exploring resources I was unable to get my hands on via books or electronic means. This spanned collecting old newspaper clippings, getting a visual on buildings my characters encounter in their daily lives, to choosing exact locations where some of my scenes take place or once stood.

Some streets and buildings in my novel are near the current Peace Wall in Belfast, something that didn’t exist in my novel’s timeframe. Many streets no longer exist — civil wars have erase them. In the shipyard area, German bombs have wiped them off the map.

That doesn’t decrease the value in witnessing where they were.

When material things are lost to history and become intangible via computer, actual physical proximity is the closest substitute. To see a wall you wrote about and say to yourself, “Yes it’s brick as I imagined, but across the street it’s stone” — those are crucial details to a writer. These are the minute details often glazed over by the reader, but researched with dogged determination by the author.

My novel is mostly set in Ireland in 1920, during Ireland’s War of Independence. It was a time of political strife all over Ireland, with sectarianism rampant in the North.

Sound familiar?

The Airbnb apartment I rented for two of my three weeks in Ireland was in the “gay quarter” of Belfast, totally unplanned and totally awesome. The view from the eighth floor stretched across the city allowing me to see past the River Lagan over into the hills beyond East Belfast, Stormont, the seat of their currently non-functioning government, visible. News channels divided their segments between the upcoming marriage equality march outside Belfast City Hall, the aftermath of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London, and the status of how tall the bonfires were growing in the Loyalist sections of the city in anticipation of July 12, Orange Day.

The nights were filled with city lights, laughter, and the faint sound of music from local pubs and dance clubs. Seagulls nested atop the building across the street, much to research assistant #1’s — a.k.a. Mom — avid delight. I received daily updates on their developmental progress. She never did get to see those lazy avian juveniles take flight.

Belfast is still a city divided in many ways.

It’s better than it use to be, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t continuing issues. Religion and politics have always been an area of contention, now increased racism (some labeling it the “new” sectarianism) and anti-LGBTQQIAAP regulations join the fray.

While Ireland and Britain legally support equal marriage rights, in the north of Ireland marrying who you love in whatever form love comes is not an option. Kind of asinine since that area of Ireland is still under Britain’s control, yet its residents aren’t given all the rights of UK citizens. If you are a gay/queer couple in London, you can get married under UK law. If you are a gay/queer couple in Belfast, you can’t.

The same country runs both.

Chin up, my friends. I witnessed your rainbow flags flying out several of our complex’s windows and couldn’t wipe the grin from my face at the sight. Fight on, you brave heroes, your day of equality is coming.

Roaming the city streets of Belfast on foot with my iPhone GPS as a guide, I got to know Belfast better that I ever had before. I love the independence in going wherever I want in foreign countries, stopping to learn about unexpected finds, wandering down lanes off the tourist track that call to me. It’s my preferred way of traveling. Put me on a schedule and the experience is tarnished. Set me loose and I’m in my element.

In Belfast, there are still Loyalist (usually Protestant) and Nationalist/Republican (usually Catholic) neighborhoods, although there are more “mixed” neighborhoods than there use to be during the Troubles. And guess what? Google maps doesn’t care what your religion or politics are, it just wants to get you to your destination via the quickest route. Google maps doesn’t care that my father was an Irish Catholic from Belfast and my mother an English Protestant from the UK.

So it happened that, for the first time in my life, I walked through Belfast neighborhoods with the Union Jack flying everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. This is the normal state for Loyalist neighborhoods.

Nationalist neighborhoods aren’t allowed to fly the tricolour (the Irish flag).

Loyalist territories were ramped up ten fold during my time in Belfast as they prepared to celebrate Orange Day commemorating the Battle of the Boyne and the defeat of King James II (the Catholic king) by William of Orange (assuring a Protestant throne). Think bonfires throughout the night of July 11, higher than buildings, that burn so hot and close to homes that windows need to be boarded up to protect them from damage.

And they aren’t innocent bonfires.

      

These bonfires are made of hundreds of wood pallets and old tires that choke the air with thick black smoke covering the city with the stench of burnt rubber (I’m sure the environment loves that). The occasional couch or mattress has been deemed burnable by the bonfire makers.

Atop most is the tricolour as well as effigies of Nationalist politicians and heroes, Loyalists showing exactly what they think of these items/people. The worst I saw this year was blatant racist remarks written on a banner about Celtic football player Scott Sinclair. Why? Because he plays for an team favored by Catholics and happens to be black.

And this wasn’t the first time.

These aren’t bonfires of celebration, they are bonfires of hate. They are bonfires meant to rub something that happened 300 years ago into the noses of fellow residents/citizens.

Do I think all Loyalists/Protestants in Belfast are racist? Not at all. But for fuck’s sake, if it happens in your neighborhood, slap those eejits upside the head and say NO, THAT’S NOT OKAY.

I will also tell you, bonfires occur in Nationalist neighborhoods as well to commemorate when internment wrongly went into effect in 1971. For many years, the fires were wide spread, a tit for tat situation. Now, Republicans aligned with Sinn Fein have retired the tradition and there are far less bonfires. In 1988, West Belfast turned that time of year into a week long community festival, receiving much praise and turning a negative point in their history into a celebration of Irish culture.

July 12th parades aren’t the same sort of parades we have here in the United States.

There are no fun parade floats, high school marching bands, or large cartoon balloons. These parades consist predominantly of men in dark suits marching to flute and drum bands playing the same tune over and over again — It’s all seriousness, that of a demonstration mindset.

 

The City Centre shuts down for most of the day. It use to close for weeks due to all the rioting and troubles that occurred surrounding that date. Armored police cars are out in full force, although the police on my street were pretty unconcerned. From my window looking down to the alleyway, a group on five armored trucks and eight policemen were positioned. During the nearly three hour parade, one policeman was checking his phone for 2.5 hours, one was reading a book, and three lay down in their vehicles to take a nap. Clearly, they weren’t expecting any trouble.

The level of trash post-parade is atrocious and costs the city millions. I’d never seen that level of uncleanliness after a parade. I don’t think anyone bothered to attempt to find a trash can. Groups of men didn’t bother to find a toilet, bantering in rowdy, drunken groups while urinating in building alcoves.

On July 12, most of the taxis won’t run from the city center to other parts of town, so like all typical Americans, we called an Uber. Our driver, from England with African roots licking at his accent, talked of being burned out of his “mixed” area neighborhood in Belfast. And he wasn’t talking of mixed color. He was talking about mixed nationalities, mixed religions.

How can you decipher a person’s religion when most Christian religions have no outward physical telltale signs among followers?

It’s easy to notice someone is a different religion if they are required to wear a yarmulke, bindi, or hijab denoting such, but how do you tell a Protestant from a Catholic purely on appearance? They both may or may not wear a cross.

In Belfast, if someone is in a neutral territory and wants such information, this religious determination is done on the sly. Covert questions such as “What school did you go to?” or “What football team do you root for?” tells the questioner all they need to know. The answer tells them neighborhood, religion, how they will view that person. Whether they may be a friend or foe. It’s their way of saying “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”

In the case of our Uber driver, he “can’t wait” to leave Belfast and return to England. I don’t know what his religion was, what his political views were other than thinking Belfast “is insane,” but I do know that when driving into West Belfast, the Catholic area in which my relatives live, he smiled and said “This area is good. Here they accept all people, are friendly, talk to you.” Pride sparked within me at his statement.

I’m not naive enough to believe that there aren’t some Nationalists in West Belfast that are equally troublesome as some in Loyalist areas, but there is something to be said about a man, on neither side, who lives with racism, sectarianism, and rights opposition on a daily basis making such a positive statement about your “home.” Perfection? No. Improvement? Yes.

That’s how change begins.

 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead