Easter rising commemoration: Providence, RI

24 April 2016 Sunday afternoon, Providence, Rhode Island

We’ve been back from Ireland for nearly a week now and most of us are rested and recovered from jet-lag. But our Irish history lesson is not yet at an end.  On the radio this past Friday, I heard Rhode Island Public Radio political correspondent Scott MacKay interview Donald Deignan, the founder of the 1916 Centennial Remembrance Committee of Rhode Island.  The group had raised money to construct a memorial, a plaque mounted on granite stone, to honor those who fought in the Easter Rising, and planned an unveiling ceremony on the centennial anniversary of the Rising.  Several of us thought this would bookend our trip nicely, so Frances, Bob and I made the journey downtown after church.

Ireland had been under some form of British rule going back as far as the 12th century and this was formalized in the Union Act of 1800, which dissolved the Irish Parliament and created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  Moderate Irish nationalists supported some form of home rule as a compromise of sorts, but the Irish Republic Brotherhood (IRB) wanted complete independence from the British crown and planned the insurrection that would become known as the Easter Rising. The rebellion was launched on 24 April 1916, beginning with Patrick Pearse’s reading of the Proclamation (an Irish declaration of independence), signed by Pearse and six others.  The Rising had been planned for months, with participation from the Irish Citizen Army and the women of Cumann na mBan.  Despite the fact that the British were involved in World War I, it took the British Army only six days to quash the rebellion. The seven signers of the Proclamation, along with eight others in leadership positions, were swiftly executed, most by firing squad. (Eamon de Valera, born in New York City, was spared probably because the British wished to avoid a confrontation with the Americans. He would later journey to Rhode Island to ask for support during Ireland’s War of Independence.) Prior to the Easter Rising, support for Irish independence was tepid at best, but the brutality of the British response turned the tide of public opinion toward support for independence, with the executed revolutionaries viewed as martyrs. The War of Independence and an Irish civil war followed the Easter Rising. The hostilities ended in 1922, with 26 of the 32 counties in Ireland becoming the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) and the northern six counties—Northern Ireland—remaining a part of the United Kingdom.

In 1916, one in four Rhode Islanders had some connection to Ireland. The vast majority of Rhode Islanders with Irish heritage—either themselves or their ancestors—emigrated here during the potato famine.  The failure of the potato crop, which sustained many subsistence tenant farmers, resulted in the starvation deaths of a million Irish and the emigration of another million to North America.  According to Time magazine’s Robert Schmuhl, the emigrants arrived in this country with little more than the clothes on their backs and a hatred of the British.  Most wanted to see their homeland independent and free from British rule.  This nationalistic desire was passed on to their descendants, who participated in today’s dedication ceremony.

The weather was perfect—a sunny, windy day, with temperatures in the mid 60s.  A small crowd gathered on the Providence River to witness the unveiling of the 1916 Easter Rising Memorial.  The memorial, draped in green cloth, was situated on the river walk near the Irish Famine Memorial, dedicated in 2007. Flags—Ireland, American, and Rhode Island—snapped in the breeze.

Donald Deignan was the master of ceremonies for the event. After a few opening remarks, he introduced local musician Sean Connell (shown below), who performed the national anthems from both countries—the Star Spangled Banner in English and the Irish national anthem in Irish. Many of the attendees knew the Irish national anthem and sang along. Rhode Island lieutenant governor Daniel McKee greeted the crowd and Sean Connell performed The Foggy Dew. This was followed by a stirring reading of the Proclamation by Tom Kelly.  Sean Connell performed the song Pádraig Pearse, and then the Reverend Bernard O’Reilly and Kathy Greenwell unveiled the monument, to the delighted applause of the crowd. Father offered a blessing, then Gerald Carroll read the names and the execution dates of the 1916 revolutionaries. The ceremony closed with Sean Connell’s performance of A Nation Once Again.


The ceremony was concluded, but several of us lingered to take photos of the newly unveiled Easter Rising memorial and the Irish Famine Memorial.  It was a perfect day to be downtown on the river, with sweeping views of the Providence skyline to the north and the Iway bridge and Narragansett Bay to the south.

While doing research for this post, I learned that the 1916 Centennial Remembrance Committee of Rhode Island has prepared a display at the Providence Public Library, 150 Empire Street, called “Rhode Island Remembers Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising.” A copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Ireland’s declaration of independence read by Patrick Pearse, will be on display. There were 50 copies of this flyer printed, and only about a dozen survive.  Those of us on the Ireland trip viewed two copies, one at Trinity College and one at the Ambassador Theatre. The exhibit at the Providence Public Library runs through 31 May 2016.

The ties between Ireland and Rhode Island, established in the mid-19th century, are strong, and remain so today.


Reflection and going home

19 April 2016 Tuesday morning

Fortunately I had said my goodbyes to my fellow travelers at our farewell dinner last night, because I was so exhausted that I slept through my alarm.  The Rhode Island contingent was lucky; our flight wasn’t due to depart until 4:30 pm this afternoon, so that allowed us time this morning for a leisurely breakfast, rest and reflection.

I had breakfast with Bob, then finished packing and then decided to go for a walk and explore the town of Dunboyne, where our hotel, Dunboyne Castle was located. The proximity of the town to Dublin (and a bus that will take you there) no doubt allows residents of the town to commute to Dublin for work. The high street area is small, but features a pub, a few restaurants, a school and two churches. I was able to go inside the larger of the two churches, its interior was modern.  I explored the older of the two churches, St. Peter’s, a Church of Ireland church; it was smaller and was associated with a small graveyard and a school.  I wasn’t able to go inside, unfortunately.  The churchyard was quiet and peaceful, despite its close proximity to the high street.


Returning to my room at the hotel, I opened the window to let in the sun and the breeze, made myself a cup of tea, and reflected upon my journey to Ireland.

There were 44 of us, from all over the United States—Washington state, Montana, Texas, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The Rhode Island contingent were Protestants; everyone else on the tour was Catholic. We traveled as guests of a major tour company, and our fabulous guides took care of every single detail of our journey.

We traveled together on a single coach, stayed at the same hotels, ate meals together, visited the sites in Ireland together, and learned all about Irish history together. We were Protestants and Catholics, young and old, liberals and conservatives, residents of large cities and small towns. In the current polarizing political climate where compromise and common ground seem impossible, it was very impressive that our group could learn about the atrocities our ancestors inflicted on one another while at the same time treating each other with kindness and respect. Some of us were acquainted with one another before the trip and others of us did not know each other at all, but we parted as friends, with hugs, best wishes, and promises to get together the next time our paths crossed.

There are many essays on the web written by adventurers who write very eloquently about their reasons for traveling.  Why do we travel? It opens our eyes, it educates and challenges us, it helps us discover things about ourselves, we create meaningful relationships. I learned that I could appreciate and even cherish people whose world view was different from mine. I learned to find the positive—appreciating the rich cultural and historical lessons provided to us by our fabulous guide as our coach flew along the Irish highways—rather than complaining that I didn’t have enough time to explore all of the sites at our previous stop. And finally, I feel more of a connection to my ancestors, who suffered so much and courageously made the trip across the Atlantic to build a better life for themselves and their children.

Fellow travelers, I miss you already—and if your travels ever take you to Rhode Island, please come to visit us!



18 April 2016 Monday afternoon

Our last destination before heading to Dunboyne Castle, where we would spend our last night in Ireland, was Monasterboice, an ancient ruin of a fifth century monastery established by St. Buithe.  The name Monasterboice is a part-anglicization of the Irish name Mainistir Bhuithe meaning “monastery of Buithe”. There are the remains of two churches and a round tower, as well as three high crosses. The monastery, like many others, suffered attacks from the Vikings.

The round tower has the door at high level due to the deposit of soil over the passage of time; since the towers were built as protection during an attack, the doors were typically not built at ground level.


Our tour guide Jennifer had carefully researched the interpretations of the stories depicted on the high crosses and we visited each in turn as she described each cross to us. As described in an earlier post, the high crosses were carved with pictures of Bible stories so that the monks could describe the stories to their followers, many of whom could not read.  The first cross, Muiredach’s cross is one of the finest high crosses in Ireland, according to one of my sources. The North and West crosses have suffered more damage due to the elements.

St. Patrick’s Trail

18 April 2016 Monday morning

Downpatrick (from the Irish Dún Pádraig which means Patrick’s stronghold or fort) is a town about 20 miles south of Belfast located in County Down, Northern Ireland and it is here that we began today’s journey, following in the footsteps of St. Patrick.  Downpatrick is located in the Lecale area on the northeast coast, nearly surrounded by water—Strangford Lough on the north side and the Irish Sea on the south side. Our goal today was to experience as much as we could of St. Patrick’s Trail, a 92-mile driving route that connects landmarks associated with Ireland’s patron saint. The trail begins in Armagh (which we visited Saturday) and ends in Bangor (which we did not visit), but most St. Patrick-related attractions can be found within a small geographic area in Downpatrick, so that is where we headed after breakfast this morning.


When St. Patrick arrived in Ireland, the Celts had already been on the Island for nearly a millennium. Ireland at that time consisted of a number of small kingdoms or clans, each with its own king. A single “high” king, located north of what is now Dublin, would nominally have been in charge, but there really wasn’t a centralized government at that time. The Celts were sun-worshipers and conducted elaborate solar rituals. In 55 AD, the Romans invaded England, but they left Ireland (which they called Hiburnia, or Land of Winter) alone, figuring that it wasn’t worth the trouble of conquering. This meant that Ireland was largely unaffected by the fall of the Roman empire and didn’t suffer through the Dark Ages. Quite the opposite in fact, because it was around this time that the monks began to establish monasteries that would serve as centers of education and culture such as Clonmacnoise described in an earlier post.

St. Patrick was part of this so-called age of saints and scholars, and to learn all about it, we stopped at the St. Patrick Centre in Downpatrick and met our guide, Dr. Tim Campbell.  We first viewed a video describing St. Patrick’s life before venturing out into the countryside to see the landmarks for ourselves.

St. Patrick was born around 400 AD in Britain, the son of a cleric who owned a large estate. (Yes, you read that correctly—St. Patrick was English, not Irish!) At the age of 16, he was kidnapped, brought to Ireland, and served as a shepherd’s slave. He managed to escape at the age of 22 and made his way to the coast where he was taken in by a group of sailors who took him to France. There, he studied to become a cleric, eventually becoming a bishop. In 432, he felt called to return to Ireland “the land of my childhood nightmares” to convert the Celts to Christianity.

With that brief history lesson as the backdrop for the morning’s short pilgrimage, we welcomed Dr. Campbell onto the coach and headed a few miles out of town to Saul Church. It was here that St. Patrick landed upon his return to Ireland, where he met a local chieftan named Dichu, converting him to Christianity. Dichu gave St. Patrick his barn and some land to build his first church (the name Saul comes from the word sabhall which means barn). The view from the top of Saul Church was rolling countryside and farmland, and the sea was just visible on the horizon.  Entering the church provided a brief respite from the cold and wind (but it was partly sunny and not raining!) to receive a greeting from the priest who was the church’s caretaker. The church where we were sitting was a newer church built on the site of St. Patrick’s 5th century church. From the church grounds we could see the top of Slieve Mountain and we could just barely see the large statue of St. Patrick that was erected there in the 1930’s to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of St. Patrick’s return to Ireland. It was a beautiful, peaceful setting and we spent some time snapping photographs, trying to capture the atmosphere before getting back on the coach and heading back to town.

Our next stop was the highlight of today’s tour—the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, or Down Cathedral. It is built on the Hill of Down, on the site of the ancient fort from which the town gets its name, just a few flights of steep stairs through the grove to St. Patrick’s Centre. A high cross replica (the original is in the Down Museum to protect it from the elements) stands at the front of the cathedral.  The church would have begun as a monastery that was founded after St. Patrick’s death (on 17 March), but is now a Church of Ireland church. We entered the church and sat down near the box pews and were introduced to our guide Joy, who regaled us with informative history and amusing anecdotes. We then braved the cold and the increasingly blustery winds to view St. Patrick’s grave.  Dr. Campbell told us that there were three saints buried at this site—St Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columban.  A large slab of stone covers the grave, with the word “Patric” and a cross carved into the stone (unfortunately not visible in my photo below).  Dr. Campbell told us that people emigrating from Ireland had the habit of collecting handfuls of soil from the site before they left, to remind them of home. The stone was placed on top of the resting place to discourage this practice and preserve the grave site. Joy told us a hilarious story of members of a tour group from Albany who, upon hearing this story, stopped in the gift shop to buy thimbles which they then filled with soil! Joy discovered what they were up to when they asked her for sellotape to secure the soil in the thimble!

We returned to St. Patrick’s Centre and split up into small groups, with some electing to eat at the centre’s café while Steve, Chris, Barb and I headed to Murphy’s pub. While the three of them lingered after lunch to savour their Guinness (and lament that lunchtime Guinness was a habit they would miss when they returned to the States), I took the opportunity to do a little exploring on my own.  I walked down several streets and saw the clergy widow’s houses (now private residences), Denvir’s coaching inn, and the Down arts centre. But my favorite spot was the grove, a small wooded area that occupies the hillside between St. Patrick’s Centre and Down Cathedral. Despite its small size and its proximity to the bustling town, it is surprisingly tranquil and a nice place for some quiet reflection.  I found a plaque which commemorated an occasion when John Wesley preached here. The photo below shows the view of Down cathedral from the grove.


The town of Armagh is also on the St. Patrick Trail, and we visited this site on Saturday. Referred to as the “ecclesiastical capital of Ireland since the 5th century” in one of my sources, the town of Armagh features Georgian architecture, a public library which houses a first edition copy of Gullivar’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and two cathedrals—both of them named St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one new, one old.  The older of the two, situated on Sally Hill, is a Church of Ireland cathedral with a crypt that dates to the mid-13th century. St. Patrick came to Armagh during his travels and reportedly engaged in some serious negotiations with the local chieftan to all him to build a church on this site. The church’s crypt is the final resting place of Brian Boru (whose harp is displayed in the Long Room at Trinity College as described in an earlier post), the high king who defeated the Vikings in a battle in 1014 that cost him his life. We were unfortunately unable to visit this church because the narrow drive up to the top of the hill could not accommodate our coach.

The second St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a Catholic Church and is perched on an opposite hill at the top of an enormous seven-flight staircase and offers a nice view of the city. Since the Catholics would have lost the older church during the Reformation, they built this cathedral post-emancipation in 1906. But it was built in the medieval style, so it looks much older, and it is a beautiful church.

Before we said goodbye, Jennifer thanked Dr. Campbell and expressed appreciation for his teaching and his message for teaching about the life of St. Patrick as a vehicle to “bring people together.” It was a message that he repeated several times during his presentation.  As an example, he told us that the centre’s café was staffed by adults with developmental disabilities.  Irish history is one of conflict—of culture, religion, and nation-building.  The idea that the patron saint of Ireland, who preached in this very area so many years ago could provide a message of healing and unity was inspirational.  And with these thoughts and others, we boarded the coach and headed for Dublin.

Northern Ireland and the Troubles

17 April 2016 Sunday morning

This morning, we boarded the coach for Belfast, stopping at Belfast City Hall where we picked up our guide, Ken. Belfast City Hall (shown below) was built in 1906 of white Portland stone in a classical Renaissance style and its grandeur reflects the wealth of a city at that time, renowned for its linen, rope-making and ship-building industries. With Brian at the wheel and Ken at the microphone, we were give a whirlwind tour of Belfast and a description of much of its history.

city hall.jpg

In the early 17th century, Protestant settlers from England and Scotland moved into the area that is now Northern Ireland, choosing the area for its rich farmland, and establishing a cultural identity supportive of the British crown. In the 19th century, Belfast was the main Irish city on the forefront of the Industrial Revolution while most of the rest of the island remained rural. Following the Irish War of Independence in 1922, 26 of the 32 counties in Ireland became the Irish Free State that became the Republic of Ireland in 1949. The remaining six counties were unified into the country of Northern Ireland and remained part of the UK.  Northern Ireland supported the Allies during World War II while the Republic of Ireland remained neutral. Ken explained that most of the buildings we see today are new, since Luftwaffe bombing destroyed much of Belfast during World War II. Belfast was a target because of its shipbuilding industry was important to the war effort.

As the bus wended its way through the city, Ken’s pride in his city was evident as he named the many inventions with Belfast roots—the tractor, the pneumatic tire, the ejector seat, defibrillators, even Viagra.  Ken pointed out Queen’s University and named its famous alumni, including Lord Kelvin (who devised the absolute temperature scale) and Nobel Prize winners. Passing concert halls and theatres, he named famous people who performed there. He showed us the best Belfast pubs and notable churches.

Finally, we entered North Belfast, ground zero for the “Troubles”, a thirty-year period of guerilla warfare waged between Protestant “unionists” or “loyalists” who considered themselves to be British and who supported ties with Britain, and Catholic “nationalists” who considered themselves to be Irish, who opposed the drawing of the border in 1922 and supported one Irish nation completely free of British rule. Though the unionists were Protestant and the nationalists were Catholic, the conflict was political and not religious in nature.

Northern Ireland nationalists, inspired by the civil rights struggle in the US led by Martin Luther King, began a nonviolent struggle for civil rights, agitating for better housing, fair voting laws, and an end to the employment practices that discriminated against Catholics. In 1972, a nationalist peaceful protest turned violent when the British Army, claiming that they were being attacked by the protestors, fired upon them, killing fourteen. The nonviolent struggle turned violent virtually overnight as a result of the killings on “Bloody Sunday.” The violent clashes between the Protestant unionists and the Catholic nationalists would rip apart two communities, span 30 years, claim more than 3600 lives and leave tens of thousands injured. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was a breakthrough peace treaty that crafted a power-sharing agreement and the resulted in the release of prisoners held for Troubles-related crimes on both sides. As part of the peace process, an inquiry by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair concluded that the Bloody Sunday protesters were innocent and that the killing of the fourteen was unjustified.  That same year, Nationalist leader John Hume shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Unionist Leader David Trimble. In 2010, the peace process took a giant leap forward when Prime Minister David Cameron issued a full apology, saying, “What happened on Bloody Sunday was unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.” There are those who still support a unified Ireland, but as a consequence of the Good Friday peace accord, nationalists agreed to pursue their goals through democratic means.

Today, this painful history is recorded on a series of murals in the Bogside neighborhood of Belfast, along Rossville Street and Lecky Road, where the original 1972 march took place. Ideally, one would follow in the steps of the marchers, but alas, our schedule was tight and we were only able to view the murals from the coach.  Luckily it was Sunday and traffic was light, so Brian was able to drive slowly, even finding places to pull over, so that we could fully appreciate this urban art form.

The most astonishing site for most of us this morning, I believe, was the peace wall, a Berlin-style wall built to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.  There isn’t a single wall but a series of walls meant to minimize violence between the two communities. Some of the walls are a few hundred yards long; we saw one section of the wall separating the unionist Falls Road and the nationalist Shankhill Road that is three miles long. Some walls have gates that are open during the day and closed at night; our coach actually drove through a gate that Ken referred to as Checkpoint Charlie.  The walls provide a canvas upon which many murals are painted and are of interest to tourists but to those living near them; sadly, they still provide a sense of security even though the Good Friday Agreement is nearly 20 years on.


Our tour concluded, we bade goodbye to Ken and then Brian took the Protestants to service at St. Ann’s Church and the Catholics to mass at St. Peter’s Church.  After the services, he picked us up and we were together again.

Beleek Pottery

16 April 2016 Saturday morning

Today was mainly a travel day, but we made a few stops along the way to break up the long drive. We stopped at Tobernault Holy Well, an outdoor shrine that allowed Catholics a place to worship in secret during the times when the Penal Laws were enforced. The shrine featured a well-fed spring and a “mass rock”, a flat stone that served as the altar during mass.


We also stopped at the small church cemetery in Drumcliff, County Sligo where poet, playwright and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats is buried. Around lunchtime we crossed River Erne into Northern Ireland, Beleek, County Fermanagh and visited the Beleek Pottery factory.

Beleek pottery.jpg

The company was founded in 1849 by John Bloomfield, a mineralogist who inherited a large estate in the Beleek area and, upon surveying his newly acquired property, noted the abundance of minerals in the soil.  He was horrified when he saw the devastation that the potato fame had wrought upon the town of Beleek and he wanted to start a business that would provide a source of employment for his tenants. A pottery business was a natural choice because the soil contained the minerals needed for the construction of ceramics and the property’s proximity to running water would provide a power source to drive the kiln. Bloomfield forged partnerships that provided money and talent for the fledgling enterprise and even persuaded the powers-that-be to construct a railway line to Beleek for the purpose of delivering coal to fire the kilns and for exporting the finished products to markets in the US and Europe. Soon the pottery produced at his factory was winning awards at the Dublin Exhibition.  The accolades caught the eye of Queen Victoria, who commissioned many works for her private collection and soon Beleek pottery became a must-have fashionable accessory among the well-to-do.

Beleek pottery is well-known for its production of Parian porcelain, a type of bisque porcelain (so-called because of its color) named after the Greek island of Paros, renowned for its sculpted marble. Parian porcelain is designed to mimic the look of sculpted marble, but because the porcelain can be made by pouring a liquid into a mold (rather than carving), the porcelain can be mass-produced. In the early days of the operation, the factory produced earthenware, but following World War II and the installation of electric-powered kilns, the company produces only Parian porcelain.

Our tour guide on today’s factory tour was a lovely young red-haired woman named Una. Since we were visiting on a Saturday, the factory wasn’t in operation, so in lieu of watching the workers in person, we were shown a film that described the process of creating the beautiful, unique porcelain pieces.

The entire process begins with a design, and then the conversion of the design to a master mold, which is made out of plaster and is hand-carved. From the master mold, a case mold is made, which can be used for about eight weeks until the pattern fades and the mold can no longer be used.  A new case mold then must be made, which is used for about two years. Master molds are archive and Una told us that the company has molds dating from the early years of factory operation in the mid-19th century.

The construction of the porcelain begins with the preparation of the slip, which consists of China clay, feldspar and potash. It is a liquid with the color and consistency of thick cream and is delivered to the work area via pipes in the ceiling (the video showed us an older system which involved a worker making many trips up and down stairs, heavy buckets of slip in hand).  The slip is poured into molds and then the excess is poured out.  After about 2-3 hours of drying, the clay shrinks, releasing the material from the mold. Once the piece is dry, excess clay and seams are removed from the piece, then the piece is fired in a kiln for 24 hours at 1200◦C.  The firing changes the color of the piece so that it is darker in size (the color of bisque) and smaller in size. The piece is glazed and put back in the kiln and when it comes out, it is inspected for flaws.

In the video we observed with a mixture of horror and fascination how pieces with the slightest imperfections are smashed to bits at this point. Beleek pottery does not sell seconds. Una showed us a piece with a chip and asked for a volunteer to smash it. Steve volunteered, and placed the offending piece in the bottom of a closed box and was then given a long pole to smash the piece. I think he may have enjoyed himself a bit too well!

If the piece passes inspection, it is given a trademark stamp that guarantees authenticity.  The design is changed every 10-12 years, but each version features an Irish wolfhound, a harp (the emblem of Ireland) and a tower. The piece is then hand-painted, then fired again in the kiln for seven hours at 700◦C.

The Beleek pottery operation is perhaps most well-known for its delicate porcelain baskets, a design introduced in 1865 by William Henshall. The preparation of the clay requires an additional ingredient, gum arabic, that produces a stiffer material. The baskets are then woven by hand from extruded spaghetti-like strands of the clay mixture. The woven baskets are decorated with hand-made detailed flowers and vines fashioned from clay and one basket can take an extremely skilled artisan two full working days to produce. The photo shown below is actually one of the simpler designs; the baskets can be quite intricate with hand-painted flowers and other designs.


The tour ended, we thanked our gracious guide and strolled through the museum and then, of course, the gift shop.  The pieces produced by Beleek are exquisite and very dear, but the prices are understandable once one considers the time-consuming skilled craftsmanship required to produce each piece.

Our visit to Beleek pottery concluded with lunch in the tea room, and our meal was served on Beleek pottery, of course.


Back in the coach and on to Belfast!

The Titanic Experience in Belfast

17 April 2016 Sunday afternoon

This afternoon, a subset of our group visited the Titanic museum in Belfast, located in the very harbour where the great ship was built and launched. The Belfast harbour area has been renamed the Titanic Quarter and its main attraction is the museum, named The Titanic Experience which is a futuristic six-story building featuring four hull-shaped wings. It’s definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in Belfast. The photo below is from the web (obviously, the blue sky gives it away) because I wasn’t able to capture the entire museum in my photo.

Titanic Belfast

The Titanic was built in Belfast, a project of Harland and Wolff, a company that is still in operation, and is still involved in shipbuilding, repair and marine engineering. The main focus of the company’s 21st century activities is offshore wind farming. But in the 20th century, shipbuilding was the company’s claim to fame—they built all of the ships for the White Star Line, and of course the most famous of those ships is the Titanic. The Titanic Quarter skyline is dominated by two large Harland and Wolff cranes, nicknamed Samson and Goliath (one is pictured below; this is my photo and gives a more accurate picture of what today’s weather was like). These cranes were constructed in the 1970’s (and are still in use today; you can see Samson in operation in this YouTube video) and were obviously not used to build the Titanic, but their presence in the harbour gives a nice visual backdrop to the area which was once well-known for its shipbuilding prowess.


The company was founded when Edward Harland bought the shipyard from his employer in 1858 and made his German-born assistant Gustave Wolff his partner in 1861. In the early part of the 20th century, Thomas Andrews was hired as the ship architect and it was under his direction that the ship Olympic and the two Olympic-class sister ships Titanic and Britannic were built.  The chairman of White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, was facing competition from Cunard (the company that built the Lusitania) and his response was to build a number of ships that would provide passengers with an unrivaled luxurious experience, similar to that of high-end hotels of that era.

The first level of the museum “Boomtown Belfast” describes the thriving linen, rope and shipbuilding businesses in Belfast that brought workers in from the surrounding countryside seeking employment.  A simulated telegraph allows museum visitors to send “marconigrams”, telegraphic messages like those sent on the Titanic (and named for Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio.) The second level “The Shipyard” featured Titanic blueprints and working models of the twin gantry that was constructed so that two ships could be built at the same time. The Olympic and the Titanic vessels were essentially constructed in parallel. Also at this level was the “shipyard ride”, a Disneyesque ride consisting of suspended pod-like structures that took us through various scenes depicting the working life of the men who labored in the shipyard and illustrated some of the important structural features of the ship’s construction, such as the overlapping hull plates.

The third level “The Launch” describes the procedure involved in releasing the ship into the river and tests carried out in the open waters of the Irish Sea. The fourth level, the “Fit-Out” describes the lengthy process of constructing the passenger cabins and other living spaces for the first,- second-, and third-class passengers. The museum featured models of each of the cabins to give us all an idea of what on-board ship living would have been like. An interesting film (shown on three walls) progressed from the bottom of the ship to the top.

When all was ready, the Titanic sailed out of Belfast Harbour to Southampton to pick up passengers and supplies. A second stop was made in Cherborg, France to pick up additional supplies, mail, and continental Europe passengers.  A brief stop in Queenstown, Ireland, and the ship set sail for New York.

On the fifth level of the museum “The Maiden Voyage” we meet some of the people who traveled aboard the Titanic—wealthy patrons such as John Jacob Astor and his wife, Benjamin Guggenheim, Macy’s owner Isidor Straus and his wife, Denver millionairess Molly Brown and many others. The White Star Line president J. Bruce Ismay was aboard (who survived the sinking), as well as the naval architect Thomas Andrews (who did not). But the ship also carried a great number of third-class “steerage” passengers who were members of the working class emigrating to America in search of a better life. The White Star Line prided itself on providing a better quality experience to the third-class passengers than other passenger ships in operation at the time.

The sixth level of the museum is called “The Sinking”.  Audio recordings of actual survivors were very powerful, as well as a transcript of the telegraph messages between the Titanic and the Carpathia.  But overall, this area of the museum disappoints. Having viewed extensive photographs, videos, models and reconstructions that describe the design and building of the ship in great detail, it is very disappointing that the museum’s exhibit on this floor does not explain what went wrong beyond the ship-hit-an-iceberg-and-it-sank explanation that we all learned in first grade.

Level seven describes the aftermath, the rescue of the passengers in the lifeboats by the Carpathia and the heroism of the rescuing ship’s captain, the public outcry at the great loss of life, and the new regulations put into place to ensure that a tragedy of this magnitude would never happen again. A large movie theatre featured the exploration of the sea floor by Dr. Robert Ballard’s team, who found the wreckage in 1985. And of course, no exhibit would be complete without mentioning the several films that have been made about the tragedy.

But as usual, there was too much to see and too little time, so we made our way out to the coach, where we knew that Brian would be waiting to greet us.

National Famine Monument and Croagh Patrick

15 April 2016 Friday afternoon

On our way back from Kylemore, we stopped at the Croagh Patrick visitor centre, which is across the street from the National Famine Monument.

Croagh Patrick is an important pilgrimage destination and the third highest mountain in County Mayo.

Croagh Patrick.jpg

Mt. Croagh Patrick (or Cruach Phádraig in Irish and known by locals as “the Reek”), has a long history that begins centuries before St. Patrick made his pilgrimage up the mountain. The Celtic people believed that the mountain was the home of the deity Crom Dubh. Women from Lughnasa would sleep on the summit of the mountain during the harvest festival as a fertility ritual. But these days, the mountain is best known for a Christian legend that describes how St. Patrick went up the mountain during the harvest festival in 441 AD and fasted for 40 days. Legend has it that during the fast, St. Patrick was attacked by snakes and chased them into the sea, banishing them from Ireland forever. It is true that there are no snakes in Ireland (or Iceland, Greenland, New Zealand and Antarctica for that matter), but the fossil record shows that there never have been, according to an article by James Owen on the National Geographic web site. Why is that? Scientists hypothesize that when the ice age ended 10,000 years ago, the climate became more hospitable for cold-blooded creatures, and as a result, the snakes returned to warmer regions in northern and western Europe. This would have included Great Britain (which has three species of snakes) because of a land bridge that connected the island to what is now continental Europe. But the rising seas that resulted when the glaciers melted covered the land bridge between Ireland and Great Britain some 2000 years before that, and the snakes (who don’t move that fast) never made it. (Rest easy, Indiana Jones.)  In fact, there are no other native Ireland reptiles either, with the exception of one species of lizard.

Scholars suggest that the legend is meant to be an allegory and that in bringing Christianity to Ireland, St. Patrick banished snakes of the metaphorical variety. Snakes are often representations of evil (an example is the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) and were also used in pagan rituals. Legend aside, the absence of snakes from Ireland is an environmental cautionary tale.  Introduction of snakes, by either the accidental or deliberate release of pet snakes, could wreak havoc on the fragile island ecosystem.

Other Christians have followed in St. Patrick’s footsteps, both in ancient and modern times.  Nearly one million pilgrims, some as an act of penance, climb to the top each year. The most popular day to summit is “Reek Sunday”, the last Sunday of July  when some 30,000 hikers will summit the mountain. Apparently the views from the top of County Mayo and the Connemara region are spectacular, but unfortunately we could not experience this because the climb was too vigorous and time-consuming for our group to undertake. The next visit, perhaps.

While some members spent time on the mountain, hiking part way to view the statue of St. Patrick, others in the group went across the street to see the National Famine Monument.  If you look closely you will see that the rigging of the ship is composed of skeletons. The title of the monument is “Coffin Ship” and it isn’t just a metaphor.  The potato famine, which lasted from 1845-1850 when an airborne fungus infected the potato crop, resulted in millions of deaths due to starvation and opportunistic infections such as typhus.  The Irish diaspora began when landlords, who could not collect rent money from their cash-strapped starving tenants, instead paid for their passage to America on so-called coffin ships. The conditions on these ships were so bleak that one in five passengers did not survive the journey.

Visiting this monument was surprisingly emotional for me, as my ancestors were aboard one of those coffin ships and managed to survive.  The strength and fortitude of my ancestors is astonishing and humbling.

Coffin ship

Coffin ship2



Kylemore Abbey

Today’s destination was Kylemore Abbey, a castle converted into a Benedictine abbey, located in the Connemara region on the west coast of Ireland.  We had a bit of a drive from Castlebar to the Abbey, so we had a chance to enjoy the scenery and learn some history along the way.

As we headed west from our hotel in Castlebar, the geography of the landscape dramatically changed.  Up until now, we had mainly traveled in the central plains regions, featuring flat grazing lands for sheep, horses and cattle. As we traveled west, the plains gave way to a rugged mountainous coastline.  Grazing land was also less plentiful and more rugged. Hardy sheep foraged for their food and horses and cattle were not to be found. The mountains in this region are made of quartzite and have weathered to smooth, brown cone-shaped peaks. It is early spring and the gorse and daffodils are in bloom, but the mountains are as yet smooth and brown. As we traveled further west and ascended further into the mountains, it became apparent that the boglands were being worked by hand. We could see that the top layer of peat (consisting of decomposed plant material) had been cut into turf bricks to dry to be used as fuel.  In the plains region, turf might be harvested by machine, or perhaps other energy sources might be used to protect the peat layer, a non-renewable energy source.


We reached Kylemore Abbey, the current residence of about a dozen nuns of the Benedictine order who are committed to a life of prayer, service to the community, and stewardship of the house and gardens  entrusted to their care.

The property is the legacy of Mitchell Henry and his wife Margaret, who visited the Connemara area during their honeymoon and decided that they wanted to relocate there. This became possible when Mitchell Henry’s father died and bequeathed a considerable sum of money to his son. That allowed Henry to leave a thriving medical practice and purchase the 15,000 acre parcel of land upon which to build a castle and a walled Victorian garden.  Construction of the castle began in 1867 and was completed by local workers, still suffering from the effects of the potato famine. Henry paid the construction workers a much higher wage than was customary at the time and apparently workers walked for miles for the opportunity to work at Kylemore. Henry was creative and innovative and designed a method of using water power to generate electricity. The walled Victorian garden contained 21 glasshouses (that’s greenhouses on the American side of the pond) that produced tropical fruits.  He set up a school on the castle grounds to educate the children of his tenants. He used his position of wealth and prosperity to advocate for the local Irish people and represented Galway in the House of Commons for fourteen years.


Henry and his wife had nine children and had a carefree life at Kylemore where they entertained guests and sponsored musical performances.  But tragedy struck when the family went on holiday to Egypt and Margaret contracted dysentery and died at the age of 45. Henry was devastated and arranged for her body to be brought back to Kylemore where her remains are interred in a mausoleum built on the estate. Henry also built a Gothic church in honor of his diseased wife. The church is a “cathedral in miniature” and features columns composed of marble from each of the four provinces of Ireland—Connacht, Munster, Leinster and Ulster.

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After Henry’s death, the estate changed hands several times until it was acquired in 1920 by the Benedictine nuns, who were forced to flee their abbey in Ypres, Belgium when it was bombed during World War I. At Kylemore, the nuns established an international boarding school for girls and a day school for the local girls.  Declining interest in this type of education led to the closing of the school in June 2010. Today, the nuns welcome visitors, take care of the property, prepare homemade food at the café and produce chocolate, soap and skin care products that can be purchased at the gift shop.

We all thoroughly enjoyed our visit, even though this day, more than any other, gave us a real taste of the changeable Irish weather.  We experienced a mix of sun and clouds, rain, wind, and then sun again all in the space of two and a half hours.  When traveling in Ireland, it’s best to bring both sunglasses and a raincoat. Our reward of a rainbow at the day’s end make it all worthwhile.

Irish history and Galway

14 April 2016 Thursday afternoon

On the coach on the way to Galway, our tour guide Jennifer summarized about a thousand years of Irish history in an interesting and engaging way so that we would be able to view the sites in Galway in the proper historical context. I continue to be amazed by the complexity of Irish history, and I definitely learn more with each site we visit.

In the early 12th century, the King of Connaught (Connaught is one of the four regions of Ireland; the other three are Ulster, Leinster and Munster) constructed a small fort and three castles on the site of what is now Galway.  The city was attacked a century later by the Anglo-Norman Burkes, who wrested control of the fort from the O’Flahertys and built a wall around the city, enclosing an area of 25 acres.  In the early 14th century, Galway requested and was granted by the King Richard III independence from the Gaelic Burkes. The city was largely under the control of fourteen ruling Anglo-Norman families (“tribes”), which—since the tribes were English—had the effect of isolating the city politically and culturally (as well as physically, as the wall built by the Burkes was extended) from its surrounding Gaelic neighbors. (The name Galway is derived from gall, meaning foreigner.)  The English ruling tribes did not have a good relationship with their Irish neighbors and went so far as to declare that “neither O’ nor Mac should strut or swagger through the city” without permission.

Under the auspices of the fourteen tribes, Galway thrived as a seaport and a trading center and the ruling tribes (and their support of the English king) brought prosperity to the city. Meat and grain were exported while spices and wine were imported from Spain and France. The Galway citizens excelled at shipbuilding and built a thriving fishing industry.

Galway went into decline during a series of wars in the 17th century. The citizens of Galway were mostly Catholic, and they backed an Irish rebellion that proved to be unsuccessful. The city surrendered to Cromwell after a long siege in the mid-17th century. In the mid 18th century, Catholics were ordered to leave the city. This decimated Galway’s role as a port city, since the members of the merchant elite were all Catholic. Further devastation of the city’s population occurred during the mid 19th century potato famine. Galway participated very little in the events that occurred in Ireland from 1916-1923. A 1916 uprising failed, and Galway was the headquarters for the British army during the War of Independence, thwarting the Irish Republic Army in their participation in the quest for independence.

With this brief historical context as a backdrop, our first stop was the Galway Cathedral on the Corrib River, the seat of the bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Galway.  While the diocese of Galway was established in 1831, it did not have a cathedral, so the St. Nicholas parish church served as the pro-cathedral. Construction began in 1949 following the demolition of a gaol on the site. It was dedicated in 1965 by Cardinal Cushing of Boston and is the newest of Ireland’s cathedrals. It is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven and to St. Nicholas. The cathedral is built of Galway limestone and the interior is breathtaking, with a large dome, an imposing recently-refurbished organ (I wish I could have heard it!) and marble floors made of local Connemara marble. Our stop was brief, and I didn’t pay as much attention to the stained glass as I should have. A Lonely Planet source reports that one of the stained glass windows features JFK praying at a scene of the Resurrection, but I didn’t learn about his until after my visit, unfortunately. I also learned after my visit that another stained glass window shows the Irish Holy Family, with Mary knitting and Jesus offering Joseph a cup of tea! The pews are constructed of west African mahogany and have a seating capacity of 1500.  The old gaol doors were recycled and used when constructing the cathedral.

Galway cathedral.jpg

Next we crossed the river into the city and Brian parked the coach near Eyre Square. We all spilled out, in singles, pairs and small groups to explore the city. I set off on my own and went for a long walk, enjoying the pedestrianized “high” street thronged with tourists shopping, dining at the pubs, and enjoying the many buskers providing musical entertainment.

At Eyre Square, after a quick picnic lunch, I spotted a sign advertising free 45-minute walking tours.  The guide would later confide to me that it was his second day in business, which explained why I was the only patron.  So I had my own personal guide to retrace the steps I had taken through the city to point out the significance of the sights. My guide was Joe, who had emigrated from Germany 30 years ago and married and settled in Ireland. Joe first guided me around Eyre Square and showed me the Brown door, which was actually a window that originated from a residence belonging to one of the ruling tribes of Galway. Another home has since been built on the site (which Joe pointed out to me later), but the window itself was saved as an example of early 17th century craftsmanship and prosperity. (In his Ireland travel guide book, Rick Steeves opines that very little of medieval Galway remains, so the city makes a big deal about what does remain.) Next to the Brown door was a fountain with a sculpture of sails reminiscent of the unfortunately-named “hooker” boats (so-called because the fisherman used multiple hooks on a single line) that comprised the 17th century fishing fleet. In a small corner of the square, which I hadn’t noticed before, was a small plaque commemorating the June 1963 visit of John F Kennedy to Eyre Square. Joe told me that his mother-in-law was in attendance at that event and still talks about it. In fact, Joe mentioned, the actual name of the Square is Kennedy Park, but everyone in Galway refers to it as Eyre Square, its original name. I’ve checked several maps since I learned this, and Joe is correct; every map I consulted refers to the space as Kennedy Park.  (Rhode Islanders reading this post will understand the motivation to call a landmark by its original name.)

At the top of the square are 14 flagpoles, each flying the flag of one of the original 14 tribes of Galway. Each tribe would have had its own castle, but only the Lynch castle survives to this day (it is now a bank).

Before we left the Eyre Square area, Joe told me that the statue that I had viewed earlier when walking around the city on my own (which was labeled in Irish, so I didn’t know who it was) was Liam Mellows, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Fein. He participated in both the Easter 2016 uprising in Galway (a similar but smaller skirmish than the one that took place in Dublin that was quickly squelched by the British) and the War of Independence.

We then left the square and proceeded down William Street.  Our first stop was a pub with an outside clock labeled “Dublin” time. Joe explained that before time was standardized, Galway was 20 minutes behind Dublin. The clock allowed the residents to know the time in Dublin, which was important because the trains ran on Dublin time. Joe also pointed out other interesting features of landmarks that I had missed on my earlier walk. The gargoyles on the church and the cathedral are hard to spot, so it was nice to have Joe point them out to me. The King’s Head pub was given to Oliver Cromwell after Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, and the king’s head, as it were, belonged to Charles I. The next block featured the Four Corners pub, which was, of course, located on the intersection of the main two streets of the city, in the same location as the two main roads in medieval time. We stopped to put a coin in the music case of a very accomplished woman playing  the Irish bagpipes. Joe explained to me that the Irish bagpipe has three octaves (the Scottish bagpipe has two) and according to Joe, the Irish bagpipe is “easier on the ears.”

Busker in Galway.jpg

The Claddagh village on the River Corrib no longer exists, but if you want to purchase a Claddagh ring, there were quite a few shops on the high street selling them. The ring features two hands (friendship) holding a heart (love) that wears a crown (loyalty). If the wearer of the ring positions it so that the tip of the heart points to the wrist, the wearer is taken, but if the heart points toward the fingertip, the wearer is available. Joe showed me his ring and demonstrated this for me, and was quick to properly position the heart back to his wrist to indicate that he was married (“in case one of my wife’s friends sees me”).

We were now at the end of the end of Quay (pronounced “key”) Street, where we had a good view of the River Corrib. Joe showed me the Spanish arch, another remnant from medieval times, which was the place where Spanish ships would unload their cargo (the wine trade between Galway and Spain was especially lucrative). Joe pointed out that the Spanish arch is in the shadow of a much taller modern building, a fact that irked long-time residents of the city. Joe also told me about the many festivals hosted by the city–an arts festival, an oyster festival, and horse-racing events.

We also talked about the Easter 1916 rising and Joe pointed out to me that many of the pubs were displaying posters of the original seven organizers of the protest, all of whom were executed by the English and were viewed as martyrs. Joe explained to me that the 100-year anniversary of the event was being commemorated throughout the Republic during 2016, and that many establishments were flying the Irish flag in support of the event.  The preponderance of flags hadn’t really made an impression on me, since the American flag is a common sight in our country, but Joe said that the Irish typically don’t fly the flag.

I needed to be back at the coach for the journey back to Castlebar, so we headed back, passing by the cathedral (a “pro” cathedral since the 1965 construction of Galway Cathedral), the Lynch castle, an archaeological dig site, and then finally we went through The Eyre mall, a modern shopping center that was obliged to incorporate the old Norman wall into one its interior walls. One of the towers was also still standing, incongruously, in the middle of the mall, and housed a small photography studio.

I gave Joe a tip, bade him goodbye, and boarded the coach.  Incidentally, if you happen to be in Galway, look for Joe’s “Free 45-minute Galway walking tours.” I hope his new business flourishes, and I highly recommend him as an engaging and knowledgeable guide.