August 22, 2013

First Days in Northern Ireland

"If you're lucky enough to be Irish, then you're lucky enough."  Unknown

Carol writes:  We used Stena Line ferry to cross the Irish Sea from Cairnryan, Scotland, to Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Stena Line offered a big, comfortable, modern ship complete with slot machines, optional pricey staterooms where you could catch a nap, and a spa for those who really wanted to pamper themselves.  We felt fortunate that the seas were very calm for the 2-1/4-hour crossing.

Soon we sighted the coast of Northern Ireland,

and in no time at all were had negotiated Belfast traffic and were checked into a campground from which we could make an easy day trip the next day to see two of Northern Ireland’s most famous sights—the geologic marvel at the World Heritage Site of the Giant’s Causeway, followed by the world-famous Old Bushmills Distillery.

The Giant’s Causeway was unlike any geologic formation we had ever seen.  Volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago formed lava flows which cooled into formations of 5- and 6-sided basalt columns which gradually separated from one another by means of settling and erosion.  There was one excellent spot where the height of the columns could be appreciated. 


For the most part, the columns themselves were buried underground and only the top surface was visible, creating what looked like a geologic alligator skin which sloped gently into the sea.



Of course, that is the scientific explanation for how the Giant’s Causeway was formed.  Irish legend has it that a giant Ulster warrior named Finn MacCool made a stone bridge across the Irish Sea so he could spy on a rival giant living on an island off the coast of Scotland, and indeed, the Giant’s Causeway formation extends undersea all the way to the island of Staffa just off the coast of Scotland.  Perhaps there is really something to that fairytale version…

For a change of pace, we made a stop on the way back to the campground at nearby Old Bushmills Distillery, makers of world-famous Irish whiskey (whiskey with the ‘e’ in Ireland) at what is claimed to be the world’s oldest distillery.  An interesting half-hour tour of the plant explained how Old Bushmills was made from Irish-grown barley.  It seemed important that we understand the difference between Old Bushmills and Scotch whisky because this was also addressed during the Talisker Distillery tour.  The basic giant distillation apparatus and the resultant chemical process sounded and looked similar for both types of whiskey/whisky; however, Talisker whisky undergoes two distillations and the barley is dried using peat smoke, whereas Old Bushmills is distilled 3 times and the barley is dried without the use of peat smoke, making it smoother to the palate and without the peaty flavor.  A more desirable taste?

In the taste room at the conclusion of the tour,  Al sampled the 10-year Old Bushmills while I opted for the hot toddy.  Neither of us was disappointed!  My hot toddy tasted heavenly on my sore throat, and Al clearly preferred his Old Bushmills over the peat smoke quality of Talisker’s. 

In the gift shop we splurged on the purchase of a bottle of Old Bushmills.
So far, the weather had cooperated in what is usually a very rainy part of the world, and we were eagerly looking forward to doing a giant counterclockwise loop of the island during which we hoped to gain a more thorough understanding of the centuries of history which has divided this emerald gem into two factions.  For decades as young adults, we had grown accustomed to hearing terrible stories about acts of terror and fighting between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland.  This most recent conflict of three decades is known as the “Troubles,” a benign name which certainly implies in a grossly understated way that the complicated historical political and religious issues that divide the two sides are merely ‘troublesome.’

We had left Colorado on March 16th, so our first full day in Northern Ireland at the Giant’s Causeway and Old Bushmills Distillery marked the start of our sixth month on the road.  Such a lifestyle in a small RV can be challenging at times, especially in less than ideal cold and rainy weather.  In addition, we are constantly exposed to thousands of people at the popular tourist sites that we visit, so it came as no surprise that I developed another cold with a relentless hacking cough, once again making for several sleepless nights.  By the eighth day, I had shown no signs of getting any better, and lack of sleep was starting to take its toll on both of us.  The fact that we were still in Northern Ireland, a member of the United Kingdom, became more important than we realized at first. 
Each member of the United Kingdom has a unique combination of private and publically funded universal healthcare.  Each member nation provides public healthcare to all UK residents that is free at the point of need, being paid for from general taxation.  I clearly had a need to see a doctor, but what would be the mechanics of obtaining such a service, how much would it cost, and how hard would it be to obtain a prescription drug?  I will cover this experience in the next blog.  Suffice it to say for now, I was pleasantly surprised.


"The longest road out is the shortest road home."  Irish saying


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