After scones and a near-perfect Irish Coffee at Café Del Mondo, we head down to the River Foyle and jump on a little blue boat for a tour in the crisp Legenderry air. As we glide beneath the Peace Bridge, a complex curving link in which genius has lent an appearance of simplicity, and a handshake between Catholics and Protestants that preponderate respective banks, the captain turns up the volume on his tinny PA system. It's Enya, singing "Sail Away, Sail Away," which, with the hiss of the bow slicing through the waves, the breeze and engine din, sounds unnervingly like "Nearer My God to Thee," supposedly the final song played by the orchestra on Titanic, the soundtrack of disaster. I tap the captain on the shoulder and ask that we cut the tour short.
As we make our way to the car a siren wails and a police car zips by, urging a speeding vehicle to pull over. Just a few years ago, during the peak of The Troubles, the siren sounds were the elevator music of the city, so common as to be almost invisible, but now, with the Peace Dividend, the police car squeal is a thankfully rare event. "Not so over the hill," says Virginia. Turns out just to the north is County Donegal, a part of Southern Ireland that is north of Northern Ireland. But, says Virginia, the cops there do quite well not because of a high crime rate or political activities but because the speed limits change from Northern Ireland's 60 mph to the Republic of Ireland's 100 kph, and unwary motorists get trapped and fined.
We take the night at the Beech Country House Hotel, once a camp for US Marines during WWII, and of late a haunt for the rich and famous, as the portraits in the hallways attest. Will Ferrell, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tommy Hilfiger, Sam Shepard, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, John Hume have all settled in for the night. At the bar I'm told we just missed Ethan Hawk and Stephen Rea. Having no glossies or even extra passport photos, I feel a bit aspirational, but still very much delighted with the accommodations, and the barkeep's seigniorial assurances that "we are all V.I.P.s here."
With the welcoming light of the new day it's time to begin the ambit back to Belfast. We decide to double back for a stretch to see a site missed on the upward journey, the skeletal remains of the 17th-century Dunluce Castle, a hauntingly beautiful roofless ruin of battlements and towers teetering on the brink of a high basalt promontory where the grass cuts off as with a blade. Virginia says that in 1639, a storm blew the castle's kitchen into the sea taking with it the cooks and the evening's dinner -- the world's first "take away order."
It's wildly windy throughout the ruins, and a ghost-like wail seems to sweep about. It's a banshee, says Virginia, the spirit of Maeve Roe. The only daughter of Lord McQuillan, Maeve was imprisoned by her father in a tower due to her refusal to marry his arranged choice, one Rory Oge. She and her lover Reginald O'Cahan attempted to escape by descending to a cave and rowing to the mainland, but a storm caught the boat and they were lost against the cliffs. Now her spirit lives in the tower, and on blustery days like this we can hear her calling for her absent lover, an eidolon unstuck in time.
In a way Dunluce reminds me of Titanic Belfast in that each professes detachment, not so much from insensitivity to their respective tragedies as from a desire to deflect the grief we would face if we left ourselves open to all of the many absences. Each recalls the fugitive parts of ourselves.
Big brother Scotland is practically a stone's throw from the edge of the Dunluce cliff across the North Channel, and the connective tissue is deep of battles, conquests and reconquests between the tides. And they used to be connected, literally.
Until about 9,000 years ago, the end of the last ice age, the Atlantic was lower, and Ireland, like Great Britain, was part of continental Europe. Now, of course, the shores have unzipped, and the seas are rising, whether an anthropogenic result or not, and it would be expensive to reverse the drift. But how much? I briefly worked on a film many years ago based on Clive Cussler's best-seller, Raise the Titanic. It was, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever made, and it was a box-office disaster. Lew Grade, the major backer of the film, said it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic. I never got that number, though.
From here we head down south, through a sort of magic glass, to Downpatrick, in County Down up the Hill of Down to the Down Cathedral, where the Patron Saint of Ireland is allegedly buried. Dr. Tim Campbell, the director of the nearby Saint Patrick Centre, offers a tour of this thin place "where heaven and earth are very close together," starting with the gravestone itself, a large grey slab from the nearby Mourne Mountains, the hills where Saint Patrick banished snakes from Ireland; where Liam Neeson and CS Lewis were born; and where Game of Thrones was filmed (standing in for Vaes Dothrak.)
But it's the rock that makes the Mournes the merrier. St. Patrick's granite sepulcher is of the same stone used in the London memorial for Princess Diana. And when it became evident too many American tourists of Irish descent on pilgrimage were scooping up earth from St. Patrick's burial site, a big boulder from the Mourne Mountains was placed on top.
Inside the cathedral our every step echoes brightly, and we can't resist a bit of chanting and throat-singing, which sounds appreciably better than Auto-Tune. "Everything sounds good in here, except bagpipes," Dr. Campbell chimes. And he continues, "Do you know the definition of a gentleman? Someone who can play the bagpipes but chooses not to."
As we make our final drive, bringing souls to Newcastle, we pass a fence made of sticks, and Virginia looks past and says, "Most everything in Northern Ireland is beyond the pale. That's part of the Second Child condition."
I'm not sure what she means, but she goes on to explain that John Harington, the man who invented the flush toilet, was one of Queen Elizabeth I's 102 godchildren, and most certainly not the first. He was dispatched to Ireland during the Nine Years War (1595-1603), and later wrote a poem using the term "beyond the pale" in which those who go outside the boundaries suffer consequences.
"Wait till you see where we're staying tonight. It's beyond the pale."
And as we round the bend there she blows, the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, huge and magnificent on the edge of the crashing Irish Sea, looking very much like a terrestrial version of Titanic. It was opened in 1898, 14 years before the Titanic went watership down, but the same year Morgan Robertson wrote a book about a ship called the "Titan" that crashed into an iceberg and sank.
The book is Futility or The Wreck of the Titan. In addition to having the same outcome, the two ships had other bizarre similarities. They were both over 800 feet long. They both were known as "unsinkable." In the North Atlantic they both sunk. They both could hold 3,000 passengers. And both didn't have enough lifeboats.
Like Titanic, the Slieve Donard was the pinnacle of architectural majesty and technology. It had its own bakery, vegetable gardens, pigs, laundry and power plant. The bedrooms were beautifully appointed with Chippendale furniture, Persian carpets and baronial fireplaces. There was a Turkish bath, as had Titanic. But unlike Titanic, it remains in fine fettle over 100 years after its launch. There have been no consequences of note for exceeding the margins of common sense, for boldly building as none before, only rewards -- so far. It is validation, of sorts, that second sons who toil in unceasing efforts to compete with the license of earlier birth order sometimes succeed.
Virginia says she used to come here as a little girl, and wander about the cavernous halls in awe. Her parents couldn't afford the grand hotel, so they took a cottage down the road, and would then step in for high tea. Virginia wished upon stars that someday she could stay here, and now it has happened and she is giggly with delight, and not disappointed. But it does not seem a palace for young tastes: As we sit for dinner in the wood-paneled Oak Restaurant we notice we are among an almost exclusively septuagenarian pack.
Virginia used to guide bus tours in England, mostly for the retired set, and slags that the in-company term was "grab-a-granny tours: The sex may not be good, but the breakfasts are great!"
The distinction between air and sea is lost as I look east, out the car window streaked by a soft
rain, on the way to the airport at dawn. Virginia, tussling the wheel like a captain in a storm, asks me, "Why did you come to Northern Ireland, anyway?"
With trackless symmetry to Virginia and Belfast and the giants of Northern Ireland I confess, "I'm a second child. How could I resist?"