Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ireland, Conclusion: The Belfast and the Belfurious

When Irish eyes are smiling, Irish mouths are speaking and, more often than not, incomprehensible. Yes, consonants in Irish English function mostly the same as in American/real English. (One notable exception: "th" is pronounced as a hard "t." Accordingly, if you need a drink at half past ten, you're considered tirsty at ten-tirty.) Irish vowels, however, are inconsistent, nondeterministic, and designed to drive Henry Higgins mad. They vary among regions and speakers. Additionally, one speaker may pronounce the same vowel in completely different ways depending on whether he's talking to a customer, his buddy from the Publick House, or four hapless tourists, three of whom did not cause their car to lose a hubcap.

(Speaking of Alpana, I should mention that, in the last week of the trip, she returned to the United States to resume her academic duties all of which relate to argon. Mari, Bob, and I remained in Ireland which implies (rightly) that theatre writing and psychology entail little and no responsibilities, respectively.)

The Irish who derive their living from tourists must make their accents understandable. Consider Mary Gibbons—founder, guide, and eponym of Mary Gibbons Tours. An Irish (and female) version of the grandfather from Jurassic Park, she speaks in a pleasant, penetrable brogue and wears khakis, a vest with many pockets, and a hat which suggests a career in either archeology or bees. Mary gears her accent toward tourists. It's Irish enough to let you know you got your money's worth (after all, you didn't pay tirty-two Euro to listen to an expat), but not so Irish that it poses difficulty in comprehension.

Mary's primary duty as tour leader and archeologist (she is a practicing archeologist, so, as she'll remind you often, you're lucky to be on her bus) is to narrate the entire six-hour bus ride. To fill the time, Mary has developed an ingenious method of expanding four hours of content into six hours: she speaks in an A-B-A structure. Each sentence begins with a conditional ("If you look to the right…"), followed by the statement ("…you'll see Slane Castle"), followed by a repetition of the conditional ("And that's what you'll see if you look to the right."). An extra A is all that separates Mary and her A-B-A from a career in musical theatre.
Mary also fills time by moralizing. Not about controversial issues, mind you—this might offend her patrons. Regarding the Troubles in Northern Ireland (the ones where Protestants and Catholics shoot each other), the most editorial she'll get is, "I wish they wouldn't shoot each other." On safer issues, however, she is unequivocal and outspoken: "seat belts are good"; "traffic lights save lives"; "you're lucky to be on my bus."

The tour's first stop was the Hill of Tara in County Wexford. When the Druids controlled Ireland, this was their Washington, DC. Nowadays, as Lonely Planet puts it, it looks like a miniature golf course; there are hillocks, humps, and shops which sell pizza. On the hill itself, signs announce "Do Not Deface" with uncharacteristic severity. (Usually, Irish signage is along the lines of, "Please, if it's not too much trouble, consider possibly not setting this monument on fire.") But there are two problems with the signs' command. First, there's nothing to deface. The Hill of Tara is just that: a hill. No man- or Druid-made structures occupy the hill but for the sign advising you not to deface it. Second, there are sheep. And any surface you could think to deface, the sheep have beaten you to it. It's impossible to take a step without finding yourself shin-deep in ovine effluvia.

Although their poop goes untended, the sheep clean up after themselves in other unmentionable ways, which I will now mention. Whenever a sheep urinates, the rest of the flock races toward the urinater that they might drink its golden bounty. Ew(e).

After the Hill of Tara, the bus stopped at Newgrange, a Celtic tomb that predates the pyramids by 500 years, yet looks like Ezra Stiles College. Allow me to explain. Newgrange was renovated during the 1960s, and the chief archeologist, like all people in the 1960s, foisted his vacuum of taste onto all possible architecture. He assumed that the Druids had intended for the tomb's fa├žade to consist of random chunks of stone lodged in cement, so he executed this perceived intent. The material used was greywacke; the effect was hideous.

Tourists may go inside the tomb, which, aside from some Victorian-era graffiti ("Here hath Edmond been"), is remarkably unvandalized. At many sites, renegade tourists steal keepsakes (e.g. rocks from Machu Picchu, Jesus' nose from the Pieta). In Newgrange, however, tourists haven't removed a single stone from the tomb's walls. Were they to, 5,000 years of history and 10,000 tons of greywacke would come crashing down on their head. This provides incentive to leave Newgrange undisturbed and save one's vandalism for places that deserve it, such as Brooklyn.

Mary Gibbons's bus, despite its self-professed perfection, could not take us everywhere. To get to Northern Ireland, we had to resort to public transportation, specifically Bus Eireann at Busaras. Busaras is Dublin's answer to Manhattan's Port Authority: it has buses, grandeur, and ghettoness. (It does not, however, have an accepted pronunciation. After some debate, Mari, Bob, and I settled on boose-a-roose.) And, I never thought this possible, but Busaras manages to have bathrooms more Tartarean than Port Authority's.

After inserting the proper coinage (it's a privilege to pee), you enter the bathroom through a turnstile whereupon you find yourself in the set from Saw lit entirely by black light. The purpose of the black light is to show where people have peed, may have peed, or even thought about peeing. Suffice it to say, sheep would love it here. Privacy be damned, surveillance cameras record the entire bathroom so, if you pee in an unendorsed location (and, judging from the black light, most have), there will be photographic proof. The Irish, it turns out, are very committed to surveillance, especially in the North.

And now an overview of Irish history. (Don't worry, this will be brief.) Until the early twelfth century, the Irish were an independent, happy people. They got pillaged by the Vikings from time to time, but who didn't, really? Druids went about their Druidly lives, monks about their monkly ones, and "Danny Boy" hadn't yet been written. Then in 1169, the British took over Ireland. At the time, it was intended as a temporary occupation (cf. Iraq), but it ended up lasting 800 years (cf. Iraq). The British imported their own residents (mostly Protestant, loyalist) and suppressed the native Irish (mostly Catholic, leprechaun). This might not seem like the best plan to win the hearts of the Irish people, but it served the British well until 1690.

Then, on July 12, 1690 began the Battle of the Boyne where King William of Orange (Protestant) led the British against ex-King James (Catholic). The British won (their army didn't suck until circa 1776) and reclaimed control of all Ireland for the next 232 years.

In 1922, after the Irish War of Independence (America had already trademarked "the Civil War"), Ireland (almost) won its (sort of) freedom. The southern half became the Republic of Ireland—an independent country that uses the Euro and is really expensive. The northern half became, fittingly, Northern Ireland—a member of the United Kingdom that uses the pound and shoots Catholics. Independent-minded Irishmen ("Republicans") could live in the Republic of Ireland, while Anglophiles ("Unionists") could live in Northern Island. Problem solved, right? Well…

For the next seven decades or so, the Troubles raged in Northern Ireland between the Republicans/Nationalists/Catholics on one side and the Unionists/Loyalists/Ulsters/Protestants on the other. (Irish history would be a lot simpler if each side could agree on one damn name.) The Protestant-controlled government handled the Catholics in the one way it knew how (persecution), and the Catholics proceeded to form the IRA which fought—violently—for one united, independent Ireland and tax-deferred retirement accounts.

Finally, the IRA decided it would be politically expedient to talk to their rivals, rather than blow them up, so in 1994 they called a ceasefire. In 2005, fire actually ceased, and now you can go to Belfast without dying—except in the days following July 12th, which is the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne and a guaranteed catalyst for sectarian violence. We arrived on July 15th.

Belfast has figured out how to turn sectarian violence into tourism dollars: the Black Taxi Tour. IRA-era taxi drivers take you across West Belfast and show you the key sights associated with the Troubles. Accompanied by our amazing guide (who ended every sentence with a conjugation of "to be"—"so it is," "so it was," "so it shall have been") and an unexpected tagalong (Susannah the Friendly Canadian), we saw the following:

The Peace Wall. When Protestants and Catholics kept killing each other, Belfast decided to address the problem by building a fortified wall between them. How could this not work? At night and during times of civil unrest (e.g. July 15), the Peace Wall seals shut as evidenced by the charred hulls of cars caught on the wrong side at the wrong time.

Those who live near the Peace Wall don't trust its might to protect their loved ones from the horrible, evil [choose one: Catholics, Protestants], so they seal their yards with chain-link fences. These fences curve, prison-style, from the edge of the lawn to the top of the roof. No one—Catholic, Protestant, monkey—is getting into these yards.

Political Murals. On Falls Road, colorful murals comment on issues both contemporary (Iraq War) and historical (Montgomery Bus Boycott), mainstream (Cuban Revolution) and obscure (Basque Country). As a people, Belfasters are far more politically aware than I, let alone my friend Natalie. (Recently, Natalie was asked who George Washington's wife was. Her response: "Abigail Adams?")

The IRA. Our guide knew everyone on the streets of West Belfast, and everyone on the streets of West Belfast is a veteran of the IRA. This one was the mayor. That one was a lieutenant once captured by the Ulsters. During interrogation, they smashed his ribs with a sledgehammer and buried him alive, but he didn't talk. A third one was, oh yes—

Gerry Adams. (No, not Washington's second wife.) Mr. Adams is head of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein. (This is pronounced "Shin Fain" as in, "If you speak ill of Angela Lansbury, your shin fain will I kick.") As we studied a mural about plastic bullets (its message: don't use them on schoolchildren), Gerry Adams walked by us, plopped himself into an armored car, and drove off.

During the Troubles, the IRA was no feeble organization (unlike, say, the Dramatists Guild). When IRA members were captured, they'd smuggle goods into prison via cavities from which no reasonable person would accept contraband. Those visiting IRA members in prison would write messages on cigarette paper, conceal these in their gums, and then use open-mouth kissing to exchange the messages, as well as oral herpes. Wait a minute—men kissing men, butt-smuggling? For a group that's so tough, they sound kinda gay.
To this day, the IRA discourages the drug trade in West Belfast by giving suspected dealers a "six-pack." When I first heard of this punishment, I assumed it referred to Guinness, but the IRA's version is worse (barely). They shoot drug dealers six times—in both elbows, both knees, and both ankles. On the occasions where dealers don't die, they do reconsider their career path.

In addition to Black Taxis, Belfast offers a slew of public transportation including double-decker buses. We avoided these wherever possible since, in addition to a ticketing system that requires clairvoyance and exact change, they have huge, guilt-inducing public service advisories. (Think Ad Council, but effective.) One depicted a pair of water wings floating in a river with the caption, "You said I was safe, mummy." (Implication: "I drowned, and it's your fault, bitch.") Another showed a corpse-child glaring at a smoke detector from amid a sea of flame: "You forgot to change the battery, mummy." (Implication: "Whoops.") Instead, undrowned and unburned, we traveled Belfast by foot, boat (a "Titanic Tour" best summarized as "Well, the Titanic used to be here, but it's not anymore"), and a train which took us to the Ulster Transportation Museum.

The Ulster Transportation Museum, as you might expect, documents the history of transportation from before the wheel (people dragged stuff) to the present (stuff drags people) with everything in between, including horse-drawn carriages, milk trucks, boat-cars hybrids (eat your heart out, Prius), and the DeLorean prototype. A comprehensive exhibit on the Titanic includes a model of the ship sinking, complete with mini-icebergs and mini-people drowning. (Belfast is obsessed with the Titanic. The ship was built in the city's docks, and despite the IRA's best efforts, nothing in Belfast has yet managed to produce a larger death count.) But the Titanic did not interest Bob. He had other pursuits in mind.

The X2 Flight Simulator resembles a giant Dustbuster. It's called a "flight simulator" because it simulates flight. It's called "X2" because the "X" is short for "eXtreme," whereas the "2" indicates the target age group. Bob wanted to ride this.

After entering the device through a butterfly hatch, we sat on hard plastic pews behind the two other riders (who were roughly one twenty-sixth our age) and proceeded to watch the screen in front of us. The presentation consists of a series of vignettes, each prefaced by a line of exposition ("Quick, you've got to deliver the mail!" or "Remember when we used to fly together in World War II?") whereupon the simulation begins. Theoretically, the screen displays the plane in flight, and the simulator rocks to approximate the plane's motion. In practice, the video and the motion are unrelated to either one another or reality. The video consists of shots taken from random and ever-changing points of view—the cockpit, the wing, the ground, a nearby treetop—and the motion simulator, oblivious to the display, slowly rocks like a giant, Dustbuster-shaped metronome. In X2's defense, the younger riders seemed to be having a great time, as did Bob. I, on the other hand, was looking for something, anything with which I might asphyxiate myself.

The following day, we returned to the Dublin Airport (where again we met Susannah the Friendly Canadian) and, from there, to the United States. Our trip had come to a close. Whenever I come back to New York, I have a newfound appreciation for it. I can understand people when they talk; I can wear my "I'm Protestant" shirt without someone giving me a six-pack; and, should I betray my ignorance toward other countries and cultures, I appear patriotic rather than boorish. So for now, I'm back in the New York swing of things. But Alpana, Mari, Bob the Unredeemed, and I have begun discussing where we want to go next. Given the accent issues we had in Ireland, we're thinking someplace more American. Like Russia.

 The gates of the Peace Wall. Alpana went home, so we're joined here by Susannah the Friendly Canadian.

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