Post 27 - 2015 Biking Adventure

by Fred Schlomka - 

Day 56, 57, & 58
26th, 27th & 28th June - Galway - Belfast - Larne
Total biked - 1,548 kilometres ( 967 miles)

Our morning in Galway was spent exploring on foot and Sunita did a bit of busking on the main walking street. Not much luck and we ended up giving away most of her earnings to other buskers :-/

The Train to Belfast was pretty good. First a train to Dublin where we had to cycle across town to another train station. It was pretty serious urban cycling with lots of traffic but by now we are old hands and can handle the traffic. On arrival at Hueston Station we were escorted to a baggage carriage which was virtually empty. The station staff even helped lift the fully loaded bike into the carriage and we were off. We like trains that have lots of room for bikes.

On arrival in Belfast we biked across town to the campground. I love cities with campgrounds within city limits. As we cruised down Albertbridge Road, we came to a crossroads where police were setting up a barricade. “Uh oh”, I thought, is there some trouble? So we asked a friendly policeman wearing a bulletproof shirt and were informed that shortly there would be an ‘Orange Parade’, one of over one thousand parades per year we learned later.

Then the fifes (whistles/flutes) and drums came along - row after row after row of grim faced men in flashy uniforms with orange sashes and flags. They had the look of men with a mission - grimly set jaws - eyes straight ahead - followed by young boys trying to emulate their elders. It was a bit scary, this introduction into the tensions of the North. We took off to our campground and with the help of Google maps/GPS discovered a cycleway that went all the way from the Connswater Shopping Centre to the Dundonald International Ice Bowl where the campground was located.

We retire for the night after booking a political tour for the next day of the Falls Road area in the heart of Catholic Belfast.

After breakfast we biked along the fine cycleway that we discovered yesterday. It’s so nice to navigate a city via bicycle paths that are lined with trees and shrubbery. So civilized. However we were off to take a tour with a former IRA prisoner and learn about the more uncivilised side of this country.

Towards the end of the cycleway the neighbourhood turned from middle class to rough working class. Sunita called it a slum. In the middle of what perhaps used to be a park and playground were several Orange flags celebrating Ulster, surrounded by trash and in their midst was an incongruous Israeli flag. Perhaps a Jewish resident Sunita thought. More on this later.

On the guided tour I was hoping to learn something that could inform my own narrative about Israel/Palestine issues - perhaps even provide hope for the future. After all the Northern Irish were moving towards reconciliation between Republicans and Loyalists, Protestant and Catholics, and true coexistence - or so I believed.

We met the group of nine people at the Divis Tower, a Belfast landmark and Republican stronghold. After meeting the guide and listening to his introduction, my eyes drifted upward to the tower.

There, flapping next to an Irish flag was an Israeli flag with a swastika on each side of the Star of David. I snapped a photo and asked the guide about it. He just glanced up and was relatively dismissive, saying he knew nothing about it. However eyebrows were raised among the participants.

The tour was much as expected. Tales of the ancient English and Scottish takeover of the island - stories of rebellion and oppression - of violence and counter violence. I was surprised to learn that the walls and fences are still being built between neighbourhoods.  Apparently while the politicians continue to hammer out coexistence at a parliamentary level, the people on the ground in Belfast continue to harbor anger and hate, with latent violence simmering under the surface. After listening to matter-of-fact stories of violence and terror, I become convinced that it is only a matter of time before it all erupts again - much like the situation back in Israel/Palestine.

Commemorative murals are everywhere, many are beautifully rendered, remembering murders or massacres from decades ago. No-one forgets and most do not forgive. A grim situation.

In the afternoon we visit Strandtown, a neighbourhood in the east side of the city, a ‘Loyalist’ stronghold. The ‘The Union Jack Shop’ was of particular interest. We walked in and engaged the staff in conversation which I steered towards political subjects. “You have to understand we are not Irish” retorted the man behind the counter. “We are British”. The conversation took on a distinctly racist drift, along the lines of: “ . . . . we don’t like Catholics or Arabs . . .”

The Protestant Loyalist’s claim to the country goes back at least 500 years when their ancestors were settled there by Scottish and English sovereigns and granted confiscated land. Whereas they believe the entire island should belong to Great Britain, their Catholic cousins want an Independent Ireland to encompass the same island.

The similarities between Israel and Palestine are unmistakeable - inasmuch as extreme Zionism wants to expand the Jewish state of Israel into all the Palestinian Territories, while their Palestinian counterparts want an Arab state of Palestine on the same land.

All four nationalist ideologies - Irish Catholic - Palestinian Arab - Ulster Protestant - Zionist - are at the root of much strident rhetoric, oppression, killing, and devastation. They seem to breed off each other. Almost no-one in any of these communities has hope for the future beyond today’s uneasy status quo. Is this the legacy they want for their children and grandchildren? It’s a sad commentary of the times. Part of the reason for our bike trip is to step out of this ethos for a while. In Belfast we were thrown back in, albeit for just a day.

We leave Belfast next day on a low ebb.

This was tempered somewhat by the pleasant ride up the seashore going north of the city. We began with a picnic breakfast at the Belfast Harbour Marina, then cruised out of town along a cycleway around the harbour and up the coast. The port was beautiful, modern and there were plenty of comfy benches.

While we were having lunch, a local biker stopped and we had an upbeat conversation on the joys of riding a tandem. He road one for years with his wife and now regrets that he didn’t keep it to ride with his grandchildren. We told him that we had just been in Belfast and he told us that he hadn’t been to Galway since 1963. He seemed a bit wistful, but I doubt he visits the Republic of Ireland any more.



Lunch was by the castle of Carrickfergus, an imposing Norman structure at the harbour of the town. We stopped later at Ballycarry, another Orange village with a huge mural of King William III on the side of a home on the main street, and sporting a Scottish and Ulster Flag.

I check with the lady at a nearby shop and she has no clue what the connection of the village is to King William. Wikipedia tells us that King William was a champion of the Protestant faith and a fervent anti-Catholic sovereign. This is what continues to endear him with today’s Northern Ireland Protestant Nationalists. William’s first title as Prince of Orange (a minor French principality) gave the name to the International Orange Order which has it’s base in Northern Ireland.

We arrive in Larne and bed down of the night a the local campground just a few minutes from the port where we will depart for Scotland on the morrow. The people of Northern Ireland were all friendly —without exception—and seemed quite pleased we were from Israel. Yet, we were ready to head to Bonnie Scotland early the next morning.

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