Northern Ireland, Where Even The Carrots Are Orange

[ Posted Wednesday, March 25th, 2015 – 20:45 UTC ]

OK, here we go with part two of my travels in Ireland. When I first sat down to write this, my thought was to do one more travel column, and then essentially just pack it in until I got back home. However, when I had finished writing, I found the gift of the gab which had descended upon me many years ago at Blarney Castle (meself upside-down, kissing the Blarney Stone, at the time) had not failed me, and that indeed I had created enough for two solid columns. So, today, the first of these; then tomorrow, the conclusion of the trip. From that point on, I cannot promise new columns, at least until the first of next month. But I can, at the very least, promise a new column tomorrow, so there's that.

As always, a disclaimer that this column is going to have nothing to do with politics. American politics, at any rate. So if "this is what I did on my vacation" columns bore you silly, then read no further!

For the rest of you, what follows is my second installment of our trip to the Emerald Isle. To begin the narrative: we took a trip to Northern Ireland. Now, before we really get going here, a definition is necessary first, for our American readers. When I say "we took a trip to Northern Ireland," I am speaking of an international journey. In America, we have a strange and inconsistent system of capitalization when it comes to local geography. Thus, you could write "northern New Jersey," but you could also correctly write "Northern California." However, neither indicates a political boundary in the way that "North Carolina" or "North Dakota" does, instead merely referring to a nebulous region within a state. But sometimes we capitalize these regional names, and sometimes we don't (and, admittedly, sometimes we do on a purely local grammatical rule -- I have no real idea if "Northern New Jersey" is correctly used in that particular region, for instance). But when you speak of Northern Ireland, this is even more significant than saying North Carolina, since it indicates not just a state boundary but in fact a different country.

To make things even more confusing, nobody uses "Southern Ireland" (or, for that matter, even "southern Ireland," unless you're speaking of the region south of Dublin, but then I digress...). Properly, the part of the island of Eire that is not Northern Ireland is in fact the Republic of Ireland. There are 26 counties contained in the Republic, and six in Northern Ireland. Many centuries of conflict have gone into these definitions and divisions, I should mention (see: entire hard-fought history of Ireland and Britain). The peoples of Northern Ireland and the Republic differ on what the future should be for their island. In fact, about the only thing they can agree on is how annoying it is when American tourists get the designations wrong. Heh.

Where was I? Oh, political divisions, right. Beyond geography, the citizens of the Republic of Ireland are fiercely independent -- it's their own country. The people of Northern Ireland (some of them, at any rate) are fiercely proud to be part of the U.K. Tangentially related is Americans' misunderstanding of the terms "England, "Great Britain," and "the United Kingdom." This is probably venturing into the "too much info" realm (to crack a political division joke... ahem), so I'll just run it down quickly. England is a country. So are Wales and Scotland. These three countries share a single island, which is called Great Britain. When you add in another separate country, Northern Ireland, then you get the international political unit of the United Kingdom, or "U.K." The British Commonwealth is even larger, and encompasses former colonies who still occasionally put the Queen on their stamps or their money (places like Canada and Australia), but are otherwise politically separate. Got all that? Well, it wasn't entirely necessary, but wanted to include it for the sake of completeness.

To begin all over again; we took a trip to Northern Ireland. I had never seen any of it, and my wife had only been there once as a small child. Northern Ireland -- Belfast in particular -- was more of a low-level war zone from the 1970s through the 1990s, and decidedly not a regular tourist destination for those in the south. So all of what we saw was new to her as well.

We took a tour bus (a first for me) to see some of the sights of the north coast of Antrim (that's a county, but I'm not going to get drawn back into discussing lines on the map again). As it turned out, we didn't have time to see the new Titanic Museum in Belfast, but it'll always be there for a future trip (Belfast is only about a two-hour train ride away from Dublin). Our tour guide was a very Northern Irish chap, who mounted an effort not to slant his commentary too British, but mostly failed in this attempt. I should mention, in all fairness, that perhaps because I'm married to a citizen of the Republic I am biased too far the other way -- it certainly is a possibility.

Still, our first stop was to see a Norman castle in Carrickfergus, on the coast, with a prominent statue of William of Orange (William III), because that's where he landed for his military campaign in Ireland. Now, on our way up to Belfast from Dublin, we crossed over the River Boyne, where there was a big battle a long time ago which determined the fate of Ireland. William of Orange won this battle. He was a Protestant, and he defeated the Catholic King James II. To complicate matters further, William was actually Dutch, although he would become King of England after the war was over.

In any case, our tour guide couldn't have enough good things to say about William. As I mentioned in my previous travel column, most all of the residents of Ireland are still actively bearing a grudge over this battle, which happened in 1690 -- 86 years before America's Declaration of Independence was signed. History may be a dry subject relegated to books for Americans, but it is alive and well (and indeed, a part of daily life) in many other parts of the world. In fact, until very recently with the Saint Patrick's Day parade in Dublin, the word "parade" itself had actually more of a violent and ugly history in Ireland, all centered on the Battle of the Boyne (see: Orangemen, parade season).

It was at this point our guide spun us a tale which, when checked later, turned out to be mostly true (or at least mostly plausible, given the actual historical facts which are known) and not the sheerest blarney we all took it to be at the time. Here it is, at the tale's root (pun intended): the fact that you've only ever eaten carrots in your life that are orange is a 300-year-old political statement. The horticultural breeders in the Netherlands are famous, of course (see: tulips), and the story goes that to memorialize William and the house of Orange, they bred the world's first orange carrot. Before this time, carrots were white, purple (!), red, yellow, or black (!!). But it wasn't until the Dutch intervened that we got an actual orange carrot. Within a single generation's time (one people's generation, not carrots'), the entire planet was eating orange carrots. Which had been created and intended as a political statement.

Upon checking, the historical record agrees that the carrot did turn orange as a result of Dutch breeding, and while it's not been definitively proven it was done in honor of William, the timing does seem right. You learn something every day! In fact, I wonder if orange carrots are, even today, served at Joe Biden's table... heh.

In any case, we got back on the bus and headed up the coast. It was a mixed day, weather-wise, but while we drove along occasionally we could see all the way to Scotland. The two countries are separated by only about 12 miles of water here, and the headlands were indeed visible when the clouds parted and the sun shone (a side benefit of the mixed weather was that we saw multiple spectacular rainbows during the day -- sadly, though, no pots of gold were to be found).

We went through (but did not stop in) the small town where Andrew Jackson's parents came from, which was kind of interesting, historically, for an American. The tour guide went on a riff about how important the Scots-Irish people were to frontier America, which is largely true, laying claim to United States presidents as well as frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett. He did rather focus on those that came from Northern Ireland to the exclusion of the rest of the island, but again, he mostly tried to keep his boosterism under control. Mostly. I do have to admit, his knowledge of Andy Jackson was extensive and largely correct, which was to his credit.

For television fans, he pointed out (as we sped by) a major set for the series Game Of Thrones, whose exterior shots are filmed mostly on the stretch of coast we were on (there are even specialty "Game Of Thrones" tours available, which take you to all kinds of filming locations from the series). What we saw was nestled within an old quarry, and was (my apologies, I haven't watched the series personally) billed as "Castle Black," if that means anything to you fans out there. The same quarry had been used for lots of shots, we were told, and set up as (at various times) a village, a lake, etc. Suffice it to say anyone truly obsessed with Game Of Thrones should come up here and take one of the guided tours of the relevant sites.

You can see why a show would want to film on this coastline, as it is scenic as all get-out, rustic for the most part, and comes complete with a walloping of dramatic weather (more on that in a bit). We traveled through the "glens of Antrim," which are small villages set up where a valley meets the coastline. The scenery was stunning, but the coastline looked like a pretty lonely place to live. Maybe not, though, as this entire coastline is inundated with tourists all summer long.

Finally, after a long stretch on the bus, we arrived at the first of four tourist sites clustered within a few miles of each other. The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was originally built for salmon fisherman to get to a crag of an islet -- the core plug of an old volcano -- to cast nets for the salmon which swam by in a powerful current. It was originally a much flimsier structure, but the fisherman stopped using it decades ago and it has since been refurbished as a tourist attraction. It is stunning and frightening, that's for sure, and tourists have been known to get to the island and refuse to cross back over, necessitating their rescue by boat or even helicopter. To any who laugh at that, I invite them to cross it themselves and see what psychological effects it has. Even on a calm day.

The day, for us, was not calm. Far from it. The rain mercifully had stopped for our visit, but the wind was relentless. And fierce. Strike that -- it was more than fierce. I'd estimate it at 50-60 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour?), personally. Picture a wind so strong you have to struggle to walk forward in it. A wind where if you had a hat on (I had smartly left mine back in the bus), it would be whipped off your head sideways and be a quarter-mile from you in seconds. That's how strong the wind was, for us.

Now picture yourself 100 feet above crashing waves in a narrow inlet between the mainland and the island. That's the height of a nine- or ten-story building, for perspective. For over 60 feet, you've got to walk on a narrow plankway with just two ropes to keep you steady. The walk isn't for the faint of heart, that's for sure. The wind was so strong it would have been impossible to even imagine taking a photo while crossing. Your camera would be in the drink (or the next county) in a flash, and you wouldn't have wanted to let go of those ropes to reach for it in the first place.

We both made it, barely. Of that I am most proud. Until any of you have crossed this bridge in similar weather conditions, I will ignore your scoffing as ill-informed blather.

[OK, that's it for the first half of this article; part two will be posted tomorrow....]

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Northern Ireland, Where Even The Carrots Are Orange”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    As always, a disclaimer that this column is going to have nothing to do with politics. American politics, at any rate. So if "this is what I did on my vacation" columns bore you silly, then read no further!

    "Well I'd just roll my eyes and make a bee-line for the door
    But I'd always wind up starry-eyed, cross-legged on the floor
    Hanging on to every word
    Man, the things I heard"

    -THAT'S SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF, Montgomery Gentry



  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "To complicate matters further, William was actually Dutch, although he would become King of England after the war was over."

    I'm always amused by how kingdoms were traded among European royalty like baseball cards. Right into the 20th century.

  3. [3] 
    Paula wrote:

    Enjoying the travelogue!

Comments for this article are closed.