FROM Torr Head, on the coast of Northern Ireland, I can see the lighthouse on Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre, only 17km away. The North Atlantic and Irish Sea meet here, surging around Rathlin Island to create a maelstrom of tides and rough seas that has left a legacy of wrecks. Ancient stories tell of a fleet of 50 currachs, the hide-covered canoes still used in Galway, being swallowed up by a whirlpool while trading across the channel.
The links were so strong that this corner of northeastern Ireland was united with western Scotland in the kingdom of Dalriada until 608. Despite the risk, travel by water was easier than crossing the vast peat bogs and rough mountains of the Irish interior.
“The tides are extreme, running to seven or eight knots,” says Joe McCollam, helmsman of the Red Bay Lifeboat. A naval architect by trade, he is one of the RNLI volunteers who help keep these waters safe. “The boat is rated to Force Seven gales, but we have never not gone out.”
Joe first joined the lifeboat when he was 17, before moving away to Cork for 15 years and rejoining on his return home. ”There are 22 crew in total, eight of whom are helmsmen. We cover quite a big area for an inshore boat, all the way nearly to Bushmills and out beyond Rathlin, very close to the Mull of Kintyre, and down to The Maidens,” he says.
This entire coast is breathtakingly beautiful, a place where tiny stone-walled fields in endless shades of green run down to steep cliffs, against which waves crash in an ever-changing mood. Trees huddle in sheltered clefts and bright sandy beaches dot a shore more often covered in rocks fallen from the headlands above. The beauty tempts people into a wild land and seascape that will catch out the unwary or ill-prepared with changing weather or hidden hazards.
“A lot of our calls are for walkers who fall on the cliffs,” he says. “We also rescue a lot of broken down or dismasted yachts, and divers, especially off Rathlin.” When I ask why he gives up his time, his answer is simple. “I have always been involved in the sea and it would be a terrible shame to be standing here if someone was in trouble. My father and my sister were in it as well.”
An outing on the ferry to Rathlin Island the next day gives me an idea of just how rough these waters can be. The MV Canna is tossed around in waves that crash over her bulwarks as she thumps her way out of Ballycastle harbour. Based on World War II landing craft, the boxy Canna is designed for efficient cargo handling, not comfort.
“You have to be brought up with it to learn the ways of the tides in this channel,” says Rathlin-born Jim McFaul, who has been skippering her for more than 15 years. “If the tide is going west against the wind, it causes a turbulent sea. Then the strange shape of the island [it is L-shaped] turns out another tide against the main tide, so you have two tides meeting.”
I wonder if Jim might ever get tired of making the same crossing several times a day. “No – there is hardly ever two days the same, unless we get a long spell of calm weather like we did earlier this year,” he says. “I’d consider that a bit boring – but it’s a pleasure all the same.”
As we slow for the island’s Church Bay harbour, I can see a crowd awaiting the arrival of this vital link for the 120 people who still live on Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island. The harbour has a pub, and a line of smart new houses. “It’s amazing to think that we carried every brick, every pipe and every tile for them on the Canna,” says Jim. “We also had to carry these huge septic tanks that were the full length of the deck. You could hardly see over them.”
Rathlin has Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony on its west end, while a walk to the south end reveals a small colony of grey seals and lovely views back over to the Irish mainland. From the East Light, the Mull of Kintyre is even clearer, and a number of Scottish islands also loom large. Near here is where legend says Scotland’s exiled Robert the Bruce hid in a cave in 1306 before returning home to claim the throne, inspired by watching a spider try and try again to spin a web.
BACK on the mainland, I drive around the coast road to the pretty harbour of Ballintoy and beyond, passing the Giant’s Causeway and dramatic Dunluce Castle, clinging precariously to a cliff edge. Much of this coast has been used for filming the hit HBO drama Game of Thrones but – like the tale of Robert the Bruce – its own history is just as fraught with violence and intrigue. Northern Ireland forms part of the historic province of Ulster, the northernmost of the four Irish “thrones” of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught.
“During the 16th century the most powerful clans were those of the north, and they fought a seven-year war against the English [who first colonized Ireland in the 12th century],” says historian Ken McElroy. “They were very successful but became over-confident and marched south, where they were heavily defeated for the first time. They retreated back to Ulster but the chieftains knew they would probably end up in the Tower of London, with their heads chopped off, so they fled for Catholic Spain in 1607. This period is known as the Flight of the Earls. They took with them what was left of Gaelic Ireland; the Irish language, the Brehon Laws, and the old feudal systems.”
In what became known as the Plantation of Ulster, James I of England confiscated all their lands and brought in lowland Scots Presbyterians to farm it. These new arrivals were given the better lowlands, leaving these wild coastal regions to the natives and starting a religious divide that persists to this day. A bloody native uprising in 1641 that left thousands dead and was put down with equal brutality did not help relations between the two factions. The Virginia Plantation in Jamestown was founded in the same year as the one in Ulster and must have soon seemed like a better idea.
“These Ulster Scots were not treated much better than the Catholic Irish – they had no vote and their marriages were not recognized, for example,” says Ken. “In the 18th century more than 200,000 left for America, where they provided seven of the first 30 American presidents.”
The Presbyterian presence is still felt in tidy towns and severe churches throughout Northern Ireland but its greatest legacy here is the capital of Belfast.
“In 1825 the population of Belfast was around 40,000, of whom about 65 per cent were of Scottish extraction, mainly Presbyterian planters,” says Ken. “Some 30 per cent were English, mainly Episcopalian and only about five per cent of the town were Irish, essentially Catholic.
“The city boomed on the back of the linen industry. Belfast was not very industrialized in 1825 but it had two small cotton mills. When one burnt down, it was rebuilt using new machines for spinning linen on an industrial scale and over the next 70 years Belfast turned into Linenopolis, the linen-producing capital of the world. The linen industry alone employed 35,000 people, and it sucked in other industries in which Belfast arguably led the world: the shipyard, the ropeworks and Gallaher’s tobacco factory were all the biggest in the world, while we also produced more Irish Whiskey than anywhere else.”
By the beginning of the 1900s, Belfast had grown into a city of almost 400,000 people that also attracted large numbers of rural Catholics. “Belfast boomed at the same time as the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s and we know that well over 100,000 landless Irish flocked here,” says Ken.
“They found work in the mills and lived in the big industrial estates to the west of the city, being built by the linen lords. West Belfast is still the Catholic power base. The first riots in Belfast were in West Belfast, way back in the 1870s, over politics. Then we had the 1916 Easter Rebellion, when we also had riots here, and the Partition of Ireland in 1922 saw huge riots – every bit as bad as the 1970s.”
I walk around Belfast’s city centre but find little to admire, its heart destroyed by the bombings of the so-called Troubles and now lost to anonymous modern buildings and chain stores. I find myself almost nostalgic for the days when, battered and torn, this part of the city at least had character. But I have few regrets for nights when a ride home took me through the city’s layers of Catholic and Protestant areas, never knowing when a stone through the bus window might disgorge me onto unfriendly streets as the driver headed back to the depot.
However, the University area and the booming Cathedral Quarter both show the city’s energy, while the City Hall, opened in 1906, remains as a solid testimony to the ambition of the city fathers in other times. In its grounds is a monument to Edward Harland who with his partner Gustav Wolff built the great shipyards where RMS Titanic was launched.
“There never was a more unlikely place to build a shipyard,” says Ken. “We had very little raw material – the steel had to be imported from Scotland – but we had a great Presbyterian spirit. It was a very radical place and the Presbyterians were also into education – we have one of the oldest libraries in Ireland. Presbyterians always had this work ethic. Dunlop invented the rubber tyre here, Ferguson invented the tractor, the ejector seat by Martin, the world’s first vertical take-off aircraft, the mobile defibrillator and many more. For a tiny provincial city, those are amazing inventions.
“That spirit has always flowed through the veins of Belfast. Many would say that spirit started in Edinburgh, with people like Adam Smith, passes through here and then pushes off to America.”
The story of Belfast industry starts off the galleries in Titanic Belfast, a massive visitor experience that stands near where Titanic was built. In 1912, Ireland was still united under British rule and the Belfast shipyards were the perfect place to construct the world’s largest passenger ship, as well as her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic.
Titanic sank on her maiden voyage with the loss of many local lives among the more than 1,500 who died and the Titanic Belfast tour finishes with a haunting video view of the wreck now, lying 3,800 meters deep in the Atlantic. However, the highlight is a projection of the launch day onto an opaque glass window that clears to reveal the actual dock below.
It is hard to escape the sense that this was Belfast’s finest hour, although the city boomed again in both world wars as a powerhouse for ships, weapons and uniform production. “The shipyards produced 161 ships for the war effort during World War II and the aircraft factories turned out 1,200 Stirlings, as well as many other bombers,” says Ken. “The Irish Republic stayed neutral so the two Northern Irish ports of Belfast and Derry were the two most westerly ports the Allies had to guard the Atlantic. The first American soldier to arrive in Europe during the war landed in Belfast.
“After the war, a lot of material was needed to rebuild the infrastructure but then there was another slump. The 1960s saw a revival – this is the time when Belfast people could first think of taking holidays abroad – but then a group of young students from the university here began the Civil Rights Protests and we entered a period of 30 years unrest. They were demanding one man, one vote, and housing and jobs allocated on merit, not religion. The shipyards and aircraft factories had been predominantly Protestant and it was very hard for Catholics to get jobs, although the linen industry in West Belfast had always been integrated.”
A tour through Belfast shows more of the legacy of those years, with the community still divided by vast “Peace Walls” that keep warring youths apart. The murals on the Catholic side mostly show sympathy for Gaza, Catalonia and Cuba, an identification with the oppressed, while those on the Protestant side show the symbols of dominance: guns, Union flags and uniformed paramilitaries.
It is a relief to return to the dock area and join a cruise around the harbour to see the city’s regeneration. Like many post-industrial cities, the former warehouses and dockyards offer a tempting space for developers right in the city centre. Titanic Belfast stands in the middle of a Titanic Quarter that is starting to bloom with shiny new apartments, coffee shops and an urban sports park. Dominating one end is the fast-expanding Titanic Studios, where interior scenes for Game of Thrones are shot, while the Odyssey Arena on the water’s edge is a venue for acts such as Lady Gaga, Michael Bublé and Miley Cyrus.
It is a rainy day but I huddle on the foredeck with the other visitors onboard MV Mona to cruise past the docks where Titanic was launched and where the SS Nomadic, the last remaining White Star Line ship, still lies. “Belfast was a town that wanted to be a city but the river bent and twisted so ships could only get in at high tide,” says Derek Booker, who runs the Lagan Boat Company. “The Harbour Commissioners dredged the harbour all the way out to sea. It took ten years – using picks, shovels, horses and carts – but allowed ships to get into the centre every day on all tides. It is still dredged every two years.”
Derek takes me through a history of Belfast’s shipyards, saying that “the founders were the Bill Gates of their days”. While the sinking of Titanic may have knocked the heart out of the yards, they prospered through the two world wars before being sunk by cheap competition from China. We pass Queen’s Island, built with the mud dredged from the river and where Titanic was built. As we pass the slipway, we can look directly up at the Titanic Experience building. Opposite is the 27-story Obel Tower, the tallest building in Ireland. “American visitors always laugh at that,” says Derek. “Titanic would be three and half times taller if you up-ended it.”
He takes us through the ship’s other technical wonders – “She could do 23 knots, that’s faster than any ship in this harbour today” – before a description of her fatal end. He is in no doubt about where the fault lies for hitting an iceberg. “Captain Smith was in bed, having given orders to his First Officer to go full speed ahead,” he says. “The blame must rest squarely on his shoulders, not the men who built these great ships, who sadly went to their graves thinking it was their fault after the world’s press turned on them. If you crash your Ferrari into a brick wall, you don’t blame Ferrari. It was the driver, not the builder.”
As Derek finishes his story, we turn into the Musgrave Channel for another sign of Belfast’s rebirth. The industrial waste that once polluted the River Lagan has been cleaned away enough to allow fish to survive. That in turn supports a colony of more than 30 common seals that I watch basking in the weak sunlight that has broken through the clouds.
They are the same species as those I saw on Rathlin Island and it is comforting to think of how the sea unites them, just as it ultimately does the people of this lovely land.