Today we met our driver Liam who is going to drive us around Ireland and Northern Ireland for the next 11 days. He met us at our Ariel House in Dublin and immediately set about asking us our preferences, likes, dislikes, interests and why we came to Ireland. Liam’s goal was to refine our itinerary so that he could show us “his” Ireland.
Our plan for today (Sunday) was to go to Belfast in Northern Ireland to see the Titanic exhibit, but in between I had previously advised our trip organizer that I would like to see New Grange, which is along the way to Belfast. New Grange is a prehistoric site believed to have been built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC. No one really knows what New Grange was used for, but it is believed to have some kind of religious use. Its really significance is the fact that the entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice so that sunlight shines through a ‘roofbox’ and floods the inner chamber with light. I was particularly interested in this because I have seen so many sites around the world that feature this amazing characteristic (Stonehenge, Machu Pichu and most recently Tiwanaku to name a few).
We hit the road by 9:30 and made it to New Grange by about 10:15. Now what I didn’t know is that you are supposed to reserve tickets for admission to New Grange months in advance, but we were chancing it. Fortunately, we lucked out and were able to join the 10:30 tour. We had to walk about 5 minutes to waiting buses and were bused about 5 minutes up the hill. From there, our little group met our New Grange guide and hiked a few minutes up the hill to the site. (Have I mentioned how nice it is to walk up hill at a normal altitude?)
Anyway, New Grange consists of a large circular mound with an inner stone passageway and chambers. The front entrance contains a large stone with interesting circular designs with similar stones on the backside of the mound. The site is in the middle of farm land and all around we could see and hear sheep.
Once we reached the site, our guide gave us a 10 minute overview of the site and then divided into two groups with the first group being led into the inside chamber while the rest of us wandered around the mound. After 10 minutes, it was our turn and we were warned to mind our heads (the stones are very low) and to move slowly through the passageway as the entry into the chamber is VERY narrow.
Once in the inner chamber, we were able to see additional circular designs on the stones and what I believed was the most amazing part of the chamber: the conical stone ceiling. Apparently in the several thousand years since this site was built, there has never been a single leak though the roof. It was truly a work of art with massive stones layered with smaller stones to balance the weight of the immense ceiling. There was also a layer of dirt (not visible to us) that was layered over the top of the stone above our heads. (Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures.)
Now the coolest part of being in the chamber is that our guide was able to extinguish the lights and recreate the winter solstice with the light passing through and into the chamber as if it was actually December 21 (or whatever day the winter solstice occurs). It was absolutely amazing to see the sun begin to appear and then extend in the chamber as the “virtual” time passed and then fade as the sun continued to rise. Incredibly cool.
After our amazing visit to New Grange, Liam suggested we visit Monasterboice, the site of an early Christian monastic settlement north of Drogheda. The site includes the remains of two churches built in around the 14th century and a stone tower believed to have been built in 968 AD. However, the real reason we were visiting the site was because of the “high crosses”. There were three high crosses at the site all dating from around the 10th century. The high crosses show biblical scenes from the Old and New Testament. The most impressive high cross was the 5.5-metre Muiredach’s High Cross which Liam advised was the most well preserved high cross in Ireland.
And to be honest, the cross was pretty darn impressive. You could still make out the figures and details on the cross despite the fact that it has been laid bare to the elements for over one thousand years. Now that is craftsmanship.
Now the weird thing about the tower we also saw at the site is that no one seems to now what the tower was actually used for. The sign stated that the tower was used to fight off invading Vikings, but that seems unlikely since all the Vikings had to do was smoke out the occupants. Anyway, we never did figure out what the tower was about.
The other interesting thing is that the site was also a cemetery and as Cheryl wandered around she came across a grave of a young man named Shane who died at 18 in 2013. Now the interesting thing about this grave was that it was made to look like a soccer field, complete with artificial turf and stone soccer balls adorning the grave and was clearly intended to convey that this young man loved soccer. Cheryl became slightly obsessed with the grave.
We ended up leaving the site to go to lunch at the Monasterboice Inn, which Liam assured had the best seafood chowder around, while Cheryl was still obsessing about this kid’s grave. Anyway, after we were seated at the bar and had placed our orders for seafood chowder (except my brother-in-law who, being the contrarian he is, opted for a chicken Caesar salad) Cheryl began to Google the young man’s name and she got a hit. We found out that the young fellow was hit by a car on virtually the same spot his grandfather had been hit some 20 years before directly across the street from where we were sitting.
Now the story become even weirder. After we were served THE most splendid seafood chowder (complete with shrimp, claims, mussels, calamari and fish in a white broth), I notice a picture on the wall that looked very much like the young man who had died. We asked one of the bartenders and it turns out the young man had been a bartender in the bar where we were sitting. And get this … his uncle died after being hit by a car in the same spot as well. Turns out that the kid had been off duty attending another uncle’s bachelor party. They all wanted to go to another place for drinks and the young mans decided he wanted to run across the street to his grandmother’s house to find a different pair of shoes. He left and never came back. And the really irony … his shoes were in the bar all along.
The bartender said the kid was an incredible soccer player and a great guy. And that the whole place was really crushed by his passing. Simply an amazing story. Donnie ended up going outside and saw the markers where each man had passed, all within a few feet of each other.
Anyway, with the mystery of the soccer grave solved, we began the hour and a half drive to Belfast. Liam made one brief stop to show us the marker announcing our entry into Northern Ireland, before kicking it into gear so that we could ensure we had enough time at the Titanic exhibit.
We arrived in time for the 4:00 p.m. entry and began what turned out to be about a 2 plus hour visit to the exhibit. It was simply fascinating. We ended up renting audio guides, which turned out to be a huge bonus. Sure we could follow along and read the exhibits, but the audio guide really provided a lot more information and context.
The exhibit began with a historical perspective about Belfast at the time the Titanic was constructed. There was information about the types of industry in Belfast at the time, complete with pictures and interactive exhibits.
The next set of exhibits was focused on the Harland & Wolff company, which built the Titanic. There was background on how the founders of the company came to decide to expand their brand into the luxury ship building industry (done to compete with Cunard) and how the partnership between the founders came about.
Next up was information about the ship building process itself and what it took to construct a ship like the Titanic. There was details about the kinds of laborers used, the work they performed, the hours required, the amount of time off (7 minutes total per day for bathroom breaks plus time for lunch), and the difference between employees and contract labor.
Then we took a 6 minute ride. Seriously. We got into these little buggies that took us up in the air and provided us with the perspective of what it was like to build the Titanic. The ride was complete with sounds and visual aides. Really amazing.
After the ride, we saw the process of building the ship and the various stages of construction, followed by an incredible video recreation complete with sounds showing the Titanic as it was lowered into the water. Once the ship was deemed seaworthy, it took another year to outfit the ship with all of its cabins, engines etc.
This was followed by another video that gave you a 3D view of what it was like to walk the Titanic. It was really, really well done. I actually felt like I was on the vessel.
Next came the maiden voyage. This is where we were able to see pictures of the Titanic and a rare video of the captain and passengers embarking on the ship. There were also intimate stories of the people boarding the ship, including an actress, multi-millionaires, doctors, employees and immigrants. We also saw a recreations of the cabins and the 1st class dining room.
One of the last rooms was a recreation of the distress calls that went out, the responses from ships in the area, a video showing the ship sinking and the time it took to sink along with the voices of survivors after the ship went down. There was also information about the rescue efforts and the efforts of the press to get to the bottom of the story.
The final displays were dedicated to the inquiry about the sinking, the fascination with the Titanic both in Hollywood and in the media, a short video showing the discovery of the Titanic and what it looks like now after over a century lying almost 2 ½ miles below the surface. It was definitely surreal watching the video and seeing a bathtub, a doll, shoes, dishes, bottles and a myriad of other artifacts at the bottom of the ocean
All in all, I have to say that the Titanic Exhibit is incredibly well done. Truly a labor of love by the people of Belfast and one for which they should be incredibly proud.