Upon arrival in Belfast, we immediately departed for the countryside. There is nothing more green, and more beautiful than the Irish coastline. On earlier trips to Ireland, we had seen the Ring of Kerry, and took this opportunity to see the coast from the northern part of the island. These earlier trips had taken place during times of conflict in Northern Ireland, and we had never been able to come as far north as Belfast.
Our destination this day was the Giant's Causeway, a breathtaking group of about 38.000 interlocking basalt columns, ranging from ground level to 36 feet high. They are mostly hexagonal, but some rocks have fewer or more sides. Grouped together, they form stepping stones leading from the surrounding hills into the water. Scientists explain that the formations are the result of volcanic activity 60 million years ago, but locals and storytellers have a much more colorful explanation.
Legend has it that a giant named Fionn macCumhaill—Finn McCool— lived on the north coast of Ireland with his wife Oonagh. Finn was being tauted by his rival across the water in Scotland, the giant Benandonner, and created the Causeway as a challenge to lure Benandonner across the channel for a showdown. Oonagh, however, decided to use a tactic of stealth over strength, and disguised the sleeping Finn as a baby in a large gown and bonnet under a blanket. When Benandonner arrived, she invited him in for tea and asked him not to wake the baby. Benandonner took one look at the size of the baby and thought better of the challenge, retreating home to Scotland and tearing up the Causeway on the way back.
Remnants of Finn can still be seen, such as his giant boot in the photo above. The rock formations are fascinating, and then there is the breathtaking sea beyond the rocks. You can probably find a remnant of Finn yourself if you live in a town with an Irish population... there are dozens of pubs and restaurants that bear his name here in the U.S. So now you know all about Finn McCool.
From the Giant's Causeway visitor center, you can see the town of Bushmill, famous for, well, Bushmill's whiskey, and site of the oldest distillery in Ireland.
On our return to the ship, our guide took us through the streets of Belfast, something we were never able to do in the past. Despite the relative calm that now prevails, there are plenty of signs of previous strife. Neighborhoods are either Catholic or Protestant; you instantly know by the flags that are flying from the houses and businesses. The two simply don't mix. Between neighborhoods, you will often find empty blocks of "no man's land", keeping the peace by maintaining some distance. In some parts of town, streets are blocked off with large iron gates and mural covered walls to keep the factions apart, a grim reminder that things haven't always been quiet in Belfast.
This was our last stop in Ireland, but it won't be our last visit. Ireland will always be on my list of places to return to again and again.