Ascension Times

Ascension Times

Adventures in Belfast

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Adventures in Belfast

Northern Irish Life After the Peace Agreement 


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“I highly recommend this well-written, hard-to-put-down book for those interested in understanding Northern Ireland’s history, the Troubles, and post-Peace Agreement life.”

– Jane Blanchard, author of Women of the Way: Embracing the Camino

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“Takes the reader into the heart of Belfast and beyond, and into deep and passionate conversations with a wide range of Northerners.

Partly a personal journey, it also allows room and attention to a multiplicity of views and experiences, which add depth to the historical and political context of “Norn Iron.”

A timely, engaging and insightful read!”

– Ruth Carr, author of There is a House and The Airing Cupboard (Summer Palace Press, Ireland)

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“A living, breathing history that comes alive on each page.

Ryan obviously loves her subject matter — history, people, and culture in Belfast — and brings it quite colorfully to life.

Highly recommend!”

– Dr Jessica Voigts, author, travel writer, and editor, www.WanderingEducators.com

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“Ryan may be cast as the stranger in a stranger land, but she brings an insight that others will enjoy, thanks to her humour, poignancy and a prevalent personal touch.

Not shying away from the hard questions of the Troubles, this is a book that is ambitious yet accessible.”

– Colin Dardis, Northern Irish poet and author of Doji: A Blunder

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“Ryan does an excellent job of shedding an unbiased light on both sides of the story, giving each side their chance to speak.

But more than that, Ryan gives us a glimpse into what life in Northern Ireland is really like.

You’ll get a look at the scars left behind by “the Troubles” and get to know the people affected, with many interviews with those involved on both sides, giving us a glimpse into the conflict we would not have had otherwise.

And because this book covers several years, you get to see those scars heal and change.

I highly recommend.”

– Calley SoFalley, travel blogger, calleyabroad.blogspot.ie

Dive into the people, history, turmoil, and living myth of life in the North of Ireland . . . 

From the major political events that shaped post-Peace Agreement life, to deeply ingrained traditions and powerful storytelling and myth, these are down-to-earth images of a complex culture, and the forces that have divided it for centuries. 

You’ll meet genius poets, hopeful politicians, former paramilitaries, Northern students and working people.

Each draws a vivid picture of a country of longstanding feuds, amazing humor, and the hard work and ingenuity that built the Titanic, and rebuilds a culture. 

This is a story of ordinary people living out their own best and worst aspects, in a time of astounding transition—for the Ireland, and for the entire planet.

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From Chapter 4
“Tempestuous Witch”

In an old Belfast linen mill, they say, there walks the ghost of Helena Blunden.

Helena was born in the south of Ireland in 1896, but grew up in London. She loved music, and sang in the school choir, learning London music hall tunes and practicing Irish dance. When her family returned to Ireland in 1911, they settled in Belfast, renting one of the small Victorian terraced houses that lined the streets of the highly industrial city. At fifteen, Helena went to work in the spinning room of the nearby linen mill.

Helena was popular at work, entertaining the other girls with her humor and her stories about life in London. Music was her passion; she dreamed of singing professionally, despite her mother’s disapproval. She worked the usual fifty-two hours a week in the spinning room, which was always damp and hot, unbearably so in summer. Women and children often fainted from the heat and lack of ventilation in the mills, where the air was both trapped and thick with linen particles. Even as late as the 1930s, mill workers worked barefoot due to the danger of slipping on the floors, which were wet with condensation.

An older worker named Margaret had been demoted in her later years to mopping the wet floors and stairs, a job she resented. She and Helena would argue at times, Margaret mocking the young girl’s dreams and ambitions.

Though the workday usually ended at noon on Saturdays, the mills often kept workers late to clean machinery or to finish an important order—one recent order had been for fine linen tablecloths for the first class dining room of the RMS Titanic. Though Sunday work was outlawed, workers would consent to work the occasional Sunday for a bit of extra income.

On a Sunday in April 1912, Helena and her fellow workers were hard at work in the mill’s spinning room. Helena was in high spirits, singing through the day and looking forward to a concert that evening at the Grand Opera House, still a regal Victorian venue to this day. Despite the danger of slipping on the wet floors, Helena kept her shoes on all day so as to be ready to leave as soon as she finished work. She finally finished at seven o’clock, exhausted by the heat and the long hours, and weak from fasting for Lent.

In the first half of the 1900s mills still employed children. They were called half-timers, as they went to school either half the day or every other day, working in the mills or factories the other half. At 7:00 PM that evening Margaret Maxwell abandoned her mop on one of the stairs to scold a little boy who had walked on her freshly mopped steps.

Helena finished work and came running out of the spinning room and down the stairs, not seeing Margaret’s mop left lying across the stairs. She tripped over it and went flying over the banister, falling several flights to the floor below.

Margaret heard Helena scream and looked up in time to see the girl falling through the air. Horrified, she raced to her side, but Helena was already dead.

Ghost sightings in the building have led many to believe that Helena’s death at sixteen left her spirit wandering the building, called Pure Flax House, a five-story Edwardian building in the linen conservation area of Belfast city centre. The legend developed all the more after an employee of the printworks company that now occupies the building discovered a wax recording of Helena’s singing.

Employees of the printworks tell of hearing disembodied footsteps some nights when they are working late. But it is the occasional glimpse of a mist or a young woman’s face or form in different places in the old mill that spurs on the ghost rumor . . . .

 

From Chapter 5 – Child’s Play

I asked what it was like growing up in west Belfast “while the Troubles were on,” as they say in the North.

“My earliest memory of the Troubles, when I was very young,” he said, “would have to be soldiers coming into the house, basically throwing my ma around the room, throwing all our toys out the window. Just destroying the house. I would have been probably four or five. As far as I could tell, they were just big, bad, bad men. That’s all I saw them as.

“I didn’t see them as soldiers or anything like that. I just saw that there was a sort of dark cloud around them. And they had a bad intent coming into the house. They didn’t have any respect. Whenever they were around, it was like the clouds came and the sky was dark all around. And that sounds a bit over the top, but as a kid, that’s how I remembered it.

“There used to be riots around our area—quite a lot. I remember once all the children had built a sort of barricade. It was sort of the culture of the entire west Belfast, that whenever you heard the women banging the bin [aluminum garbage can] lids on the ground, it was a warning to the Ra that the soldiers were coming in.”

 

From Chapter 7 – Wait Till I Tell Ye

One night my friend Chris Keenan, a brilliant young Northern Irish short story writer, regaled a friend and me with some old Irish tales as we sat in Rotterdam Bar, an atmospheric and popular old pub on the docks of Belfast Quay. We listened while the fire burned in the large fireplace and music, talk and laughter rang out all round.

“When we were younger,” he began, “my grandparents would tell us about Finn MacCumhail [pron. Finn Muh-KOOL],” referring to the great Northern warrior. “Do you know that one? Well, the most famous one of all is how the Giant’s Causeway was born.

“What happened was, Finn MacCumhail at the time was living on the North Antrim coast. And there was a giant, Benandonner, a huge giant living off the coast of Scotland, on the Isle of Staffa.

“Finn and Benandonner started hurling abuse at each other across the water. They started shouting, ‘I’m going to get you! You’re a horrible eejit!’ So then they just said, ‘Right, no more talk! Let’s get together and let’s fight this out and see who’s the coolest giant!’

“So they started building the causeway. Finn built the causeway right across the sea and when he got to the Island of Staffa, he didn’t see anybody. So he went back. He was so exhausted from building this huge causeway that he fell asleep. And he lay asleep. And the Scottish giant Benandonner sees the causeway and says, ‘Ah, I’m going to get that frigger now!’

“So he starts running across the causeway, over towards Ireland, to get to Finn. Finn’s wife was there, and she seen the Scottish giant coming across, and he’s humongous—he’s as big as a mountain, and he was running across the causeway. And she thinks, ‘My God, if he gets my Finn, he is gonna kill him! He’s a million times bigger than Finn!’

“So she goes to the sleeping Finn and she dresses him up in a baby costume and puts a bonnet on him, and puts baby clothes over him and a blanket. And the other giant comes across the causeway to the north coast of Antrim. And he says, ‘Right, where’s Finn? Time to sort this out! Time to settle this!’

“And Finn’s wife says to Benandonner, ‘Would you be quiet, would you shut up! My baby’s sleepin’!’

“The Scottish giant looks down and he seen the baby, and he says, ‘Jaysus! If Finn MacCumhail’s baby is as big as that, imagine how big Finn MacCumhail is! He must be the hugest guy in the world!’

“So he went flying back across the causeway, and he smashed it up as he went back because he was so terrified, and he was never heard from again. And that’s how the Giant’s Causeway was formed.

“We used to always hear that when we were kids, and it’s a wonderful story. That story first started being told in the seventeenth century, by a bishop of Antrim,” Chris explained. “The bishop was one of the first ones to write the story down. But the fact is, the causeway wasn’t a well-known landmark. Very few people actually visited it.

“Then the nobles of England started, in the seventeenth century, something called the Grand Tour, where they did a grand tour of Europe, and they’d visit Venice and Switzerland and all that there, and none of the nobles would ever think of coming to Ireland. But one noble, a baronet, came up to see the Giant’s Causeway, and he said, ‘This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to! This must be included on the Grand Tour.’

“So from then on it started to become better known. Now there’s a road that’ll take you right up, but it was quite a trek to get to back then. A lot of people would come to see it, and the last place they would get to would be Bushmill’s, and Bushmill’s obviously is the oldest whiskey in the world.

“And they’d all get drunk on good malt whiskey and then they’d march up through the fields up to the Giant’s Causeway. And it became the start of a tradition. It’s volcanic in origin. The shapes—hexagons—came from volcanic activity, but it looks kind of man-made. It’s so original and so strange, so much something you’d not find anywhere else in the world. It’s Ireland’s one and only UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“There are stories about Finn MacCumhail—how he was this huge giant, and he scoops out a big lump of land, and he fires it out into the sea, and that lump of land became the Isle of Man. But actually these stories, the giants and the like—where they come from is back in Celtic times. Finn was born to a mighty warrior, his father. And a druid was his mother. These stories begin round about 300 AD, back in Celtic Ireland times.

“At that time Ireland was being run by kings or chieftains, and over all the kings was a high king. And the high king had an army called the Fianna. And that’s the origin of why to this day the leading political party of Ireland is called Fianna Fáil [pron. FEEN-uh FAWL]. The Fianna were the army that protected the high king. They were a bit of a brutal bunch. Because they were protectors of the high king they felt they were above the law and that they could do whatever they wanted. People didn’t like them. They felt they were obnoxious and rude.

“This guy Finn saved the life of the high king. As the reward for saving his life, the high king made Finn the leader of the Fianna. Some of the soldiers began to leave the Fianna, because Finn was a gentle, good spirit. Finn turned them into a noble and chivalrous bunch, who were protective of everybody they came across. They were known for their heroism and their bravery and their respect for people, and it was because of Finn’s leadership that that happened.

“But there’s a story my grandparents used to tell me. They lived in south Armagh, and there’s a mountain called Slieve Gullion. It’s a beautiful mountain. You’d climb up the mountain, and you’d get to the top and there’s a long plateau of grass, and right in the middle is a huge lake.

“There’s a story that comes from back in the days of Finn that my grandparents used to tell me about, about Áine [pron. AHN-yuh], the Lady of the Lake, and that the lake is meant to be haunted by a witch. Where the story comes from, is that Finn was living in a big estate called Almhuin [pron. ALL-winn]. It’s near present-day Kildare.

“At that time, Finn was married to a woman called Áine. And Áine had a sister called Miluchrach. And Miluchrach was madly, madly in love with Finn. And when Finn fell in love with her sister Áine, Miluchrach became consumed with jealousy and hatred and became hysterical and evil and withered. She disappeared then, and nobody ever saw her.

“What happened was, Finn was on his estate one day, and he came upon this absolutely gorgeous silver grey fawn running across his land. It was the most beautiful looking fawn he’d ever seen, and he was a hunter and he thought he wanted to hunt that fawn—he wanted to have that trophy.

“So he got his two legendary hounds out—they were called Bran and Sceolan [pron. SHKEEO-lan]—and he starting chasing the fawn, and he chased the fawn for miles and miles and miles, running across the land. They went right up through the province of Ulster, up the side of the mountain—Slieve Gullion—never getting quite close enough to the fawn to catch her but always having her in sight. They got right up beside the rise of the lake.

“And as soon as they got up over the top of the rise to the lake, the fawn was gone. Instead, Finn looked down and he seen this most beautiful lady he’d ever seen in his life, down by the lake. Her hair was golden like the sun and her skin was pale as limestone. Her eyes were like stars in a frosty night. And he seen her and he went down to her, and she was crying. And he said, ‘Excuse me Lady, but have you seen a fawn running across?’

“She said, ‘Don’t talk to me about your fawn! I don’t care about your fawn. I’ve just lost the most precious thing to me I’ve ever had in my whole life!’

“And being the man he was, Finn asked her, ‘What did you lose, Lady?’

“She said, ‘I’ve a ring of red gold that fell off in the lake.’

“Finn said, ‘Well, I tell you what. I’ll help you find the ring.’

“So he jumps into the lake and he swims round it three times, and the third time round he sees a glint down on the bed of the lake, of red-gold. He dives right down and gets the ring and comes back up. And he shows the lady the ring. She takes the ring off of him and puts it on his finger.

“As soon as she puts it on his finger, Finn’s hair turns silver and he turns frail and can’t get out of the lake—he’s turned into a withered old man. The woman changes as well. She changes into a hag and a witch. And Finn realizes that it is Miluchrach, Áine’s sister. And she says, ‘I curse you, Finn MacCumhail!’ and she jumps into the lake and disappears.

“Finn’s hounds Bran and Sceolan have come back, and Finn’s still in the lake, and they run straight past him and they don’t recognize him because he’s an old and withered man! And he feels so humiliated and feels utterly sorry for himself.

“So the hounds come back with the Fianna. There was a guy called Caoilte [pron. KEELTCH-uh]. He was one of Finn’s greatest friends—he became his right-hand man. And there was another guy called Conan who was from an opposing clan, and he always felt that he always had a right to the leadership of the Fianna. And he was jealous of Finn because Finn was so respected and loved by all his men.

“For weeks they looked for Finn, and Conan said, ‘It looks like he doesn’t want to come back to us. He’s dead, or he doesn’t care about us anymore. It’s time to make me the rightful leader of the Fianna.’

“And Caoilte replied, ‘No, Finn’s not like that. Finn would never abandon us. He would never leave us.’

“So he orders all his men to go searching for Finn. And off they go, up north from County Kildare, up towards Ulster. And along the way people tell them, ‘Yes, we’ve seen him. He was chasing a mighty fawn, and he chased it all the way up the mountain to the lake.’

“When they come to the lake, they go down and see an old, withered man sitting by the lake and they think he’s just a fisherman. And Caoilte says, ‘Excuse me, sir, but have you seen our leader Finn? He was seen chasing a fawn up through the province.’

“And the man says, ‘Yes. Yes, I’ve seen him.’

“Caoilte says, ‘Can you tell me where he is?’

“The old man says, ‘No, I can’t tell you where he is.’

“So all the Fianna draw their swords, and Caoilte says, ‘Tell us where he is, or you’ll pay by your life.’

“And the withered old man starts breaking down and crying and he says, ‘Look, it’s me.’

“When all the Fianna see their great and mighty leader reduced to this withered old man, they all start wailing and weeping. And that lake was then named Lough Doghra, the Lake of Sorrow, from that day.

“So Conan jumps out. ‘Aye,’ he says. ‘The only thing your old and withered leader is good for is death!’ So all the Fianna rose and went to kill Conan.

“So everybody starts talking and shouting, and Conan says to them, ‘You’ll die, by my sword!’ Finn runs to his friends in the Fianna and he says, ‘Peace!’ So they made peace, and Conan never bothered them again.

“So Caoilte asked, ‘Is there a cure?’

“And Finn says, ‘There’s a slight possibility. There’s a druid, he lives in Cuailgne [pron. COO-lee]. He could cure the curse.’

“So the Fianna lift the old and withered Finn gently up onto their shields and tie him mounted onto his steed. And when they get there, there’s nobody there. And they say, ‘There’s nobody here. Let’s dig—maybe he’s under the hill.’

“So they start digging into the mountain and it takes them three days. On the third day, a man appears. And they ask him, ‘Are you the druid Cuilinn [Gullion]?’

“He says, ‘Yes I am.’

“‘Can you cure Finn?’

“‘Yes I can,’ he says.

“And Cuilinn goes and he comes back with a cup of red gold that is overflowing. He pours the water from the cup onto Finn’s finger, and the ring comes off. Finn goes back to his normal self. But from that day, he always had silver hair. He’d always had golden yellow hair, but from that time after that he always had silver hair.

“As it was being passed among them, the cup fell onto the ground and into the hole that they dug, and sank into the earth. And where that cup sank, a tree grew up. And to this day it’s said that if you go to that tree, and you fast for the entire day before, that tree will give you knowledge of everything that will happen that day.

“My grandparents used to tell us about Áine, the Lady of the Lake, and Miluchrach, the witch of the lake,” Chris said. “But when I was a kid I never knew that that actually came from Celtic times. J.R.R. Tolkien, when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, drew a huge amount from Celtic mythology. You have a ring of power that binds. That’s Celtic mythology, the ring mythology. Another thing that crops up a lot in Irish mythology is that you’ll have animals like the fawn, which will lead the hero into the woods or mountain, and turn into a beautiful woman. That happens a lot in the Finn mythology; animals become people.”

 

Copyright 2014-2016

Caroline Oceana Ryan. All Rights Reserved.

 

About Caroline Oceana Ryan

Caroline Oceana Ryan is an author and speaker who channels the higher wisdom and guidance of the Collective, a group of higher beings assisting humanity as we Ascend into fifth dimensional life.

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