Beautiful St. Patrick’s Country, Busy Dublin

Sunday, July 5: I finally have time to summarize our day in Northern Ireland on July 4 and our morning tour today in Dublin, Ireland. Saturday, we docked early in Belfast; our tour, “A Day in St. Patrick’s Country”, departed at 10:00 for a full-day visit to sites along St. Patrick’s trail south of Belfast. It was cloudy with some rain when we left the ship, but the weather improved dramatically as the day went on, becoming warm and beautiful, with puffy clouds and blue skies.

Our coach headed south from the city, after we passed near the downtown and dock areas. Belfast has the largest drydock in the world and is the home of Harland & Wolff, the company that built the Titanic and other White Star ships. The company now does more ship repairs and renewable energy installations than shipbuilding, but the skyline of Belfast is still dominated by “Samson and Goliath”, two huge gantry cranes. Belfast was hosting the Tall Ships this weekend for a Maritime festival, so there was lots of traffic heading to the city and we saw many beautiful schooners, brigantines, brigs and barques as we crossed over the inlets. The huge new Titanic museum is also near the docks.

We passed through beautiful countryside for about an hour, traveling south to the town of Downpatrick. Crops included barley, Comber Spuds (potatoes), Brussel sprouts, and other staples, and there were plenty of sheep and cows. The countryside is full of downs or drumlins (undulating hills), which are described as “eggs in a basket”. The first stop on the tour was at the St. Patrick Centre, in the small town of Downpatrick and located just below Down Cathedral (also called St. Patrick’s cathedral, but officially known as Down), where the saint is supposedly buried along with St. Brigid and St. Columba. The Centre has multimedia exhibits and a film about St. Patrick and was very interesting. St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in 387 A.D, was kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of 16 and dragged off to Ireland as a slave being forced to work as a shepherd. He made his way back to Britain eventually, but didn’t stay long as a vision from God told him to return to Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity. He followed this vision and did succeed in converting many people in Ireland, becoming a bishop and then the patron saint of Ireland (and many other places).

We had a break for lunch on our own and decided to eat in the nice cafe at the Centre. After ham and cheese croissant sandwiches, we had time to walk around the beautiful flower garden behind the cafe. Everyone met at the bus and the next stop was at the Cathedral up on the highest hill in town. The cathedral is actually in the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and dates back to the 11th century, although the building was in ruins for a few centuries. St. Patrick is supposedly buried on the grounds, along with other early Irish saints and the location is marked with a huge rock with a simple “Patrick” inscription. In the church, we were greeted by a church elder who works there maintaining the flowers, greeting visitors and running the gift shop. She gave us a delightful introduction to the church, which recently had its altar area completely redone in a very modern style, with a beautiful wood altar and seats. The dedication of the new altar included a visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury and high-level representatives from local Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. The church’s main restoration in the 1700s came from funds from local wealthy families and their family crests line the walls on both sides.

After our time here, the next stop was a short journey into the countryside to the Church at Saul. The current simple church opened in 1933, but the site has had abbeys and church buildings dating back to the fifth century and is not far from the supposed landing place of Patrick when he returned to Ireland. “Saul” actually means “barn” in Gaelic and is not related to the pre-conversion name of St. Paul or to the first King of Israel. The setting was beautiful, with yew trees leading the way to the small church and cemetery and a field nearby with two friendly horses. Those two horses nearly resulted in a strange accident for me, one of our trivia team mates (Adrian) and possibly Steve. As I was getting back on the bus, one of our fellow passengers came barging down the stairs to give the horses an apple and he didn’t even see me on the first step. I had to abruptly step off the bus backwards, nearing bowling over dear Adrian — who also walks with a cane and just celebrated her sixtieth wedding anniversary (a hint about her age) — and Steve was right behind her. Mr. Clueless did apologize when he got back on; I’m also sure the owners of the horses would probably not like it that some stranger is feeding them apples.

Our next stop was in Strangford, an incredibly charming village on west bank of the narrows of the Strangford Lough, where we waited for about 30 minutes to catch a short ferry ride to the opposite shore to Portaferry, another very charming little village. The final stop of the tour was at an old windmill on top of a hill with great views in all directions. We journeyed back on the east side of the Lough to Belfast, passing some large estates and through more adorable little villages and having some views of neighborhoods in the city. It was a great tour and we certainly enjoyed the day in the countryside of Northern Ireland.

We sailed last night after 8:00 pm, getting a push out of the narrow channel at the docks to a turnaround point. Off to bed we went, because we had our last tour of the cruise today in Dublin, Ireland and it had an early departure. The tour today was entitled “Dublin Highlights” and included touring around the city and stops at St. Patrick Cathedral and at Trinity College. It was raining pretty hard before we exited the ship, but seemed to stop whenever we were outside, which was fortunate.

Dublin is very busy with lots of tourists right now, so most of our tour was spent waiting to get into places or dodging other groups. We drove around the city for a while through splendid Georgian blocks (with the famous colored doors) and past other landmarks. The church visit time was at 9:15 am, so we arrived there, along with many other busloads of tourists. Our guide was a bit nervous, as this was only his third tour, so he was somewhat repetitive and quite fussy about keeping track of everyone. The church was packed with people and, once again, surprised us because it was an Anglican cathedral (Church of Ireland) and not a Catholic church, in a predominately Catholic country. It was gloomy inside and not all that impressive, but it did feature the burial places of some notable folks, including Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels and many other stories and books), who was a deacon at the church.

After waiting for a while for our bus to come back to pick us up (too many buses on a narrow street), we did more touring around the city before going to the Library at Trinity College. During this expedition, it poured rain as we went through the massive Phoenix Park west of the city center, which is one of the largest urban parks in Europe. Of course we passed the Guinness brewery works, some historic buildings, and across the River Liffey a few times. Finally, we arrived at Trinity College for a visit to see four pages from the Book of Kells and also see the exquisite old library. Fortunately, the rain stopped, because we had to stand in line for a while to get inside. The Book of Kells is a four-volume illuminated manuscript of exceedingly fine detail, likely completed around 800 A.D. at the time of Viking incursions into Ireland and possibly in honor of St. Columba. The four volumes contain the four Gospels, with elaborate lettering and gorgeous multi-colored pages with illustrations of Biblical figures. There are two volumes on display at all times, one turned to two pages showing the lettering and one with two pages showing illustrations. It was a rugby scrum around the small display case, but we did manage to see the details. No photographs are allowed, for good reason.

After viewing the Books, you climb a staircase into the Old Library, which was exquisite, like something out of a Harry Potter movie. They had examples of books with various myths and religious stories from many different cultures and the two-story library had two tiers of books on either side stretching the length of the building, which is quite long! We did take photographs in this location. We descended another staircase into the mayhem of the Trinity College store, ending up with two sweatshirts, a book about the Book of Kells and some other trinkets. In the museum brochure for the Book of Kells, there is an adorable poem written in the ninth century by a Monk who worked on illuminated manuscripts beside his dear white cat, Pangur Ban, who hunted mice. We tried to get something with this poem on it (besides the brochure) and they had sold out of posters with the sentiment, so they gave us 10% off to order it online and have it shipped to the US.

We headed back to the ship after the tour, with some folks opting to take the shuttle back later. We were too tired to explore any more of the city, so it was time for lunch, trivia and now Bingo (our first game of the cruise). Remembering Steve’s good luck on our last cruise, we’ll see what happens and we also didn’t waste money on this stupid game during the entire cruise.

One more day at sea, then we disembark at 7:30 am Tuesday for the flights home. I will probably have a short final update, then have my highlights and lowlights final posting very soon!

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