Although we had visited the Republic of Ireland several times, this was our first experience in Northern Ireland. Since our cruise stop was to be brief, we had to choose very carefully how we were to spend our precious half-day. I had the feeling that wherever we went, I would find something to paint so the decision was made by my bride to visit a National Trust garden just 45 minutes outside of Belfast.
Mount Stewart is the home of Lady Mary, the daughter of the late Marquis of Londonderry, and is a lasting symbol of the wealth and power of the English. Although this substantial Georgian house with its acres of formal gardens is impressive, this was really the Londonderry’s summer cottage. Their main house was in London on prestigious Park Lane. They did also own a further 23,000 acres in Scotland. Over the generations, the various properties have been sold. Still Mount Stewart stands on a gentle rise beside the ocean, proclaiming to anyone who will look that way how important the British were and are in this country.
One section of the garden features a flowerbed in the form of a hand. Red blossoms carpet its shape. A fable is attached to this oddly-shaped bed. In ancient Ireland, so the story goes, there was a race to the Island, with the person whose hand first touched the soil to be made King. O’Neill seeing that another boat was likely to outstrip his, cut off his left hand and threw it to the coast. This symbol has been adopted by one of the Loyalist paramilitary groups called the Red Hand Commandos.
Riding in a cab to and from this splendid home, I took the opportunity to get some local information from our cabbie. Anyone who has ever visited Ireland will realize that you do not have to pay an Irish hack driver to talk, to shut up maybe, but not to talk. As we drove through the residential area where the Protestants and Catholics collide, we were staggered by the murals, on either side of the road, depicting the valour and courage of these violently opposing views. I was surprised by the artistic quality of some of the painting. Clearly this goes way beyond graffiti. This is the work of professionals.
These wall paintings partially obscured the stacks of wooden pallets that were being readied for burning on the “Glorious Twelfth”, the anniversary of the British victory over the Irish. For over three hundred years, the marching season has reinforced that dominance. These marches, of course, rub salt in the wound. Our taxi driver told us that the marching has been somewhat curtailed by charging any group that wishes to march with the cost of policing such an event, but some of the groups, obviously well funded, continue on this sad tradition.
The battles between the “rebel” groups and the police and army continue. Young kids and teenagers hurl rocks and small explosives at these symbols of authority, then run away and vault walls to the safety of their quarter. They cynically call this the Summer Olympics. The signs on the walls proclaim “Democracy Denied”.
I asked our taxi driver just how much he paid for fuel. “Well,” he said, “I pay 45 pence a litre, but the real price is 78 pence. I buy it without the tax.” He told us how certain gas stations sell gas that has been “liberated” from the Irish Republic. Liquor also follows the same path. He also claimed that he had not paid income tax for ten years. His address is officially in Dublin, but he actually lives in Belfast. Because he is in an all-cash business, it would be difficult to catch him out, and anyway, the authorities are fully occupied with issues of security. It appeared to me that there are many people who benefit from the troubles and want them to continue.