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On Northern Ireland

Having moved very definitely now into a period of strong winds and rain we find ourselves once again at sea in rough conditions, far rougher than we signed up for when we started out, I might add. We are fortunate indeed to have a boat that can handle this type of thing but it is our own comfort that invariably suffers. The best position to adopt when the cockpit is writhing about, tossing up and down violently in a turbulent sea, is a standing one since legs have built in springs and shock absorbers, something strangely missing from the human bottom. But many hours at sea take their toll on the leg springs. From a place where the currents collide just south of the Mull of Kintyre, in a stiff westerly breeze and horizontal rain there is little to choose anyway between sitting and standing in terms of comfort. Many hours later, landfall finally arrived in the shape of Carrickfergus marina, a place to which we were drawn by the magnetic promise of a ‘Stay one night, second night free’ offer. Well who can blame us.

We find we have timed our visit perfectly to coincide with my mother’s eighty-eighth birthday (Hi Mum!) and also with the anniversary of something that happened a few centuries earlier, the Battle of the Boyne. But it is the latter of these events that has precipitated a countrywide incineration of rubbish on bonfires across the land. The air is full of soot which floats down on our decks and stains the sails, the smell of burning is everywhere and from out at sea columns of black smoke rise heavenwards. The intensity of these ‘celebrations’, if this is what they are, is startling to us. (In a similar vein some Dutch sailors we met here were surprised to find themselves face to face with a statue of King Willem III van Oranje who they regarded as their own.) Here is a country where we understand the language (just) but the historical perspective is alien. Whereas elsewhere in Britain national flags have become a commonplace sight, hung from houses, fluttering from boats, and sticking out of car windows – in England there is the cross of St George, in Scotland the Saltire (St Andrew), the Welsh have their dragon – many here in Northern Ireland think not of individuality but of unity and it is the flag of the union that flutters from every lamp post, covering the streets in red, white and blue. In the rest of our land this flag is largely reserved for public buildings and the queen’s residence but history has given the people who live here a different outlook on the world.

Carrickfergus marina let us down badly in the end. Marine diesel was not to be had due to the public holiday then our berth close to the entrance out into Belfast Lough made us vulnerable in a southerly blow, waves charging in to toss boats and pontoons around like toys. We began to long for something that didn’t move around quite so much, I think they call it ‘land’. Our plans to sail for the Isle of Man are swiftly abandoned under a torrent of rain.

Which is how we find ourselves in Strangford Lough, a name derived from the Norse for Strong Fjord but which the Irish call Cuan, meaning calm. The Vikings were clearly more impressed by the fearsome current that runs through the narrow, five mile long, neck that connects to the sea, not a place to be tackled when the tide is running against you. A tidal generator planted on the bottom here can produce enough electricity for a small town.

This place provides us with the same calm that the Irish found, needed after so much rough. We may not be exactly where we intended to be but we are where we need to be. We hear on the News of conflict just a few miles away in Belfast – it appears that there are people who still cannot live comfortably with each other even after so many years – but the evidence of our eyes tells us that such single-mindedness is by no means universal and there are many who have other priorities. The Lough fills with clouds of colourful sails as the Irish take to their boats and go sailing, racing about in competition or just drifting slowly like us. Then, gradually, the wind subsides as the sun sinks lower until we are almost alone, unless of course you include the flocks of noisy wildfowl and the seals, all of whom are here because of the life swimming around beneath our keels. For Strangford Lough is a nature reserve, a vast area of water and the land around it preserved and protected from human interference.

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2 Responses to On Northern Ireland

  1. Ah, to feed the fish or not, that is the question. It is all in the mind, so they say.

  2. Jenny and I went out snapper fishing with the guys that own our rental. There was a biggish swell but it was a lovely sunny day. After four hours we were both green! I do not envy your times in the high seas …

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