Northern Ireland

The northern counties’ scars are faded curbstones. Downtown Belfast, of course, betrays no memory of the Troubles: there’s been ten years’ peace and the country is hopeful. But the evidence is written into the street corners and sidewalks.

Magheramorne to Cushendall. Cushendall to Bushmills. Bushmills to Portrush. Portrush to Moville. By this point it was a running joke how little ground we were covering each day. Moville to Malin Head, which couldn’t have been more than fifteen miles. But a town is a town, isn’t it? And the better pub isn’t any more likely to be twice as far away.

Let’s face it: an Ulster Fry takes some time to digest if you want not to cut corners. We were lucky to be on the road by eleven. And then the pub lunch must be enjoyed with a wee Guinness. That’s two hours right there.

By the time we landed on the shores of Inishowen it was clear we wouldn’t be able to pull it off as originally envisioned: Belfast to Derry along the coast and then a return through the interior. Once we decided to take a train back from Derry the pressure was off.

On sturdy rented bikes we pedalled through the Glens of Antrim, the Antrim Coast, the Causeway Coast. Our plans were open-ended. It was too early in the season to worry about the hostels filling up so we didn’t bother to call ahead. We could overnight where we felt.

Growing up in Boston we playacted the Troubles, proclaimed our city the western bastion of the IRA. We didn’t know a thing. 1690 is painted on the stone wall in red, white, and blue, and it has to be explained to me. The Red Hand. The black gloves. I’m learning this all for the first time.

You sort of have to root for the green team, don’t you? The underdogs, oppressed throughout history and all that. And if a man has to blow up a few empty storefronts, light a few buses on fire, well that’s just the way the world works. They’ll only call you a terrorist if you don’t carry a badge.

The girl at the Portrush tourist office had neither heard of Blundell’s nor Pongo, but Tim is not easily thrown off a scent. He was resolved to find the parlor where his dad had come as a young man on weekends with his mum. We were now on Tim’s Pongo Heritage Tour.

Portrush is a weekend town, a summer town. It was a Tuesday in the shoulder season so the resort town was faintly depressing. Plus there was no way we’d be able to find this Pongo game, bike on to the hostel at Portstewart, and get dinner before the kitchens closed.

It was yet another moment when I honestly thought that Tim’s quixotic plans weren’t going to work out. But as usual, they turned into pure gold.

There was one Bingo parlor in town with a game that night. The name of the place was Phil’s, not Blundell’s, but we poked our heads in the back room and the place looked ancient enough, with worn cherubs painted on the walls and the smell of old women.

By the time we dropped off our bags at a quick B&B and biked back into town the first game was already underway, but the caller waved us in and we bought a few books, waiting for the second game among rows of octogenarians. The caller’s lilt was mesmerizing, as was his numbering jargon: “all the fours, forty-four”, and “aren’t they lovely, legs eleven”. We sang his calls for the rest of our trip.

Here’s what they print on Irish menus: All above entrees served with choice of potato.

“You see the kerbstones? Red, white, blue. This is a protestant neighborhood, and don’t you forget it. But see how they haven’t been kept up? That’s significant. We’ll turn the corner, and… an Irish flag. The neighborhoods are pushed right up against each other here in North Belfast. And it’s always the boundaries with the most signs. You have to mark your territory.”

I had the good fortune to get in touch with Joe Woods, the father of an Irish friend back in Virginia. Joe picked me up from Belfast International and immediately set about showing me the riddles of the city. When Tim and Jess arrived two days later I tried to retrace my steps but couldn’t find the murals I’d seen. Bobby Sands smiling down upon the Catholic passersby. Ulster Dixie.

That was a doozy, Ulster Dixie, with a Confederate flag printed across the Red Hand. A Protestant mural, a pregnant conflation of the most powerful American sectarian symbol with one of the most powerful Unionist sectarian symbols, but what could they have been thinking? Joe, the entirety of whose answering machine message is in Irish Gaelic, wasn’t inclined to give it a sympathetic reading.

Inishowen was different. This was the Republic of Ireland, and the economic miracle was in evidence. This wild northerly peninsula had been lit up by developers, and brand-new houses had sprouted up on the roads, between villages, settled around the logic of the car. It was almost suburban, Inishowen, almost American. Folks grumbled about the developers, the cars, the unused houses and second homes. The real Ireland, the old Ireland, the way Ireland used to be. When people say this they’re talking about the nineties. Still, it’s hard to begrudge a nation its ascent from poverty.

We rode for nine days and it did not once rain on us. This was surely good fortune, although the farmers were unhappy. No rain, but wind. It was at the peak of our longest climb, midway through our second day, that we first hit it. At Tor Head, and we had just climbed the gap that separated the east coast from the north coast, taken our trip’s great left turn at the corner of Ireland. We crested that hill and were met by a headwind that dogged us through to Derry. It blows, I now know, from west to east across the coast, and for hours we were lucky to get into second gear, even on the flat stretches.

We talked to the Bingo caller afterwards. He was affable and bemused to see us, younger as we were than sixty years. Aye, this is Phil’s but was once called Blundell’s. Tim was beaming at this point, and once again took in the cherubs that had once frolicked above his dad’s weekend excursions. And Pongo, aye, but they haven’t played it that way in who knows how many years. In fact, why here it is, he said, pulling a dusty plastic Pongo board from a bottom cabinet. He blew it off and handed it to us.

That night, at the take-out curry joint, we were naturally the most popular group in line.

“Is that a Bingo board? Are you carrying a Bingo board from Phil’s?”

“Pongo.” Tim corrected.

The couple in front of us tried to sing a few calls, but couldn’t quite remember the words, and were too drunk.

Another asked, “the hell is Pongo?”

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