The Palm House, in the city’s Botanic Gardens, is classic Victorian and one of the oldest curvilinear iron and glass structures surviving. Visiting was a step back in time to the 1840’s budding passion for horticulture and glasshouses. Longing for some quiet time, I wandered through the rose and English country gardens to the eclectic and inexpensive Ulster Museum, right next door. I am still endeavoring to understand the many layers of Irish history and culture, from the Stone Age through “The Troubles,” Celts and kings, Romans and Vikings, tremendous sacrifices of life during World War I and now a city trying to heal itself.
The antlers of the giant deer, extinct now in Ireland for 10,000 years, could reach 3.6 meters, making it the largest deer that ever lived. The museum’s antlers were smaller, but still impressive. Nearby was a pickled coelacanth, the thought-to-be-extinct fish whose rediscovery in 1938 by fishermen in South Africa was the subject of one of my childhood books. The crown jewel of this museum is its collection of artifacts from the 1588 wreck of the Girona, a ship of the Spanish armada. The gold first catches your eye, but it is the mute, everyday items that speak most eloquently of the almost 1,300 lives that were lost that day.
The young woman who narrated our city bus tour dreams of the day when the peace walls separating sections of Belfast can be taken down. Peace here has been a long time coming and in places seems more a hope than a reality. Everywhere there are symbols of that dream – a statue of two people reaching out to hold hands across a tiny brook. A hospital surrounded by a twisting metal fence made to look like DNA, a reminder that inside we have so much in common. Yet, we also saw a road that is closed and gated each night from 6 to 6 for safety reasons, in this city where 90% of schoolchildren still attend segregated schools. More than ever, I am grateful to have been a small part of the Friends Forever program back in Maine, where our local Rotary brought Catholic and Protestant teens to Maine from Belfast and nearby Carrickfergus, to begin the building of relationships in a new generation.