Travels through Northern Ireland


Kenneth King

In the small Irish town of Glencolmcille we meet Kenneth King. He is a maritime painter, and is very talented. He believed maritime art has the ability to touch different eras of history, and he has used his art as a way of looking at the relation of the shipping industry to Irish history as well as the influence of Irish ships and sailors on the maritime history of other nations.

The Irish Famine

He spoke to us about a recent project of his involving the Irish famine (created for the 1995-1997 anniversary period). He was curious about Irish-made ships carrying their compatriots to the United States and Canada. There were more than 2,000 ships that sailed from Ireland to the United States during that time period,  of which about 700 were directly from Irish ports.

Although King did extensive research to find evidence of coffin ships to depict in his paintings, he ended up concluding that 95-97% of passengers were carried safely across the Atlantic, most heading to Canada. They headed to Canada because during this time the United States had increased port dues to discourage people from docking there, and some many immigrants docked in Canada and then crossed by land into the United States.

On a good run the journey took 25 days but one ship was recorded to have taken 100 days to make the crossing. It was a tough journey, often with disease affecting those aboard. Most of these ships were not passenger vessels, but rather merchant vessels with planks added. And if a ship was ever damaged and had to pull ashore, its passengers were more than likely ripped off when going ashore.

It was out of the port of Derry that the first liner services to American were offered, and with only minimal deaths experienced until disease hit the ships. Throughout Ireland there was a steady ‘hemorrhaging’ of people, either from emigration or disease. In the town of Glemcolmcille there were 5,000 people before famine, and 4,200 after. It is unclear if they were lost to disease or hunger or they simply left.

I asked King what his favorite ship was, and he said one in particular didn’t come to mind but he enjoy the stories where instead of death during the crossing there was birth – with 200 people leaving Ireland, and 202 arriving in the United States.

John Barry of County Wexford

King took particular pride in telling us the story of John Barry, known as the father of the American navy. Born in Ireland Barry eventually came to serve in the US Navy, and was, according to King, its first commissioned officer. Barry, as King emphasized, was not to be confused with John Paul Jones who was in fact Scottish.

In 1794 Congress ordered the building of frigates, which was overseen by Barry. These frigates were state of the art, as the Americans had been observing for some time the types of ships being built by the larger navies.

The painting above depicts these early American ships, while honoring the contribution that Irishmen made to the founding of the US Navy. In the background the USS Constitution can be seen.

Irish Ships during WWI

Depicted below (Oil: 16″ x 12″) is an Irish ship, the S.S. Irish Cedar c.1943, during World War II. There were attempts to prevent ships from being attacked by having their flags painted on the side, but as King pointed out that “didn’t really help them ’cause they still got sunk.”


Day Two: A Library and A Walk

We began with a visit to the Linen Hall Library. The original building was constructed in the 1880s, and they have recently added a new wing. They have a massive (+250,000) collection of material from The Troubles (the conflict that erupted in Northern Ireland beginning in the late 1960s). They are able to have such a massive collection because a member of their organization had the idea to keep all the political pamphlets that were being handed out during the Civil Rights Movement.

They were able to build such a remarkable collection through the personal networks of its members, and more recently through the donations of individuals who are ‘cleaning out their attics’.  Early in the process the library received special assurances that they would not be prosecuted for holding such material – an important step as they brought together controversial political material.

Currently on display is a collection of political propaganda posters which highlight the sentiments of each group throughout The Troubles.

Community Tours

We toured a loyalist neighbourhood and a republican neighbourhood, each time lead by a member of that community. Both tour guides spoke of great violence done to their community by the other side. They both told of a history of righteous struggle. I have tried to capture some of what they said below, but other things (such as the Peace Wall, the Hunger Strikers, etc.) deserve their own posts which will come in the next couple of days.

Until then…

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The Peace Wall

The Peace Wall, Peace Line, or whatever name you chose to call it by is a complicated thing. It is a wall, or sometimes a line on the ground, that designates the boundaries of Protestant and Catholic areas. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more walls have been put up. Some speculation is that with more mixing between two previously segregated societies, anxiety has risen which in turn has been soothed by the presence of these walls.

Over 4 million people visit the Peace Wall each year, and there is a tradition of signing the wall. Generally speaking the people signing the wall are not necessarily from the area – but rather tourist expressing their hope for a peaceful future.

The most shocking part about the presence of this wall is that the gates are still closed every night to physically separate the two groups of peoples, and do not open again until morning – even ambulances have to use longer, alternative routes to enter neighborhoods.

A psychical wall. There are no words to describe how sad it is to see, it even runs through the middle of parks.

For me it brings about a feeling of great pessimism that the communities will eventually come together. With all the wonderful work being done by community groups and government bodies, the presence of this wall says much of what is generally left unsaid by official representatives of the communities. The trust is not there. Hopefully one day it will be.

Arriving in Belfast

Today we arrived in Belfast.

While in the taxi we listened to a radio program during which two politicans (or two individuals who sounded like politicans) spoke about the recent death of the young Catholic police officer – Ronan Kerr. (For more on that story click HERE)

The host of the radio show pushed one of the men to answer the question, “Do you condemn the death of Ronan Kerr?” He didn’t, simply saying it was tragic.

Less than 15 minutes in Belfast and the discussion begins.

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