Although I like to think I have a “tell it like it is” blog-style and pull no punches, in this post I feel compelled to change a few names to protect the innocent. While typically “the innocent” are the people whose names have been changed, in this post we’ll switch it up since the innocents are Rhett and me. Granted, neither of us were angels when younger and we both trail an ever-so slightly checkered past behind us—however, given that we lived to tell the tales of those halcyon days of yore, it would be a shame for us to meet our end in some gangland style violence just trying to tell the story of our journey to Belfast.

Last October on a rainy inside-day in our Paris apartment we got to work planning our trip to Ireland. We’d heard that the ideal first trip to the Emerald Isle should include both south and north destinations (“south” being the Republic of Ireland) and “north” being Northern Ireland). That guidance meshed nicely with the quagmire of getting Sunny into the UK. While pets can’t fly into the UK they are welcome to enter via ferry or train (go figure). Therefore, we decided to fly into Dublin (which is in the Republic of Ireland and thus not in the UK) and then—after a side trip to Kinsale in the far south—take a train from Dublin to Belfast (and enter the UK as the train crossed the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border). From Belfast, we’d take a ferry to Scotland. (If you missed our adventures in Kinsale or need a refresher on UK/non-UK nomenclature, etc. rewind a couple posts to this one.)

As we refined our Irish itinerary and our couple days in Belfast, we focused on the “Ts”—the Troubles and the Titanic. While there’s a Titanic Museum we could visit in Belfast to learn all we wanted to learn on that subject, getting a perspective on the Troubles proved a bit more elusive. Given the relatively recency and sensitivity of events, there was no single Troubles museum. Also, our desire was to be out in the streets, walking and seeing with our own eyes, rather than inside surrounded by sanitized exhibits.

The question then became, How to get that experience without the information being skewed or prejudiced by one side or the other? In our travels and in consuming travel media, Rhett had run across an innovative Israel-based tour company that began its operations by offering tours of Israel with both an Israeli and a Palestinian tour guide. Rhett was quite intrigued with the concept since, as a pair, the guides could present a balanced perspective of the conflict. Rhett had learned that this company had expanded into other ethno-nationalist conflict areas, including Belfast. While we were still in Paris Rhett reached out to this tour company to see if we could book with them in November. Rhett got a quick response to her email (from the CEO of the company no less) apologizing that they only host tours in Belfast during the more touristy summer months. Undaunted, Rhett asked if he knew of any independent guides we could contact who could give us a private tour with a balanced mindset. Long story short, through a contact of a contact, we were connected to Blake Davis (name changed) who seemed to check all our boxes (including having an advanced degree in conflict resolution). Rhett communicated with Blake via text and we made a date for him to pick us up at our hotel in his car and we’d do a 4-hour driving and walking tour.

We wanted the immersive experience and—in retrospect—we got what we were looking for, and quite a bit more.

Allow me to insert a quick sidebar here for some definitions of terms. My former work colleagues and clients know all too well that a consultant without two-column comparative table is akin to a boat without a rudder. Although I now label myself a recovering consultant, I just can’t help but dust off the table when it’s the best tool for the job.

Below is my personal summary on the two sides of the Troubles. Please bear in mind that this is my understanding so it may not foot 100% with generally accepted terms. Also remember that not all members of a religion necessarily think the same, and that—within both columns—there’s a wide spectrum of intensity of belief.

Good reference as you read

In Ireland and the UK these are “terms of art” with very specific meanings. Yes, an outsider could look at the situation and say, “Well both sides are ‘loyal’ to something, so aren’t thy both Loyalist?” However, that would be analogous to a European saying, “If a US Republican believes in democracy, doesn’t that make the Republican a Democrat?”

Now, back to our story…

Our journey from Dublin to Belfast started with a senic midday rail journey. As seaside towns and rolling hills with grazing sheep swept past our coach window, the vista lulled us into afternoon siestas. The gentle rocking of the train kept us sleeping through the border crossing (the train never stopped). When we boarded the train in Dublin we weren’t sure what to expect at the crossing. At the very least, we thought the train would make a quick stop and immigration officials from the Republic of Ireland/EU or Northern Ireland/UK would walk the aisles to take a cursory look at our passports. However—nothing—we dozed and the train rolled right on through the international border. In retrospect, I think that seamlessness led us to believe that the Troubles and the bifurcation of the island were a closed book of history.

We checked in to our hotel and the next morning after a hot and hearty breakfast of Irish oatmeal we were ready to meet Blake. When we stepped out of the hotel and into brisk the late-November air we found Blake waiting for us with a tidy compact SUV. He was neatly dressed in a light blue collared shirt, a royal blue crew neck sweater, and a navy blue wool overcoat. On his head was a checked dark gray and white tweed flat cap. As he introduced himself and we got to know each other with small talk on the street, his accent was charming and he displayed an interesting mix of seriousness and joviality. When he smiled (which was often), his well proportioned cheeks were deeply dimpled. Almost immediately, Rhett and I were at ease and excited for the day. A good thing since over breakfast Rhett had reminded me of our circuitous connection to Blake and that we had booked directly with him and not through any intermediary. Over our steaming oatmeal we had joked that it would be a long half day if we did not click with him.

Going into the day, all I knew about the Troubles is that they were a smoldering war started in the 1960s with Catholics on one side favoring a united Ireland, and Protestants on the other wanting to keep the status quo of Northern Ireland within the UK. I knew the conflict was somehow resolved in the 1990s, and that “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by Dublin-based U2 was written about it. That’s where my knowledge stopped.

After a short drive through downtown Dublin—Blake parked his SUV in a modest, slightly rundown but quiet neighborhood of townhouses with an odd chain-link-fence-topped wall in the distance. He switched off the ignition but we stayed in the car to keep warm. Blake began talking and when, within the first 30 seconds, he said—“A good starting point to understand the Troubles is Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517 and the Protestant Reformation.”—I knew I was in for a bit of a mind shift. Blake moved quickly through the next 170 years to the 1690 Battle of the Boyne fought 30 miles north of Dublin (in today’s Republic of Ireland). It was the last time that two kings fought on a battlefield and pitted the deposed, Catholic James II and VII of England, Ireland, and Scotland, against the Protestant pair of William III of Orange and his wife Queen Mary II (remember the orange color representing Protestants in our table above). Interestingly—and related to Rhett’s and my adventures in Paris and Rome—Catholic James enjoyed the support of his cousin, the Catholic Louis the XIV of France (who built the Palace of Versailles). Louis sent 6,000 French troops to the battle to assist James, as he did not want to see a hostile ruler (William) on the throne of England. In reaction to Louis’s support of Charles, Pope Alexander VIII (obviously a Catholic) lined up behind the Protestant William, fearing Louis XIV’s continued expansion in Europe. William’s forces carried the day at the Battle of Boyne and ensured the continued Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.

As Blake skillfully and knowledgeably worked through the history of the 1700 and 1800s, and into the early-1900s, he was quick to point out that although he tries to paint a balanced picture, like all of us, he brings his background to the table. Rhett and I got the sense he was of a Protestant upbringing but it didn’t seem appropriate or relevant to ask the question outright. Besides, we were enthralled with the history. As an example of his balance, when he talked about the 1845 Potato Famine in Ireland, he said, “The Famine was indiscriminate. It killed regardless of Catholic or Protestant…and London didn’t care.” As he finished that sentence, there was no trace whatsoever of the cheery dimples, and his eyes looked off into the distance with a menacing glint. After a brief but unsettling silence in the car, he exhaled and shook his head to clear a thought as a child might shake an Etch A Sketch to clear an image. Just as quickly as it had appeared, his defiant countenance evaporated and he retuned to the present and smiled at us.

After half an hour of Blake talking and deftly fielding our frequent questions, he reached the 1916 Easter Rising (covered in our first Irish post) which was a precursor to the 1920-21 Anglo-Irish War (a.k.a., Irish War of Independence). This war resulted in the 1921 partitioning of the island and the creation of the Republic of Ireland (originally the Irish Free State) and Northern Ireland. With a modest flourish, Blake said, “With all of that background, we can move to the Troubles.”

The 1969 Battle of the Bogside riot in Derry/Londonderry Northern Ireland is generally viewed as the precipitating event of the 29 years of Troubles. (Derry being the preferred Catholic/Nationalist/Republican name of the city, and Londonderry being the preferred Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist name.) However, Blake said that in talking to old-timers, they often commented that during the1966, 50-year remembrances of the Easter Rising, there was “something in the air,” and many present thought that conflict would soon follow—they were right.

Blake drove us closer to the fence and soon we were confronted by the enormity of this “peace wall” (a.k.a., a separation barrier). My first thought was, Oh that’s nice, they left a little section of it standing for us tourists to gawk, and understand what it was like “back in the day.” However, as we craned our necks to see the fence that capped the wall and Blake continued to drive and the wall unfolded into the distance, we realized that this was an active barrier. It stretched as far as the eye could see through the car’s front and back windshields. This wasn’t some abbreviated artifactual ruin but the real thing. Yes it was history, but it was also Belfast’s present and foreseeable future. As this realization sank into Rhett’s and my brains, Blake informed us that in the 1980s there were 18 peace walls in Belfast. Today there are about 100. He added that a recent survey of the city revealed that 69% of residents want the walls to remain.

Both Rhett and I were born in 1964 and were the children of faithful six o’clock news watching parents. Therefore, we had grown up with the images of Irish sectarian violence burned in our minds and—at the time—the seeming intractability of the conflict. In addition, as a species I think we’re inexorably drawn to stories with endings, especially happy endings and—as such—Rhett and I had both assumed that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was the concluding punctuation mark in the happy ending of the story of the Troubles. Boy were we wrong. Blake’s educated and nuanced perspective of the Good Friday Agreement was that it took the conflict from unmanaged (and explosive) to managed; managed but not resolved. The Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist view is that the Agreement was a settlement (once and for all), whereas the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican view is that it was a stepping stone to the UK’s eventual withdrawal from the island and the unification of Ireland. In the interstitial space I can imagine exhausted and exasperated negotiators grasping at any kind of near-term ceasefire—even if the two sides had different understandings of the longer-term implications of the Agreement.

Our first view of a peace wall. The children’s playground in the foreground is the epitome of irony.
The same peace wall as above viewed from another angle.
Rhett and I in front of the Dali Lama Gate. The last time it was opened was in 2000 when Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali Lama, walked through it.
If you look carefully above where the road bends to the right in the distance, you’ll see the Shankill Road peace wall continuing.

Here’s a locked automobile gate and an open pedestrian gate in the peace wall…

The Protestant side…
…and the Catholic side. Note to the right, the high fencing that’s visible in the other pictures.
Close-up of the sign over the pedestrian gate. I think the automobile gate is only opened in emergencies to allow fire engines and ambulances to pass.

Next Blake took us to a Catholic memorial on Bombay Street. The entire street was burned to the ground by Loyalists in 1969…

A panoramic of the Bombay Street Memorial with peace wall in the background.
Martyrs who were killed in the clash. Note the liberal use of Gaelic.
Celtic cross.
Tribute to Gerald McAuley, a 15-year old IRA member shot and killed by a Loyalist sniper.

Blake then took us to “the other side.” It was a Protestant neighborhood and the site of Frizzell’s, a fish shop that the IRA bombed in 1993 after receiving a tip that the leadership of the Loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was meeting above the shop. Although the meeting had occurred, it ended early and UDA leadership had already left the building when the bomb detonated. One of the bombers and nine innocent people in the shop were killed, and more than 50 others were injured.

The site of Frizzell’s. It never reopened after the bombing.
Close-up of the plaque and memorial. The cards and small wooden cross were recently tucked behind the permanent remembrance (poppy) cross.
Just around the corner from Frizzell’s, the intimidating “street art” of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Blake concluded by sharing that he was a young man at the time of the bombing and happened to be in a pub down the street from Frizzell’s on the fateful day. The noise was deafening, the ground shook, and foamy pint glasses rattled and smashed on the pub’s floor. He was one of the first on the scene after the detonation and the corner of his mouth twitched as he recounted the mix of smells of the explosives, the victims, and the burning fish. Although this was a firsthand story and much more intense than his historical retelling of the Potato Famine, his steely gaze into the distance was the same. After a long and grim breath, another Etch A Sketch shake of the head broke his trance and he was back to the present.

As we concluded the tour and Blake drove us back to our hotel through the cold gray November day, Rhett and I were content but somber. We’d gone into the day expecting to see and learn about “history.” Instead we were inundated by the present day reality. As the three of us talked about how the morning had impacted Rhett and me, Blake added that the “peace walls” have now been in existence for longer than the Berlin Wall (1961-1989). We drove in silence for a few minutes allowing that fact to sink in. Rhett broke the quiet with an insightful question, “Blake, if you were king for a day, what would you do to bring about some kind of lasting and peaceful change?” Blake pondered this over a red-light and then went to his elementary-aged children as representatives of our future. He cited learnings from his studies in conflict resolution, and said that he’d overhaul both the Northern Ireland education system and public housing. The vast majority of schoolchildren are educated in segregated (Catholic or Protestant) schools. With this vacuum of interaction, children adopt and prolong the stereotypes and biases of their parents. In addition, to this day 96% of social housing in Belfast is divided by religious affiliation.

As Blake pulled up to our hotel and we collected our belongings from his car, we asked if we could get a selfie with him to remember our day together. He had no qualms with the photograph and the three of us were all smiles (and he, all dimples) despite the heavy material of the day.

Our picture with Blake.

Our brains were full and processing so Rhett and I didn’t talk about it much that afternoon but over our Irish pub dinner that evening we did our best to make sense of all we had learned, and of the history that was still being written.

While the words and pictures above are plenty of material for a post, for us it’s just a pause-point where the story really starts to twist…

The next day dawned clear and chilly and we prepped for our second and final day of touring Belfast. Over more Irish oatmeal we planned our day. We’d start at the Crumlin Road Gaol, a historic restored jail that Blake had recommended we see. We’d spend the second half of the day at the Titanic Museum (while Titanic departed Southampton, England on her first…last…and only voyage, she was built in Belfast’s shipyards).

As I settled the bill for breakfast, Rhett requested an Uber and “Liam” was connected with us as our driver and would be picking us up in a Mercedes. Ten minutes later we were snuggled in comfy cream-colored leather seats and on our way. While that was all to the good, it soon became evident that—and there were no two ways about it—Liam was a grumpy old man. He had perfected the art of finding and accentuating the negative in everything. It’s funny, although European ride shares have some idiosyncrasies as compared with US ride shares, the grumpy-old-man-driver is a universal archetype—we’ve all had them, and mid-ride we all say to ourselves, When will this trip be over?

When the “Rhett and Dan travel team” are in a taxi or ride share (as you might guess), I’m rather taciturn, offsetting Rhett’s loquaciousness. I was enjoying myself that morning on the drive. Watching Rhett try to interact productively with Liam reminded me of Pooh trying to cheer up Eeyore. It was all fun and games until Liam noticed our destination of the Crumlin Road Gaol. He barked a sharp “Aye!” and added in his brogue, “Why would anyone in their right mind go to a jail—voluntarily?” He muttered something under his breath about a lot of good and innocent men had been incarcerated there. Rhett responded in her sweet southern accent, “Well…we do so love history and yesterday we had the best private tour of the Troubles, our guide Blake recommended we see the jail.” Something about this sentence got Liam’s attention and we found ourselves riveted to plush leather by his fierce gaze in the rear view mirror. “Who was your guide?” he snapped. Rhett replied, “A gentleman by the name of Blake Davis.” Now we had both Liam’s attention and his hackles up. For the remainder of the drive to the Crumlin Road Gaol we were on the butt end of a salty fusillade of grievances with Blake. While a bit meandering and untethered, the gist of the beef was that (in Liam’s opinion) Blake was a good-for-nothing Loyalist and Blake had also stolen Liam’s idea for a black taxi tour service in Belfast. His expletives directed at Blake were a 50/50 cocktail of words that we understood and the remainder (I assume) old Gaelic. Rhett surreptitiously lit the screen on her phone and we glanced down at it, relieved to see that the ride would be over in five minutes. After these five minutes of eternity elapsed, we arrived at the jail and bade farewell to Liam. As he sped off we looked at each other and exhaled a sigh of relief. One more point of evidence that the Troubles were not some historical artifact stored behind museum glass. As we played back Liam’s rant in our heads, it was unclear if he knew Blake personally or just knew-of Blake. No matter, we were out of the car and moving forward. Still, it was odd and unsettling. While Belfast isn’t huge, it is 350,000 people—what are the chances these two men would know, or know-of each other?

The prison tour was good, not great but good. Perhaps Liam was right, after all, it was just a jail. The most ghastly part of the tour was the execution suite. The suite’s anteroom was designed to be a calming space where the condemned—who would soon have a noose around his neck—would wait and perhaps pray with clergy or eat a last meal. As we walked through the “in” door to the anteroom, we imagined the panic of a the many rightly or wrongly convicted prisoners who had crossed that same threshold. In an attempt to be soothing, the room was comfortably but austerely furnished with a few chairs, a small table, a couch, and a homey bookcase complete with a few volumes on its shelves. There was also a freestanding toilet in the corner, making it clear that—barring any last-minute pardon—this was a one-way journey. As our eyes adjusted to the soft light and we looked around further, we noticed confusedly that there was no “out” door. The only visible portal was the door through which we had entered. Our guide said that the room originally had a hinged door to the hanging platform, but prisoners understandability fixated on that door and the longer their wait, the more agitated they became about the prospect of what was behind the door. Therefore, our guide informed us that the door had been replaced by the bookcase. As Rhett and I were trying to make sense of that logic, our guide showed us a hidden button that a guard would unobtrusively press at the appointed time. Our guide demonstrated and when the button was depressed, there was a mechanical click and the bookcase slowly trundled to the right revealing the hanging chamber with its noose and trap floor.

The anteroom with its “secret” bookcase looking into the hanging chamber. The noose is above Rhett’s right shoulder and trap floor at her toes.

Walking from the anteroom through the threshold and into the hanging chamber was the height of macabre. Although I was straining to keep myself focused and respectful, the brain is going to do what the brain is going to do, and my brain went to Scooby-Doo. I imagined the sliding bookcase transported into a spooky, cobwebbed mansion with the Mystery Machine parked out front and the gang inside and split-up looking for phantoms. Of course if that were the case, the hidden button would be replaced by a wall mounted candelabra that an exhausted Shaggy would inevitably lean against, unintentionally activating the bookcase. I finished my few moments of pre-teen Saturday morning cartoon reverie by muttering under my breath, “If it weren’t for those meddling kids…,” and then realized the chasm between my concocted fantasy and this awful reality.

The historical highlight of the tour—and what we should have seen coming, and what helped us make sense of Liam’s reaction to us visiting the jail—was that it housed inmates from 1846-1996, through the Anglo-Irish War and the Troubles. Being state-sponsored (its official name is Her Majesty’s Prison Crumlin Road) while the occasional Unionist/Loyalist had been incarcerated there, the vast majority of its political prisoners were Irish Nationalists and often members of the IRA or Sinn Féin. The pieces of our personal Belfastian jigsaw puzzle were starting to fall into place.

As you might expect, there wasn’t any mobile phone service in the jail, so we exited to the prison yard to call an Uber for a ride to the Titanic Museum. Being late-November, we found holiday decorations outside and the juxtaposition of the festive decor with the dark memories of the prison yard was jarring (prisoners who were hanged behind the secret bookcase had been buried under our feet in the yard, in unconsecrated ground). Jarring or not, it didn’t keep us from availing ourselves while the Uber app hunted for our “next” driver.

Rhett and Sunny hamming it up. How Rhett got Sunny to wave were her paw, I’ll never know.
“A tusk! A tusk! My kingdom for a tusk.” Either that or, “Dan, on the street and ‘tusking’ for spare change.”
In case you’re wondering—yes, Rhett did sneak Sunny into Crumlin Road Gaol.

After our little jailhouse photo shoot, Rhett looked at her phone scrunched her eyebrows and groaned, “Oh no! We’ve got Liam again! He’ll be here in seven minutes.” My first thought was to cancel the ride (regardless of any penalty) and wait a bit and hope for a new driver. However, as we studied Rhett’s phone screen we realized that this must be a another Liam: different make of car, different license plate, different picture. Whew, close call.

As we clambered into the back of the modest Toyota sedan. We noticed that “Liam 2” was a striking contrast to Liam 1. Liam 2 was (relatively) younger—about 10-15 years Rhett’s and my junior—and big and brawny with one of those jovial smiles that are tinged with a hint of wise guy—just enough to keep you on your toes. If you ever find yourself drinking all afternoon in some crosstown bar and a Liam 2 walks in, you’d best befriend him. Not only would the conversation be interesting (and probably more interesting as the afternoon wore on), but you’d rather be on his good than his bad side. After some pleasantries, Liam 2 headed us for the Titanic Museum; although only a 15-minute drive, the fastest route utilized several multi-lane highways with some quick off- and on-ramps.

In retrospect, throughout our morning Rhett and I hadn’t talked much about our run in with Liam 1. We chalked it up to a old guy getting up on the wrong side of the bed (which for him was probably either side). It was a sample size of one and we certainly weren’t going to judge Blake, and his excellent tour of the Troubles, based on that. Therefore, when Liam 2 struck up a conversation about our Belfast itinerary, we naturally brought up the name Blake Davis. Immediately—and for the second time that day—we were confronted by a narrowing pair of eyes staring us down from a rear view mirror. (Trust me, if Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols or The Ramones ever covered “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” it would have been a perfect soundtrack for the day.) Liam 2 exclaimed, “You got into a car with ‘Blinky’ Davis?” At the word “Blinky,” Rhett and I exchanged furtive panicked glances. As Liam 2 turned onto a highway on-ramp his tirade about Blake (a.k.a, Blinky) Davis mirrored the arc and acceleration of the Toyota. Aside from the expletives (which are always generational) Liam 2’s choice of words to describe Blinky was eerily similar to Liam 1’s: Loyalist, Unionist, etc. Nicknames are funny, they can make some people appear friendlier and more likable, however a nickname’s jocularity can also project a dark undertone (think “Bugsy” Siegel, or “Baby Face” Nelson). When uttered disgustingly by Liam 2, “Blinky” sounded like the latter.

Up until that point, Rhett and I had been throughly enjoying our time on the island of Ireland and we didn’t want to go down in history as the straws that broke the camel’s back of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement so I made a vain gambit to smooth things over. “Maybe there are two Blake Davises in Belfast who do tours?” I bleated. While I had visualized my delivery as a mix of confidence and insouciance, my words wafted into the front seat with a meek hopefulness. Rhett silently agreed by shooting me a sidelong glance and a dig in the ribs. Liam 2 didn’t bother with words to respond to my lame attempt, I just got a guffaw and a wise guy smile. We barreled down the highway for the next 30 seconds as Liam collected himself. He then deftly pulled the car onto an off-ramp, all the while searching the internet on his phone for something. Rhett and I tensed and our right legs reflexively straitened (hoping to find a brake pedal in the backseat). By the time Martin 2 brought the Toyota to a halt at a red light at the bottom of the ramp, he had found what he was looking for. The stoplight was considering turning green when Liam 2 simultaneously accellerated and turned around and handed his phone to us. There on Liam 2’s screen was a headline from the Irish News with a slightly blurry but unmistakable Blake defiantly standing next to his lawyer at a courtroom table. The welcoming dimples that greeted us the day before were replaced by a menacing scowl. The headline said something about firearms charges and bail.

While my and Rhett’s and mothers taught us never to lie, they also wouldn’t want to see us ending up face down, floating in the Belfast shipping channel—therefore, without words exchanged between us, Rhett and I decided that, in just this one teeny instance, it was best to lie. Rhett stammered, “Whe-whe-well, that mi-mi-might have been him?” (she had really turned up the “southern” by this point) “I really can’t tell though, he had a hat on the whole time we were with him.” And—just a little too quickly—she handed the phone back, as if to bury the evidence. A poignant moment of silence, and then—another guffaw from Liam 2. I’ve spent enough time in seedy bars and enough time with Liam 2-types, to know that although you can get by with one guffaw and you can probably get away in one piece with two guffaws, you absolutely don’t want to elicit a third.

In a classic “saved by the bell” scenario, the Titanic Museum hove into view. We quickly bade farewell to Liam 2 who turned to give us a big, knowing smile as he sped off. We were glad it was the other Liam who picked us up from our hotel (and thus knew where we were staying). As the Toyota disappeared around a bend in the shipyard, Rhett and I looked at each other and sighed.

We spent the next 20 minutes with espresso drinks in the museum’s cafe and Googling “Blake Davis Belfast” on our phones. On our way into the museum and cafe, I did my best to calm a freaking-out Rhett, by saying, “Relax honey, anything that Blake might have done, I’m sure he did 20 years ago. We all deserve forgiveness and we all change.” For Rhett, there’s nothing more aggravating than when I use her own language against her (i.e., to calm her down). However, as we sipped and searched, we found the article that Liam 2 had shown us and it was (drumroll) from six months ago. The crux of my earlier argument to Rhett to remain calm had just fallen flat on its face. Adding to this recency, the internet was replete with other articles and pictures of Blake. The articles spanned decades, several referenced Blinky as his nickname, all highlighted his ties to the radical Loyalist cause.

While we enjoyed our afternoon in the Titanic Museum (details in next post), as we walked through the guided and interactive exhibits, our brains kept rewinding to the events of the morning and the day before. Although, according to the internet, Blake had been acquitted of the most recent firearms charges due to, “a lack of forensic evidence,” there were enough articles and posts about him that it passed our “where there’s smoke there’s fire” test.

That evening over dinner at another pub we continued trying to unravel the mystery (I had the creamy fish pie…it was amazing, far better than it sounds). We mentally traced the string back to our original introduction to Blake (the balanced-perspective tour company out of Israel). Although that company seemed totally legit, there were several handoffs between them and Blake. Still, I knew enough about Irish history to know that Blake really knew his stuff—he was no imposter when it came to the history. Talking to us without notes his command of names, places, and dates was encyclopedic. In addition, Rhett and I have done a lot of tours and rightfully consider ourselves educated travel consumers. If “Blinky” had subconsciously veered into a biased foment, we would have noticed and halted the whole tour. The harder we tried to untangle the gordian knot, the more threads of the enigma appeared. Why would someone so invested in either side of the conflict purport to be a balanced tour guide (and a good one at that)? Would the fee we paid him for his services find its way into the coffers of the conflict machine? We considered reaching out to him via text for answers but concluded that some mysteries are better left unsolved.

The morning after our Crumlin Road Gaol and Titanic Museum day, we checked out of our hotel and requested (yet another) Uber, this time to get us to the Belfast Ferry Terminal. The app did its thing while we held our breath…waiting…finally: success! There was not to be a Liam 3. A happy-go-lucky, red-headed Terry picked us up (who bore a striking resemblance to Colleen’s father Terry McMahon). Needless to say, we had learned our lesson and, while we had delightful trip with Terry (and his twinkling sky-blue irises restored our faith in “Irish eyes”), we gave Blake and our Troubles-tour a wide berth and didn’t bring it up in the conversation. Our driver Terry looked so much like our “Grandpa T” I had to get his picture. He insisted that he reciprocate by taking our picture in front of the terminal.

Soon after, the fair winds and following seas of the Irish Sea, and the rumbling diesel engines of the ferry, were propelling us on our 40 nautical mile voyage to Cairnryan, Scotland—then on to Glasgow, Edinburg, and England and Wales.

Fair winds and following seas. Hazel James out. HJ is getting excited as she’s soon to be recommissioned and setting sail for Greece!

Our driver Terry (I’m confident that anyone who knows our beloved “Grandpa T” McMahon will be shaking their heads at the doppelgänger).
Terry got our picture, bundled up in front of the ferry terminal.
Farewell to the Emerald Isle (from the top deck of our ferry).

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