Humans have an urge to build things. Plop down on a sandy beach, and you start to create hills and draw designs. If your coffee shop booth has a stack of rectangular jam packets, you may soon be constructing a pyramid. Maybe you don’t call that building, but that’s semantics. We are busy creatures; we like to make things. When we want to, when we can, we like to remake them. In my trip across the Atlantic, we’re now touring spots near the English channel–at Guernsey, Cobh, Dublin, and Belfast–where I see this over and over.
Guernsey is an island a spit’s distance off the coast of France, yet heavily affiliated with Britain. That is to say, it’s poised between Britain and France philosophically. The currency is the pound, the cars drive on the left side, and they sing God Save the Queen. Yet they live on streets called Rue de Felconte and de la Rocque Poisson, and the markets are full of croissants rather than scones. Actually, the markets are full of banks and real estate companies because, as our guide Ant put it, he’s “not allowed to tell us they’re a tax haven.” Because Guernsey is a tax haven, and the offshore money is rolling in.
New construction threads through the downtown area, St. Peter Port, slowly turning it from quaint to modernized. You can barely find any reminders here of the Nazi occupation that blanketed the island from June 1940 to May 1945. Children were evacuated; meat and other food was confiscated; 1000 residents were deported and sent to camps; prisoners brought in for construction were starved. What the Germans mainly seemed to do, in fact, was build bunkers. They built fortifications and towers and heavily-protected turrets and armories that apparently were never needed. Churchhill and the British ignored the island and went straight at Normandy when they were strong enough to take France back, and the island was too far away for Germany to use it as any kind of springpoint into England.
We cycled with Ant down a good bit of the west coast, examining the seawalls that were partly stone-built by locals and partly cement barricades erected in 1941. Every year during a big storm, he says, a bit of the old walls fall down every year, but the German engineering holds up quite well. The locals are happy to reuse what the Germans left and will probably never take down these seawall substitutes. Meanwhile, we explored bunkers, like Betty Bungle’s Bunker, so-called for the lady what lives across the street. Some of the bunkers are kitted out for teenagers, with posters, sound systems, and mattresses, a rare place to escape from the adults who all know you, wherever you are on the island, and will always tell your parents what you’re up to.
Guernsey, German bunker remade into a house, photo by kajmeister
Other bunkers have been bought by locals and completely refurbished. Author Anne Adams bought one with tunnels, which she featured in her Guernsey romance series as a place for a romantic rendezvous. On Leree Bay, Ant pointed out the tower and fort in the picture above. He said the owner had installed a movie theater and was turning it into a B&B, and it was rumored to be going on the marke for just under a million pounds. Lovely view of Lihou islands and the English Channel. And walls that will last for decades.
Built Even Older
Lots of bits of Guernsey have been built and reused. There’s a cave called Le Creux et Faies (Cave of the Fairies) with a three-ton capstone, probably once for burials although now it’s empty and just an engineering marvel given that it appears to be thousands of years old. Or created by fairies. Another installation, called Table des Pions sits at the southwestern tip, and is also labelled a Fairy Ring. It’s not the only such ring in the area, but the official explanation for the circle surrounded by a little moat was that it was created in the 18th century by workers who would bring their lunch over to sit in a circle to eat. Which doesn’t explain the stones, so I think the story was a cover. Some builder works are a lot older than we remember.
Fairy Ring in Guernsey? Table? Both? photo by kajmeister
The island was also covered with Napoleonic fortifications, too, complete with cannons. Why bother taking them out? Makes for another good photo. Lighthouses pop up on all the corners, and that’s true in Guernsey and Ireland, which seems to have built one one every corner. But, then, Ireland had a lot of corners to warn ships about, especially in the inlet up the River Lee in southern Ireland.
Reconfigure the Churches, then the Sweets
Cobh is a smear of a town on a hillside, halfway in the inlet up that River Lee, which wends its way to bustling, industrial, souvenir-choked, McDonald’s-full Cork. We didn’t sojourn over to Cork because I’ve been through New Jersey.The waters in the Celtic Sea were crawling with German subs during World War I, and it was one of those in 1917 that took out the Lusitania. The Americans responded by installing their NorthAtlantic naval headquarters at the Benedictine Abbey in Cobh. There’s a plaque, which we read while a nun passed by with a covered basket on the way up the hill to the former war offices, now converted again into a tea shop, for the betterment of all.
Cobh (pronounced “cove,” at least by the lady in another shop) also boasts a prominent cathedral with Gothic spires and turrets, whose car park holds a comely view of the harbor. The stone is weathered as if from centuries, although the style is actually neoGeothic, as the church was only built in 1919. That’s a way to build and preserve at the same time–just slap the label “neo” on it as you start slapping in the mortar.
Not ancient at all, Cobh cathedral of 1919. Photo by kajmeister
The best construction at Cobh was not a building at all, but a dessert. Or afternoon snack. Or anytime pick-me-up, whatever you will. Scoopy’s shop on the pier, between the fishing excursions and the plaque to the greatest Olympican “of Ireland,” Sonia O’ Sullivan, is worth a find. The gelato alone seemed to live up to the billing of artisanal, but the real treat was the Ice Cream Donut.It sounds simple, but sometimes the greatest inventions are quite straightforward.
You take a yeast-based donut, not the cake variety, but the kind that are normally injected with jelly and smacked about with sugar. Mr. Scoopy splits it open and spoons in a couple of healthy globs of gelato, then pop! into the microwave for 15 seconds. Just long enough to heat the cake slightly and to let the ice cream slide into the crannies left from the yeast bubbles. The donut is warm, but the ice cream stays cold. You can get it drizzled with Nutella if you’re that sort, then slide in with a fork. Really, a restructuring of many good ideas together, a mash-up as we say in the States. I don’t know if Mr. Scoopy has gotten a patent, but it needs to be made official and then straightaway exported to the Bay Area.
Cobh’s greatest invention, the Ice Cream Donut. Photo by Karin Kallmaker.
Ireland as a country has had one set of invaders after another, whether you count the Germans, the American navy, the tourists in search of ice cream, or much earlier, the Normans, the Vikings, the Angles, and the Celts. Like London, Ireland stacks like a never-ending layer cake of one culture after another, and a really good Irish place to see this is Dublin Castle.
Viking steps carved underneath Dublin Castle, photo by kajmeister
Hand Me Down Castle
As we approached the stronghold, with its Norman turrets, Gothic cathedral, and Georgian-faced office buildings, we saw a crowd of younguns waving and singing. It was one of those new “silent” tours, where the tourist wears headphones that play music which bystanders can’t hear. It’s funny and hip and perhaps anachronistic next to a castle, yet this combo of touring and disco couldn’t be more appropriate to a place which smashed cultures together. The upstairs “state rooms” have dusty paintings of Queen Charlotte and hallways with pictures of the Irish PMs who have governed since the building was ceremoniously handed (back) over to Irish hero Michael Collins in 1922.
But the English originally took it in the twelfth century, when Henry II (think Lion in Winter) brought over his armies and administrators to clean up the place, collect taxes proper, apply consistent Anglo-Norman law, and build strongholds. His son John built the castle with the towers and turrets, but go underneath and you see even more. One of the towers collapsed centuries ago, so archaeologists have been able to unearth the presence of the original Viking settlement.The stairs were cut into the rock, either by the Vikings or the Irish people, because a river used to flow nearby. The stairs led straight up from the waterfront. This bricked-up archway is holding in an under ground river, which merges with the Lee to completely surround the settlement for protection. The water in the archway is from the river, always seeping in with the tide.
Pool skimmer for thousand year old algae under Dublin Castle, photo by kajmeister
Dublin has seen its share of change and troubles–Belfast even more so. Both cities have their own share of new money pouring in, a lot of it high tech, once Apple discovered Ireland’s favorable tax treatment. Corporate high rises line the river near Dublin’s massive port. In Belfast, shopping centers and new hotels are springing up, next to former sites of bombings. Most of my adult life, Belfast was known as a war zone, but the fragile peace they finally brokered seems to be holding, although many hold concerns for how Brexit will upset that balance.
In the meantime, Belfast is ground zero for tourism. Because dozens of locations around Belfast were used to film Game of Thrones, the city has declared itself sister to Winterfell and put up public artworks. Tourism is one of its main new industries.
If the lights go out, make your own. #RiotTheShow, photo by kajmeister
Riot in Dublin
If Belfast can rebuilt itself, can’t we all? That was one of the themes from a show in downtown Dublin we squeezed in, called #RiotTheShow by the cast ThisIsPopBaby. (I had to hashtag that just so, otherwise Panti Bliss, self-appointed Queen of Ireland, said she would hunt us down for posting on social media without proper citations.) The show is a mash-up befitting this essay, a gay, subversive, cross between Riverdance, Cirque due Soleil, and the San Francisco Folsom Street Fair. Where else would you see a scene involving Jesus and pool noodles that will probably get them excommunicated? Swan Lake with a boombox. Clog dancers using jump ropes. The biggest crowd favorite–and it was a noisy, drinking, enthusiastic, singalong, Dublin Saturday night crowd–was the rugby player who did aerial acrobatics. Well, maybe it was the acrobatics they cheered, and maybe it was when he ate Taytos and flexed while they played What a Man or maybe it was when he did a strip tease in between all the Maltese crosses.
#RiottheShow, Cast of ThisisPopBaby, photo by Fiona Morgan for The Irish Times
For all the fun and games involving hula hoops and mankinis made out of styrofoam, there were serious, thought-provoking monologues by a street poet and by seven-foot-tall Panti Bliss, who spoke quite eloquently about how Farrah Fawcett remade herself. It was Ms. Bliss who spoke of how easy it is to Rebuild Worlds, which prompted this entire post.
Because if Farrah and Belfast and Dublin and the Normans and the Celts and the Guernseyians and the ice cream shop makers can remake the world, then so can we all.