After a right hearty breakfast and a comforting Irish coffee at Belfast's most agreeable Malone Lodge Hotel, we met Belfast city tour guide Billy Scott. He suggested we nip down to Hamilton Docks, there to investigate certain new whiskey rumours, and a Titanic era vessel - SS Nomadic, last of the illustrious White Star Line ships. "She's on display next to the world's largest Titanic exhibit," Billy confided, hailing a retro looking taxi.
Once ships heavy with teas from Ceylon, teak from Burma, silks from China sailed into Belfast ports. Here, too, fathers brought their wide-eyed sons to admire great ships from faraway places with strange sounding names - replaced in our time by unlovely container ships, sterile waterfronts scanned by paranoid security cameras, and where docklands no longer welcome boys, nor dreamers.
In tribute to shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, Titanic Belfast boasts soaring silver ship-like bows of Olympic, Titanic and Britannic. Visitors are immersed in 19th century shipyard life via impressive sound effects, vintage newsreels and gigantic murals. From top floors lifts descend as if through each of Titanic's nine deck levels. At the bottom, beneath a glass floor, slowly moving wreck site panoramas give the notion of gliding above Titanic's undersea grave. Just one quarter her size, Nomadic is often referred to as "mini Titanic" and ghosts of old passangers and sailors haunt every deck and every salon.
Titanic's draft was too deep to enter Cherbourg harbor, so Nomadic served as ship's tender. On the 10th of April 1912 she transported 274 passengers, including Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, his wife Lucy, Denver millionaires (unsinkable Molly) Margaret Brown and industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, to the waiting luxury liner.
Nomadic was built in 1910 at yard number 422 alongside RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic. Launched on 25th April 1911, she was delivered to the White Star Line on 27th May.
In keeping with her service to luxury liners she boasted posh fittings unfamiliar to most tenders of her day: elegant benches, varnished tables, porcelain water fountains, buffet bar; even gender-specific "Crapper" toilets. Ornate decorative joinery and plasterwork, particularly in the first class lounges, perfected Nomadic's sumptuous appearance. With four working decks plus generous hold spaces she could carry up to 1,000 passengers. Following her brief stint catering to Titanic's passengers Nomadic enjoyed adventures in her own right; During World War One she was requisitioned by the French government serving as an auxiliary minesweeper and patrol ship, and ferrying American troops to and from the harbour in Brest (France). In World War Two she took part in the evacuation of Cherbourg. Requisitioned later by the Royal Navy, she moved to Portsmouth (UK) operating as a troop ship, coastal patrol vessel and minelayer. Then, bought by a French entrepreneur, she was docked in Paris as floating restaurant, dance hall and theatre. EU regulations then rendered her outdated - she was almost sold for scrap. Rescued by Irish preservation enthusiasts, repatriated to Belfast, she was refurbished (sans engines) and in 2013 opened to the public, a living memorial to the vanished era of majestic luxury liners.
Prior to the 1920 Act of Partition, Irish whiskey distilleries far outnumbered those in Scotland. The distilling scene is returning to strength; and another new site is due to open in Belfast we discovered after ferreting out news clippings on Crumlin Road jail, a notorious Belfast prison that held various inmates during the worst of the city's troubles. A wing of the jail, closed in 1996, will soon "produce the first whiskey in the city for 75 years" say makers of Titanic and Danny Boy whiskeys.
Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) enjoyed Irish whiskey and served it at Court, making it then as now a fashionable bevy. Russian Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) proclaimed "Of all the wines in the world, Irish spirit is the best." Samuel Johnson's Dictionary added whisky noting "the Irish sort is particularly distinguished by its pleasant and mild flavour." Belfast records circa 1899 listed 18 distilleries, by 1912 Belfast produced nearly half the total whiskey in all of Ireland. The oldest soccer team in Ireland, Distillery, started as a works team. Dunville Park, donated to the City of Belfast in 1891 by owners of Dunville Irish Whiskey, was the town's first public park. Dunville Distillery like so many more had closed by 1936.
Named one of the Top Five Road Trips worldwide, Causeway Coastal Route was a stunning drive. Heading for Londonderry or Derry, we stopped to wonder at the Giant's Causeway. Formed 60 million years ago when the earth was young, legend claims Irish giant Finn McColl used them as stepping stones to reach a rival Scottish giant.
Dark Hedges in Ballymoney is one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland, an awesome country lane where 300-year-old beech trees poetically intertwine as if created by Merlin. Off Waterloo Street in Derry, the only complete walled city in Ireland, we found a traditional Irish band inside the crowded Baldies Barbers playing while punters got haircuts. At the welcoming Bogside Inn we discussed the famous civil rights murals with Bogside Artists Tom and William Kelly, and Kevin Hasson over a cheery round or more. Then we headed off to attend The Poet and the Piper - hearing readings by poet Seamus Heaney, recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. Sadly it was to be his final performance…