Episode 8: A song of ice and fire

All right. It was time to get more serious about this country. I would start by learning more about it. I suggested to my partner that we go to northern Ireland. But here I encountered a dilemma. I wanted to see places where A Game of Thrones was filmed, including the studio in Belfast, but I also very much wanted to see the Titanic Museum, also in Belfast. You can’t do everything when you’re travelling. So what to do?

I decided I’d let the journey lead me to the answer. And it did, with surprising results.

You know, it’s a strange thing but Dubliners whenever you raise the subject of northern Ireland always speak about it in hushed, wary tones, like the characters in Game of Thrones when they speak of the North beyond the Wall. Oooh, the North! Be careful! Winter is coming! Beware the White Walkers! Scary!

I don’t know what all the fuss is about. We drove up through lovely little towns. The curbs were painted red, white and blue, and the streets were decked out in bunting pennants in the same bright colours.

We got out to walk. “It’s great,” I said, “it’s like it were a fete day every day,” and I started on about where was the alleged northern grimness and “troubles” and how you have to have “one eye looking over your shoulder” and so on.

“Hush!” my partner said.

“Oooh!” I joked. “’Ware the White Walkers of the North! One touch from the locals will turn us to ice!”

At her urging we didn’t linger but drove on to the ancient city of London Derry, which has a famous “walled city” within it. The walls are massive and have never been breached —

Derry City

I’m no good at reading historical plaques and such. It’s made worse by the fact that my partner reads these things four times faster than I do, and has the habit of commenting on them when I’m still in the process of trying to read them.

Above the entrance of the walls, I read: “On this site in 1688, the famous city of Derry — ”

“Did you read that?” she said, pointing three-quarters of the way down the plaque.


“That sentence.”

My eye was swimming in the midday sun. “Which sentence? Why?”

“That one!”

I read: “… And so the thirteen Apprentice boys shut the gates in the face of the invaders, thus heroically beginning the siege of Derry…” I asked: “Who were the Apprentice Boys?”

“It says so there.” She pointed again, this time further up.

My eye scanned the words but I found it difficult to focus, and my imagination was seeing scenes of the boys swashbuckling down tunnels and sewers to open and close gates and let bombs off. My eye settled on the name King William of Orange, and I blurted out:

“So the Apprentice Boys were the Orange Boys?”

“There are no Orange Boys,” she said.

I begged to differ! There are Orangemen. I’ve seen them on telly with their bowler hats. Those men began as something!

“But that was long after William of Orange liberated the city. Look.” She pointed to the river Foyle running by the city and explained how the king’s navy sailed up and got to these very gates we were standing above and threw food in.

I shook my head. “But who did he liberate the city from?”

“The Jacobites,” she answered.

“Wait. So the Jacobites were inside the city and King Orange’s men came and freed them?”

“No. — No. The Jacobites were the besiegers. They were the Papists.”

Who were the Papists? — I kept my mouth shut. After a few more plaques and info stops I couldn’t work out if the besiegers were the good Irish, or if the good Irish were inside the city, or if the Apprentice Boys had closed the gates or in fact opened them or whose side they were on. And indeed, what trades were they in?

We walked on and came upon a big group of tourists looking over the wall into a square below where some short-haired youths were building a circular wooden structure —


This was more like it! It proved to be a massive bonfire in the making. We overheard the tour guide say that the bonfire was a celebration of the Orange Order. The builders were Orange Boys!

I couldn’t resist joining in, and said to everyone present: “Let’s hope they don’t throw any Papists in!”

Jeez! Some people have no sense of humour.


Look, all I know is that next to green, orange is my favourite colour on the Irish flag.

The day dragged on, the walls went round, the history mounted, and by the end of it I’d had quite enough of kings and queens and this green game of thrones. So the answer was simple: next day we would head to the Titanic Museum. Hooray!

It was expensive to get into the museum — over twenty pounds sterling — and that was only the tip of the iceberg! But in we went and it was rivetting! —


We were thrust into Titanic’s story. The ship sailed at an unlucky hour:


Titanic picked up some hapless Irish then steamed ahead. But —

The smart ship grew

The Hardy poem goes on —

Let none hope to avoid their fate;

Let sun-worshippers worship,

And ice-haters hate.


There were warnings enough —

Ice warning

But they were ignored. Then it happened. CQD! CQD! Come Quick, Distress! —


We’ve struck the iceberg! This is serious. We’re already getting the women into the boats —

Help, Big Sister

Mayday Mayday Mayday, we’re going down —

Going down fast

Going down —

going down

Going down now —


Last messages —

Last Messages

Going … gone! —

That's it

It was so poignant to read the stories of those final moments. Some passengers, rather than face the icy water, threw themselves into each other’s arms in a kind of bacchanalian free for all —

Getting excited

I won’t detail the sad stories gathered there in commemoration, but will convey the poignancy of the experience by saying how outraged I was, as presumably many others are, when learning that an Inquiry into the disaster brought no one to account, even though it was clear that there were shortcomings —

The Inquiry

— No, neither the Captain nor the Crew nor the Company had had a large experience of ice, yet they sailed on regardless. And there were the lifeboats, or rather than absence of. The ship was supposed to have 1000 lifeboats, but a huge number of these were actually removed from the ship before sailing, so as to make room on board for a croquet pitch and a second swimming pool. Here is one of those original lifeboats, standing useless in the museum —


And no one was responsible! I began to formulate some ethical-moral grounds for holding White Star Line accountable: One, you built the boat. Two, — but then I heard something, a wistful music that drew me away into an adjoining room, and there I struck gold: the essence of the Titanic Experience! —

The film

The music was the theme song to the film, and images to match. All very moving —

Never let go

Oh yes —


With this truth in mind, we left the building; and there at its front, not seen by us when entering, was Kate Winslet herself. I’m flying, Jack!


Believe it or not, my story continues. After Belfast we drove a long way south and then west to join the extended family for a week-long holiday in the Gaelic-speaking area of the country, all of us sharing the one big holiday house. In the evenings we would, for a while at least, sit by the fire and sing songs, that is traditional Irish songs or similar ballads. I too was called upon to sing a song. But not being well endowed in that area I apologised and offered instead to tell the poignant story of the Titanic. I launched into it and when I was done, one of the group said, “You know what they say in Belfast about the Titanic? It was all right when it left here!”

Everyone burst into laughter, and then they urged him: “A song! A song!”

This fellow is a real wag. He sat for a moment, rubbing his hairy chin as if deep in thought, then began earnestly —

On a cold rainy night on a Liverpool quayside

In the years before the Great War

The world was in shock at the loss of Titanic,

So proud had they been days before:

Relatives gathered for news of their loved ones,

To read through the list of the dead,

When into the throng came a sad-eyed old polar bear:

And to the clerk at the counter he said:


Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.


Everyone was delighted, and the more he sang the more nasally his delivery became, in the tradition of the Irish lament —

My wife and my children were coming from Greenland,

To be by my side in the zoo:

Belinda’s my wife, and the eldest’s called Bernard:

And Billy, well, he’s only two.

I know on the ship there were hundreds of people,

And I know that the iceberg’s not yours:

The polar bear’s eyes held the start of his teardrops:

He covered his face with his paws.


Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.


It’s been over a year since I last saw my children,

I left home to build a career:

I’ve worked very hard, I’m a star in the circus:

It’s all been for nothing I fear.

There’s my face on the poster: we’re in town this week:

My children were meeting me here:

Everyone watched as he struggled to speak,

As his paw brushed away one more tear:


Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.


By now all the people had gathered beside him,

His grief was one they could share:

The people around him, in silence and sadness

Listened to the sad polar bear

I wanted my children to see me performing:

And Belinda, she would have been proud.

At last lost for words, and his tears flowing freely,

The question was asked by the crowd:


And now the whole family, except myself, joined in —

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.

I allow it’s a good song, but I found it disrespectful to the Titanic’s memory and all those who sailed in her. I did not speak these thoughts aloud but took myself off to bed. Well, this song, and the wag who sang it, became the hit of the holiday. Everywhere we went one of the group at some time would be singing snatches of it. In the evenings, when the house was all quiet, and only granny was awake downstairs doing the last cleaning up of the kitchen, I could hear her plaintive, mournful tones coming up the stairway:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

(sweep, sweep)

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

(sweep, sweep)

They mean the whole world to me.


Within a month my partner and I were abroad, dashing through the Canadian wilds. It was all high adventure, and I had forgotten all about Ireland and family until one day when we walked into a souvenirs shop in a twee little town and I saw this —

The iceberg

And this —


And this too —

Quick, swim!

And, wiping away a tear, I began to sing:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

My family were on it you see:

Have you got any news of the iceberg?

They mean the whole world to me.


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