Northern Ireland: An Old Castle Standing on a Ford

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Book Review and Author Interview: Northern Ireland: An Old Castle Standing on a Ford

Northern Ireland: An Old Castle Standing on a Ford: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast

Caroline Oceana Ryan is an American poet, playwright and travel writer who in 2000 left her life in Los Angeles to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland for six months.

She expected Belfast to be a burned out shell after decades of armed conflict. And though there were still political murals to be seen in many neighborhoods, that presence paled compared to the vibrant people of the North, who were at turns joyful, tragic, creative and stuck in their ways. Over the next six years Ryan returned for further six-month stays, learning about the North and its people.

An Old Castle Standing on a Ford: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast (Eloquent Books, 2010) is the result of Ryan’s time in Belfast. The first half of the book focuses on Ryan’s initial impressions of the Northern people and their working lives, their creative brilliance and their beliefs. The second half has more to do with the political side of things, informed by Ryan’s on the ground experiences living in Northern Ireland, and her access to those involved in the day to day politics of the north.

As I’ve spent a good bit of time in the North of Ireland and in the border counties in the Republic, WanderingEducators’s publisher Dr Jessica Voigts asked me to speak with Ryan about her book, and about life in Northern Ireland. 


Kerry Dexter for Wandering Educators: if you were to describe your book, An Old Castle Standing on a Ford: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast, what would you say?

COR: It’s an honest account of life in Belfast during the past decade – it’s both a personal journey and a cultural one. Belfast is so worth knowing. It was then, as it is now, full of raw energy, creative innovation, a great nightlife, new business, modern architecture, an optimism you wouldn’t expect.

I describe the Northern people – their humor, their conversations and personalities, and local events—some groundbreaking, some tragic. The
tragicomic view of life that the Irish have had for centuries is still very much in evidence.

WE: Why did you decide to write the book at this time?

COR: When I first traveled to Northern Ireland in 2000, the Good Friday Agreement, which introduced peace to the North after 30 years of civil war, was only a couple of years old. I wanted to see how peace was taking root there in its first few years.

I’ve always loved Ireland – the land, the music, its powerful myth and symbols. The Good Friday Agreement was a hard-won miracle on all sides. It came about because (Irish nationalist) Social Democratic Labour Party leader John Hume sat down with (pro-British) Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble to create a blueprint for peace. They were the architects, and what they built is still standing, and growing stronger, despite setbacks.

They shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts – well deserved. Hume spent years during the 1980s and 90s, talking to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein/IRA, to get him to start seeing that the democratic method would be far more helpful to establishing an independent North than any amount of bullets and bombs.


WE: You cover quite a span of time in the book -- how did you choose your focus?

COR: The main idea was to expose the reader to Northern poetry, humor and theater, in a natural everyday sort of way. I kept returning to that, despite the political and military information and interviews, because poetry, music, humor and myth are at the center of Northern life. And it keeps you sane, in the writing process, to have large parts of the story that are joyful to write about!



WE: Would you speak  a bit about the process of writing the book? Things that were challenging, or surprising, perhaps, and things you learned from doing it?

COR: Because there’s a bit of Irish history involved, as well as relaying recent events, there was a lot of research and interviewing to do, in addition to keeping a journal and experiencing the city firsthand. I kept telling my friends that I’d bit more than I could chew.

I had to synthesize all the parts into a whole — there’s a chapter on 19th century working conditions, which scared the socks off of me when I researched because the working conditions in the linen mills and factories were so terrible. That had to join the flow somehow, amid the descriptions of theatre productions, and with an interview with one of the finest living Irish poets, Sinéad Morrissey. Then came my story of falling in love – with a dairy farmer, which was unexpected, which naturally led to rural tales of Northern myth and the faery folk, as told by locals. Then that was followed by interviews with former paramilitary members in Belfast.

Belfast can be a very political place — you tend to feel you have to take a side, politically, either pro-Irish (nationalist) or pro-British (unionist). For the writer, that means having to create some distance between yourself and your subject — that was challenging for me. I naturally empathize with the Irish and have always found fault in Britain’s actions toward Ireland, historically.

The most surprising thing was discovering the Protestant half of Northern Ireland — exploring Protestant east Belfast, and Protestant neighborhoods and villages, talking to people and hearing their stories. I realized over time that I didn’t have to take a side in this centuries-old conflict over who should have control over the Northern counties. I could be of more help in fact, if I didn’t take a side.



WE: What changes have  you noticed most over the different times you spent in Northern Ireland?

COR: The most noticeable change was the country becoming more prosperous every year. More jobs, more businesses opening. Even with the current world economic struggle, I know the North will go on the upswing again. The people are naturally hardworking, inventive and resourceful. And they’re tough folk, not easily swayed from their purpose!

I also felt the emotional energy growing brighter and more positive. Every time I go back, it’s such a lift to be there. It’s a very special corner of the world, and attracts increasing numbers of visitors every year.



WE: What would you say to people who have concerns about  the safety of visiting the north, and about visiting Belfast??

COR: When I meet people who are concerned about the safety of visiting the North, I assure them that they’re probably safer there than most other places in Europe or the US. There is almost no street crime, and the people are wonderfully friendly. Happy to welcome visitors, to give you directions or recommend a good pub or restaurant. They are great fun, and they love to chatter to visitors and hear where you’re from.

In no way should a few scattered dissident republican outbursts deter someone from visiting Northern Ireland. Those events are few and far between, and the authorities are very aware and generally ahead of the game, diffusing situations ahead of time. Don’t let them put you off, is what I tell people. You’d be missing too much.



WE: What places would you suggest people visit in Belfast?

COR: Go see Belfast City Hall in the city centre — the interior is stunning, and the wooden benches in the council chamber were carved by the same craftsmen who did the woodcarving on the Titanic. The Ulster Museum is a world-class museum, family-friendly and great fun, located in the Botanic Gardens, which are also incredibly beautiful. Visit the Victorian Palm House while you’re there.

The Queen’s Film Theatre is in that same area, providing art-house cinema, right across from the main buildings of the Queen’s University, a beautiful set of neo-gothic structures with marble stonework.

In the city centre, there’s plenty of good shopping and lovely restaurants and pubs. Theatre venues include the Ulster Hall, the Grand Opera House, and the North’s national repertory theatre, The Lyric, where Liam Neeson got his start.

In good weather, walk by or take a boat ride down the Lagan, a river that winds round the city. And St. Anne’s Cathedral, in the Cathedral Quarter, is also quite amazing – I describe it in the book. The most easygoing fun is to be had in the pubs, the cafés, the poetry readings and art exhibits. The city centre also has a lot of fun shops and more mainstream movie theatres.

If you’re curious about the Troubles, you can take a black taxi tour through the old IRA territory of West Belfast, or other main areas of the city that have political murals, and saw the more paramilitary activity during the war.



WE:  What other places you would recommend people to visit in Northern Ireland?

COR: Outside Belfast, County Down (the Northern county that Belfast-born writer CS Lewis loved most) is utterly beautiful, like a bit of heaven with its sweeping green hills. The coastline, especially the northernmost part of counties Antrim and Derry is very striking. See the Giant’s Causeway – a natural formation of 50,000 basalt columns on the coast, which is both strange and beautiful – it’s a World Heritage Site. There’s also the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh in County Tyrone – it’s an outdoor museum park that demonstrates18th and 19th century Northern Irish life, and Northern Irish emigration to the United States in those centuries.

Derry city (also called Londonderry) in County Derry is famous for the medieval wall that encircles it’s incredible fun at Halloween, when thousands of the townspeople converge upon the town center in costume, for a big celebration.

For museum info, you can go to And for general travel information, go to



WE:  What would you suggest people read about Northern Ireland?

COR: I would heartily recommend The Volunteer: A Former IRA Man’s True Story, an inspiring and beautifully written memoir of a young IRA man who is irrevocably changed while serving time, by Shane Paul O’Doherty.

On the history side, the very well respected Modern Ireland 1600 to 1972 by R.F. Foster. He is a genius — I mention him in the book, and quote from a lecture he gave in Belfast on the life of WB Yeats.

Sinead Morrissey’s poetry, and Medbh McGuckian’s — both were my writing coaches in at the Queen’s University writers’ group, and both are renowned poets. The two greatest living Northern poets are of course Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney, whose work I would also recommend highly. I would strongly recommend Ciaran Carson's book on his memories of growing up in Belfast, The Star Factory. He is also a genius, and it's full of brilliant, very Northern stories that give the reader great insight into life in Belfast.

In Northern theatre, anything by Northern playwrights Marie Jones or Brian Friel, both of them internationally known. Gary Mitchell and Daragh Carville are two other brilliant Northern playwrights – there are actually too many to mention.

Colin Bateman's novels are good fun. Divorcing Jack is a very funny novel by Bateman, with a film version available on DVD. It’s a funny gangster story with a lovable protagonist, and captures Belfast’s energy — though the events it depicts are not a normal Belfast day, I have to add! 



WE: Concluding thoughts?

COR: Even more than I hope people will read An Old Castle, I hope they will visit Belfast and the Northern counties, and enjoy it for the amazing place that it is. 



WE: Thank you, Caroline, for taking the time to speak with us.

COR: It was my pleasure.



Ryan is currently working in Belfast as a full-time volunteer for a community nonprofit. Read more about Northern Ireland here at WanderingEducators.

Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.
Kerry’s work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, CMT,  Strings, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, and other publications. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road. You may reach her at music at wanderingeducators dot com.