Sunday, July 24, 2011

Beyond Belfast by Will Ferguson

The people of the Ulster Province in Northern Ireland are pretty pragmatic about their climate. In fact, they have a saying: "There is no such thing as bad weather. Only the wrong clothes." I suspect Will Ferguson would not only disagree with that statement but he'd probably try to strangle the next well meaning Irishman to offer it.

Beyond Belfast is the chronicle of his 560-mile hike around Northern Ireland following the longest way-marked trail in the United Kingdom. The Ulster Way as he experiences it is nothing short of a microcosm for the country it winds through. A beautiful landscape of extremes still groping for identity and waging war on itself. Pubs seem to grow organically from the hills, nourished by the near constant rain. Pretty little sea-side villages loudly proclaim either Catholic or Protestant allegiance where the ruins of Gaelic castles bear witness to atrocities both ancient and recent.

Descriptions of landscape and the quirky characters that inhabit it are wonderful and although they comprise the bulk of the book, they never feel stale or recycled. Ferguson has a great self-deprecating sense of humor which comes in handy as he slops through bogs, races across busy highways, faces down ill-tempered farm dogs and risks "scrotal entanglement" jumping over barbed wire fences.

His off-hand history lessons are spot-on as well. I never felt like I was being force fed dry facts about old rocks and moldy hills. He makes it all feel juicy and relevant. This is a population still living in the long shadow of sectarian violence and Ferguson conveys this with just the right mix of respect and wide-eyed naivety.

The only element that didn't work for me was a sub plot involving family history. Ferguson feels that he has to justify this crazy adventure under the auspices of digging up information on his Grandfather.  This is one of those "it's about the journey, not the destination" type of books, and this cheapened the experience for me a little by giving it the flavor of a quest. Let's be honest, we all started to lose interest in The Lord of The Rings as soon as Frodo and Sam actually got to Mordor. The same applies here. We don't want you to find what you are looking for, Mr. Ferguson, it's more fun to follow you as you get lost in the Sperrin Mountains and tip-toe past wandering bulls.

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