Thursday, 5 January 2012

New Year at the Giants Causeway

I wish all readers a successful 2012. Despite the ongoing euro crisis hopefully this year will see better news on the economy.

Unfortunately much of the positive progress we made as a country in the early part of 2011 was eroded in the last quarter by the confidence crisis in the euro zone. Nevertheless Irish exports remain strong (mostly from our own engineering sector i.e. computing, pharma, biomedical) and our balance of payments continue to improve. Our unemployment rate unfortunately remains at 14 -15% as we strive to even stabilise it in the years going forward.

In the break between Christmas and New Year I found myself in Northern Ireland for a few days on the North Antrim coast. The weather was stormy wet and cold - even snowy at times but didn't deter us from either a tour of the Causeway Coast or the Glens of Antrim. I had never before visited the Giant's Causeway beside Bushmills town and Distillery. It was quite a sight in the winter storms.

The Atlantic Coast waves at the Causeway were so high and so vociferous that they sent the sea foam flying inland on the raging wind. It lay on the ground like blobs of snow for many minutes after it fell.

The almost vertical pencils of basalt rock were formed according to local legend by giant Finn McCool needing to battle with another giant in Scotland and built the causeway to give him pedestrian access across the sea. A very futuristic new underground Visitor Centre designed by Heneghan Peng Architects is currently under construction and due to open in summer 2012. The Giant's Causeway is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland.

At the Giants Causeway

The whole experience apart from the weather reminded me of the Mizen Head Bridge in West Cork which I visited last August at the other extreme end of the country. The narrow path access arrangements are similar on both sites though the landscape is very different. The Mizen Head Bridge is man made of course across a spectacular Atlantic gorge while the Giants Causeway is a geological formation from the Ice Age. There is also a famous pedestrian 'rope bridge' at Carrig-a-rede over the Atlantic further eastwards along the Antrim Coast towards Ballycastle town. This footbridge was actually closed due to the high winds on the day.

We passed through the town of Ballycastle famous for its 'Auld Lammas Fair' each summer and then south through Cushendun and Cushendall before turning inland again through the green Glens of Antrim towards Ballymena and Toome across the northern shores of Lough Neagh. It is truly lovely countryside even in the depths of winter. I can only imagine how much nicer it is in the summertime.

A very interesting fact I noticed is that while the Atlantic Ocean was battering off the North Antrim coast, at the same time the Irish Sea was very calm off the East Antrim coast reminding us the Irish Sea is a mere 'calm shallow pond' relative to the Atlantic in technical terms. This fact also helps to inform our approach in terms of harvesting our ocean resources for future export.

All this reminds me too of our 2012 Annual Conference in Europa Belfast next April 26th and 27th in the centenary year of the Titanic Story. All the TV channels this Christmas were starting to remind us that all roads this April will lead to Belfast. Cork Port is also commemorating the first and indeed last visit of the Titanic to Cobh before its fateful voyage across the Atlantic in April 1912.

Our conference theme will be 'Engineering Enterprise in times of change'. It will deal with the linked themes of Manufacturing, Marine and Energy building on Belfast's great engineering traditions and playing to the city's regenerative strengths around the Titanic Quarter – once the Harland and Wolff Shipyard where the Titanic was built. There’s an iconic new Titanic Signature Building which is really a Visitor / Interpretative Centre due to open in April 2012. There’s a very impressive preview of it on ‘Titanic Stories’ website.

New Visitor Centre open April 2012 under construction
in Titanic Quarter in Belfast Harbour

So it’s a message of hope as we head into the 2012 New Year. Let us play to our strengths in the engineering profession seeking out and developing new enterprise and research that leads to jobs. We engineers need to help shape the future - as if we stand idly by or fail to adapt to changing times - then events will inevitably shape us.

Happy New Year!

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