LARNE, Northern Ireland – The Olympic flame braved stormy seas and heavy rain Thursday on its final day in Ireland, a visit that highlighted the growing unity between British Protestants and Irish Catholics.
The flame and its army of support staff boarded a ferry Thursday for Scotland after a virtually trouble-free five days touring every corner of Northern Ireland as well as Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland police boosted security all week to deter Irish Republican Army outlaws from disrupting events. But only the arrival of foul weather posed a problem Thursday, particularly as one torchbearer carried the flame by boat across white-capped Lough Neagh, the biggest lake in either Britain or Ireland.
Several hundred locals deployed waterproof ponchos and umbrellas in pelting rain as they awaited the boat's arrival at the lakeside village of Ballyronan.
Eorann O'Neill, a 16-year-old swimming enthusiast, was given the honor of bearing the flame in a lantern on its 9-mile (15-kilometer) voyage. Eorann said the storm made the crossing much choppier than expected but, donning a life-preserving vest, she kept waving at well-wishers all along the shoreline and in a flotilla of accompanying boats.
Thursday's torch relay began along County Down's south coast where, as the song goes, the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.
There the star attraction among torchbearers was comedian Paddy Kielty, who started his career with risky Belfast stand-up routines parodying the politics and personalities of the Northern Ireland conflict. Today he's one of the best-known TV presenters in Britain.
Kielty, 41, jumped and clicked his heels together with torch in hand — fulfilling a dare he'd made with a friend, he said — and stopped midway to kiss his mother as he ran through Dundrum, his home village by the Irish Sea. While Kielty typically skewers sentimentalism, he said getting to run through Dundrum, where he grew up in one of the few Catholic families in a mostly Protestant area, left him choked up.
"The minute the torch was put in my hand," he said, "someone whispered in my ear: 'You're doing Dundrum proud. And your dad would have been very proud. Off you go.'"
Although Kielty rarely speaks about it in public, his father was one of the 3,700 people killed in the past four decades of conflict over Northern Ireland.
In 1988, Jack Kielty, 44, was shot to death in the Dundrum office of his construction firm by the Ulster Defense Association, the major Protestant paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. Jack Kielty was to be the key witness in an extortion trial against the UDA's commander.
Since Sunday, the Olympic flame has passed through scores of towns, villages and communities still healing from past killings and bombings. But those committed to keeping the conflict alive — IRA die-hards opposed to their side's 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm — had zero impact on celebrations that brought both sides of the community together, particularly at Wednesday night's street party in front of Belfast City Hall.
Police units were attacked with hand grenades in separate attacks in Belfast on Wednesday and the second-largest city, Londonderry, on Saturday, but nobody was injured and neither attack affected the Olympic relay.
On Monday, a street protest by Londonderry supporters of IRA splinter groups turned unruly and forced police to divert the torch run there down an alley beside city hall. But the aftermath demonstrated just how isolated and politically irrelevant the IRA remnants have become. Leaders of Northern Ireland's stable and popular Catholic-Protestant government, among them a former IRA commander, condemned the militants' stunt as idiotic and embarrassing.
The torch relay is nearly three weeks into its 10-week tour of the United Kingdom, concluding with the Olympic opening ceremony July 27. It is visiting all four parts of the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — as well as the British islands of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.
Olympic torch relay, http://l2012.cm/JKPnqK