Friday thought #37 Beautiful Northern Ireland

In the excitement of travelling, back-packing and globe-trotting these days, the desire for more is ever apparent; to go further away, to experience a different culture, to go somewhere no-one has ever been before, to achieve a goal… With the ease of travel and low cost flights, a camping trip to North Wales just no longer seems to satisfy that travel bug. People want to go further, better, hotter.

In all this, I think there are tiny places on Earth which have been forgotten, cast out as places that are ‘no point’, ‘too close to home’, and in my humble opinion, Northern Ireland is one such place; a totally underrated corner of the globe. I can’t begin to imagine how many Brits have never set foot on the Emerald Isle (other than perhaps for a stag do…) despite living only a 30 minute flight away, certainly very few of my friends have. Because why pay for a flight to Ireland when you can pay the same for a flight to Spain? I can see the logic, but Ireland has so much to offer, and it is such a beautiful country.

My family are all from the North, so despite having spent various holidays in the Republic, I naturally have more memories and knowledge of Northern Ireland. Nowadays I don’t go there anywhere near as often as I used to as a child, but a recent visit to see family reminded me of what a fantastic place it is. It’s certainly changed a great deal in the last 20 years, but much of the beauty remains, and the people of N.Ireland are what can only be described as a delight. But despite my desire for everyone to love it as much as me, I couldn’t help but feel just a tinge of sadness to see that some of my favourite childhood haunts have now become just another stop for those doing the tour of Europe. But no, I can’t complain, Ireland needs tourism just like anywhere else; it’s what keeps a lot of these heritage sites open and maintained.

If you’re planning a visit to Northern Ireland, I can’t recommend the North East coast more highly, the drive from Belfast up the coast towards Coleraine is difficult to beat; an open road of spectacular rugged coastline all the way. Plus, passing through villages named Cushendall, Cushendun and Balleygalley doesn’t sound like too much of a chore does it?! Sights not to be missed are the incredible Giants’ Causeway, and the Carrick-a-reed rope bridge, once upon a time simply open farmland for you to wander around on, yet not anymore, so pick your time wisely. The Bushmills distillery is also in the vicinity if you’re a whiskey fan, although again, full of tourists. And this is only the tiniest pocket of the island. There is so much to explore, and so many wonderful, friendly people to meet. As an introduction to what to expect from Ireland, I must point you towards Round Ireland with a Fridge, by Tony Hawks. Comfortably the funniest book I’ve ever read and which will make even the hardest hearts fall in love with this fantastic country.

Enough said, Northern Ireland is a wonderful place, stop by if you can!

The stunning Giants' Causeway
The stunning Giants’ Causeway
DSC08235
Tourists exploring the columns
How did they get there...?
How did they get there…?
The Carrick-a-reed rope bridge, long gone are the days of no tourists
The Carrick-a-reed rope bridge, long gone are the days of no tourists

Friday thought #32 The Belfast Troubles

My family originally hails from Northern Ireland, but having never lived there myself I have always been interested in ‘The Troubles’ and what it was like to live through it. Last week whilst visiting family I finally did something I have wanted to do for some time; a political tour of the troubled parts of the city with a private guide taking us past the murals, the memorials, the Sinn Fein headquarters the particularly prominent areas for both Catholics and Protestants.

It made me realise that although most people are vaguely aware of ‘The Troubles’, many have no real concept of what is was really like, what it meant to the people of Belfast, or that there is still continuing unrest now, many years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which theoretically brought an end to the 30 years of conflict.

Our guide was a fantastic chap called Mark (http://www.niblacktaxitours.com/belfast-political-tours/) whose family had lived in Belfast for generations. We couldn’t have asked for a better insight from someone who has lived through it, is still living through it and simply wants peace in his country. In a very brief nutshell, the most troubled part of the city is very much divided in to the Falls Road area, which is home to the Catholics or Republicans, and the Shankill Road area, historically home to the Protestants or Loyalists. Cutting right through the middle of these two areas is the imposing ‘Peace Wall’, a concrete and steel wall, 10 metres high in parts, erected to ‘keep the peace’ between the Catholics and the Protestants.

I wasn’t aware that the Peace Wall still, in 2015, has huge steel gates that are locked at dusk and at weekends in an attempt to prevent violence and keep the warring sides apart. Mark told us that even now, children will gather at the gates in the evening, throwing stones and looking for a fight. In recent years there have been calls to remove the wall, but they haven’t been well received as there is still so much bitterness between the two sides and civil war could well break out again if the wall came down. Catholics are not welcome on the Shankill side, and vice versa for the Protestants on the Falls Road side. People must not find themselves on the wrong side of the wall late at night, and often even choose to take a convoluted route home from a night out in order to avoid certain areas. We asked Mark how we would be viewed, walking through the streets on either side as tourists. After a moment’s thought he said that with our English accents we would be more welcome on the Protestant side, yet everyone knows everyone and any stranger will be questioned as to their motives and reason for being there. In his words “If you don’t have the right answers it wouldn’t end well for you”.

The murals are sobering, especially when you hear the stories behind them and the fierce loyalty and hatred that sparked their creation. Their significance is still so relevant in Belfast, and it is hard to believe that within our own lifetime, a civil war was raging just across the water, with frequent petrol bombs, shootings and severe violence.

I’m not a politically minded person as a rule, but I was genuinely gripped with everything Mark had to say. Northern Ireland is such a beautiful country with such wonderful, friendly people, but with such a fascinating and terribly sad history which is still very much in the minds of those who both live in and visit Belfast. Children today have no experience of ‘The Troubles’ yet unfortunately in the Falls and Shankill areas it seems they are born with the hatred in their blood, told from a young age that the other side is their enemy. It is easy to look from outside and wonder why they can’t just let bygones be bygones and live in peace, but the violence and hatred is still so raw and the evidence all around that you are left wondering if Northern Ireland will ever be able to forget and ever find peace.

Some of the prominent murals
Some of the prominent political murals
The headquarters of the Sinn Fein political party
The headquarters of the Sinn Fein political party
One of the memorials in very close proximity to the Peace Wall
One of the memorials with the Peace Wall in the background
Welcome to the Shankill Road
Welcome to the Shankill Road
Signing the Peace Wall on the Shankill side
Signing the Peace Wall on the Shankill side