It’s amazing what a holiday can do for you. Now, I’m a person that likes the off-the-beaten path type of break. I’m fond of going to new places preferably without hoards of tourists. I like to take my time, soak up the environment.
Visiting Giant’s Causeway has always been on my list of things to do. I know that 500,000 people visit each year, so there are a lot of people, but needless to say, it wasn’t overrun when I went. A few things: Firstly, I love the outdoors (people often find that hard to believe, which is a little peculiar) and I love hiking. I also enjoy being near the sea; the place where the land ends and the water begins. I love to look out at all that space. I want a boat, like you wouldn’t believe.
So, I thought that it would be a great idea this year to jump in the car head to Liverpool and take a trip over to Northern Ireland. I’ve been to the Republic before, but never to the North, so I figured it was about time. Before, I begin to discuss my experience; I must admit how sad I was to see the bomb go off in Hollywood yesterday by the Real IRA. I have been recommending to all my friends that Northern Ireland is worth the visit – and in spite of the news, I still feel that way. Every single person that I met in Northern Ireland was really friendly and pushing for peace. So, when I heard the news yesterday, I thought about all those lovely people that I met, and how disappointed they must be.
Anyway, after arriving in Belfast, I went on a tour of the City with Allens Tours. We went into the Falls Road area and the Shankill Road, and saw the peace wall in between. I found it unbelievable that I was walking around a city that had at one point been one of the most dangerous places in Europe. The one thing “they say” we shouldn’t discuss is religion and politics – well it’s there in plain view staring you in the face. I found the murals incredibly intriguing, and after the tour, I wandered around to have a closer look. From an artistic and social perspective the work was so angry. I found the stories overwhelmingly sad – it doesn’t matter which side of the wall that you’re on – innocent people died and that’s that, as far as I’m concerned. The murals are in your face – they are full of symbols and meaning, at times words that are filled with rage. I found the walk around these areas of Belfast, one of the most interesting I’ve ever been on in my life. I was also intrigued to learn about the Titanic, and saw some archived footage in the Town Hall Digital Film Archive
From Belfast I headed up to Ballycastle and over to the tiny village of Ballintoy, where I rented a fantastic apartment with stunning views, and its pretty little harbour. The flat was cosy and just perfect. The landscape is amazing from the rugged coast, rolling hills and to the dramatic Glens of Antrim. I was so happy to finally visit the awe-inspiring Giant’s Causeway, and the Rope Bridge of Carrick-a-Rede. One day I visited Bushmills Distillery, which was granted its licence in 1608. I can definitely appreciate the art of making whiskey, and even tried a 12-year-old sample!
One of my favourite visits was Rathin Island. This is a little island 20 minutes off the coast. There are 100 people who live there. On the ferry, I read the Rathin Island news; it was two sides of an A4 sheet of paper with all the comings and goings of the island. It was £12 per year for a subscription. Honestly, I might take it up. I loved it. The island is a major sanctuary for birds, although not a bird watcher – it was a pretty remarkable site. The best part of this island was the shuttle bus driver, Liam King. Now remember, there’s only 100 people who live on the island, and not that many visitors, so there’s no need for a timetable.
We caught the shuttle bus (3 other people on it) over to the bird sanctuary, but along the way, the bus was running low on fuel. Liam began the reverse down a hill (single track road), and then we ended up at his house, where he said he need to swap buses. In the meantime, he wanted to “fire-up” the other bus and then he began to reverse out of his driveway. Oh dear, parked next to the bus was his little blue car; he began to drag it along sideswiping it with the shuttle bus, denting the doors and breaking the wing mirrors. We all had to hold our laughter in – mind you, not laughing at Liam, but I’ve never seen anyone cause such damage to their own car. So, Liam then asked everyone (all 5 of us) to get on the next shuttle bus, everyone walked with their heads down because he still hadn’t noticed. So, I said to him, “Umm…I think you may have scraped, perhaps slightly damaged your car.” He took one look at it, shrugged and said, “ah the joys of driving.” Now, if I could only adopt that philosophy in life, I swear the next time something goes slightly pear-shaped, I will always think of Liam King. He really wasn’t bothered at all. Talk about pulling on my heartstrings. Later on that day, he gave us a lift to this lovely bay where there were some seals hanging out. Seeing them in the wild, in their own habitat is amazing.
On my final day, I visited Londonderry/Derry. Even the name of this city is contentious. It depends on where you are – in the Republic it’s called Derry and in Northern Ireland it’s called Londonderry. Sometimes people call it “Stroke”. There’s a lot of history there – lots of baggage too. I was surprised to find out that Londonderry/Derry is a walled city, in fact the only complete walked city in the UK! I did not know that. However, throughout the “Troubles” it has had a turbulent 30 – 40 years. This is the place where the tragedy of Bloody Sunday occurred in January 1972. I had a walk around the Bogside area, and again, all these murals on the gable walls – they’re really in your face, although, I found them slightly different than the murals in Belfast. My city guide was Martin McCrossan.
Martin was delightful – full of knowledge and started out talking about the immigration to America. Now, I’m from New York and like most people from New York, my family were immigrants and on my mother’s side from Ireland. So, it was nice to start learning about Londonderry/Derry from this point in history. Martin said: “The people thought the streets were paved with gold, but not only were they not paved with gold, they weren’t paved at all, and they (the Irish) were expected to pave them.” Martin’s tour was well rounded, and essentially he spoke about the troubles and ultimately about peace. At the end, he pointed to the Tower Hotel, and said what a monument it was to have a new hotel built, that it might not mean much to us, but for him it was a sign of the future. He thanked us for visiting his city, and said it gives people confidence in their own city to see visitors. He was sincere when he said this, and it was really an interesting experience. I’ve never had anyone thank me for visiting their city. Usually as a tourist people are selling you t-shirts, hats, key rings and moulded plastic of the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben. I really enjoyed his tour, and recommend it.
So, all in all, why am I telling you about my jaunt to Northern Ireland? Well, the reason is because I had a wonderful time. The countryside is gorgeous, the people are friendly, and most of all the recent history is interesting. Growing up in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, I knew about what was going on, everyone did, but I don’t think we really understood it, and to visit this place that was discussed so often in my childhood, I feel like I’ve learned something. I’ve even thought of doing a book on the Art of Conflict or something like that – watch this space.
If you do ever visit, drop me a line, I’d love to hear about your trip.
P.S. I’m not working for the NI tourisim board anything like that, I just loved the place so much!