northern irish explorations 

Spending a day (if not more) in Northern Ireland is paramount to getting a full snapshot of the Emerald Isle. I must say, I’ve much to learn about the history of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I have a general understanding, but the details remain unfamiliar to me. The brief perspective I was allowed during my few hours in Belfast informed a bit more of the knowledge gaps, but opened up so many more. I assume, as with any war-torn city, especially one that ranked among those like Beirut, Baghdad, and Bosnia at one point in time, there is much that can’t be truly understood unless you live there.

Megan and I began our Northern Ireland day trip with a black taxi tour in Belfast. This tour took us to many of the political murals in the Falls neighborhoods (predominately Republican/Nationalist and Catholic) and the Shankill neighborhoods (predominately Loyalists/Unionist and Protestant). Together, the murals tell a somewhat graphic story of what was deemed “The Troubles” in Ireland’s recent history.

“The Troubles” is a term referring to a violent thirty-year conflict from 1968 to 1998. At the heart of the conflict lie the constitutional status of Northern Ireland (which also played into people’s national identity and feeling of belonging). As I understand it, the goal of the unionists (overwhelming Protestant) was to remain part of the United Kingdom, whereas the goal of the nationalists/republicans (almost exclusively Catholic) was to become part of the Republic of Ireland. During The Troubles, guerrilla warfare reigned and the scale of killings perpetrated by all sides exceeded 3,600 people. An additional 50,000  people were injured (some severely) during this time.  The Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998 essentially ended The Troubles. Northern Ireland’s present system of government is based on the agreement. The agreement also created a number of institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Pictured above are some of the murals from Shankill. We also saw the once majestic Supreme Court building that has fallen into ruin before we made our way to the infamous Peaceline. The Peaceline is a wall that was built to keep the Nationalists and the Loyalists apart, which, in the process, divided the communities even further. Below you’ll see Megan and I on the Protestant-facing side of the Peace Wall where we signed our names alongside those like Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.Then, we ventured to the Falls and saw the Catholic-facing side of the wall as well as the murals painted there. An obvious contrast exists between the two neighborhoods, be it the type of flag that is hung outside the door (British or Irish) or the message that a mural sends. Regardless, one thing was very clear; The Troubles was a very gruesome time in Northern Ireland’s history.Before finishing our taxi tour, we whipped by the Titanic Museum and saw the H&W (Harland and Wolff) dock where the Titanic was built. It remains the same size as the ship to this day, allowing visitors to get a visual of how large it really was. Interesting fact about the Titanic Museum: there is one zinc plate on the outside of the museum for each of the 1,517 people who lost their lives when the Titanic sunk – a forever memorial of sorts.After our brief time in Belfast, we were off to explore Northern Ireland.  For those of you who are familiar with Game of Thrones, our first stop was the area known as the Iron Islands on the show (the Aran Islands in Northern Ireland). While the show is filmed simultaneously in multiple global locations, lots of the show is filmed in Titanic Studios in Belfast.  There are also many familiar sights from Westeros that pop-up in Northern Ireland from The Kings Road (The Dark Hedges), to the Cushendun Caves where the shadow that killed Renly Baratheon was spawned by The Red Woman, to Ragman Harbour in Braavos (known in Northern Ireland as Carnlough Harbour), and more.

Dunluce Castle is pictured below; it is a medieval Irish castle which was originally built in the 13th Century by Richard Óg de Burgh, one of the most powerful Irish nobles of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. It’s backdrop is the Aran Islands. It’s become quite an ominous looking ruin, don’t you think?The Giants Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was our next stop. What makes this place special is the 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that form a crazy myriad of landscapes against the sea; the result of an ancient volcanic eruption.

But, Gaelic mythology tells it another way. Legend has it that an Irish giant, Finn MacCool, was challenged to a fight here by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the channel so the two giants could meet. There are two endings to the story: in one version, Finn defeats the Scottish giant. In the other, when Finn realizes how much bigger Benandonner is than he, Finn’s wife, Oonagh (a fairy), uses her powers to hide him from Benandonner in the form of a baby. When Benandonner sees the size of the “baby”, he reckons that its father, Finn, must be a giant among giants and flees back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him so Finn couldn’t follow.  Apparently, there are identical basalt columns across the see on the Scottish Island of Staffa, so who knows if the legend is real, or not? 😉  Regardless, Finn got the better end of the deal in both these stories if you ask me!After our Giant’s Causeway explorations,  we were off to our final stop of the tour: Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge.  Crossing the 65 ft. long bridge, built in the 17th century by salmon fisherman, suspended 100 ft. above the water, was not as frightening as I had initially envisioned – at least on the way over.

Post bridge-crossing, the views from Carrickarede Island were stunning – both of Balllintoy and Scotland.  Yep, we could see Scotland from here.  Scotland is yet another country on my list of places to visit. I say it again, it would be so great if seeing one country from another country counted as a visit to it. I would have visited Morocco, Canada, Mexico, and Scotland at this point in my life 😉 While we were waiting to cross back over the bridge, the staff tested the wind and informed us that we had to cross quickly due to the strong gusts – and there went a bit of my heart. Old-school, swaying, rope bridges are officially not my thing. If the winds had gotten any worse, we would not have been able to cross back over the bridge…then who knows what.  That’s the fun in crossing old, rope bridges I guess.All-in-all, we had a great day trip to Northern Ireland. I would go back in a heartbeat as there is so much more to see and to learn. Until then, I’ll keep exploring the Republic and soaking up as much knowledge as I can about Irish history and culture 🙂

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