An education in the history of Northern Ireland

Trip Start Dec 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 10, 2011

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Flag of United Kingdom  , Northern Ireland,
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 22 Belfast (Dundonald Touring Park)

We set the alarm (there seems to be a pattern emerging on holidays in Ireland) to get up and catch the bus into the city. Even the half hour journey was an eye opener, with murals painted on the side of buildings and loads of English/Union Jack flags flying around. We had organised to do a Black Cab tour around the city, getting an understanding of the political history here. There are heaps of tour companies, the one we ended up going with was Belfast in Conflict – I'm sorry to say I didn’t even catch our cabbie’s name. He seemed to think my name was Noreen – now seriously, you’d think the Irish would have Maureen down pat, but I guess it’s Noreen for the next 2 weeks!

Anyway, our first stop was Shankill Road which is a fiercely Protestant/Unionist community, as you can see by the murals and the flags. There is one of a Ulster Freedom Fighter who’s rifle is pointed at you, no matter where you stand (kinda like Mona Lisa’s eyes but with a rifle). It felt kinda strange walking around what is essentially these people’s backyards, but apparently they don’t mind tourists gawking, because they believe it means more people get to hear about their struggle and understand what they have gone through and are still currently experiencing. Having said that, our cabbie was really good in that he didn’t try to persuade us one way or another.

Next up was the wall that has been up longer than the Berlin wall. There are thousand’s of peace messages, some which have been put there on purpose (such as the Dalai Lama’s message) and those such as Dave who have scrawled their own message of peace and hope. His particular words of wisdom are "Peace starts with a BBQ and a VB. Come to Australia".

Around the corner, through the gates (that still shut at 9pm), we made it through to the Catholic/Nationalists side. We saw the Clonard memorial garden (in fact, we saw at least half a dozen memorial sites throughout the tour) in memory of those volunteers and citizens who had died. Some of the ages are so young and the most recent inscription was from 2004 (although our cabbie told us the most recent victim of the Troubles died a month ago). We past the Sinn Fein HQ building, where there are tributes to Bobby Sands who, along with 9 others, died in a hunger strike. Further along the road we saw the International Peace Wall.

All in all, a black cab tour, no matter what company you go with, is well worth it. We learnt so much of the difficulties between the two identities, the role the para-military groups have had on the psyche of both communities and the outlook of the future of Northern Ireland today. We still have a lot of learn, but it was definitely a good starting place.

The rest of the day was spent wandering the streets of Belfast, doing a couple of self-paced walking tours out of a guide book the Austin’s lent us. We haven’t done so much city walking in a while and our feet hurt by the end of the day. Since we were staying so close to the cinema, we decided to check out only our 3rd movie in our travels so far. Inception was pretty awesome and it rounded out a pretty good day overall.

Day 23 Belfast – Cushendall – Carrick-a-rede – Giant’s Causeway – Portrush (Hilltop Caravan Park)

What a day we had planned. We set the alarm again only to find out we had to wait an hour for reception to open to get our key deposit back. Damn! We eventually set off and headed for the Antrim coastal road which, had the sun been out, would have been a spectacular view. As it was, I downgraded it to just beautiful. We wanted to stop at one of the 'Glen’s’ (there are 9 Glen- villages along the way) but both Glenarm and Glenariff decided they didn’t want us as the parking lots had height barriers. Onwards we went and managed to pull up on the coast at Cushendall. We took a walk through town, or what we thought was town. We headed back to the van and found out that as drove down the street we had walked and made a turn, our walk had taken us about 15m shy of the main street. Oops.

Next up was Carrick-a-rede which is famous for a rope bridge. The rope bridge was originally slung up by fisherman who wanted the best place to catch some salmon. They’ve now made it a tourist destination where it costs you the over 5 quid to walk not even 10m. The pictures were pretty speccy though and I’m pretty sure that’s Scotland in the background of the photos, surrounded by fog and mist.

We got back in the van and headed for the Giant’s Causeway which comprises of over 40 000 basalt columns, mostly perfect hexagonals which have been formed by the cooling of lava. Mick decided not to take his rain jacket or umbrella as it was just ‘drizzling’. He obviously has yet to learn that Irish weather doesn’t stay constant. By the time we had walked part of the clifftop and gotten down to the hexagonals, it was pissing down. We didn’t stay too long as he was dripping behind the ears.

Last stop for the day, Portrush, where we pulled into our caravan park for the night and headed to the pub for a meal.

Day 24 Portrush – Derry – Omagh (Sperrin Mountains Caravan and Campsite)

It was a short drive into Derry (is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in Ireland, with records going back as far as 546AD) and we had gotten up early (to the alarm yet again) as we wanted to make sure we packed in as much as we could during the day. We arrived to a ghost town, only to find out that nothing opened until 1pm! I guess we were lucky that the whole town didn’t shut up shop for the whole day. We whiled the time away in a café and managed to find a walking tour that set off at 12pm. Martin McCrossin’s city tour is one of the best tours we’ve done on our trip so far. Our guide, Garvin, had an absolutely wicked sense of humour and had a great personality, totally suited to guiding people through his city. In his tour he managed to impart information from both sides and really seemed to stay very neutral. He told us some very sad stories of deaths from both the Protestant and the Catholics. Overall it was a very professional tour because if I was to take a guess there is no such thing as a neutral person living in Northern Ireland. He took us around the Walled city, explaining the Siege, partition, the Troubles (including the bombing campaign), Bloody Sunday, the effect this has left on the psyche of the town and so many other historical facts. It’s so hard to know what to write on the blog about the history lesson we got. He told us that the biggest export of the city were people, with New York, Canada (I can’t remember what port) and Tasmania the main destination. Way back when, it took 26-28 weeks to sail to Tasmania. Can you imagine being on a boat for that long and ending up in Tassie? Poor souls!

Some snippets of information we got include that some of the bombs used were as big as 500 pounds, that the courthouse had been hit 13 times and that within the walls, it is a 97-3 divide to the Catholics, while outside the wall, it’s a more even 50-50 divide. He showed us a 100% Protestant enclave that have a mural proclaiming they were under still under siege and that there would be no surrender (these last two words were famously proclaimed by the 13 apprentice boys who shut the gates as King James – a Catholic, who had his throne overtaken by William III – a Protestant, approached the town in an effort to retake his throne. The town lay under siege for 105 days and the towns people resorted to eating mice, rats and fattened dog. The dogs were fattened by eating the remains of the dead).

After the tour, we made our way to the Free Derry museum which has been set up by the Bloody Sunday trust. In fact, a number of people who were killed by the British Army on Bloody Sunday actually died in front of the building that is now the museum. The guy who was at reception gave us an outline of the museum and even told us his brother was one of the people killed that day. I wasn’t sure how to respond to him, as he said it so matter of factly, but I felt that anything I said wouldn’t even come close to showing the empathy I have for these people. Anyway, the museum was another fascinating history lesson and Mick and I are slowly getting a better understanding of the history here (probably even more than we understand Australian history).

There were so many other interesting and fascinating things to learn about Derry (also known as Londonderry – the London was added by the English in the 1600’s and there was a recent claim put in by the residents to return to the original name of Derry. The judge who sat on the judgement decided he had no powers to change the name as the name Londonderry had been blessed by the then King. As such, a formal request has been sent to Her Royal Majesty, just before Christmas 09, although the town aren’t holding their breath about a reply). If you ever make it over here, I would definitely put this as the number one place to visit in Northern Ireland.
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