Neighbors to the North
This weekend I, along with just about every other IFSA-Ireland student, took a trip up to the Northern Irish city of Belfast. Now, for those of you who are out of the loop, Northern Ireland is actually a separate country from the Republic of Ireland, located in the northeast corner of the same island. While the Republic became independent from British rule in the early 20th century, Northern Ireland opted to remain with the crown and is therefore part of the modern day United Kingdom. This distinction has many different manifestations, from the currency to the religious landscape to the accent. From what I know, Northern Ireland has two main areas of appeal. The first is the coast, home to some truly remarkable geographical formations and sights. The other is Belfast, the capital and the largest urban area, brimming with social and aesthetic appeal but unfortunately haunted by its own recent history. Over the course of the weekend, I got the opportunity to see both of these aspects of the country in full swing.
After a quick Thursday afternoon bus trip and a night spent on a fresh-sheeted hotel bed (graciously provided by IFSA), I woke up early on Friday morning and boarded another bus bound for a day-long adventure along the northern tip of the Emerald Isle, also known as the Causeway Coast. The first stop of the day came at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (pictured below). Nestled into a small stretch of coast in County Antrim, Carrick-a-Rede was a former fishing ground made prominent by its position on the intersection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea. In order to string nets from a small island, brave fishermen of old constructed a small rope bridge from the mainland. That bridge has since been re-enforced and maintained by the Wildlife Trust of Ireland, making it the most iconic locale in the area. Now, for a small fee, tourists can walk across that bridge and onto the island, which offers a clear view of both some small neighboring islands and, in the distance, the not-so-distant coast of Scotland.
It was at the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge that I discovered a new rule to live by for my travels in Ireland: if there is a sign that says “do not go past this sign” or anything similar, and there is no one around to enforce it, make sure to go past the sign as beyond it likely lies the best views or most breathtaking photo opportunities in the area. Needless to say, I hopped over a gate or two at the expense of the Wildlife Trust’s wishes, and found myself with a perfect panorama of the Northern Irish Coast.
After a lovely seaside lunch and a quick toot around Dunluce, one of Northern Ireland’s oldest castles, we made the best stop of the day at an area known as the Giant’s Causeway. Another coastal attraction, this features a huge spread of volcanic stones that cooled into remarkably well-formed trapezoidal columns that shoot out of the ground into a sort of naturally-formed, geometric jetty.
The rest of the IFSA crew and I spent a couple hours climbing and hiking around, watching as the high tide crashed waves against the intricate stones. In similar form to the rule established at the rope bridge that morning, a few friends and I decided to go off the beaten path and scale to the top of a nearby coastal hill. After scrambling up a muddy slope and around some more rocks, we were afforded an unbelievable view of the whole Causeway Coast. We then strolled and cartwheeled through some cliff-side fields all the way back to the tour bus. Exhausted from a hearty day of sightseeing, we then napped through the two-hour journey back to our Hotel and, in doing so, rested up for the highly enjoyable day in Belfast to come.
Now, as I mentioned above, Belfast is a wonderful city and had a lot of street appeal, and is just small enough to walk from top to bottom in a couple hours. We started our morning at St. George’s market, and indoor bazaar featuring vendors of every shape and size, from all-vegetarian Indian cafes to artists crafting hand-painted city skylines on site to a man in a cockroach costume touting the nutritious value of insects (For the record, I decided not to partake in his samples). From there, I wound my way down the River Lagan to Belfast’s Botanic Garden and acclaimed Ulster Museum. A mix between intellectual stimulus and family fun resulted in an enjoyable space for all, and I whiled away my afternoon in a highly contented and contemplative state. Then, by night, I sampled some Northern Irish restaurants and nightlife venues. Perhaps the most entertaining of the latter category was an establishment by the name of Filthy McNasty’s, a complex bar boasting four or five very distinct areas, from an indoor pub with live music to an outdoor garden with a lively DJ to an elevated cocktail lounge pouring out sweet jazz.
However, as I also mentioned above, even for a place that boasts Medieval architecture and a lively city centre, Belfast has some seriously harrowing recent history. While many incidents revolving around British rule and Irish identity have plagued the area for centuries, the most recent series of events, known simply as The Troubles, ramped up in the mid 1960’s. This period was defined by the remarkably violent feud between Belfast’s two largest religious denominations: Catholics and Protestants. Violence erupted from both sides in a mix of guerrilla warfare and plotted attacks, and the entire city became a virtual war zone. The British army, not knowing how else to prevent further deaths and horrific events, decided to construct so-called “Peace Walls” throughout the city, many of which are still in use today. These walls prevented Protestants from entering and defacing Catholic neighborhoods and, of course, vice versa. However, unlike the Berlin wall or walls used by the Germans to construct Ghetto’s, these walls were not implemented by force. These walls were almost unanimously welcomed by the people of Belfast, who credited them with fulfilling their peaceful purposes, and believe that they are still doing so to this day. As a result, many neighborhoods of the city are still religiously affiliated today, with Catholics using their own shops, schools, and facilities just feet (the width of one wall) away from their Protestant countrymen, who themselves have their own independent infrastructure.
For those of you keen on visiting the city, I would suggest taking a Black Cab Tour. This consists of regular taxi drivers, many of whom experienced and lived through the Troubles form both the Catholic and Protestant sides, who now take small groups of tourists around the various parts of the cities, showcasing both Catholic and Protestant areas and their many memorials to the Troubles, as well as the walls that separate them. IFSA provided one such tour, and I found it fascinating and highly informative. It was also heartening to see Catholic and Protestant drivers in the same space, amicably bantering back and forth. They reminded us that the religious divide is far from over in Belfast, but the community has moved past its recent trend of martyrdom and volunteer soldiers and onto better times.
So, if you find yourself find Northern Ireland, I have some advice. First, go beyond whatever barriers you see, as it’ll make for a fuller and more well-rounded experience. Sure, for the most part it’s breaking the rules, but rules are meant to be broken. However, if that barrier comes the form of a 40-foot tall wall covered in graffiti and memorials to young guerrilla fighters and the rule means you won’t get shot or mugged, maybe don’t cross it. Or, at least be careful.
All in all, Belfast and the surrounding area is certainly worth a visit. I greatly enjoyed my time there, and returned to the Republic after the weekend exhausted, cultured, informed, and deeply content.