Heartwrenching History and Breathtaking Beauty in Northern Ireland

The story of Northern Ireland is a tale of breathtaking natural beauty and convivial people woven into a singularly dark and bloody history.IMG_2769

For the last week and a half, Katherine and I have been traveling through this dramatic land — from Dublin, through the Game of Thrones country of Northern Ireland to the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast, and back to Dublin. It’s been a wet, windy, wild, and sometimes even warm several days.

The trip began with a sunny day in Dublin where we walked around the city, taking in the sites near and around the River Liffey and getting our first history lesson at the excellent museum at the General Post Office, the site of the Easter Rising in 1916, the modern beginning of the long and bloody path to Irish statehood.P1080251

Above is a photo of the art installation on the river commemorating the mid-19th Century emigration spurred by the devastating potato famine. Other images along or near the river were more upbeat.P1080253 P1080257 P1080252After two nights in Dublin we began our Vagabound Tours of Ireland Magnetic North Adventure Tour. Vagabond, my host for this trip, describes this as their “most active and off the beaten track tour,” an apt description indeed. For 7 days we traveled through northwestern and Northern Ireland in a van, led by our guide Aidan, who, when he wasn’t leading the way up a steep, muddy, rocky trail, filled us in on the bloody turmoil that shaped the history of the region and of the entire island.P1080406The history is most visible and salient in the two main cities of Northern Ireland. In Belfast we took a Black Cab tour of the murals on both sides of the Peace Wall, a forbidding structure of cement, chain link and razor wire that separates the Protestant, Unionist side in the Shankill section of the city from the Catholic, Republican side along Falls Road.P1080298 P1080279 P1080288 P1080285 P1080280The last stop on the tour was on Bombay Street where the Troubles finally reached Belfast after several days of violence in Derry (or Londonderry, depending on which side of the Unionist/Republican divide you fall). I happened to be in Belfast that night, August 15, 1969. I’m sure that some of the smoke I saw billowing up into the sky from the safety of the upper deck of the overnight very to Glasgow was from Bombay Street. It was a very emotional moment for me, remembering that 50 year old adventure, which marked the beginning of my traveling life (you can read about it in my story, Belfast: Bloody Past, Hopeful Future). A lot of water has passed under that bridge…..

Two days later we were in Derry for a walking tour of the ramparts surrounding this beautiful, old city and overlooking the Bogside, where most of the violence and disturbances occurred.  
P1080359 P1080366 P1080373 P1080372 P1080371 P1080369 P1080367 P1080375Of course things are quieter now, but there are still some diehards and thugs trying to stir up trouble. And the possibility that Brexit might bring back the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is cause for considerable concern. To quote a well known public figure (the one with the orange hair), “we’ll see what happens.”

The history is fascinating and compelling, but much of the time it was overshadowed by  some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. This summer has been especially rainy and we had more than our share of it, so I’m not sure that the photos below do justice to the stunning vistas.

From Belfast to Derry, we visited the Giants Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. P1080317 P1080319 P1080320 P1080326 IMG_2778 IMG_2769Numerous places along the way, and especially on the hikes we took most days, offered views of sea, fields and bog.P1080382 P1080271 P1080532 P1080547 P1080544 P1080536 P1080535We also stayed in a couple of grand 19th Century manor houses — to this city boy, they looked and felt like castles — surrounded by fields, wooded pathways, ponds, and animals, including our very own bunny rabbits outside our windows at the Beech Hill Inn near Derry.P1080342 P1080347 P1080350 P1080354The other manor house was the Victorian Gothic Mount Falcon which was even larger and grander.P1080496 P1080511 P1080514 P1080520 P1080493

Other structures included a castle on the coast near the Giant’s Causeway and a fort in the west.P1080336 P1080387 P1080393Some other miscellaneous images from the trip:P1080524 P1080521 P1080488 P1080462 P1080455 P1080440 P1080434 P1080402 P1080399

The trip was quite active. We did something physical, often challenging, most every day, including a 3 hour kayak excursion along the coast (too choppy for photos) and an 8 mile bike ride along the Great Western Greenway (too windy for photos). One of our hikes was especially memorable, a wet, windy and wild hike to Horn Head, a lookout point for German subs during WWII. The winds were so strong I felt like a CNN reporter on location in a hurricane on the Gulf Coast. P1080425 P1080424 P1080409 P1080410 P1080414 P1080416

And one thing you might not associate with Ireland, great food. I had some of the best oysters I’ve ever had at Nancie’s in Ardara, the best seafood chowder at Lizzie’s Diner in Dunfanaghy, and the best fruit scone at the cafe in the visitor center at Ballycroy NP. Sorry, no photos. Like I’ve said before, when good food is placed in front of me, my first instinct is to eat it, not take a photo of it. By the time I thought about taking a photo of the food, it was gone.

And last but far from least were the people we traveled with and met along the way. The other people on the trip were as convivial and fun a bunch as I’ve ever met. P1080308

And on our next to last day in Dublin at the end of the end of the trip we headed to the tourist district of Temple Bar. It was a Sunday, the streets were packed with tourists and there were musicians playing in most every bar and pub. Near the end of our visit we headed up to the roof top bar at Fitzsimons for a quick drink before heading back to our hotel. All of the tables were occupied but a group of three in their 20s or 30s cleared a space for us at their table. What was supposed to be a quick drink turned into a lively hour long conversation. I was so engrossed in the conversation that my tourist/travel writer brain completely forgot about taking a photo.

So, Fernando, Amy and Sean, if you get a chance to read this, thanks for your warmth, hospitality, conversation and for restoring my faith in the future of the world in this contentious era of animosity and exclusion.

1 thought on “Heartwrenching History and Breathtaking Beauty in Northern Ireland

  1. Hi Don,

    It was so lovely to meet you and Katherine yesterday. Two lovely people who I am so glad we offered space to beside us.

    I’ve just had a read of the blog and It was so lovely to read. Its amazing to realise how much of this country I have not seen myself – the photos are amazing!

    And thank you for the mention in the blog – it was nice surprise and so nice to read such a lovely comment so thank you!

    Wishing you both all the best on the rest of your trip!

    Amy 🙂

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