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.
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. After 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.The 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. The 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.
Of 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. Numerous places along the way, and especially on the hikes we took most days, offered views of sea, fields and bog. We 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. The other manor house was the Victorian Gothic Mount Falcon which was even larger and grander.
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.
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 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.