Exploring Northern Ireland

DISCLAIMER: I learned so much this past weekend, and I’m honestly struggling to put it into words, so please bear with me if this post is all over the place.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to travel around Northern Ireland with the International Students’ Society from UCD. The island of Ireland is split into two separate countries – the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom.  On Friday morning, we left at the bright and early time of 8:30 and headed north to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, and from Belfast journeyed west to the city of Derry.

Being in Northern Ireland was altogether eye-opening, interesting, fun, and at times difficult to stomach. For an International Studies major with a focus in human rights, it was a dream come true. For those of you who do not know much about Northern Ireland, to put it in the briefest of terms, it was a very intense conflict zone for decades, with a deeply rooted divide between the pro-British Unionists, who tend to be Protestants, and the pro-Republic Irish nationalists, who tend to be Catholics. This period is known as the Troubles, and having been interested in Ireland since I was seven, I had heard the term before, but this weekend proved to me I really didn’t know much about it.

Archer_2_1I didn’t really know what to expect when we got to Northern Ireland, but as always, I was not disappointed. The first thing we did when we arrived in the capital city of Belfast was walk around City Hall for about twenty minutes before we had to meet back at the bus. As we were driving into the city, our bus driver told us that up until December 2012, the Union Jack, the national flag of the United Kingdom, flew over City Hall everyday. In early December 2012, the city council voted to limit the number of days on which the Union Jack flies to 18 per year. This was the first lesson I learned on the trip: the divide between those who support the Union and those who support the Republic is very much alive, as I did not realize it would have caused a point of tension in Northern Irish Politics as recently as 2012. Despite the controversy surrounding the limitation on flying the Union Jack, the City hall is a beautiful building with some pretty profound stained glass windows that promote peace among the population of Northern Ireland.

Archer_2_2This was my favorite piece of stained glass in the building because of its depiction of peace among the divided population. The bottom of it reads ”Not as Catholics or Protestants, not as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast workers standing together.” I thought it was incredibly profound, but I didn’t realize just how important this unity was until later on in the day.

After spending about 20 minutes walking around City Hall, we made our way back to the bus so we could head over to the Titanic Dock and Pump-House. Titanic is one of my all-time favorite movies, and one year for my birthday I got three different copies of it from my friends and family, so I was excited to see the place where the Titanic was built. We took a quick tour of the Pump House, but it was a little bit hard to hear the explanations of all the machinery, so all I can tell you is that it pumped water into the dock where they stored the ship. After learning (kind of) about the mechanics of the Pump House, we got to go outside and walk down into the dock itself! It was overwhelmingly massive, which is to be expected seeing as it was home to the Titanic during her construction. As a history buff and Titanic enthusiast it was exciting to see where the ship was built and docked before it sailed for America and to hear about the history of the ship. One of my favorite facts I learned from the tour was that the Titanic was not supposed to be the famous, notable ship of the three of its kind that were built. In fact, this was supposed to be the Olympic, her sister ship that was damaged after being hit head on. Because it needed to be repaired, it took the Titanic’s place in the dock, which delayed the Titanic from leaving for 6 weeks, which means the ice caps had 6 more weeks to move south, which of course lead to the sinking of the Titanic and the production of one of my favorite movies.

After spending about an hour touring the Dock and Pump-House, we had the chance to take a Black Taxi Tour around Belfast, which was my favorite activity of the day, but also one of the most difficult things to experience. Belfast, to this day, is still divided by a Peace Wall, and there are gates that get locked at 6 pm every night that separate the Protestant  and Catholic sides of the city. We first made our way to the Protestant side of the city and had a few minutes to walk around and look at the murals commemorating the events that occurred in Belfast during the Troubles. It is difficult to describe what it was like to see these murals because they contained a lot of emotion and a few were intense to look at, like the one of a masked figure aiming his gun at you.

Archer_2_3After walking around for ten minutes, we got back in the cabs and headed to the Peace Wall, a wall that divides the two parts of the city with gates that get locked every night. It stretches from the edge of the city centre all the way to the west part of Belfast where the Protestant and Catholic communities are located. This was definitely my favorite part of the tour and it was incredibly moving to see messages of peace from people all over the world. I even got to sign my name on the Wall, which is thus far my favorite thing I’ve done while abroad.

After the Peace Wall, we made our way to the Catholic side of the neighborhood, which has a street lined with murals similar to those found on the Protestant but with obviously different messages. These were also interesting to see, and the most shocking one was a painting of a wanted poster for Margaret Thatcher. Our tour guide told us that when she died last year, people in this part of Belfast used the slogan, “May the Iron Lady Rust in peace.” Hearing these words finally helped me understand just how relevant the divide in Belfast is to this day.

After finishing the taxi tour, we had about an hour to walk around Belfast and grab some dinner before heading to Derry, where we would be staying for the weekend. Officially known as Londonderry in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, it is the second largest city in Northern Ireland, and the fact that it can be referred to by one of two names further shows the division that is prevalent throughout Northern Ireland. In 2013, it was the UK City of Culture, and to honor that title, a peace bridge was built to signify the peace efforts that have been made in the city throughout the last few years.

Archer_2_4On Saturday morning, we took at tour of the city of Derry, which is one of the few completely walled cities in all of Europe. Our tour guide was the sweetest little man whose pride for his city showed throughout the entire tour. He led us around the walled part of the city and pointed out the murals commemorating the Troubles. Some were in honor of victims who lost their lives because of the violence, while others were symbolic of the peace that has come to the region in recent years.

Derry was the site of the mass shooting of 26 protesters that is known as Bloody Sunday. Our tour guide had worked as a mailman in Derry for 25 years before he began working as a tour guide, and so he knew a lot of people who were walking past. One of the gentlemen he stopped to talk to was shot on Bloody Sunday, and so it was incredibly moving to actually put a face to such a tragic historical event. It was difficult to hear our guide’s stories because he had grown up in the middle of it all, and so his accounts were all first hand. But he was so proud of where Derry stands today in terms of its peace talks, which made for a very unique, moving tour that left me in tears at times.

After our tour, we made our way to the Free Derry museum, which is in the part of the city known as Free Derry. Located on the Bogside, this is the area that saw most of the violence on Bloody Sunday. The museum itself told the story of the events leading up to the  violence of the Troubles and then gave the details of what happened on Bloody Sunday. As I read the names of each of the people who lost their lives that day and those who were wounded, I had the chills. It was a very intense experience, but I am glad I was able to learn more about the history surrounding Northern Ireland, because I realized that I really didn’t know much of anything before my trip to the North.

Archer_2_5Sunday was without a doubt my favorite day of the trip, and maybe even my favorite day of being abroad. On Sunday morning, we packed up our things, boarded the bus, and made our way to the Giant’s Causeway. The weather wasn’t stellar, so I did not have high hopes for the day, but once again, the day exceeded my expectations by a long shot. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980s, the Giant’s Causeway is made up of thousands of basalt columns and is surrounded by water. There are, of course, a few legends surrounding the Causeway, but it was really made from a volcanic eruption. Pictures don’t do it justice and words fail me here because it is something you truly have to see for yourself, so if you ever find that you are traveling in Ireland, make sure you squeeze some time into your plans to visit the Giant’s Causeway. I promise you will not be disappointed (even if the weather isn’t ideal, because I absolutely loved it!).

After spending an hour on the Causeway, we made our way to our last stop of the trip – the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge! The Rope Bridge is about 100 feet above the water and was originally used by salmon fishermen to connect the island of Carrickarede to the mainland. Today it serves as a tourist attraction and visitors can make the 70 foot walk across the bridge to the island for some of the most spectacular views Northern Ireland has to offer (in my opinion). I’ll just let the pictures do the talking:
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While at times this weekend was difficult and some of the subject matter was shocking, I don’t regret for a second making time to visit Northern Ireland and learn about the Troubles and the recent peace movements. If you’re a history buff like me, you will love to hear about the history surrounding both Derry and Belfast. And if that’s not your cup of tea, the beauty of the region is well worth it.