Northern Ireland is a beautiful place. I think it incites fear in people who have never been there because of its recently violent history, but it is wonderful. As evocative as the Republic of Ireland, but part of the United Kingdom, it’s a place I couldn’t leave as quickly as I thought I would.
I began my time in Derry, in the northwestern part of Northern Ireland. The rolling hills covered with silently expressive stone circles are freckled with natural wonders and stuck in the middle like a rowdy cousin are cities with very violent pasts. Recent pasts. Walking down the streets of Derry, you can see murals still being painted by Irish Catholics fighting for their freedom from the Protestants and the UK. You can go into a shop and someone will point out that the next road over used to be covered in glass thrown from one side to the other, stopping only for women and their shopping bags. People hated the other side so much that violence became regular in some places. People here can tell you all about it. From memory. Not from a book or what they learned in school or stories passed down. They lived this history. This is their history.
Amidst all the violent history, there is beautiful countryside, satisfyingly heavy food and single malt whisky that is a cure for just about any illness. I was lucky enough to experience all of these (the last one twice!) and became a fan of Northern Ireland.
The Giant’s Causeway is a magnificent natural wonder. On the north coast of Northern Ireland, apparently the Irish warrior Finn McCool (anyone with a name like that must have a myth made up about him!) was meant to fight his Scottish opponent but (depending on the story) either fell asleep or chickened out. Regardless, his wife put a blanket over him and when the opponent arrived, she pretended it was their child. The Scotsman was terrified that the baby was so big and was positive Finn must be a giant. In terror, he ran back to Scotland, tearing up the seabed as he went. Today, thousands of hexagonal basalt columns form stepping stones into the sea where he supposedly ran. Besides the columns, steep solidified lava cliffs have tightrope-like walkways between the cliffs and the sea.
I was lucky enough to meeting up with some Canadian travelers who had rented a car, so I joined them on to Belfast. We took a long, scenic road (there are no other roads worth taking, I think!) along the coast. We stopped at a few places and arrived in Belfast mid-afternoon.
I wandered around Belfast with another of my host’s guests trying to find a CouchSurfing meeting. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the pub, so we found one of the many great pubs in Belfast and ordered drinks. I was completely unaware of my magical money-saving tactic in bars until the American I was with ordered a Jack and Coke to the tune of about $9 and I nonchalantly ordered a Guinness (I realize it’s Irish, not Northern Irish, but it’s a lot more local than Jack Daniels) for about $3! It pays to support local brews… well, it saves, at least!
My time in Belfast was not quite what I imagined with a day at a local beach (I’ve never heard of anyone else who’s gotten sunburned in Northern Ireland in May!), an afternoon in the Botanical Gardens, a heavy Ulster Fry breakfast at St. George’s Market. Like an Irish breakfast an Ulster Fry has black pudding (sausage from you-don’t-want-to-know meat), white pudding (ditto), egg, bacon, toast, beans (in a sauce like baked beans) and some other greasy things. I finished my time in Belfast with a political tour of the city and its cemetery and murals. Realizing I had forgotten something at the hostel back in Derry and calculating the price of a flight to London from Belfast versus the cost of the train back to Derry plus the cheaper flight to London from Derry, I decided to return to Derry.
The train ride back west offered me a beautiful sunset over the sea. When the train conductor saw me taking pictures through the dirty window, he grinningly asked if I wanted the train to stop. I, jokingly, said ‘yes, please!’ He laughed, checked my ticket, and came back a few minutes later, apologizing because they couldn’t stop the train for me because they were running a few minutes late and couldn’t make up the time. I was stunned because it seemed he had actually asked the driver to stop the train so I could take a good picture of the sunset. I’ll be the first to tell you there is no reason for people to be afraid of Northern Ireland!
A few days more in Derry and a short flight to London would take me to a whole different part of the United Kingdom. I was scared to go to big city London after experiencing the coziness of Northern Ireland. Twice in the last two weeks, I was sick with colds and both times, someone stepped forward and offered me the regional cure: a hot toddy. Hot water with honey or sugar and whisky certainly does the trick (you can find the recipe here)! People were so friendly and open to talk about anything. With their recent and ongoing history, I would have guessed Northern Ireland would be filled with bitter, outraged people who were anything but friendly to tourists wanting to take picture of bullet holes in walls. I found the exact opposite. People were very warm and wanted to teach me what really happened. It was so much better than learning about it from a textbook and much more realistic than watching it on television or reading about it online.
The people in Northern Ireland care about each other and just want peace and understanding. That’s all. They don’t want to kill each other or have violence, because both sides will lose people and they’ve already lost enough. Saying goodbye to Derry from the airport, I felt encouraged to lead the rest of my trip with an open mind and be eager to see things from perspectives other than my own. I can’t judge other countries because what I’ve learned about their situation half a world away is not always a good representation of what is really happening. In any disagreement, there are reasons for both sides to be angry and only by listening to them both and being in touch with the real situation can you really understand what they are going through.