Norn Iron

I first visited Ireland with my parents in 1992, starting in Dublin and driving south and west to Cork, Limerick and Galway. I was back again in 2002 with J., on a weekend trip from Edinburgh to Dublin. On both visits I liked the easy familiarity of the place, with its good-natured people and its villages reminding me of midlands towns in Tasmania. But on the first visit, at least, there was one direction we wouldn’t have dreamt of driving.

The Troubles began eighteen months before I was born, so like any now-forty-something I grew up hearing about them. Throughout the 1980s, stories of hunger strikes, IRA bombings and troops on the streets made Northern Ireland sound like the last place you’d want to visit, at least in the British Isles. So when I visited the British Isles, I didn’t. When I was studying in England in the early nineties I met someone from Derry, who sounded Scottish until I listened more closely, and who didn’t talk about home much. His home seemed to me as exotic and as distant from our university town as mine must have to him, but mine at least was on the other side of the world.

By the time we moved to the UK in 2001, the landscape had changed. The Good Friday agreement drawing a line under the Troubles was three years old, and appeared to have worked. When we were travelling around Britain and Europe during those first few years, we contemplated the short hop to Belfast, by Ryanair or by ferry from Stranraer, but never quite made it. On a trip with my parents around Ayrshire and Galloway in 2008, we looked across to the Antrim coast from the old ferry town of Portpatrick, and thought about it again; it was barely a hop and a skip.

My parents were curious too, and for their visit this year proposed a family holiday there. But our youngest was still an unreliable quantity for extended car journeys, and recent reports of continuing unrest over flags and other matters of life and death weren’t exactly comforting, so in the end I went with them on my own for five nights over Easter.

A hop and a skip later, there we were, on Easter Saturday, walking around streets that looked for all the world like Glasgow’s. Spring snow covered the surrounding hills. On our first day we walked around Belfast’s pedestrianised city centre; Britain’s first, apparently, for reasons which took a while to dawn on us. A passing bus sported a billboard that read “Hands Up for Integrated Education”. We visited the Linen Hall Library, with its disturbing collection of posters on its walls. “Man Shot Dead.” “All Party Peace Talks Now.” “Murder Murder MURDER MURDER... This is what the bombers did to a human being.”

Loose-talk costs lives

Around Exchange Place and Commercial Court in the Cathedral Quarter, elaborate graffiti covered the walls near picture-perfect pubs. Public sculpture and new-build apartments lined the River Lagan. A big new shopping centre sat in the heart of the pedestrian quarter, buzzing on a Saturday. I remembered that Paul Rankin (whose cookery show J. and I used to watch in the nineties) had a restaurant here, and checked my iPhone to see where it was, only to find that it had closed down days before we arrived.

Outside the grand City Hall, a crowd festooned in red, white and blue held with banners proclaiming “Ulster is British” and “Lower Shankill No Surrender”. Nearby, and around the corner, sat armoured police landrovers that looked like they’d driven straight out of a 1980s news story.

Police Landrover, Northern Ireland

We saw the union colours more on this trip than we had anywhere else in Britain. My hotel window looked out on Sandy Row, a unionist housing area, where an elaborate mural on the end of the building opposite lauded King William III, Prince of Orange and bane of Irish Catholics, and the kerbstones were painted red, white and blue. The next morning, on Easter Sunday, I watched a blue-clad marching band disembark from a bus down there and head towards the Falls Road, on their way to the Easter marches.

We didn’t stick around for those. The papers that morning were reporting on a bomb that exploded in a bin near a primary school in County Armagh on the day we arrived in Belfast; a few weeks earlier another had gone off in the outskirts of Belfast itself. Instead, I went out to the airport to pick up our rental car, drove back in to collect Mum and Dad, and we drove south along the coast to explore the countryside: first through the rich suburbs of Belfast along Lough Lagan, and the immaculate towns of Crawfordsburn and Bangor, and then through less-wealthy towns as we drove further south. They were still clearly unionist; the fishing boats of Portavogie were painted red, blue and orange, as in William of. We caught the ferry across the end of Strangford Lough and carried on south, to the road past Killough, where we saw the most wonderful sight of any in Ireland: the Mountains of Mourne, covered in snow and lit up by patchy sun, crowding onto the sea directly opposite us across the bay. We spent over an hour just staring at them, from different locations along the beach.

The next day we drove north from Belfast, along the Antrim coast, past the Norman-built Carrickfergus Castle, and then past a string of latterday equivalents: heavily fortified police stations at the heart of each small town along the coast, all of them now for sale or rent—one sign that the Good Friday agreement was making a difference, at least. The weather was grey and snowy, as it still was in Scotland; across the water, a few short miles away, we could see the same part of Galloway we’d visited five years earlier, also covered in snow. As we followed the Cushendall Road over to the north coast, though, the snow melted away, and by mid-afternoon we had perfect weather for visiting Northern Ireland’s biggest natural attraction.

The Giant’s Causeway is a tourist production line nowadays, with a sleek new visitor centre sloping out of the hillside and a carpark packed with coaches. We skipped the shuttle bus to the causeway itself and walked down the hill and around a headland, and then saw it, crawling with people in bright cagoules: the world’s most famous D&D landscape map in natural form, and one of the most memorable Led Zeppelin album covers. We joined the hordes and took photographs of stone hexagons for an hour, before moving on to Dunluce Castle, arriving at Bushmills Distillery ten minutes too late for the last tour, and then back to Belfast.

In hindsight we might have done better to stay in different places around the country rather than in Belfast throughout, so that we wouldn’t have had an hour’s drive or more at the end of each day, but it worked out okay. I got good at navigating myself into the right part of Belfast in the dark.

On day four we drove right up through the middle of the country, first through countryside where every lamp-post sported red, white and blue, then parts where they turned green, white and orange. Dad wondered why they were all flying at half-mast. That’s how high that people could shinny up to tie them on, I ventured.

We were visiting Derry/Londonderry, the city whose very name is partitioned, as is the city itself, with its walled old town overlooking one of the most famously downtrodden neighbourhoods in the UK. Derry today is picturesque, but you could never describe it as quaint: those walls and the history around them speak of hundreds of years of Irish Problems. After we looped around the walls we walked downhill into Bogside and visited the Museum of Free Derry, which tells the story of Bloody Sunday, a day that still lives on on the muralled walls of the surrounding buildings.

The next day we swapped recent history for much older history, driving to the far edge of Lough Neagh to see the Ardboe Cross, a Celtic high cross dating from the tenth century. Even there, recent history was present; the small ruined church next to the cross contained the grave of one of the IRA hunger strikers of 1981. Winding around the backroads of County Tyrone, we made our way to the prehistoric Beaghmore stone circles, some of the most extensive I’ve seen; then, a few miles away, we trudged through snow to see the Creggandevesky Court Tomb.

In Belfast that night we went along to Victoria Square (the new shopping centre) to catch Good Vibrations, a film celebrating the local music scene of the 1970s (notably, John Peel’s favourite song). It was a perfect complement to our trip, bringing to life the troubled history of the streets we’d been walking around all week, as well as some great moments about what it’s like to fall in love with a new kind of music. Not a perfect film (I wanted more of Dylan Moran, for a start), but as memorable a movie-going experience as seeing Once Were Warriors in a local cinema on a visit to Auckland in the nineties. Memorable, also, for one of the most confronting road safety adverts I’ve ever seen.

We saw more of the Troubles next morning, after I missed a turnoff and ended up having to drive miles to make my way back, through an area of East Belfast with as many murals celebrating the UDA as Bogside had murals about Bloody Sunday.

The Red Hand of Ulster

I was trying to reach the Titanic Quarter, Belfast’s new tourist area celebrating its shipbuilding industry’s most infamous product. We made it there soon enough, and went through the Titanic Experience, a titanic building itself, with all the bells and whistles you’d expect. It’s pitched as a tourist attraction but was full of locals that day, because of the Easter school break. We’d picked up bits and pieces of the industrial and Titanic history in other places on our travels—the Linen Hall Library, Belfast City Hall, St Anne’s Cathedral, the Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn—and shipbuilding was a constant presence in the form of Samson and Goliath, the two giant yellow gantries visible from most of the city; but this brought it all together with a compelling narrative, and handled the narrative turn towards disaster deftly and movingly. Considering that almost everyone visiting will have been Titanicked out in 1997 and 2012, Titanic Belfast still had plenty to offer.

As did Belfast as a whole. Only by visiting it did I realise what a significant city it was and is. In pre-1922 Ireland it was bigger than Dublin, one of the industrial powerhouses of the United Kingdom, home to inventors and shipbuilders and, later, C.S. Lewis and Van Morrison. While we were there I read a fine travelogue about Northern Ireland, Martin Fletcher’s Silver Linings, which covers all of this history and landscape in more and better detail than I can here. It’s worth a read, but more importantly, Northern Ireland is worth visiting. It has that uncomfortable but fascinating tension between recent past and peaceful present, a tension I’d felt as strongly before only in Johannesburg and Berlin, but it also has the deeper history of Ireland and prehistory of the British Isles—as well as those hexagons, and the Mountains of Mourne rolling down to the sea.

What the visit reminded me was what an integral part of Irish history Ulster had been before the partition of Ireland. If you’re an American or Australian with Irish ancestors, there’s something like a one in four chance they came from here and not the Republic.

I have my own thoughts about partition and the Troubles and the peace process, but there’s no point in a passing visitor like me plastering them all over his blog. What struck me most was how unfinished the peace process still felt, fifteen years into it. The news and letters pages of the Belfast Telegraph were full of it, and the traces were everywhere. Young men who were preschoolers in 1998 are being charged with bomb-making in 2013, as I write. Even though most people in Northern Ireland clearly want nothing other than the peaceful life available to people elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, that tension between past and present will take a long time to dissipate when one in four were “directly affected by bereavement, physical injury, or trauma, as a result of the Troubles”.

With all of this whirling around my head, it took me months to sort out my photos and write this; here it is, almost Christmas, and I’m writing about what I did at Easter. But, finally, here’s the gallery:

Northern Ireland

21 December 2013 · Travel