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.

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