After leaving the rather cute town of Carlingford with its narrow streets that run parallel to the waterfront, we slipped over the border and into Northern Ireland (Ulster). There were no border posts and we didn’t realize that we had crossed the border until we worked out that the speed signs were now indicating limits in miles per hour, rather than kilometers.
This region is a bit of an enigma to us. In some ways, the rural areas in Northern Ireland looked a lot more opulent than some of the areas that we had seen in the South, yet many of the large towns that we drove through seemed more depressed and very sad. Places such as Newry, Belfast and Strabane all seemed to have large areas of public housing and young men hanging around doing nothing. The police stations in these towns were heavily fortified and large steel security fences were obvious in may parts of these cities. In the case of Strabane, the court house on the main road was heavily fortified with a large steel fence and significant barrier around the entrance. These are clearly signs of ‘The Troubles’ that I will get to shortly.
As we travelled towards Belfast, we travelled through some interesting and quaint rural scenery.
We crossed over Lake Strangford on the ferry to Portaferry on the southern end of the Ards Peninsular and then continued north through the city of Bangor and on to Belfast where we arrived relatively late at about 6.30 pm. Our GPS, for which I am very grateful, took us past the shipyards with its massive cranes, where the Titanic was built, and right to our hotel in the middle of Belfast.
This morning, we began our day with a Black Cab tour through the area of Belfast where the conflict has traditionally occurred between the Catholics and the Protestants. While I am sure that much of the underlying attitudes still exist, the killings have almost ceased and all of the ‘no-go’ areas are safe to visit. We began by driving along Shankill Road which leads to the predominately Republican area and which is traditionally used as the marching route to celebrate the victory of King William over the Catholic King James in 1690. Why the bigotry of these Republicans in celebrating this event over 310 years ago, seems to me to be simply crazy. In the Protestant area, we spent some time looking at the political murals that describe the deeds and martyrdom of the National militias in some of the local housing estates
From there, we went to the Falls Road area where an 8 metre high barrier separates the Protestant region from the Catholic area. This is known as the ‘Peace Line’ and it prevents bombs and missiles from being thrown over to the other side. The houses bordering this barrier on the Catholic side literally have their back gardens enclosed in cages. What a sad way to live one’s life!
On the Catholic side, we visited a memorial garden to members of the IRA who were killed in the conflict and then drove past the headquarters of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican headquarters. Our tour ended opposite a wall of the Nationalist Murals that were interesting pieces of artwork. They didn’t have anywhere near the level of vehemence as those displayed on the Protestant side. Overall, our taxi driver, Eugene, did a great job of presenting us with a balanced view of the history of this conflict and some of his personal stories of the conflict.
After leaving Belfast, we headed directly to the very north coast of Ireland to see two of the stand-out sites here.
The first was the Carrick-a-Rede rope suspension bridge near Ballintoy, County Antrim. The bridge links the mainland to the tiny Carrick Island with a span of twenty metres and a height of thirty metres above the rocks below. It is thought salmon fishermen have been erecting bridges to the island for over 350 years, but this bridge is now just a tourist attraction.
Nearby, we visited the famous hexagonal rock formations of the Giants Causeway. It is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of lava cooling from an ancient volcanic eruption. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the foot of the cliff and disappear under the sea. Most of the columns are hexagonal, although there are also some with four, five, seven and eight sides. The tallest are about 12 metres high, and the solidified lava in the cliffs is 28 metres thick in places.
We are spending the night in the very scenic town of Donegal, back in the Irish Republic, and look forward to spending a little while exploring it tomorrow morning.