Posts from the ‘Northern Ireland’ category

Roadtrip Northern Ireland: Giants, Rope Bridges, and a City Divided

by Jacob Aldridge

We’ve hired a car for today in order to head from Belfast to the very top of Northern Ireland. How far north is that? Well we’re going to a stand on a rope bridge from which you can see all the way to Scotland.

And then we’re going to visit the bullet holes that inspired a U2 song.

Today’s Experience

It’s an early start out of Belfast for the the 90 minute drive up the A26 to Bushmills, a town know for its Whiskey and famous for a causeway you could never take a boat on.

A natural wonder, we were disappointed when planning our drive to discover that the Giant’s Causeway is surrounded by cunning strategies to separate you from your money. Access to the park is free, but they don’t make it easy! In this instance, you have several options:

  • Pay £8.50 each for parking at the visitors centre (and entry to the centre)
  • Park in town, either free or a few pounds depending on the day, and catch a local bus out to the site
  • Park for free on a nearby street – except, there are no nearby streets with parking. It’s at least a 20-30 minute walk from the nearest legal and safe park up to the Causeway

Of course, we have a plan even more cunning than the National Trust: we’re going to park at the Visitor’s Centre … before they open.

Walking the Giant's Causeway national park just after sunrise

The other advantage of an early arrival? Avoiding the crowds.

Look, some people are blown away by the forces of nature that have created these hexagonal stones, extruded side-by-side from the earth and calmly treading a path from the cliff face down into the sea. Before your visit, be aware that they call this the Giant’s Causeway not because it’s particularly giant, but rather because in folklore it was built by a giant.

Person standing on top of the Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland

Of course, from the right camera angle everything can be made to look giant.

So some people will want to spend hours here, sitting by the sea and watching the changing tide. If that might be you – just pay for parking and enjoy! Others may it find it … underwhelming, and make it a twenty minute experience at best.

If you’re worried that might be you, check the tide times, and go at low tide when these marvels of nature are most visible.

Rope a Dope

The tale of the Giant’s Causeway involves battling giants – Finn McCool in Ireland and Fingal, who lived across the sea in Scotland. Having spent the past days travelling around Ireland, it’s easy to forget just how close these two islands are. How close?

Well from our next spot – the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, ten minutes east of the Causeway – you can actually see Scotland on the horizon!

(Specifically, you can see the Mull of Kintyre – with binoculars, perhaps, you might spot a former Beatle who wrote a song about that peninsula based on the land he owned there.)

This section of Northern Ireland is famous for the salmon fishermen, and the specific position here is dictated by the narrow gap between the mainland and a tiny speck of an island. Salmon swimming close to the shore for protection in this area would force themselves through the narrow gap – and for fishermen, this was like shooting fish in a barrel.

(Metaphorically! That’s a simile people! They actually caught them using nets, it was just as easy as … you know what we mean!)

To tend to these nets and their boats, access was required to the speck of land on the other side. And so every year, when the weather was good, the local men would come here and re-build a rope bridge. Today, fish are not as common in these waters, and the bridge is open all year long for those brave souls who wish to walk across it.

The Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, built by fishermen but now a tourist attraction in Northern Ireland

Looks safe. Right?

If you don’t cross it, it’s still a pleasant brisk walk, and a chance to blow any remaining cobwebs from your mind after our early drive. But it’s not nearly as dangerous as it appears … and if you’ve come all the way to the tip of Northern Ireland, why not cross a small stretch of water and go a dozen steps closer to Scotland?

What do you say? Will you join us on the other side?

Approaching the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Northern Ireland. Don't look down!

You know you want to walk across.

A Town Divided

From the tip of Northern Ireland, our roadtrip takes us south-west – our destination is the town of Derry (often written as Derry / Londonderry). If you’re familiar with the IRA, the actions of the British Armed Forces, or at least the music of Irish super-group U2, then the tale of woe that is Derry’s history may be familiar to you.

It’s an old city, having been granted a Royal Charter by King James I back in 1613 – at which point ‘London’ was added to the name. The original city sits on top of the hill, surrounded by 1.5 kilometres (1 mile) of wall. In fact, this was the last fully walled city to be built in Europe, and is sometimes known as the ‘Maiden City’ because the walls were never breached during the Jacobite wars.

It was those wars at the end of the 17th Century, between forces supporting King James II and those supporting the Glorious Revolution that put William III and Queen Mary on the British throne, that lies at the root of the religious troubles that have plagued Ireland and Northern Ireland.

On one side were the Catholic supporters of James II, who viewed Ireland as separate from England. On the other, ultimately victorious side, were the Protestants, those more closely aligned with London. As these latter men supported the Dutch-born William of Orange, they became (and are still) known as Orangemen.

For Derry, one outcome of the Battle of the Boyne that ended the war in the Orangemen’s favour, was a ruling that no Catholics could live inside the city walls. What followed was three centuries of discrimination – large families being raised in small houses built on the bogmarsh at the foot of the hill and with minimal representation in government. Little wonder it was a spark for the Irish War of Independence, although the Partition of Ireland in 1921 left Derry as a border city – the Catholics, still underprivileged, found themselves living in Ulster and governed by London despite the free Ireland border being located less than a mile away.

The Troubles

This Mural in Derry / Londonderry depicts the events of Bloody Sunday

This Mural depicts the events of Bloody Sunday

It was the simmering tensions that continued which ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, drawing incentive from the American movement of the same era. While a majority on all sides were peaceful, this was the start of the period the Irish refer to (with their typical downplaying) as simply ‘The Troubles’.

Walking through ‘Bogside’, site of these troubles, and looking up at the city walls, we are struck by a feeling of separation. The struggles, the cause, and many of the key incidents are memorialised in sets of murals painted on the ends of housing rows. The most famous of these declares “You are now entering Free Derry” – a protest against the UK and Northern Ireland governments that locals feel is so important that the wall remains, even though the row of houses have since been removed.

You are now entering Free Derry - a protest sign backed up by seige action from 1969-1972

You are now entering Free Derry – a protest sign backed up by seige action from 1969-1972

It was here on 30 January 1972 that protesting Catholics were met with force by British paratroopers. Lethal force.

The Free Derry Museum certainly tells this story from one angle, that of the Catholics. It’s a moving experience to stand in this former tenement house, to hear recordings of the shots unfolding, and to see displayed the memories of the 14 people who died – including bullet holes in clothes some were wearing that day.

Perhaps most moving of all is the Civil Rights Association banner, marked with the blood of several victims.

Derry Civil Rights Association Banner from Bloody Sunday 1972, covered in the blood and dirt of what happened

This banner was at the front of the march when the paratroopers opened fire

While the violence of the ’70s and ’80s is, largely, behind us, differences remain. Legally, the city is still Londonderry – 75% of Catholics support a formal change back to Derry, while only 6% of Protestants support the move.

But all is not dire in this town, which is also famous for the Georgian buildings inside the walls where we stop to take afternoon tea. This year, Derry is the first city to be designated a UK City of Culture – the London Symphony Orchestra played here last night; tonight the city will host Primal Scream.

No doubt simmering historic tensions remain … but it’s uplifting to be experiencing a city united and proud of its future, not separated by a wall and a religion.

And it’s an easy 90 minute drive back to Belfast.

A Derry / Londonderry Mural for Peace - hopefully representing the united future of this city

A Derry / Londonderry Mural for Peace – hopefully representing the united future of this city

Want to go? Need to know!

  • It’s possible to hire a car for just one day, and complete this experience while also seeing some of the gorgeous Northern Irish countryside.
  • We are great fans of the National Trust. If you live, permanently or are spending a year or more, in the UK then membership is a great idea as it gives you free or reduced-price access to a range of important sites. Our only frustration (apart from ludicrous parking fees) is that the same can be said for English Heritage – so half the sites you want to visit are within one group, and the others within the other organisation.
  • In Derry, aim to park in Bogside (on the far side of the city, from the river) as it will make your walking easier. The Free Derry Museum is at 55 Glenfada Park and costs £3.

Have you driven through Northern Ireland? Share your experience and top tips in the comments below, and be sure to like our Facebook page.

Best of Belfast: A Titanic Town

by Jacob Aldridge

When God created Ireland, so the story goes, he turned to his host of angels and told them his plans. How he intended to created an Emerald Isle, the jewel of the sea, a land flooded with natural beauty, a merry population, and the greatest beers on earth.

But the angels protested, declaring it unfair that one country should have bestowed upon it so much perfection. “Ah yes,” said God, “but wait until you see the history they have ahead of them.”

We’ve experienced the natural beauty, and on St Patrick’s Day the merriest of people and outpouring of Guinness. Today we head north, crossing the border into Northern Ireland where the beauty remains, but the troubles are closer at hand.

Murals on the edge of Protestant / Unionist Sandy Row Belfast

Murals on the edge of Protestant / Unionist Sandy Row

Today’s Experience

Belfast. Capital of Northern Ireland and an industrial and artistic hub, connected to Dublin by an easy train ride.

We meet Carol, a Belfast local who intends to show us the old and the new, the good and the great, of the city she calls home.

Our first destination is also one of Belfast newest attractions, the Titanic Exhibit which opened to much fanfare in 2012 – the hundredth anniversary of that fateful ship’s maiden voyage.

The Titanic Belfast - an exhibit and an experience

The Titanic Quarter is still being built – keep an eye out for this distinctive building as we go along

We had no idea the Titanic was actually built here in Belfast! And the city have spared no expense in creating this experience – this is no museum of artifacts, this is a multi-storey interactive exhibit that walks us through the journey from turn-of-the-century Belfast to the fateful night of April 15, 1912.

I have to admit – when Carol said we were headed here, I was expecting to spend 90 minutes in a museum (and much of that grabbing a coffee or flicking through the gift shop). Three hours later! we find ourselves debating whether to stay longer in the theatre at the end of the experience, which is showing footage from the discovery of the wreck 1,250 miles (2,000 kms) from its destination New York.

In between, we’ve seen how Belfast’s shipbuilding industry developed, how the luxury liners of the Titanic and Britannic were created as floating five-star hotels, and even been hoisted onto a ‘theme park’ style ride through the construction process!

If you make it to the UK, a trip to Belfast is worth it just for the Titanic.

Inside the Titanic Belfast Ride, Northern Ireland

Riding the Titanic experience.

And it’s only lunchtime. With the aftermath of St Patrick’s Day still upon the city, we’re tempted for something easy, and Carol knows just the spot.

Boojum is the most popular mexican joint in the city. It reminds us of Chipotle in the USA, only the food here is another level of quality above and the friendly staff and five quid burritos make it worth waiting in a queue that stretches out the door.

Australian readers will be impressed to know that they even serve Bundaberg Ginger Beer! We haven’t seen that since we flew out of Sydney after New Year’s – and trust me when I say I’ve missed it.

Boojum Burrito & Bundaberg Ginger Beer, Belfast Northern Ireland

Belfast Boojum Burrito & Bundy: Bloody Brilliant!

Having learned that we were shopping in Paris this time last week, Carol has decided to skip over Victoria Square and instead help us walk off a fantastic lunch with some of Belfast’s best historic sights.

We walk past St Anne’s Cathedral and Prince Albert’s Clock, poking our way through alley ways.

The streets of Belfast in the rain

Why would you go to a shopping mall when you can wander through these streets?

In the mid-afternoon, we take the 1 hour free tour inside Belfast City Hall, to learn a little more about the history and admire the interior architecture from this grand erection.

Belfast City Hall on a glorious Irish day

Belfast City Hall on a glorious Irish day

There’s also time to walk past and admire some of the buildings that date even earlier, from when industrial wealth was first injected into this city. The Grand Opera House (at the start of Great Victoria Street) and the Crown Liquor Saloon (further along) are two perfect examples.

It’s an afternoon of walking where we can’t help but notice that there’s a bar or great restaurant on almost every corner. Belfast may have grown thanks to industry, but it’s not “an industrial city” any more.

For dinner, Carol has another fine suggestion – Mourne Seafood. Now, not everyone likes seafood, and even though they have other options Carol didn’t want to make a booking. Alas, when we arrive tonight is fully booked! But not to worry – a local’s secret is that upstairs is the Oyster Bar, which serves exactly the same fresh local seafood (and is actually even a little bit cheaper)!

We end the evening as every Irish evening ought to end, by heading to the pub. Carol has brought us to The Garrick – figuring we might be sick of Guinness (never!) or pining for a bottle of our beer back home. And it doesn’t seem to matter where ‘back home’ is for you – this pub has six chalk boards packed with their beer list.

Oh, we’re going to be here for a little while. And best of all – Boojum is right next door for a feed on the walk back to the hotel!

Boojum Burrito & Bundaberg Ginger Beer, Belfast Northern Ireland

Could we do Boojum twice in one day? Yes – Yes we absolutely can!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Spending a week driving around Ireland and Northern Ireland is one of the greatest holidays Europe can offer. Just check that your car rental allows you to cross the border – there’s usually an extra fee to do so, and one alternative is to do what we did: hire 1 car in Dublin, another in Belfast tomorrow, and use the train to travel from Dublin to Belfast.
  • Titanic tickets are timed, so it’s best to buy them in advance. Entry is £15 – and you save another 10% if you buy online.
  • Belfast City Hall Tours run at 11am, 2pm and 3pm each day for 1 hour. The Hall itself is open 8.30am-4.30pm, and you are able to poke your head into the grand foyer and look up into the dome.

Have you driven been to Belfast? Is there better grub than Boojum or a nicer pub than the Garrick? Share your experience and top tips in the comments below, and be sure to like our Facebook page.