Derry

Happy Saturday from Derry!

This morning we left Belfast and headed for the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (Irish name: Carraig a’ Ráid, translating to “rock of the casting”),   which was about an hour and fifteen minutes away. The original bridge was built several hundred years ago by salmon fisherman, who needed a way from the mainland to the Carrickarede Island to cast their fishing nets. The current bridge was built in 2008, is 20 metres (66 feet long), and stands 30 metres (98 feet) high over the water.

Carrick-a-Rede is part of the National Trust, a charity whose goal is to protect and preserve historic places in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and as such, we had to each pay a few pounds to cross the bridge. You actually have to park some distance away from the bridge, but the 1 km walk has some gorgeous views of the coast and the ocean.

View from Carrick-a-Rede

We also walked past grassy fields with sunny yellow wildflowers, and “Oreo” cows, which Lee loves, and are nick-named because of their black bodies with a thick white stripe in the middle. Walking across the bridge was exhilarating, and I actually wished it was much longer! Laura Douglass captured this photo of me with a huge, goofy grin on my face while crossing the bridge over to the island:

Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge!

Crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge!

As you can see, the bridge is sturdy and is perfectly safe. I can understand someone hesitating from crossing if they are afraid of heights, and we heard that apparently some people make it over to the island, but are too afraid to walk back for whatever reason, and have to be taken off the island by boat. Dramatic! It was a bit cloudy and overcast this morning, but the views were spectacular, the seabirds noisy, the fresh air invigorating, and the entire experience inspiring.

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On the walk back from the island to the mainland, I snapped a cool picture from the bridge:

View from the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Don’t look down!

Once we left Carrick-a-Rede, which is in County Antrim, we headed towards Giant’s Causeway, a short 20 minute drive. Lee first took us to a pub for lunch, where I had a fantastic Steak and Guinness pie, which is essentially a puff pastry filled with beef and vegetables and cooked in Guinness. Yum! On the drive, Lee told us the legend behind Giant’s Causeway, and the tale of the Irish giant named Fionn and the Scottish giant Benandonner. The story goes something like this: Benandonner challenged Fionn to a fight, which Fionn accepted. Fionn then built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet one another. But, once Fionn realized that Benandonner was much bigger than he was, he hid. Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, disguised him as a baby and lay him in a cradle, so when Benandonner saw the size of the ‘baby’, he assumed that its father, Fionn, must be the largest giant of them all. Benandonner fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn could not follow.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

The less exciting reality is that the causeway was formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, and is composed of 40,000 basalt columns of solidified lava. These columns have essentially formed stepping stairs that allow visitors to climb and explore, dip their toes in the ocean or tide pools, and enjoy the views of the Northern Atlantic Ocean.

Hanging out at Giant's Causeway!

Hanging out at Giant’s Causeway!

I had a blast exploring the causeway, and even climbed up some of the taller columns that the others wouldn’t. I’ve always loved to climb – and being tall gives me a distinct climbing advantage!

We left the causeway after a few hours, and finished the drive to Derry, which took just over an hour. On the way, Lee, as always, had a bit of a history lesson for us – Fun Fact: A surefire way to distinguish whether or not someone is a Loyalist or a Nationalist is by what they call Derry. The Protestant Loyalists call the town “Londonderry,” while the Irish Nationalists simply call it “Derry.” Lee arranged for us to take a walking tour of Derry. Derry is similar to Belfast in many ways, and has experienced violence and strife from The Troubles. We saw more murals and heard more heart-breaking stories, but also learned a great deal about the past and present of the city.

Mural in Derry

Unsurprisingly, the English Protestants and the Irish Catholics are very opinionated about the current conflict in Gaza.

One of the most simple and yet affecting sights we saw was the monument dedicated to the victims of Bloody Sunday – where 14 protestors and onlookers were killed in Derry by the British Army on January 30, 1972 during a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march. You may have heard U2’s popular political protest song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,”  which details The Troubles, and the horrors of Bloody Sunday…

And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters 
Torn apart

Bloody Sunday Memorial - Derry

Bloody Sunday Memorial – Derry

We have had a long day traveling about Northern Ireland and walking around Carrick-a-Rede, Giant’s Causeway, and Derry… So Lee decided to take us all to a pub in Derry called The Ice Wharf. Our group had a great time, eating, drinking, and chatting; some of the group then walked to a bar down the street, but it was extremely cramped, so the girls and I went back to The Ice Wharf to hangout and enjoy a few ciders. A DJ was entertaining the crowd, and it was so much fun to relax like a local and enjoy Derry. There were many “Hen Parties” present, which is the equivalent of an American Bachelorette Party, and those girls were highly amusing! All in all, it’s been yet another great day in Northern Ireland.

I will leave you with this bit of awesome graffiti that I encountered on our walking tour around Derry this afternoon:

Ain't no thang like a chicken wing graffiti in Derry

Ain’t no thang like a chicken wing.

I’ll write from Dublin tomorrow night!

Wishing you all sweet dreams and chicken wings,

–Taylor

 

 

Belfast

Hello from Northern Ireland!

This morning we woke up in Dublin, and I’m now in Belfast. Crazy.

I again thought today would be disastrous, when I woke up experiencing my second heart episode in three mornings. Fortunately, I think I was able to force mind over matter, and it quit just before our alarm clocks started blaring. We sleepily got dressed, re-packed, and stumbled downstairs for some toast and cereal. Breakfast of champs! Before long, we loaded up on our Mercedes-Benz tour bus (yes, you read that correctly- we are traveling in style), and started on our journey.

Our tour group is composed of people doing various tours – we are on the 3 day tour, but are tagging along with a group on a 6 day tour of both Ireland and Northern Ireland; others in our group are from Australia, Spain, and Canada, and the U.S., among other places. Paddywagon Tours is a huge Irish tour company, with a fleet of buses, and lodging all across Ireland and Northern Ireland; though the logistics of traveling from place to place and coordinating different tours is a bit confusing, it’s clear that this company is professional and well-run. Our tour guide’s name is Lee (actually Young Lee, as there is an older tour guide also named Lee), and he’s only 24 – he’s also adorable, a native Irishman, and very smart.

We made a pit-stop on our way from Dublin to Belfast at a place called Monasterboice. The Irish term is Mainistir Bhuithe, but Lee explained to us that many Irish names (i.e. Monasterboice) were actually coined by the English – when they invaded Ireland, they had great difficulty in understanding Gaelic, and so often phonetically re-named people, places, and most terms in general.

Monasterboice was a monastery that was founded by Saint Buithe in the 5th century AD. It is probably most famous for its high crosses, or Celtic crosses, which date back to the 10th century, as well as its round tower. The grounds were both haunting and serene, and the ornate crosses were so simple and yet grand.

Graves at Monasterboice

Gravestones at Monasterboice

Monasterboice was a nice unexpected stop for us, but soon we continued the trek to Belfast, which was about a 2 hour drive. Jessica and I both suffer from motion-sickness, so we took the British equivalent of Dramamine this morning; between that and the lull of the bus ride, we kept falling asleep, but I did try to absorb as much of the views of the countryside as possible. I also noticed that when we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, there was no border control – it was interesting to me, since the two technically are separate countries. And given the history (and current events) between the British and the Irish, one would think there may be even a slight concern, which would prompt some form of governmental control or regulation. Hmm…

On the drive, Lee also talked to us about The Troubles. “The Troubles” are what the English and Irish refer to as the conflicts in Northern Ireland between the Protestants – who wish for the country to remain part of the United Kingdom – and the Irish nationalists, who want to reunite with Ireland. These conflicts began back in the 1960’s, and were effectively ended in 1998 with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, though there are bouts of tension and violence even today. When I studied abroad in London in 2007, we were required to read Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life by John Conroy, and I was both horrified and fascinated by the book. Listening to Lee talk made me realize that I have never heard the conflict between the English and Irish detailed from the perspective of an Irish person, and I felt immense heartbreak for the people of Ireland, and anger towards the British. Little did I know what was still to come in Belfast…

Lee arranged for all us to take a Black Cab Taxi Tour of Belfast; as soon as we arrived on our bus, we hopped off, and were quickly led into traditional black taxi cabs. Then the taxi drivers shuttled us around Belfast and gave us a comprehensive and unbiased narrative of the past and present happenings in the city.

We learned that 97% of the housing areas in Belfast are either 100% Catholic (Irish) or 100% Protestant (English). 97%. That figure alone is mind-boggling to me. Many people think that the conflict in Northern Ireland is religious in nature due to the fact that the Irish Nationalists are Catholic while the Loyalists are Protestant , but in fact it is a political clash. In the later decades of the 1900’s, violence was prominent in Northern Ireland, stemming from the Irish Republican Army, the Ulster Defence Association, and the British government and army. According to Wikipedia, 3,526 people were killed between 1969 and 2001 in Northern Ireland primarily due to bombings, murders, and hunger strikes, such as the one led by Bobby Sands. And there are still isolated incidences of violence even today.

The taxi drivers first took us into the Shankill area, a staunch Protestant section of Belfast. There we were told that the City Centre, or the business district, where we had been picked up, was considered the “neutral zone” of Belfast – in other words, every day, Protestants and Catholics alike work together in the City Centre, then head home in opposite directions. They cannot live together. Their children must attend separate schools. There is zero trust between these two groups of people, and the tension in Belfast is thick and palpable because of it. Though both Lee and the taxi drivers insisted that Belfast residents are as friendly as can be (except to each other), I couldn’t help but feel highly conspicuous and intrusive as we walked around the Shankill neighborhood.

My whole experience in Belfast is a bit surreal, and quite difficult to describe. Flying from every house and every flagpole in Shankill is the Union Jack flag, and the message is clear – we are staunch Loyalists, and we serve the British crown. At the end of every large building in the neighborhood are gigantic painted murals – many send serious political messages, while others detail either Protestant or Irish history, such as the Red Hand of Ulster, or a portrait of William of Orange. One mural in particular stood out to me and gave me chills:

Mural in Belfast

 

Nothing about us without us is for us…

The drivers then took us towards the Catholic area of Belfast, where we suddenly happened upon a wall and security gates; at night, the gates are locked, which separates the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. The wall was seemingly endless, several stories high, and both utterly terrifying and gut-wrenching. Though it’s called the “Peace Wall,” it feels anything but, and the idea of peace seems unattainable here. The one glimmer of hope is that people from all over the world write messages of love and wishes for peace for those in Northern Ireland. It’s a powerful statement, and one that brought me to tears. Messages such as “You’re all proud Irish – be One again,” “Give peace a chance,” and “We don’t understand” line the beautifully painted and graffitied wall.

Peace Wall - Belfast

Here are some facts from Wikipedia that I have to share:

– There were 18 peace walls throughout Northern Ireland in the 1990’s – today, there are 48.

– A study was released in 2012 revealing that 69% of Belfast residents believe the peace walls are still necessary because of the potential of violence

Just let the gravity of those numbers sink in for a moment.

My taxi cab driver explained that many call the Peace Wall the “Belfast Berlin Wall,” but the difference is that the people of Germany wanted their wall torn down… the people of Northern Ireland want their walls to remain. The conflict is still too fresh, too current, and still too much of a looming threat, like storm clouds in the distance, to warrant the removal of these 25 foot high walls or to unlock the security gates at night. Our driver explained to us that police only patrol the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Patrol, not control… because that is still done by terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army.

How can a girl who was born and raised in the United States in the late 20th century even begin to comprehend the daily life of the people of Belfast? My brief time here has felt like I was in the eye of a hurricane, and it is very unsettling. Granted, I have also felt completely safe, but my sense of security is uneasy, as though the tension may boil over at any moment like an unwatched pot on a hot stove. Imagine living that way every day.

Our tour around Belfast was intense, informative, affecting, and eye-opening. By the time we finished, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted, but we still had time to explore more of the city.

The girls and I walked around the Victoria Square Shopping Centre and ate lunch at a place called O’Briens, which is a bit like a fancy Irish Subway. The mall has a domed ceiling, which looks out over a fantastic view of Belfast, similar to the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse back in Dublin. At the recommendation of Lee, we then walked to the Botanic Gardens of Belfast, passing the Queen’s University on the way. The Botanic Gardens reminded me a lot of Kew Gardens, and were so enjoyable to walk around.

Botanic Gardens - Belfast

Botanic Gardens

Lee arranged for our group to eat at a place called Ryan’s (my little brother’s name – miss you, buddy!), where I ate some delicious chicken tempura and had the chance to chat with our new friends from the States and Australia. We were all tired after our long day of traveling and touring, so everyone returned to the hostel to relax. The Belfast hostel is the Ritz compared to our Dublin one – even though we’re staying in a larger co-ed room, I am so, so happy and relieved to take a normal shower. So far this trip has been great craic (fun!), as Lee would say.

Tomorrow we are traveling from Belfast to Derry and stopping at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and Giant’s Causeway. But tonight I will pause and reflect on everything I have learned today.

Wishing for peace everywhere,

Taylor

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