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Published: June 17th 2011
We’ve just visited four places – two stunningly scenic, two disturbingly urban.
From Westport we drove out to Achill Island, Ireland’s largest offshore island (although not far offshore, as the bridge to it is only about 50 metres long). We drove along Atlantic Drive, another winding, undulating, potholed goat track, complete with wandering sheep, stones marking out the most dangerous of the drops off the side of the road and –amazingly – a lone jogger out in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and spectacular views of the Atlantic coast as well.
Heading up toward Derry, through country that becomes less green and picturesque and more stony and rugged as you travel north, we stopped at Donegal for a look around, then Slieve League to see the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
Slieve League is fantastic, although maybe not quite as spectacular as the Cliifs of Moher, which are not as high but have sheer drops pretty much all the way down. At 600 metres, these are high cliffs.
The other great thing about Slieve League is the platinum-quality tourism infrastructure that supports it. The road signs either point the wrong way or are almost impossible to see.
The road is a typical Irish one – barely discernable. When you get to the car park there is nothing to tell you there is a 25 minute walk to the top, and that in any case the gate is just a guide and you can drive your car up to the top anyway! At least when you get there you can buy refreshments from the ice cream seller or the hot dog man.
Derry was our next stop and what a shock it was. Our accommodation was in Bogside, the scene of most of the trouble in the region. It was eerie, and maybe a little disconcerting, walking past the Bogside murals and the Bloody Sunday memorial to get into the centre of town. The area is also run down, and there is broken glass and other litter all over the place.
We took a guided walking tour and were told that the two sides are now living peacefully side by side. We saw the nearly complete friendship bridge across the River Foyle, and the newly re-opened (after 8 years) Presbyterian Church of the Bogside. But we also saw the defiant Loyalist flags and “Still Under Siege”
Annette McGavigan - caught in crossfire picking up art supplies before school
signs, and their Union Jacks and red-white-and-blue painted kerbing. And we also visited the Free Derry Museum, with its account of the Bloody Sunday massacre and its unconciliatory tone. And we also saw that the high fences between the two sides where they converge are still in place.
It was easy to see the two sides of the Derry story – the Catholic majority oppressed, the Protestant minority feeling under siege. But it also seemed to be a situation without a resolution. It seemed to us that it would be all too easy for the scar to tear apart and more blood would flow.
After Derry, and its confronting and all-too-apparent history, Portrush seemed just the ticket. Gateway to the Antrim coast, with the Giant’s Causeway as its centerpiece and brilliant coastal scenery by the bucketload.
Well, the scenery is exactly that, stunning green coastal vistas everywhere. But Portrush, well, it seems a bit tired. There are a lot of empty house apparently waiting for the developer’s cheque book to fatten up. There are a lot of businesses not open (maybe too early in the season, maybe not). We drove through town about three time before finding
somewhere open to eat. And this is one of the premier holiday destinations in Northern Ireland.
We really did enjoy the Giant’s Causeway, even though (as the actress said to the bishop) we expected it to be much bigger. The walking, after a few days in the car or in cities, was great in the fresh air, and the coast views magnificent. We just thought that these granite columns that the giant Finn McCool supposedly was going to use to step over to Scotland with would be a bit more impressive.
Putting our shoulder shrugging behind us, we had a coffee then drove down to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It’s in all the tourist brochures – a challenging walk across a flimsy suspension bridge over the void leading down to the crashing Atlantic.
Well, not exactly. It’s a long way down, but the bridge is pretty secure and the distance quite short. Worse still, they charge over 5 pounds to go across – based on ten seconds to cross each way this would work out at about 25 pence per second! We didn’t bother, as we thought the cost was ridiculous and, like most things, the view
of the bridge is probably just as good or better than the view from the bridge.
And so on to Belfast. Let’s just say from the outset that it’s not a really attractive city, although it has a City Hall that is far out of proportion to its size and importance. The city also seems to be in as-yet-unarrested decay.
We travelled down past the old Harland and Wolff dockyard, where the two giant cranes (“Samson” and “Goliath”, both about 100 metres high) look sadly down on what looks like pretty much a wasteland. They are building a Titanic exhibition (a bit tardily, I’d say, since the thing was launched 100 years ago), and the now-rundown Harland and Wolff drawing office is subject to a preservation order, but the whole industrial aspect of Belfast seems to not have enough fabric to remember it by.
From there we went down another chilling trip along the divide between Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Republican, Orange and Green. Down poor-looking roads, past barricaded-up, bomb-proofed police stations, and murals depicting all sorts of propaganda for the two sides. The trip along roads in the notorious Shankhill and Falls emphasized this divide,
but it must be said that everyone is getting on with things, alongside the murals, the memorials and the high barbed-wire fences. There seems to be a lot of conciliation but not much forgiveness.
To finish off Belfast with a nice story, we had dinner at the Errigle Inn. The food was great and the very nice waitress was from Lithgow. We asked if she knew Lauren Jelks (Bill’s niece). Her reply was: “I’ve never met her, but I know she married (such and such), a porter at the hospital. I’m pretty sure they live in Sydney now. Don’t ask me how I know about her when I’ve never met her – that’s just Lithgow”. And meeting people in unlikely places is just travelling.
On a brighter note again, we did have a drink in the “Crown Bar and Liquor Saloon”, if not Belfast’s oldest pub then at least its most extravagantly decorated.
Anyway, enough of being down on Belfast; we found it to be pleasant, friendly place and it deserves better. Next stop is back in the Republic, at Kilkenny.
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