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Published: February 16th 2018
Greetings, from London! Although I am currently back in London again, I have just returned from an amazing four-day trip to Northern Ireland, it currently being our half-term break here in London. I really did have an amazing time over there in Northern Ireland, and although I only initially intended to write one Travel Blog entry upon my return, I have decided that in order to be able to do the trip, and my experiences there, justice, I plan to write it up in a total of three Travel Blog entries, based mainly on my three full days of travel over there.
The idea for this trip came towards the end of 2017. Having recently returned from West Africa, and it still being many months away until my next planned big summer trip, I thought it might be a nice idea to break up the in-between-trip time with a mid-winter break just for a few days during the February half-term. This coupled with my wonderfully welcome reduction in the interest on my mortgage repayments which happened around the same time, and this also being my 40th
celebratory year of life, I thought why not splash out a
bit, treat myself, and take another trip mid-winter. Oh, and I have also recently joined the “Travelers’ Century Club” as a Provisional Member. By my own country count I have reached 76 countries, but by their count, which includes additional territories as “countries”, such as the four countries which make up the United Kingdom, I had reached 89. Thus, a trip to Northern Ireland would not only satisfy my great interest in visiting this nearby region of the world, it would also add another country to my TCC total, enabling me to hopefully reach Full Membership of 100 of their “countries” in the not-too-distant future.
And it was in thus manner that my trip to Northern Ireland was booked for the February half-term – yay!
Now although I have pretty much visited every corner of the world, except for the Poles and Oceania, I have actually never before set foot in our nearest neighbour, both geographically and culturally – the island of Ireland. This is a bit complicated, so please bear with me here. The UK’s official country title is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. The Great Britain part includes the greater British island
Shankill Road, Belfast
which comprises England, Scotland and Wales. The UK thus officially includes these three countries, as well as the North of Ireland. The island of Ireland itself is also known as, but very seldom referred to for fairly obvious reasons I think, as “Lesser Britain”, meaning the smaller of the two major “British Isles”. For reasons which I am sure I will explain at some point during these entries, the island split in 1916 into the southern, larger country known as the Republic of Ireland, or merely Ireland, and the significantly smaller Northern Ireland, which due to its very slight majority of those wishing to remain a part of the United Kingdom, indeed remained a part of the United Kingdom, and thus we are now officially referred to on our passports as “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
I understood from my own education and learnings that this is indeed rather complicated political nomenclature, but nowhere so have these issues appeared to me more apparent than during my four days spent in Northern Ireland, quite a significant hotbed of political and patriotically-fuelled rhetoric and, at times quite upsettingly, action.
If I am honest, I did not
expect my trip to be one in which my understanding of “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland would be deepened, as we are often led to believe nowadays that this time in “history” is over and a new era of peace and reconciliation has been ushered in. I sensed during my time there, however, great resentment, anger, and some quite seemingly unhealed wounds and emotions which could erupt again at any time. My sleep and dreams last night were actually quite disturbed by this experience, but then again perhaps I am and have been a little over-sensitive here.
I should also say that aside from it being a deeply educational trip in terms of the Troubles of Northern Ireland, the little country is absolutely stunning, and the people I met and spoke with extremely hospitable, kind and very welcoming indeed. A truly great trip indeed, I can’t believe it was only four days long!
So, on Sunday morning, I packed what I needed into a smaller carry-on backpack as I was flying EasyJet from London Gatwick to Belfast International, one of the many budget airlines which charges extra for checked-in baggage. With mini toiletries all prepared in my clear
plastic bag, I boarded the short flight over England and the Irish Sea and landed late afternoon in a flurry of white. While London was sunny and bright when I left, it had been snowing and blustery all day in Northern Ireland, which left for a magical landscape of snow-capped hills, conifer woods and rolling fields of bleakness. This was indeed the Ireland of my imagination, and here I was finally arriving in it! As we stepped off the plane, a mini-blizzard blew up, the snow “falling” horizontally as the wind was just as strong – welcome to Northern Ireland! Fortunately the snow wasn’t really settling, it was merely just blowing about, and the 40-minute airport-link bus journey into Belfast was inspiring, seemingly a world away from the hustle and hecticness of London, and into the laid-back country atmosphere of rural Ireland. I arrived in the city’s Europa Bus Station, the transport hub of Belfast, and didn’t have to wait long for the hourly bus service (it being a Sunday evening by now) which would take me around 3 miles south of the city centre to my lovely BnB located in the leafy Beechill suburb of town, high up on
View over Belfast
From my Belfast BnB
a hill with a wonderful view over the city centre and towards the harbour and rugged hills beyond.
I had booked myself into one of the highest-rated accommodations I have ever seen on both Booking.com and TripAdvisor alike, with both websites filled with five-star reviews and just amazing compliments about the place and its owner. They were not wrong, and I had chosen well. The BnB just had to be one of the most comfortable, cosiest places I have ever stayed in on my travels, and the wonderful owner could not have been more helpful with just anything and everything. It was clear that she really loved her job, and was truly passionate about making each and every guest feel welcome and have an excellent experience in Belfast. It was a wonderful place to rest and recuperate after each day of my travelling, particularly as I had been travelling with not a very nice cough and cold, and the hot-water bottles, lemsips, dressing gown and slippers at the end of a day on the road did not at all go amiss here.
So, with backpack unpacked, and Tesco Finest Microwave meal carefully cooking in the kitchen, I settled
View over Belfast
From my Belfast BnB
into my first, cosy evening in Belfast, just as the blizzard and blustery conditions outside were picking up again. It was a magical arrival.
The next day I had set aside to explore the city of Belfast. Although it took a while to get going in the morning, my cough and cold being a bit rougher first thing, I eventually was ready and very willing to hop on a bus back to the city centre and get to know more of the city which I had just swept through briefly the night before. My plan was to make a few enquiries in terms of buses and trains for my travels over the following few days, and then begin my explorations with a walk around the streets of West Belfast, before finally ending up in the city’s highly acclaimed, and truly exceptional “Titanic Belfast” museum in the city’s newly rejuvenated former shipbuilding area called The Titanic Quarter.
After still being a bit muggy in my head from my cold, I found that a coffee at a nearby Café Nero really set me up for the day, and I began my walk heading down the Falls Road area leading westwards
out of the city centre. West Belfast is notorious as having been a hotbed of conflict and violence during the Troubles, with the predominantly Catholic, Nationalist (a person aspiring to eventual unification with Ireland) Falls Road area running westwards out of the city centre parallel to the predominantly Protestant, Unionist (a person favouring the retention of union with Great Britain in the United Kingdom) Shankill Road area directly to the north. I hadn’t actually known this prior to my trip, but in 1969 a six-metre high wall of corrugated iron, concrete and chain-link known as the “Peace Line” actually separates these two communities for 6.5km in West Belfast, and for 34km in total. It still exists today, stark and apparent, and it was quite a shock if I’m honest to see such a wall in my own country, when often you hear about these things in other places, such as the West Bank Barrier in Jerusalem or the former Berlin Wall in Germany. On either side of the wall were seemingly non-descript, very pleasant looking houses with tidy gardens, pot plants and garden gnomes – the only difference between the two groups of houses were that one was inhabited by
Me, City Hall
Belfast City Centre
Catholics and the other, Protestants. It seemed quite unreal – although of course I grew up with the news of the sectarian conflict in neighbouring Northern Ireland, I was quite shocked to see such an obvious division between Catholics and Protestants, something which I thought had really died away centuries ago, following the years after the Reformation. I understood though during my time there that the division is not particularly religious, but more political and historical. Apparently the Northern Ireland Executive have plans to remove the wall by mutual consent by 2023 – I do hope this happens, and I do hope there are no negative side-effects from removing it.
What many people go to see in the West of Belfast are the many poignant and thought-provoking murals which line the streets there, wall paintings which carry messages from both sides of the sectarian divide. It was these murals in particular which brought it home to me that the semblance of peace which is apparent between the two communities over there actually bears some very deep wounds and scars which will not go away easily. Whilst it is true that the Democratic Unionist Party, the main political representation of
Belfast City Centre
the Unionists, and Sinn Fein, that of the Nationalists, share some form of political power and decision-making in the country, it was apparent to me that the people living in both the Falls Road and Shankill Road communities still bear the scars of a troubled past.
The Falls Road murals were mainly carrying messages of fighting for the civil rights of the Catholics in a political system dominated by the Protestants, of martyrdom and being prepared to die for one’s beliefs and aspirations, and comparisons to similar struggles across the world, including the Civil Rights movement in the USA and the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. To my mind there was a sense of peace, of acceptance of the past, the desire not to forget but also the desire to remember and move on, and actually quite a warm-and-cosy Catholic-Irish feeling. After admiring a number of murals, visiting the Falls Road Garden of Remembrance, and the Sinn Fein Headquarters with its very famous mural of elected-MP and hunger-striker, Bobby Sands, I crossed through the gate in the middle of the Peace Line, which apparently is only open for a short time during daylight hours, to the Protestant, Shankill Road
Belfast City Centre
area. The contrast was immediate and striking.
Whilst as mentioned, I felt a sense of peace and acceptance on the Falls Road side, the Protestant, Unionist side showed more signs of anger and resentment. Despite this, I actually felt safer and more at home on the Unionist side, I guess due to myself being British, and perhaps a niggling feeling within me on the Nationalist side that I was the perceived enemy there. Other tourists I encountered were from other countries, such as Germany, Italy and Spain, so can be considered neutral in such a conflict. My own state of being British would make me a little more involved in the conflict, and I felt very much aware of this on both sides of the Peace Line.
Many murals on the Shankill side were filled with Union Jacks and images of the Queen. What was really quite hard-hitting, though, was a memorial area showing photos of Protestants killed in the Troubles, with highly graphic images of the aftermath of bombings and explosions, and questions about whether anyone will be brought to justice for these attacks. Images of IRA attacks were set alongside images of more recent Islamic Fundamentalist
Crown Liquor Saloon
Belfast City Centre
atrocities such as the tube bombings in London, equating the two, which to my mind just didn’t seem quite right. I found this memorial area quite shocking and brutal, which is when I really began to ask myself whether, with such deep-seated anger and resentment, as painted and depicted openly in public spaces, true peace and reconciliation between the two sides will ever be achieved. I am sure most people within the two communities will have been personally affected in some way or another by the Troubles, I do hope that true reconciliation, forgiveness and peace will be achieved.
Well, my walk around West Belfast was certainly very educational, and my sensitive nature certainly didn’t allow me to be immune to the feelings and emotions seeming to continue in the air around these parts. It must be said at this stage, however, that it is evidently, from my talking with many people during my stay in Northern Ireland, and as is often the case, only the very small minority of people who wish to continue with the resentment. The vast majority of the Northern Irish, it seems, simply want to get on with their lives, progress, continue, enjoy life
like the rest of us, and put this time of Troubles behind them. I do indeed very much hope this happens for them. I particularly hope that the current process of Brexit and the issue regarding the Irish border (soft or hard) is not going to stir up any lingering, old sentiments here. I pray for Northern Ireland.
It must also be mentioned that while the vast majority of Northern Irish wish to move on from the past, the vast majority of Northern Ireland also exists beyond the Troubles, and while this walk around West Belfast certainly opened my eyes to the negative part of the story of Northern Ireland, much of the rest of my time in the country showed me that it really has so much more to offer than this. And other tourists seem to be catching onto this too. I see Northern Ireland as really being able to open itself to tourism over the coming years – it is a stunning country with such welcoming people, and as the world realises it is safe to visit, I feel more of the world will want to visit – this is certainly the feeling I got from
those involved in the tourist industry over there.
So after returning to central Belfast, I made my way quickly through the city centre, stopping off for numerous photos and selfies at the wonderfully named “Waring Street”, for obvious reasons, in order to give myself enough time to look around the city’s number one tourist attraction, the Titanic Belfast.
I arrived at 3pm – with closing time at 5pm, I only had two hours to visit the place, although this worked out very nicely indeed as most of the crowds had already left by then. The Titanic Belfast was actually named in 2016 as “The World’s Best Tourist Attraction”, surprisingly beating places such as Machu Picchu and the Las Vegas strip to the post. I didn’t know this until my visit, but the Titanic, arguably the world’s most famous ocean liner, was actually built in the shipbuilding quarters of Belfast. It sailed its first trip from Belfast to Southampton, and thence on its ill-fated voyage across the Atlantic. The museum is an architectural wonder, with its four corners each representing the bow of the Titanic, and its varied exhibitions taking the visitor through the history of the ship, from
its construction in Belfast, through its structure and cabins, and onto the fateful night of the 14th
April 1912. I could not help shed a tear or two in the room which showed images of the Titanic as it sank below the surface, whilst playing actual recordings of eye-witness accounts from survivors. Looking around, I could see I was not the only one. It was a truly exceptional experience, and a highlight I believe of any visit to Belfast.
After this, I high-tailed it back through the streets of central Belfast, to take the bus back to my cosy and comfortable BnB for the evening, heartily welcomed by its most gracious and wonderful owner. I settled down for an evening of contemplation for what had really been a remarkable and contrasting day, comparing the turbulent recent history of Belfast to its energetic, gleaming and positive future as showcased by the Titanic Museum and redevelopment of its surrounding Titanic Quarter. I felt optimistic that the city, and country, can indeed move on from its troubled past.
Until the next time, when I plan to write up about my second full day in Northern Ireland, all the best for now,
Falls Road, Belfast
and I hope you enjoy my photos.
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