The last few days have presented many, many contrasts for our little tour group here in Ireland. When I last wrote, I was in Galway. From there, our Shamrocker bus made our way from the Republic of Ireland into the United Kingdom - that is to say we headed into what is widely known as Northern Ireland. The transition from the ROI to the UK is very quiet. Suddenly the road signs are in miles rather than kilometers and they are only in English, and restaurants and stores ask for Pounds Sterling rather than Euros. Some neighbourhoods are decidedly United, with curbs and lamp posts painted blue, white and red, while other communities are clearly Republican. It's somewhat odd, and yet I'm told even a year ago the atmosphere was much more tense than it is now. This is progress.
Our first night in Northern Ireland was in the town of Enniskillen. Our tour guide arranged for the group to take a booze cruise that evening. We walked down to the waterfront and boarded the boat, and began our nautical tour of Enniskillen. Everything was going well - Roy and Pam finally set a date for their wedding and Meredith won the limbo competition, but then Michael took the mic and started making an analogy about how Dunder Mifflin was the boat and the boat was sinking, and then things got out of hand. Or maybe I saw that on TV once. But I am sure that what did happen was our boat took us out to a tiny island to explore the ruins of Devenish Monastery, a 13th Century Abbey. The ruins included church, a house, a tower and a cemetery. It was very cool to explore these ruins as the sun was setting.
The next day, we headed for the town of Derry, aka Londonderry, aka the Walled City, aka Slash City, aka the Maiden City, for a walking tour with a man named Martin McCrossan. Martin talked about the long history of the city, from the 1689 siege by England lasting 105 days up to the very recent war between Protestants and Catholics. We saw the wall which was built to divide the city in the '60s and heard about the thousands and thousands of people killed in bombings and shootings during the last 50 years. Derry is filled with giant murals depicting the protests and casualties and waring within the city. Our walking tour ended at the "Bloody Sunday" Memorial where we heard about the two inquiries which took place into the events surrounding that day which injured 26 and killed 14 - the second inquiry only finished last year, but brought about a dramatic sense of relief and calm to the residents of Derry.
Needing some time the digest all that we learned from Martin McCrossan in Derry, our group headed to The Giants Causeway. This is a geolocial feature along the coast which is so unique and fascinating, I can't really describe it and do it any justice. Think huge hexagonal patio stones which have been pushed upwards into columns of different heights. It was weird, but so cool. Google it - you'll see what I mean. From the Giant's Causeway we made our way to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge - a rope suspension bridge 20m in length, 10m over the ocean connecting the mainland to a tiny island. From the way people were freaking out, I was getting pretty excited to cross the bridge, but frankly, I think it was a bit oversold. Maybe if you're afraid of heights it would be a more harrowing experience. The view from the island on the other side did not disappoint, however! Definitely worth waiting in the queues for that view of the ocean, and Scotland in the distance!
The final day of our Shamrocker tour began in the city of Belfast, with a Black Cab tour to learn about the violent political history of this Northern Ireland city. Again, Belfast is spotted with giant murals along Falls Road (in the Catholic community) and Shankhill Road (in the Protestant community) showing important figures in the peace process of this region. We also stopped at the ironically named "Peace Wall" which is 30 miles long (although broken up so that streets can run through it) and easily 50' high. This wall was built between Falls Rd and Shankhill Rd to separate the Catholics and Protestants, and even though the waring has come to an end, these two communities largely remain segregated to this day.
Belfast is filled with fences and gates, especially around the centre of town, and houses and businesses still have bars on their windows (many windows are plexi-glass rather than actual glass...). These fences are now opened for regular hours each day as the peace process in Belfast continues. A tourmate asked why the fences are still needed at all, since the warring has stopped in Northern Ireland, and we were reminded that this is a process of changing behaviours and long entrenched beliefs - it is not a simple as throwing open the gates and saying, "OK everyone, you're all friends now!" The majority of the 4700+ casualties in the city of Belfast were a result of "tit-for-tat" bombings and shootings. You can't change that over night.
So there we were, learning about history which was still very much still happening. A huge contrast to the majority of the other history I have been taking in on this adventure which has all happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It was so sad, yet the residents of Belfast are incredibly optimistic and adamant that things will NEVER go back to the way they were.
Now I am back in Dublin, exploring the city, and preparing for a flight back to England. Ireland has been great, and I am already making plans for my return...