My dream trip had officially begun!
Camilla and I met our tour guide, Shaun, and about 20 other travelers from all over the world for a six day tour of Ireland. Leaving from Dublin we’d head north, then make a loop through the west and south before returning to Dublin.
At first, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew the trip’s highlights, where we’d be staying, etc. but had no idea what the in-between time would be filled with. Turns out, lots of surprises!
About an hour into the drive, we stopped at Monasterboice, a picturesque site in County Louth dating back to the 5th century. It’s home to a cemetery, the remains of two 14th century churches, and a “round tower.” Round towers are thought to have once served as bell towers. They almost always face the west side of a church (or the remains of one) and can be found all across Ireland.
In the Monasterboice cemetery, we saw some of Ireland’s best examples of headstones known as “tall crosses.” These types of headstones (like the towers) can be found everywhere in Ireland, but the ones in Monasterboice are notably intricately decorated and reach up to 18 feet.
Then, it was off to Belfast. We stopped along the way for a quick snack break, and the drive didn’t take long at all. We were in Belfast by lunchtime.
We began our Belfast adventures with a “Black Taxi Tour.” In groups of four to five, we boarded special tour taxis with local guides to learn about the area’s (rather recent) history. So recent that our drivers had lived through it.
The conflicts in Northern Ireland began in the late 1960s. Several marches and eruptions of violence, mostly in the towns of Belfast and Derry, snowballed into guerilla-like conflict that lasted until 1998. On one side, there were the loyalists – citizens who thought of themselves as British, and who mostly followed Protestant religions. On the other were the mostly Catholic, Irish-identifying nationalists. The divide between these two groups began back when the country was being colonized. In the 1600s, many British citizens were sent to Northern Ireland to make their homes and populate the area, and these people never lost their feelings of loyalty to the crown. Eventually, the discord between the Irish and the British grew and grew until it popped, in what’s known now as “the troubles.” The protests in the 1960s were meant to challenge employment discrimination, voting rights, and certain government processes, but due to these deeply rooted divisions, they got out of hand very quickly.
The two sides harbored such extreme hate for one another that a wall was built in Belfast to keep the people separated. Even today, after almost 20 years of peace, the gates of the wall are closed at night, because, as our guide told us, they still don’t trust each other.
We stopped by the Crumlin Road Jail, where prisoners of the conflicts were kept while the violence continued. The conflicts, our guide told us, were so bloody that otherwise good people found themselves imprisoned for murder – sometimes multiple murders. He then mentioned in passing that he’d seen his share of the jail’s interior. I still haven’t figured out if he was joking or not.
While the tour was hardly what I’d expected our introduction to Belfast to be, it was certainly one of the most fascinating and engaging parts of the week. I was so surprised at how little I knew about these conflicts. I’d heard about them in passing, in references and in the news sometimes, though I suppose that my days of paying attention to the news didn’t begin until after most of the headlines subsided. Regardless, now I knew – and I’d learned from those who’d seen it firsthand.
After the tour we had some free time to explore the city before we were to meet back up with our original tour group and leader for dinner in a traditional Irish pub. Here are some of the things we found.
The next day was nothing short of incredible. We saw so many ancient, legendary, and downright beautiful sights – many of which were exactly what I was hoping the trip would be like (and more!).
We started at a site that’s attracted artists and photographers for centuries. The “Dark Hedges” are two rows of beech trees, planted by a wealthy family in the 18th century to line the sides of their driveway. As the trees grew, they formed a canopy – almost a tunnel – that the family’s visitors would drive through before reaching the estate. Now, the trees are most famous for their role in the popular television show, “Game of Thrones.”
Next stop: Carrick-a-Rede park. When I imagined Ireland before our visit, I imagined the endless, rolling green fields and a bold Atlantic coastline. That’s exactly what this trail was.
As if Carrick-a-Rede wasn’t breathtaking enough, the day’s main attraction was still to come. It was a location steeped in just as much lore as it is geological interest, and of course, one of the most popular attractions in all of Ireland: the Giant’s Causeway.
Legend has it that many years ago, a giant named Fionn Mac Cumhaill was caught trespassing in his neighbor’s yard. His neighbor happened to be a much bigger giant living across the sea in Scotland. Fionn, upon realizing he’d been spotted, ran back to his home in Northern Ireland and in a panic, told his wife what happened. They had to think fast – their neighbor was on his way. Just in the nick of time, Fionn’s wife came up with an idea. She told him to wrap himself up in some nearby blankets and pretend to be asleep.
When the couple’s neighbor came knocking, asking for Mr. Mac Cumhaill, Mrs. Mac Cumhail told him that he was off on a journey and wouldn’t be back til much later. The neighbor pressed her for more information. Where had he gone? Was he anywhere near his home Scotland?
Fionn’s wife replied that no, he wasn’t, but her neighbor wasn’t convinced. He explained to her that he’d seen her husband trespassing on his property. She laughed.
“Oh! You must have seen our little boy. Our son is very adventurous – we’re very sorry he trespassed. We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. Look here, he’s just returned and is taking his nap now,” she said, gesturing toward the pile of blankets her husband was wrapped in.
The Mac Cumhaill’s neighbor had seen all he needed to see. If that was the size of the child, he didn’t want to stick around to see how big the father was. He ran all the way home, breaking the ground beneath him as he ran.
And that’s why the Causeway looks the way it does.
Then, it was off to (London)Derry for the night. (To the loyalists, it’s “Londonderry,” to the nationalists, it’s just “Derry.”) Before eating dinner and catching some sleep, though, we had one more adventure in store.
Derry, like Belfast, is full of murals remembering the conflicts from the 1960s-90s. And Derry has a lot to remember – it was the center of it all.
The Troubles officially began in Derry with the “Battle of the Bogside,” a three-day riot between the citizens of the part of town called the “bogside” and the police and loyalists. The use of petrol bombs, rocks throwing and tear gas made for an ugly three days. There were miraculously no casualties, but over 1,350 people were injured.
A few years later in 1972, the most deadly day of The Troubles happened right outside of that same neighborhood. 26 protesters were shot, and half of those died immediately. The day was dubbed “Bloody Sunday.”
We took an eye-opening walking tour over a city wall (still intact to encourage people to stay on their own sides), into “Free Derry” and into the Bogside neighborhood itself.
What an eye-opening experience. To see these murals, the community’s response to their own recovery process, and to hear the stories straight from someone who’d been there was truly incredible.
We ended the day with a good meal and a good night’s rest – after all, we would need our energy for the adventures still to come. The next day, we’d be heading to the west coast of Ireland, to the beautiful path known as the Wild Atlantic Way.
Gelato Count: 46