Northern Ireland, The Cliffs of Moher, and a Pair of Ripped Pants
In total, I spent 5 days in Ireland. I would have spent more time checking out the country or heading off to another destination which is what I typically do, but because the logistics of getting back home have become increasingly complicated, cumbersome, and expensive with frequent flight cancellations and geopolitics at play, I decided to play it safe and visit only one destination this time. Even though I got to see a lot of Ireland, there is still so much more to see, but I am happy to say that it was possible to visit Northern Ireland and the western coast of Ireland. This leaves only the southern part of the island to visit next time in the hopefully not-so-distant future.
The day I visited Northern Ireland, I did not get to eat breakfast at the hotel since the bus pickup was at 7am, and breakfast service did not start until 8am. Therefore, I skipped breakfast and proceeded to the pickup point which was not particularly far from the hotel. I got to the meeting point about 15 minutes early, and there were already many people there. However, we were not all going on the same tour. The first large group was made up of people who were going to the Cliffs of Moher in western Ireland. Later, everyone was told by the guide that there were so many people going to the Cliffs on that day that they had to bring in four large buses to accommodate everyone. Based on the amount tour buses I had seen going in and out of Dublin, it is very clear Ireland is a major tourist destination (more so than other places I have visited).
After the buses to the Cliffs of Moher departed, it was not long before the bus for Northern Ireland arrived. However, this tour was just as packed since they needed two separate large buses to accommodate everyone again. Because I was traveling solo along with four others, we were put on another bus that had made an earlier pickup and which had some free seats. Everyone else who was waiting at the pickup point were traveling with others, so they went on the newly arrived bus.
The bus ride to Northern Ireland from Dublin took about 3 hours. During that time, the guide gave some background information about the area and conflict, known as "The Troubles," which raged for several decades between Catholic and Protestants. The conflict generally ended after the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998. However, violence between the two sides does still occasionally continue even today, but it is not nearly as publicized as it used to be.
The situation is extremely complicated with many moving parts and goes back to the 17th century, but from what I was able to understand, the Unionists, who are mainly protestants, want to continue to be governed by the English, who have governed Northern Ireland since the 17th century when William of Orange (Protestant) defeated James II (Catholic) at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. William's victory at this battle ensured Protestant rule in Northern Ireland that continues to the present day. However, the Nationalists, who are mainly Catholic, want to make Northern Ireland separate from England and join with the Republic of Ireland in order to make a united country.
In order to bring this about this goal of separating from England and joining with the Republic of Ireland, various militias and paramilitary organizations were founded, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This caused decades of conflict that involved beatings, riots, and bombings between both sides. To make the situation more complicated, even after the peace agreements and disarmaments were made and agreed upon, factions within these organizations broke away and continued their effort to separate from England in a violent manner, and sometimes factions within these factions broke away and formed their own organizations and continued violent activity.
Eventually, we reached Belfast, Ireland, and it was at this point that I had to make a decision. Everyone was given the choice to take one of two tours. The first tour would be to visit the Titanic Museum, which is located near the old Harlan and Wolff Shipyard, which is where the Titanic was built. The second option was to take a political taxi tour through Belfast. The tour would be led by a local taxi driver, and people would be taken to both Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast as well as seeing monuments in both sides. In addition, the taxi drivers, many of whom grew up in Northern Ireland during the violence and have first-hand knowledge of what happened would give more history and share their experiences.
For me, the decision was very easy. I decided immediately without thinking about it to do the political taxi tour through Belfast. I had been to a couple exhibitions about the Titanic before, and even though the museum sounded interesting, there are museums dedicated to the Titanic throughout the world. The only opportunity to do this taxi tour would be in Belfast and nowhere else. When we arrived in Belfast, of the 56 people on the bus, 18 opted for the Titanic Museum and everyone else opted for the taxi tour. It was clear which was the more popular tour option for many of us on the tour.
I shared a taxi with four other people. We were led around by a local taxi driver in his sixties who shared that he was 15 years old when the problems really started to get bad. Throughout the drive, he drove us past a variety of murals in the Catholic side of Belfast that clearly state an end to English rule and murals that plea for the release of political prisoners not only in Northern Ireland but also throughout the world. He also took us to a large mural painted on the side of a Sinn Fein headquarters that had a very large portrait of Bobby Sands, who was an activist and politician that died during a 66 day hunger strike, painted on it.
It was also while we were driving through the Catholic side that the driver took us to a memorial on the Catholic side of Belfast that was dedicated to Catholics who were killed during the conflict over the years. Several of these people were IRA volunteers while the rest were innocent people who were caught in the violence. This particular memorial was right against a giant “peace wall” that separates the Catholic and Protestant sides. This wall was quite tall since we were told that it keeps two opposing sides from throwing things over to other side. What was even more interesting is that by this peace wall were homes whose back sides were completely covered in metal cages. The taxi driver told us that people whose homes are against the wall cover the back of their homes with metal to keep the home from getting hit with items that are thrown or launched over the peace wall by Protestants.
We then left the Catholic side and drove through the gates between the peace wall which close each day to keep the peace between the Catholics and Protestants and entered the Protestant side of Belfast. While we were driving through the area, we passed by an Orange Lodge, which is a Protestant religious fraternal organization that is anti-Catholic. The guide didn’t mention this, but I knew that each year, members of these orange lodges march through Belfast and other places in the world to celebrate the victory of Protestants over the Catholics during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
These are controversial marches. The Protestants say it is to commemorate a historical event, yet many people, particularly Catholics see it as a highly sectarian event since the Protestants make it a point to march through predominantly Catholic areas. In a way, it is almost like the Protestant's way of gloating that they won this battle almost 330 years ago. This often causes emotions to run high, and it is not unusual for riots and fights to break out between the Catholics and Protestants.
One of the final stops we made in the Protestant side of Belfast was a memorial dedicated to a group of people who were killed by nationalists during an attack on a bar in 1975. This memorial was interesting since it also had a bunch of posters that highlighted more recent terrorist attacks, such as the ISIS attacks in Paris. What was notable about this was the poster said “IRA - Sinn Fein - ISIS - NO DIFFERENCE.” It was clear as day that the people who put up these posters had an idea about the IRA and Sinn Fein. To their supporters, the IRA and Sinn Fein, which is the political wing of the organization, are freedom fighters for a united Ireland but to the people in this area, they were no better than terrorists.
Even though the peace has been kept in Northern Ireland for the most part since 1998, it was still very clear there were tensions between the two sides. This was especially true when one looked at the memorials. The memorials themselves were quite partisan. For the Catholic side, the plaque said these people were killed by “Loyalist murder gangs,” and the Protestant said the people were murdered by “Nationalist murder gangs.” Even though the taxi driver said things have gotten a lot better, it is clear that tensions still exist and will continue to exist. This is even true in terms of education. While there are mixed schools that have both Catholic and Protestant students, many people still opt to send their children to either a Catholic-majority or Protestant-majority school to avoid mixing with "the other side."
Of course, while Belfast was a fascinating visit, I also visited Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Unfortunately, the weather for this day was not particularly good, but it was still fascinating to see Giant’s Causeway. It was about a 15 minute walk to the actual site, and one needs to be a little bit careful when checking out the area. Due to the rain, it created slippery rocks, and I ended up slipping on one of them and banging my knee pretty hard.
The last visit we had in Northern Ireland was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge which is a rope bridge that spans about 20 meters (approximately 65 feet) over a 30 meter (100 feet) drop into the water. Again, it was about a 20 minute walk in pouring rain to the site. This made for a very interesting experience since it was not only rainy and slippery, but it was also quite windy. This made for crossing the rope bridge unique since as I was crossing, it started to swing due to the wind. It was quite exciting and very safe of course since the bridge is reinforced by thick ropes. Also, I’m not afraid of heights, so unlike other people, the height didn’t bother me at all. If anything, I only wish I could have stopped in the middle to take some pictures, but the guards at the bridge wanted people to keep moving in order to not snarl up the line.
The tour eventually ended, and we got back to Dublin at about 8:30pm. Ultimately, I was quite pleased since I got to add Northern Ireland to my list. Even though it is not an independent country, it still counts according to the Traveler’s Century List since it is politically separate from the Republic of Ireland.
On my last day full day in Ireland, I booked a tour to see the Cliffs of Moher on the western coast of Ireland. I had seen pictures of this before and definitely had to see it for myself. Once again, I had to skip breakfast at the hotel since this tour departed at 6:50am, and I was required to be at the meeting point which was a little further away than yesterday 10 minutes prior to the pickup time. By the time I got there, there were many people already there, but not everyone was going to the cliffs. Several were going on other tours to various parts of Ireland.
The tour was led by a recently retired member of the Irish army, and he was quite interesting since he certainly had the gift of gab and gave huge amounts of information not only about interesting sites along the way but what the economic and political situation of Ireland is like in terms of what it is like to live there. Of all the tour guides I have had before, he was definitely one of the most interesting ones.
When we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher, you couldn’t ask for a better day. The clouds that had been following us for most of the trip to the western side of the country broke up, and there was tons of blue sky with occasional clouds. This also meant the weather was very comfortable, and it was not really cold like it was the previous day in Northern Ireland. However, it was extremely windy at the cliffs. Before we arrived, the driver was keen to remind all of us numerous times to be careful since there were no guardrails, and if the wind is powerful enough or the ground was not stable, it is possible to go over the side.
If I have to be honest, this was the highlight of my trip to Ireland. I was extremely worried that the weather would not be good, but I was blessed with beautiful weather on this day. The area was extremely picturesque and green with vegetation. Even though there were a lot of other tourists around, the area is large enough to easily take pictures without having a lot of people crowding the picture and ruining it.
Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan. There was a fenced off area that warned people to not cross due to the ground being unstable, but everyone was ignoring it and walking past it and going quite far beyond it. Since everyone else was doing it, I did the same thing.
It was in this area that the wind was extremely powerful, and I actually heard a mother and daughter arguing about the safety. The mother kept telling her daughter to not get to close to the edge because the wind was quite strong, but the wind was blowing from the west, so it continually pushed people toward the land. However, if the wind switched directions and started blowing from the east, I would have immediately headed deeper inland since the wind was that powerful, and there were a couple times it caused me to go off balance. It would not be hard to imagine a powerful gust of wind from the east knocking some off balance and over the side.
I didn't get to walk along the whole length of the cliffs, but I went as far as time would allow me. Because there was a specified time the bus would leave, I decided to head back, and this when something happened. I was crossing back across the barrier I had crossed previously when my pants got snagged. My pants got ripped pretty badly by the right pocket. Luckily, since I was wearing a jacket, it covered most of the rip, but the pants were done for. There was no way I could repair something like that. I was definitely annoyed about this, but it could have been a lot worse. Since I could not do anything about it, I continued on with the tour and continually made sure my jacket covered up the rip.
After a lunch break of fish and chips in the small town of Doolin, we headed over to Galway via a beautiful coastal road. One interesting that I learned during this time was that the rocks that created property borders were not necessarily for decoration or aesthetic purposes. Instead, it was to clear out fields because the fields of this area in previous centuries were full of stones and poor for growing food. Therefore, it was a way for farmers in the area to clear their fields and put the many rocks to a practical use.
The visit to Galway was a little too quick, and I definitely want to return in the future. However, during this time, I was able to check it out and get an all-too-brief feel for the place. It was obvious that there were many things to see and do, but I did have a time limit lest I be left behind.
Overall, although this trip was not like my others since I only stayed in one place, this visit to Ireland was definitely worth it. It is a very unique country and extremely easy to get around in and definitely has a strong tourist infrastructure (it reminded me of Iceland and how organized the tours were). I certainly hope to visit again in the future in order to see the southern part of the country since I only got to the northern and western parts.