So we spent the night just outside Belfast in Holywood, the hometown of Rory McElroy. Donnie even went for an early morning walk and hiked all over Rory’s home golf course.
We were in the van by 9:00 a.m. and heading back into Belfast for a tour of the Protestant and Catholic portions of Belfast. We met our guide Eamonn at 9:30 and he turned out to be absolutely brilliant. Eamonn has been giving tours in the area for over 24 years (well before the peace agreement between the Protestants and the Catholics was signed), and It was clear as the morning progressed that Eamonn was highly respected by everyone who met him.
Anyway, we started the tour by driving to Shankill road, the home to numerous lower income Protestant social housing projects. Once in the projects, Eamonn took the time to explain to us the history of the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. In simple terms, the Protestants are aligned with the Brits and want to remain under British rule while the Catholics want a united Ireland and want the Brits out.
Now while there has been peace in Northern Ireland since 1998, the Protestant projects are still heavily influenced by two paramilitary groups: the Ulster Young Militants and the Ulster Freedom Fighters. The evidence of this influence were everywhere. There were signs reminding you that these groups were always protecting the Protestant neighborhoods and there were memorials to the fallen fighters painted on the sides of buildings. In addition, the Union Jack and the British red, white and blue colours were everywhere. Clearly the war may be over, but the resentment and memories run deep.
After our visit to the Shankill area, we drove to the DMV aka the Berlin Wall of West Belfast, a 46’ high wall replete with barbed wire that separated the Shankill Protestant area from the Catholic area. Now while the wall remains and doors controlling entry and exits continue in operation, the government has encouraged people to write messages of peace on the wall to further the reconciliation.
Eamonn provided Cheryl, Donnie and me with black tipped markers to write our own messages, which we did, and then we walked around looking at messages from locals and folks from around the world. Many of the messages were incredibly touching and then there was the occasional Trump message (i.e “Trump is Stupid”), which we all got a good laugh about.
After the wall, we drove through a door in the wall to Bombay Street on the the Catholic side of the wall to visit a Catholic low income social housing project. Cheryl and I noticed an immediate difference in the houses as unlike the Protestant side, these houses were well maintained, had lovely flower boxes and cute little gardens. (No idea why the Catholic side appeared nicer than the Protestant side as the houses were virtually the same.). Anyway, Bombay street was the scene of horrific murders and fighting over the years, and as a result, there is a memorial known as the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden dedicated to the fighters and civilians who have died for the cause of freedom, which we ended up visiting.
What was particularly interesting about the houses in the area is that they backed up to the wall. As a result, the backside of the houses were covered in wire mesh to protect the back side of the homes from incoming projectiles thrown from the Protestant side of the wall.
After the visit to this area, we then moved on down the street to a memorial to Bobby Sands, who was member of the Irish Republican Army (“IRA” ) who died while on hunger strike during his imprisonment in HM Prison Maze. The hunger strike ultimately cost 10 men their lives who were fighting for rights inside the prison including the right to not wear orange prison uniforms (the colour of the Protestants).
Right next to the memorial was an office of Sinn Féin, which is the left leaning political party that advocates for the ouster of the British from Northern Ireland. The Sinn Féin are linked to the IRA, which maintains the militant war, while the Sinn Féin maintains the propaganda war and is the public and political voice of the movement. Anyway, after seeing the office, we later found out that another Sinn Féin office nearby had been firebombed overnight. Uh oh.
With that, the almost 2 hour tour ended. We then found out that Eamonn was a Catholic. Throughout the tour Eamonn had maintained a balanced approach and presented both sides of the challenging and politically charged conflict. You would be hard pressed to know Eamonn’s religion from his tour. He was a true professional.
With the tour of Belfast over, we headed north for our tour of the Giants Causeway, a UNESCO world heritage site at the northern tip of Northern Ireland. As we drove through the rolling hills and past little villages, Liam suggested we stop at the Dark Hedges, a “tree tunnel” of 200 plus year old beech trees that stretch down a hill past several farming areas. Apparently the tree tunnel has been featured on HBO’s show Game of Thrones. Now Cheryl, Donnie and I have never seen Game of Thrones so we did not understand the fuss, but agreed to stop and take a look.
Now I will agree that the tunnel of trees was really quite beautiful and I could understand why the Dark Hedges is considered one of the most amazing natural phenomenons in Northern Ireland. It was certainly worthy of a stop along the way to Giants Causeway. However, what I could not understand was why people went out of their way to plan a trip to see the Dark Hedges solely because of the Game of Thrones. (And I assure you, we saw people from all over the world who were there solely because of a TV show. Sorry I don’t get it.)
Anyway, once back on the road, we reached Giants Causeway by 12:30ish. Now Giant’s Causeway is a beautiful formation of rocks caused by an ancient volcanic eruption. What makes Giant’s Causeway a UNESCO world heritage site is that there are approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns leading into the bay. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the land into the sea. Most of the columns are hexagonal, although there are also some with four, five, seven or eight sides.
Now to reach Giant’s Causeway you have to hike about a mile down the hill and about a mile (obviously) back up. So we followed the masses down the hill to the interesting bay and rock formations. And while Cheryl, Donnie and I found Giant’s Causeway interesting, it was not something I found over the top fascinating. What I was really interested in was Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, but I was really disappointed to learn it wasn’t at Giant’s Causeway, but about 8 miles down the road in another direction.
So when Liam picked us up, I asked him if we could go to the rope bridge. Liam discourage it. Liam advised that to access the bridge, you had to climb down a massive ladder and then you have to balance on the rope bridge that takes you from the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede. The rope bridge spans 20 metres and is 30 metres above rocks below. I did not think the bridge was particularly challenging, but Liam (as well as a fellow Donnie spoke to) made it sound life threatening so after a bit of debate, I gave in and agreed to just continue on to Derry (or Londonderry as the Protestant and Brits call it.)
However, rather than heading straight away to Derry, Liam suggested we stop for lunch. So we ended up choosing Portrush in order to allow us to see Royal Portrush (the site of the 2019 British Open Championships, or the Open as they refer to it over here). Unfortunately, I did not speak up and all we ended up doing was driving by the Course. I really wanted to stop, but didn’t say anything. I will not make that mistake again.
So Liam suggested we have lunch at a little restaurant on the waterfront that apparently has very good food. However, as soon as we entered the restaurant and sat down, I was overwhelmed with the noise of babies and children. Within 5 minutes I had a screaming headache and told Cheryl and Donnie they could stay if they want to, but I was out of there. Instead, I ended up wandering around the town and then sat on a bench with a lady and here black cocker spaniel pug mix (yes you read that right). Cheryl and Donnie ended up eating lunch in the restaurant and said the food was really good. However, the food could be Michelin starred for all I cared. There wasn’t enough goodness in any food in the restaurant that would have left me wanting to stay and listen to that clatter.
Anyway, we got back in the car and within an hour Liam was pulling into a shopping mall garage in Derry. The plan was to hike the wall around Derry. So minutes later we were taking an elevator to the main floor for the start our walk around the Derry wall.
The Derry Wall was built between 1613–1619 for protection of the early 17th century English and Scottish settlers. The Wall is approximately 1 mile in circumference and varies in height and width. In addition, the wall undulates up and down so at times we were walking down hill and other times up hill. The remarkable fact about the wall is that it was never breached despite lengthy sieges and numerous attempted invasions.
Now Derry, like Belfast, is divided into a Protestant side and a Catholic side. The Protestants live on the east side of the River Foyle and the Catholics are on the west side of the River Foyle. Ironically, the wall that was built to keep the Catholic invaders out is actually on the west side of the river and surrounds the old city.
As we walked, the first thing you notice about the wall is the many deliberate holes build into the wall for lookout points as well as for aiming weapons at invaders. In addition, there were massive open areas in the wall where large cannons could be moved to blast the enemy. (As we walked, I learned my brother-in-law has a weird fascination with cannons. For the better part of the walk, Donnie could not stop talking about the cannons, the black areas where the cannons would have fired and on and on. Wierdo.)
Anyway, during the walk we passed historic old buildings within the walls including the 1633 Gothic Cathedral of St Columb, the St. Augustine’s Church, an Anglican Church, and the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall (the Apprentice Boys are credited with saving the city from the Catholic invaders during one siege). (Significantly, the wall is fortified by large wire screens in front of the Apprentice Boys building to project it from projectiles lobbed from the Catholic communities below.)
We were also able to view the Catholic housing projects on the other side of the wall as we walked, including the area where students lead peaceful marches in 1969 only to be fired upon by British soldiers. This lead to the civil war that finally ended in 1998.
At one point, we left the wall and walked a few blocks down the street to view the city hall, aka Guildhall, a huge neo-Gothic red sandstone building with massive stained-glass windows fronting the building. It was really spectacular. We then climbed a few stair backs to the wall and finished the circumference of the old city.
By now it was just after 6:00 p.m. We began our drive to our hotel, Lough Eske Castle, but did not arrive there until almost 7:30 p.m. We talked to Liam and told him that we had spent too much time touring today and we needed to have some time in some of the wonderful places we had chosen to stay. In particular, on Tuesday we were staying in Ashford Castle, one of the top hotels in the world and we really wanted time to enjoy the place. So it was agreed we would arrive at Ashford Castle no later than 3:30. That would give us plenty of time to enjoy our “Castle” for the night.
Now despite the late arrival, Cheryl, Donnie and I ended up having a fantastic dinner and drinks in the hotel bar and were able to get to our rooms to enjoy our apparent upgrades (we were in massive junior suites) before having to go to bed. It had been a loooong day, but we would keep our travel days much shorter going forward.