I don’t think my dad was very happy with me when I told him I was going to Northern Ireland. In his 60s, The Troubles – a violent 30-year conflict affecting the nation – coincided with most of his adult life. As someone who will soon be knocking on the door of 30 myself, I’ll admit that even I snuck in a quick Google search before booking my day trip to the Giant’s Causeway and Belfast. Of course, as is almost always the case, I had nothing to worry about.
Apart from a modest road sign, there is nothing resembling a formal border crossing between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. As our coach whizzed its way towards Belfast from Dublin the only real indication that we were in a new country was a light smattering of Union Jack flags billowing over roadside towns.
There is no way of putting this nicely, but Belfast is not a pretty city. It gives off a grimy, industrial vibe and Ireland’s famously grey weather was not helping on the day of my visit. However, beautiful architecture is not why visitors come to Belfast.
My tour, which I took with Wild Rover Tours, gave us two options: Visit the new Titanic Experience or take a political tour of Belfast in a Black Taxi Cab. I chose the latter and upon arrival in Belfast, four of us climbed into an old London-style black taxi with a Belfast native at the helm.
Our guide was an interesting character. An energetic man in his 50s, he was blessed with the gift for gab and ended every sentence with ‘OK?’
We spent over two hours zipping through the gritty streets of Belfast, making pit stops at murals along Falls Road, traditionally an Irish nationalist stronghold, and Shankill Road, an area associated with the pro-union side of the conflict. At the end of the tour we were given an opportunity to sign the Peace Wall, a massive 20+ foot wall separating the two opposing sides of the city.
As we rejoined the rest of the group at the gleaming new Titanic Belfast, I couldn’t help but feel torn about the political tour. On its own merits, the tour and our great was great. My problem was with that it all felt a bit too premature.
The guide himself – who had two close friends killed in the Troubles – mentioned that 2014 had been the first year in his memory without attacks. And the Peace Wall (or Peace Lines) still closes its gates every night in an effort to mitigate further violence. While I felt perfectly safe during my time in Belfast, I just don’t know if it’s appropriate for the tourism industry to ‘cash in’ on this aspect of the city when there is still ongoing tension in the area.
On the other hand, all that tourism does bring in lots of money into the country and keeps a fair amount of people employed. It’s also very much an educational experience, particularly for those of use who are too young to recall The Troubles.
From Belfast, we meandered out of the grey and into the green of the Northern Irish countryside. The skies cleared just as we reached Giant’s Causeway, a natural formation of hexagonal stones built up along the coastline.
Some tourist attractions use history, myths, and legends to help market themselves. The Giant’s Causeway has Finn McCool (perhaps the best name for a mythological figure ever). Truth be told though, they don’t really need him. The causeway stands on its own – sans legend – as a remarkable place to visit.
If the Giant’s Causeway were in America, there would be a fence around it. People would travel an hour or two from Belfast to stare at a pretty coastline from afar. This is not how they roll in Northern Ireland. The only fences here are ones to keep you from sauntering onto private land. Fair enough.
The Irish, or Northern Irish I should say, let visitors enjoy Giant’s Causeway. You’re free to climb these giant stones, hop from one to the other, and snap away on your camera. I reached the coast just as the sky cleared, which made for a remarkable photography session. I could have stayed here for hours, but was happy that I got a chance to hop around the rocks for an hour or so before grabbing lunch and heading out to our final stop on the tour.
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge was a short drive away and I have no qualms in saying that this was little more than a tourist gimmick. The bridge connects the mainland to what basically amounts to a rock formation. If you look down as you cross you’ll see nothing but the crashing waves of the Atlantic beneath your feet. It’s supposed to be thrilling, or even scary. It really wasn’t. The bridge is so short that it’s hardly worth the experience.
In the end though, the side trip to Carrick-a-Rede was hardly enough to spoil what had been a fulfilling – albeit long – day of sightseeing. My trip with Wild Rover Tours proved to be an excellent introduction to a beautiful country, but next time I’d like to hire a car and drive around the countryside at my own pace.
(My trip to Ireland was sponsored by Tourism Ireland. However, I paid for this excursion myself.)