I love to travel. I love seeing for myself in person those places I have seen on TV, unfortunately some in the most horrific of human stories, some transformative, many inspirational. And the experience is always enhanced by visiting those places with people who saw the history first hand, to hear from them about how the experience felt. I’ve been fortunate and blessed to see many historic places in this world: taking the historic walks in Boston and Philadelphia, seeing the 911 Memorial in New York, the Coliseum and Forum in Rome, standing in the room in Potsdam, Germany at the round table around which sat Winston Churchill, Stalin, and President Truman following the Second World War as they carved out the new Europe, an awe inspiring moment for me. Those world leaders stood where I now stood – incredible.
I once walked through Berlin with a friend who had grown up and lived in East Berlin under communist rule into middle adulthood until the night of the reunification. He walked with me through the streets and told me terrifying stories of armed guards standing at the Brandenburg Gate, making sure no one passed over into the west OF MUSEUMS AND MEMORIES. The Brandenburg Gate was the line of demarcation but in actuality easterners were turned back about two blocks east of the Gate to be sure no one came close enough to try to run through to the west. He told me his family’s story of the night the Berlin Wall came down, telling me of their skepticism that the wall was actually going to be demolished. It was one of the most spellbinding and awe-inspiring stories I’ve ever heard in my life.
My husband and I had been to the Irish Republic about 17 years ago when we drove from Dublin, to Kilkenny, on to Kinsale, then to Killarney, to Galway and the Ashford Castle in Cong. I have an Irish friend who jokes, “There’s no point in being Irish if you’re not going to be maudlin and melancholy.” Instead, we love our Irish friends here in the U.S. and we fell in love with the people in Ireland whom we found to be simply so joyous, warm and fun! We were invariably greeted in the many pubs we visited with a roaring fire, a pint of Guinness (which is an acquired taste as far as I’m concerned), and a smiling welcome from people you feel you already know. I always knew I wanted to go back.
Last month, I had the opportunity to go to Belfast in Northern Ireland for the first time because my husband’s college was participating in a basketball tournament there. But we spent the first few days in Dublin in the Irish Republic which is full of the Irish history and its ongoing struggle with Britain. We spent an afternoon visiting the General Post Office which is still a working post office but is also the site of the Easter Rising of 1916, a critical part of the Irish story, the Catholic Irish wanting Ireland to be its own country and not part of Britian. The Irish people of course as always were friendly and welcoming to Americans, many with relatives who have been emigrating to America since the famine in the mid 1800’s and are a huge presence in the U.S. So when I’ve been to Ireland, I feel as though I’m going to visit a people with whom I’m very familiar. It seems that everyone you speak with has visited the U.S. or has a relative living here. You can pick up a conversation as with someone you already know. After three days in Dublin and visiting Glendalough, a glacial valley in County Wicklow and St.Kevin’s monastery in the bitter cold – this is Ireland in December, folks! – we left for Northern Ireland.
The first thing to note is that the six counties that make up Northern Ireland are part of Great Britian and thus follow British law and use British pounds as currency, as opposed to the Irish Republic that uses euros. Currently there’s no hard border as one crosses seamlessly into Northern Ireland from the Republic. But now due to Britian’s plan to secede from the European Union because of the Brexit vote, there is a lot of talk about what that may mean for a crossing into Northern Ireland in the future. We had the benefit of being joined on our trip by some British friends prompting much lively discussion about the similarities between in the Brexit vote and the subsequent vote to elect Donald Trump to the American presidency.
I had no preconceived idea about Northern Ireland but it interested me because I remembered the horrible tension there thirty or forty years ago. I remember watching the nightly riots in Belfast in the same way as I view the Middle East on the news now. Back then we saw rumbles in the streets and bombings in the ongoing conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics, an unresolved chasm from the Rising days and beyond. We hired a guide who took us on a political tour of the section of Belfast that lived through the years of The Troubles, as that period is called. The Troubles were generated out of the fact that after 1916 the island had been divided into the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland which remained part of Great Britain. Our guide had been a teenager during The Troubles thirty years ago and he told us his job was to make petrol bombs. The area involved in The Troubles is still cordoned off, separating the Catholic and Protestant sections by walls, fences and gates that can be closed at a moment’s notice should any sign of conflict arise.
He took us to Falls Road first and then Shankill Road I hadn’t heard those names for a very long time but immediately it took me back to the brutal newscasts. The time is commemorated by murals and memorials throughout the area. This area was the epicenter of the fighting that took place from the late 1960’s through to 1998. You get the impression that while things have calmed down, in no small part because of the intervention of our President Clinton in 1998 who brokered the Good Friday agreement, distrust and tension still simmer below the surface. In fact our guide told us that a question had been on the ballot in the last election asking whether the fences, gates and other barricades should be taken down. The answer from 78% of those voting was a resounding “No.”
Although I was grateful for the opportunity to hear first hand about what went on here, I felt a bit guilty about touring this place that was a home to so much misery and bloodshed for so long. It is hallowed ground. I asked our guide how the locals who still live in the Falls Road area feel about strangers coming through since it represents so much heartache for many of them. He said that it’s a place of history to which tourists flock, and that it should be seen. But it’s obviously also a place that brings in revenue, as with most tourist areas, so the locals recognize that. He did say that anyone who guides tourists through this area has agreed not to tell their clients what side they were on during The Troubles and try to give as objective and balanced view of what happened here as possible.
Belfast is the city in which the Titanic was built. In the more modern part of town stands the most amazing Titanic Museum that upon approaching it replicates a vessel being overtaken by water.
Inside, there are four floors of memorabilia, holograms and reproductions dedicated to the Titanic from it’s inception to interviews with actual survivors following the sinking. There are verbal tapes of actual survivors telling their story of how they survived. Very powerful.
What I also found in Belfast was a city with diverse and beautiful architecture and a rousing nightlife full of energetic Irish bands and the ubiquitous pints.
We stayed at the Hotel Europa in Belfast which during The Troubles was the most bombed hotel in all of Europe, having been bombed 52 times in about 30 years. Our guide actually had a picture that he showed us of the Europa in those days with the front entrance in ruins.
There was so much to see and do in Northern Ireland, with not nearly enough time to do it all in the five days we were there. We did make our way up to the Causeway Coast in County Antrim, home of the Giants’ Causeway, 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. It’s Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction and Ireland’s only World Heritage site. A day well spent. And thinking I was going to come home with a new tale to tell my grandkids about the mythical Irish giant, Finn McCool and his Scottish nemesis, Benandonner, little did I know that they were totally aware of the story and filled in the blanks as I excitedly told them that I was actually walked on the causeway!
We loved our visit to Ireland and look forward to going back again. It’s not only a country that seems to love Americans, it’s one that is a relatively easy, fast flight from the eastern part of the U.S. When we went in December, we were already in eastern Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, so we flew from Newark airport – a quick five and a half hour trip into Dublin!
I’d love to hear about trips that you have taken and adventures you have had! Until next time…….