We scuttle back onto the bus, and carry on with our journey, heading north where present history is more evident than that of thousands of years ago.
Northern Ireland’s reputation as a troubled spot has seen it not as popular on the tourist trail as down south. But of late this is changing and a new sense of optimism is in the air, with many of the locals excited to see travellers arrive in their towns.
None more so than Martin McCrossan. Growing up in Derry in the time of the Troubles, he offers an unbiased account of the city’s history on his walking tour, gathering passing tourists along the way who can’t help but be drawn into his commentary on a place with such a dramatic past.
Walking along the city’s walls, we hear about the Siege of Derry in 1688 when the Protestant citizens barred the city gates from a Catholic assault and remained behind the walls for 105 days, both sides facing starvation and disease.
Leaving behind the ramparts and its views of cathedrals and the Foyle river, Martin takes us into Derry’s Bogside district. In the ’60s it was a hotbed of civil unrest against the city’s Protestant-dominated council. The district’s youth took to the streets, clashing with police and resulting in UK troops being sent to Northern Ireland to act as peacekeeping forces.
Then on Bloody Sunday in January 1972, 13 Catholic civil rights protesters were killed by the British Army in the district, bringing the tension to a head and a surge in ill-feeling by all parties concerned.
Today the Bogside’s history is captured in its wallside murals, the last in the sequence showing a dove of peace rising out of the blood.
“They will not forget, but their hearts are set on tomorrow and peace once again, for what’s done is done … I can only pray for a bright, brand new day on the town I love so well,” sings well-known Irish musician Phil Coulter over the bus speakers as we leave his beloved Derry (pictured left) behind. It’s a sentiment being brought to life, not just in Derry, but in other parts of Northern Ireland too.
In Belfast, a city once ravaged by terrorist bombs and bloodshed, cranes dominate the skyline, billboards advertise luxury waterfront apartments, and restaurants line the streets — signs that Northern Ireland’s capital is on the up.
In between all the new developments though, traces of Belfast’s past can still be found. The Victorian Crown Liquor Saloon in Great Victoria Street is a National Trust Monument, ornately decorated with stained glass, marble and mahogany, where you can sit and sip on a pint of Guinness in your own private booth.
We did just this and then found ourselves at one of the many student pubs, revelling in Belfast’s party atmosphere, dancing to Van Morrison on the jukebox and mixing it up with the friendly locals who later lead us on a midnight tour of the city to see Belfast’s latest addition — its own big wheel.
The next morning we take a more sobering trip. An increasing number of taxi companies offer tours of West Belfast. The drivers come from both Catholic and Protestant communities and give an intimate and colourful commentary on one of Northern Ireland’s former battlegrounds.
We take in the political murals of both Republicans and Loyalists and stop off at the ironically named Peace Line, which divided the Protestant Shankill district and the Catholic Falls area. Standing in front of the wall covered in graffiti, most of it by foreigners, I couldn’t help thinking that something that once divided a community, perhaps is now bringing it together — through tourists.
» Janine Jorgensen travelled to Northern Ireland with Shamrocker Adventures (+353 (0) 1 672 7651) on their three-day Northern Rocker trip, departing Dublin with local guide. Prices start at £89.
A tale of two cities
Things can get confusing when navigating your way to this Northern Irish city. Derry derives its name from the Gaelic doíre (oak grove), but in 1613 in recognition of London’s role in ‘bringing’ Protestants to the city, its name was changed to Londonderry.
The name became a political symbol — unionists insist on Londonderry, nationalists Derry — with broadcasters using both names to avoid offence. Today road signs in Northern Ireland point to Londonderry, those in the Republic point to Derry.