Today we are going to start with a bit of a history lesson on Northern Ireland, the small area that shares the Emerald Isle with Ireland but is actually part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It may be much smaller than it's Irish neighbor to the south and west, but it's just as beautiful and amazing a place to visit. Does it have beautiful beaches just like Ireland?
Yes it does!
Does it have dramatic coastline, just like Ireland?
Yes it does!
Does it have whiskey just like Ireland?
Yes it does!
Does it have amazing hikes along precipitous trails that make a mother's heart beat rapidly just like Ireland?
Yes it does!
But it also has a stormy and turbulent past and as we travelled north towards the border of Northern Ireland, the thought that not all that long ago we would not have been visited this area was not far from my or Eric's mind. As we drove, we shared this fact with Ellie, Leah and Taylor. I don't know that they truly comprehended what we were talking about, but I can clearly remember seeing the news footage on TV of bombings and other acts of violence occurring here in Northern Ireland on a frequent basis when I was growing up and thinking, "Wow, I would never want to go there." During my teens, I often listened to the haunting sound and lyrics of a song by one of my favorite musical groups U2, who are Irish, called "Sunday Bloody Sunday", it's words portraying the horror felt by an observer of an event that occurred in Derry, the very city we were staying in on this trip. Back on Sunday, January 30, 1972, 26 unarmed civilians were shot by soldiers during a protest, but this is only one example of the 30 years of violence now referred to as the Troubles that took place in Northern Ireland and which stemmed from the decision by the British parliament to divide Ireland up into Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland back in 1921. The majority of the population in Northern Ireland were unionists, most of whom were Protestant descendants of colonial Great Britain and were in favor of keeping a political union with Great Britain when the split occurred. The minority were mostly Catholics who did not want to be under British rule and were in favor of being part of an independent united Ireland. What happened? Well, the same thing that has happened countless times over the course of human history and continues to happen to this day when people with opposing sets of beliefs are sharing the same lands - violence. And that is all I knew about Northern Ireland for many years as I grew up, until 1998 when a peace agreement occurred between the two sides that largely put a stop to the violence. So now, all these years later, to be travelling to this very place that once brought sadness and fear to me when I heard it's name was a bit surreal.
Even though the violence subsided years ago, there are still signs of hard feelings bubbling under the surface. There was the comment from the Irish pub owner who asked us where we were heading on our journey next. When we said we were on our way to Derry in Northern Ireland (the second largest city in Northern Ireland), he said he loves visiting friends he has in Derry and what a beautiful area it is, even if there are still people around that harbor bad feelings and would never visit there. And then there are the road signs pointing the way to the city of Derry, officially called Londonderry, but what it is really called depends on which side of the border you are on. In Ireland, the mileage signs pointing the way simply list the city name as "Derry." But as soon as we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, the signs changed and the name was now listed as "Londonderry." On our second day in Northern Ireland, as we drove back to our hotel we repeated passed signs pointing the way to the city where someone had sprayed painted over the "London" part of the name, simply leaving "Derry." Are there still hard feelings? I'll let you be the judge.
Now, on with the show. What did we do while in Northern Ireland? Well, our first stop was a unique area along the coast called the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where a strange collection of columnar basalt rises up from the sea creating a series of bizarre but stunning six sided stepping stones that you can climb on and explore while you marvel at what may have created this odd yet geometrically perfect place.
There are two schools of thought on this and I will let you choose which you want to believe.
Legend has it that this crazy conglomerate of hexagonal columns that seems to emerge right out of the sea was created by a giant named Finn McCool. Finn is believed to have built the causeway as stepping-stones to Scotland where a rival giant named Benandonner was waiting to fight him – hence the name Giant’s Causeway. When Finn realized that his rival was much larger that he, he retreated back to Ireland via the Causeway. In an attempt to hide him from the Scottish giant, Finn’s wife disguises him as a baby in a cradle. When Benandonner saw the huge ‘baby’, he feared that its father would be absolutely gigantic, a giant among giants, so Benandonner himself fled back to Scotland, destroying the Causeway as he went so that Finn could not follow. Personally, I like this version of events.
On the other hand, if you would rather believe the more science based explanation that these unusual clusters of columns are actually some of Mother Nature’s artwork, the result of volcanic activity some 50 to 60 million years ago when molten lava cooled very quickly, contracting and fracturing much as drying mud does today, that is entirely up to you. Unless you are a geologist, this version of events isn’t nearly as fun at the dueling giants.
After visiting the Giant’s Causeway, we continued along the coast to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which is just as it’s name implies, a rope bridge connecting the mainland to the tiny little island of Carrickarede, a place that has long been used by fisherman during salmon season.
Sadly, the salmon population in this area has dwindled and the island is no longer used by the fisherman although there are still signs of their former activity out on the island...
but the rope bridge remains for visitors to use if they have the courage to cross it.
Now this is not for the faint of heart.
It has happened many times that visitors have crossed this bridge out to the island only to be frozen by fear at the thought of returning to the mainland via the same route and as a result needed to be rescued by boat. There was a time when this bridge only had one handrail and large gaps between the slats, but now (thank goodness) it has two handrails and slats sitting side by side, but as you cross it you still have a clear view of the 100 foot drop to the rocky sea below.
The water below is beautiful and crystal clear, making it very easy to see the sharp rocks you would hit if the unthinkable happened. Oh, it was an adventure.
And the views from the little island were worth the rapid heartbeat the bridge crossing caused. There was only one problem – it started raining while we were out on the island and that made for a slippery journey back over the precarious bridge.
But we all made it safely.
Our time in Northern Ireland was brief, but what we did have time to discover while we were there is that it is every bit as dramatic, beautiful and full of wonder as the rest of the island.