Northern Ireland – Land of Beauty and Troubles

Ireland MapAfter a short flight from Edinburgh to Belfast, I settled in to a hotel in the center of Belfast and headed out for an early dinner. After a month away from home the vagabond life has begun to take its toll, so it’s early to bed tonight.

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Mural of Annette McGavigan

Next morning I board Northern Ireland’s version of a Greyhound bus and head across the country to Derry. It’s a short trip (less than two hours). Northern Ireland is small, roughly the size of Connecticut, with an equally small populations (1.8 million). In comparison, the city of Philadelphia is 1.55 million.

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The Wall of Derry

Having previously visited the Republic of Ireland and now Northern Ireland,  the impact of the “troubles” just seems more evident in Derry, Northern Ireland. I joined an afternoon walking tour with John from McCrossan’s City Tours.  John gives an excellent overview of Derry, its pre 20th century history, as well as the history of the troubles. Much of the story of the troubles is depicted in murals throughout Derry, none more poignant that the mural of Annette McGavigan, a 14 year old killed in the crossfire in 1971. Because of my Irish Catholic ancestry, I wanted an unbiased tour of Derry and John delivered. At the end of his tour I honestly did not know if he is English/Protestant/Irish/ Catholic. Regardless of faith or nationality, the citizens of Derry (as well as the rest of Northern Ireland) suffered greatly during the troubles. John pointed out that Catholics in Northern Ireland were motivated to protest by seeing Martin Luther King, Jr and the struggle for civil rights in the states.omagh-bomb-blast_1363532a

Many of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s watched the violence on our televisions at home.  As a refresher, the article below is a very brief overview of the conflict and some of its origins.

A Brief History of “The Troubles”

By Brendan McAllister | February 25th, 2009

Centuries ago Ireland came under the control of England. As part of that process, large numbers of English and Scottish people were encouraged to settle in the north of Ireland. While most of the native Irish were Catholic, most of the settlers were Protestant. At the start of the twentieth century there was a sustained campaign to break the link with Britain. However, in the north there was a campaign to maintain the link or union with Great Britain. On both sides of this argument, significant numbers were prepared to use violence in support of their cause. In 1920 the British settled the matter by dividing Ireland – granting independence to most of it and keeping the northern part within the United Kingdom. However, around 40% of northerners were Irish nationalists – people who wanted independence from Britain. Therefore, from its creation in 1920, Northern Ireland was a state whose citizens differed over their national allegiance. Consequently, for several decades, the leaders of the Protestant, unionist majority, discriminated against the Catholic, nationalist minority. The laws and institutions of the State reflected this discrimination.

By the 1960s, frustrations within the Catholic, nationalist community found expression in a campaign for civil rights. The state responded with brutal force. Within the Catholic community, there were people who began a new campaign of violence to end British rule and end the partition of Ireland. These people are known as republicans. Within the Protestant community, there were people who took up the gun to defend the link with Britain. These people are known as loyalists.

While the majority of Catholics (nationalists) and Protestants (unionists) did not support the use of violence, the terrorist campaign fought by republicans and loyalists and the State’s campaign of counter-terrorism by the use of the British army and the police, meant that the Northern Ireland conflict became defined by widespread violence. 3,500 were killed. Thousands more were injured. Thousands were traumatized by violence. Thousands were sent to prison. However by the 1990s there was recognition that violence would not deliver a solution to the conflict and that any effort to find a political answer would only succeed if republican and loyalist paramilitaries were given a voice at the negotiating table.

In Ireland, over the last 15 years or so, we have been living through a period known as ‘the Peace Process’. This period has seen the establishment of political negotiations, ceasefires by the main republican and loyalist paramilitary organizations and fundamental reform of aspects of our system of governance in order to command the respect and allegiance of all our citizens.

Progress has been so profound that it is possible now to speak of the end of ‘the Troubles’ – a 30-year period when our conflict was expressed in violence and a generation grew up in the shadow of the gun and the bomb.

From “Restorative Justice and Peace in Northern Ireland,” an address by Brendan McAllister (SPI ’96 & ’98) at the European Forum for Restorative Justice in Barcelona, June 16, 2006. (Reprinted as originally written.)

Before leaving home I also watched a documentary – Voices From the Grave – which presents both points of view.  Easy to find on YouTube and at 90 minutes, its a worthwhile investment of your time.

The Titanic Museum
The Titanic Museum

Next day, I was back in Belfast and took advantage of the Hop On/Off bus to see many of the sites of the city.  While I didn’t go into the Titanic Museum, it is an interesting structure. Designed to resemble a large ship, but with a shimmering façade. Next, I hopped off the bus at St. George’s Market. It’s sort of a Rice’s Market (New Hope, Pa) and a Reading Terminal Market (Philadelphia, Pa) all wrapped up in one. Picked up a souvenir just in time to hop back on a bus and go to Queens University. It’s a great place to hop off because this stop puts you right in the middle of the college, the Botanic Garden, and the Ulster Museum.  The Ulster Museum is a modern and airy space and on the day I visited it was full of school children. Schools here don’t finish up until July.

St George's Market
St George’s Market

The most emotional sites in Belfast are the peace wall murals on the Falls Road and Shankill Road.  They depict the fear, the hope, and the violence of the decades long conflict known as the ‘troubles”.  As an Irish American, it’s difficult to adequately convey the emotion one feels standing in front of these depictions of both sides of the struggle.  This link provides better information than I can provide and also better pictures of the murals.

http://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/northern-ireland/articles/belfast-s-murals-the-politics-and-the-passion/

The dividing walls
The dividing walls
At Belfast City Hall
At Belfast City Hall
Queens University
Queens University

 

 

 

 

Next morning I awake to clouds and drizzle – not the best weather to explore the Antrium Coast, but I am not deterred. I join a local tour where I am the only American. Most of my 12 or so fellow travelers are from the UK, and others are from Asia, Australia, and Norway. After a brief stop outside the Carrickfergus Castle, we journey to the entry to the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge.  After a short hike from the parking area, we arrive at the queue to cross the bridge.  The coastal setting is beautiful even on this overcast and drizzly day. I have previously overcome most of my old fear of heights, but as I step onto the wet wooden slats of the bridge and feel it bounce with the weight of those of us crossing it, I’ll admit to a momentary hesitation. But I make it safely to the other side secure in the knowledge that the return trip won’t be so daunting.IMG_3495

After a quick stop at the Dunluce Castle ruin, we enjoyed a hot and hearty meal and a taste of whiskey at the Bushmills Distillery. Just a short drive along the coast we arrive at the Giants Causeway and opt for a guided hike. Ten minutes in and the drizzle becomes a steady downpour and the temperature drops to the 50s.  I am prepared with gloves, a scarf, jacket, and umbrella….ah the lovely summer climate of The United Kingdom.IMG_3510

Giants Causeway
Giants Causeway

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I should mention that from the time I arrived in Scotland in late May, until I departed Northern Ireland at the end of June, the daily topic of conversation was BREXIT.  The referendum that would decide whether the UK would leave the European Union was the subject of mostly friendly debate. The majority of people I met and worked with in Scotland preferred to stay in the EU. Attitudes in Northern Ireland were similar.  I did referee some intra family discussions about BREXIT, but they were always good natured. Time will tell if the right decision has been made.

This adventure has been a wonderful mix of volunteering, traveling with friends, and going solo.  I enjoyed every bit of it, but home and family are calling to me. Until next time….don’t be afraid to cross a bridge.

CarrickFergus Castle
CarrickFergus Castle

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Stirling, Edinburgh, and a Farewell to Scotland

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Stirling Castle

IMG_3301As we left the Scottish Highlands and headed south to Stirling, I was full of anticipation.  Stirling Castle figures into so much of Scottish history.  I was dreaming of walking through rooms where Mary Queen of Scots slept and prayed; the spot where William Wallace led the Scots in the Battle for Stirling Bridge; where many of the Stuart Kings resided. It was occupied by the British military during the Jacobite uprising; it is where Alexander the Fierce died; and many others lost their lives during sieges launched to wrest control of the castle.

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Wm Wallace Pub

Stirling Castle alone is well worth the trip to Stirling, but we also had a great time at a local pub. We were looking for someplace close to our B&B where we could get something to eat and drink on a rainy evening. Our host recommended the William Wallace Pub where he and other locals like to have a whisky or an ale.  We were welcomed by Ted at the pub who took our drink orders and told us they don’t serve food anymore!  Oh no!  Not to worry. Ted encouraged us to order food from the café across the road and enjoy it in the pub.  And we were glad we did. As we toasted our arrival to Stirling, in walked a group of musicians who proceeded to conduct a jam session of beautiful Scottish music.  And our rainy night in Stirling became a little more memorable.

The next afternoon we returned our rental car and boarded the train for the hour long ride to Edinburgh. At the risk of sounding like a broken record when it comes to castles, Edinburgh Castle was the highlight of Edinburgh for me! First stop – a visit to the Honours of Scotland exhibit.  My friends chuckled as I stood in front of the glass case, hand over heart, smiling from ear to ear. The Honours are comprised of the crown, scepter, sword, and Stone of Scone used in numerous Scottish coronations, including the baby, Mary Queen of Scots.  Here is a brief background of the jewels and stone:

https://www.visitscotland.com/about/uniquely-scottish/honours-scotland-stone-destiny/

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Sir Walter Scott Tower
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Albert’s Seat

Even in the middle of Scotland’s second largest city, we found ways to work off all of the beer, sticky toffee pudding, and haggis.  A two hour hike up Arthur’s Seat, a hill near Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, gave us great views of the city.  Next day, a climb up the Sir Walter Scott Tower was heart pumping and a little claustrophobic. I had to take off my small backpack to fit through parts of the winding staircase near the top of the tower. But it was worth the workout to get up close with this unique structure.

Sir Walter Scott Tower
Sir Walter Scott Tower

The Palace of Hollyroodhouse sits at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle.  It was the setting of some dramatic moments from the short reign of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Agents of her jealous husband, Lord Darnley, murdered her trusted secretary, David Rizzio, in front of her.  Mary married both of her husbands at Hollyrood.  Mary’s son, James VI (James I of England), moved here in 1579 at the age of 13.

Hollyrood Palace
Hollyrood Palace

Hollyrood Palace is the official residence of the British Monarch in Scotland. Queen Elizabeth typically spends a week in June here and carries out official engagements.  The palace is closed during her visits.  While the queen was not here the day we decided to visit, Prince Charles and Camilla were.  Just my luck!

imageThe Royal Mile is brimming with shops, restaurants, churches, street performers, people, and historic buildings.  My advice if you are visiting during June through August, wear comfortable shoes to navigate the cobblestone walks, and make dinner reservations. We learned that lesson after our first couple of days.  We had our farewell dinner at a restaurant we reserved because they had a good craft beer selection and live music. Once again we were treated to some beautiful Scottish music performed by local musicians. It was a perfect way to end our time in Scotland.

Farewell dinner
Farewell dinner
Scottish music
Scottish music

 

So I say goodbye to my friends – Joan, Mary, Pat – who are heading home, and I continue on to Northern Ireland.

our lunch companion
our lunch companion

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Next – Belfast.

 

 

On the Road Again – Glencoe, Skye, and Loch Ness

At the Three Sisters mountains
At the Three Sisters mountains

Most travelers don’t automatically think of Scotland for hiking, but that’s exactly what I loved about our road trip through Glencoe and the Isle of Skye. There are treks for every fitness level, whether you want an easy walk, or an uphill cardio challenge. The dramatic landscape of Glencoe is well suited to its human history – a bloody tale of clan warfare and brutal oppression by the English. Traditionally home to the MacDonald clan, the area’s most famous event was the Glencoe massacre of February 1692. This combination of ugly history and epic nature has inspired countless artists and poets, drawn to the region’s bleak beauty.  imageUnsurprisingly, both Braveheart and Highlander were filmed here. We chose to hike the Three Sisters in Glencoe.  The hike covers a variety of terrains, babbling streams, and to our delight the weather cooperated.

The village of Portree
The village of Portree
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Isle of Skye

We decided to take the ferry to the southern end of the Isle of Skye. Word of warning….make a reservation.  We did not, and arrived to the ferry terminal before the last crossing of the day only to find there were no spots left for our vehicle.  We were given stand-by status and thankfully made it aboard.

The Isle of Skye hikes offer stunning cliff to sea views, walking paths, hill climbs that get your heart pumping, and an amazing variety of flora and fauna.  Once again, we were blessed with a rare sunny day and no mist (which can obscure the views).

imageWe overnighted in Portree, which is the main village on the Isle of Skye and well located as a base for exploring most of the popular sights. After hiking in the morning, we packed a lunch and started our drive around the Trotternish Peninsula part of the island.  First stop – Kilt Rock, a tall sea cliff where we picnicked and enjoyed the sea air and crashing waves below.

Kilt Rock
Kilt Rock

A few more sights and we were off to cross the Skye Bridge to the mainland and a visit to the iconic castle – Eilean Donan.

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Eilean Donan Castle

Although it is probably the most photogenic castle in Scotland, it is a mere 100 years old. The original castle built in the 13th century was destroyed during a battle in 1719.

While we weren’t able to secure lodging in Inverness (a Rod Stewart concert resulted in sold out hotels and B&Bs!), we drove by Loch Ness on our way to Inverness.  Why not stop at the famous Loch Ness?  In all honesty….it’s a big, long lake.  And the chances of Nessie showing herself just for us…..zero.  So we headed to Carrbridge, south of Inverness, for a good night’s rest.

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Isle of Skye
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Isle of Skye

imageNext up – Stirling and Edinburgh.

 

 

 

 

Scotland Part 2 – The Road Trip

It’s the morning after my last day at Kincardine Castle and I catch an early bus bound for Aberdeen from our tiny village.  There, I’ll catch another bus to rendezvous with friends who have just arrived in Glasgow. I am so looking forward to seeing friends from home and venturing out to the rest of Scotland!image

Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city, but with 600,000 inhabitants, it is small by international standards.  There are few remaining examples of its gritty, industrial past, but fortunately much of the old architecture in Glasgow is still standing.  The University of Glasgow is a glowing example.  Founded in 1451, the university is the fourth oldest in the English speaking world.  imageThe campus in the west end of Glasgow was built in the Gothic Revival style and clad in the local blond sandstone.  While strolling the campus, a sense of history and whispered reverence is apparent. After all, the oldest university in the United States, Harvard founded in 1636, is a youngster in comparison.

imageThe Hunterian Museum is part of the University of Glasgow. We entered the museum and were pleasantly surprised by the size and quality of their collection. The museum features extensive displays relating to William Hunter and his collections: geology, ethnography, ancient Egypt, scientific instruments, coins and medals, and much more.

imageJust like the states, craft beer is having a moment right now in Scotland. With niche micro breweries  and bigger companies getting in on the act, craft and cask beers and ales are bigger than ever and Glasgow bars haven’t been left behind. A plethora of craft beer pubs in Glasgow dish out pint loads of the kind of brews good enough to make a beer buff weep. Now I know this is the land of legendary Scotch Whisky, but I can’t stomach the stuff, so we are sampling the craft beers at every chance and haven’t been disappointed.

imageWhile Glasgow is thin on tourist sites, its residents are down to earth, helpful, and fun.  Its public transportation is reliable and super easy to navigate.  But now we head out of the city in our rental minivan (cursing the dreaded driving on the left side of the road) and head to Loch Lomond, Oban, and the Isle of Mull.

imageLoch Lomond is the largest loch in Scotland, and the largest fresh water lake on the island of Great Britain. Surrounded by beautiful scenery and the occasional village, it is part of Scotland’s first national park.  By pure luck we were hungry for lunch just as we came upon the small village of Luss, situated on the western shore of the loch. A settlement has stood on this site since medieval times although much of the current village dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, having been developed to house workers from nearby slate quarries. With its pretty sandstone and slate cottages garlanded in multi-colored roses, and its tiny beach, Luss is the definition of charm.image

Continuing north, we arrive in Oban in time for cocktails.  Oban was just a small fishing and trading village until the steamers of the early Victorian era started arriving in ever greater numbers. It became the main point of departure for the Western Isles and a regular stopping-off point for the steamers linking Inverness with Glasgow. The town itself lies in a crescent that is defined by the hills surrounding Oban Bay.  It is the bay that provided the best seafood chowder my companions and I have ever tasted….the chowder that is still the subject of conversation days later! Today Oban is a busy resort town filled with restaurants, pubs, quaint little shops, and B&Bs.image

Day two in Oban is a rare sunny one and we hop the ferry for the Isle of Mull where we will visit Duart Castle. It’s a lonely little castle, perched upon a rocky cliff. You’ll see it standing guard if you take a ride on any ferry from Oban.

imageDuart was designed and built as an extravagant home for the highland Maclean clan during the 14th century, and was restored from ruins beginning in 1911. It’s presently privately owned, and still a part-time residence of the Macleans. imageViews from the castle grounds are worth the trip and free to all visitors. Entrance into the castle is £6 ($8) and depending on your point of view may or may not be worth it. There are several furnished rooms (more than we saw in most Scottish castles), but they are a mish mash of periods in history. Purists will not feel satisfied, but if you like castles and old things and are unconcerned about historical perfection, then go for it.

Readers of this blog will note that I don’t cover every minute and every site of my travels. I prefer to write about bits and pieces and make each post an easy read. I do, however, keep a personal journal with more detail. So if ever you have a question, or want to know more about a particular city or site, just post a comment here and I will respond as best I can.image

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Next up…Isle of Skye