Northern Ireland Travelogue

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Ulster

Greetings from the north.

Drive about two hours north of Dublin and the mailboxes go from Leprechaun green to Royal red, the currency from Euros to Pounds and to call someone in the south means you have to dial international.

For those who came in late and don't know their Ulsters from their ulcers, I will try to explain - in an impartial way - a nutshell history of Ireland and its kooky geographical boundries. The island of Ireland is made up of 4 provinces: Ulster, Munster, Leinster and the non-ster renegade, Connaught. In the 4 provinces there are a total of 32 counties. Ireland was joined to the Union in 1800 and became The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It wasn't the happiest of yokages, and in 1916 a bunch of guys got together at the GPO and declared Ireland as a republic. This started the Anglo-Irish war, which resulted in 26 counties becoming independent in 1921. The remaining 6 counties in Ulster, mainly protestant, remained loyal to the union. So now the south is known as the Republic of Ireland, and the north is known as Northern Ireland or Ulster. Technically though Ulster isn't always N.I, as 3 of the 9 counties of Ulster are in the Republic. Confused yet? Good.

Belfast

Belfast is your typical industrial British city, with a light scattering of fine Victorian buildings and post war nasties in between.

The two big attractions here are rather morbid, but they reflect mans fascination for the macabre. The city is selling itself as the city that built the Titanic. The last of the shipyards announced their closure in 2002. The city has lamented the loss of this industry, but they should have seen it coming. I'm no marketing guru, but I would know that selling yourself as the shipyards that built the Titanic would not be the strongest selling point.

The other big attraction are the political murals. They are plentiful, of good quality, and very photogenic. I felt slightly uncomfortable taking the photos though. It wasn't that I was worried about a drive by from an opposing muralist. The thing is that tour buses come down the Shankill and Falls Road's all day, let out the passengers to take pictures and buses them out again, without contribution to the local economy. Not that there is much to contribute to, unless you get a pound of chips at the local chipper or something. I suppose though that these are works of art, and what artist wouldn't want their art to be viewed by the busload. Furthermore, each camp would want their side of the story read by as many people as possible.

You know when you get to the Catholic part of town when you reach the "peace wall". They have neutral murals here and people from all over the world graffiti personalised messages of peace, love and hope. I scoured the walled, looking for some erudite statement that may hold the key to this whole silly mess, and I found this:

What do you get if you cross a dyslexic with an agnostic?

A person who wonders if there is a dog.

Giant's Causeway

The U.K has two natural UNESCO world heritage sites. I'm proud to say that one of them is the island of St. Kilda (the name of my home suburb in Australia), off the coast of Scotland, and the other is the Giant's Causeway in county Antrim. I walked for half a day along the Antrim coast to get to this amazing place. There are over 38,000 hexagonally shaped rock columns and you have to tip your hat to mother nature and say "good one".

Derry/Londonderry/Stroke City

There was one reason which drew me to Londonderry. It wasn't its 17th century city wall, or the reputation for being an Irish music hotspot. Nor was it some bizarre pop cultural pilgrimage in honour of U2 for their song of events here. No, I was compelled to come because Derry has the worlds coolest city coat of arms...the bored skeleton.

I defy you to find a better city emblem. Derry's province, Ulster, has a pretty good one, the open red hand, but I still stand by my previous statement.

All the coat of arms in Ireland have a funky tale to tell, and if I was guessing, I would have said that this was designed during the height of the troubles and its pictorial message was saying: "Ulster - Whoa, don't go there man!" Of course I was a long way off the mark. Legend has it that the chief of a raiding Viking party to the region proclaimed that the land would belong to the first Viking who puts his hand on it. So there was one entreprenuerial Viking who cut off his hand and threw it, beating his woosy mates who opted for the more conservative approach to land grabbing.

So a bored skeleton lured me to Derry, but it turned to be one of my favourite places in all Ireland. The city wall is still intact and it forms a 1.5 km cirlce around the city, which you can walk all the way around the top. I found myself wondering why I hadn't thought of coming up here to work, then I remembered that I am in the U.K.

Since the Good Friday agreement, border checkpoints and countryside watchtowers have been removed. You can still see telltale signs of the troubles in Derry though as the police stations and various government institutions are still heavily fortified. Like Belfast, Derry is famous for its murals, the best of which can be found in the Bogside area, where the Bloody Sunday shooting took place.

Funnily enough, Northern Ireland is one of the friendliest places I have visited. Tourists are more frequent now and perhaps there is a sense of gratitute that we would come to visit.

A man in Belfast spotted me with my camera out and he asked where I was from. I said I'm from Australia, then he said "ahh, your from Melbourne. You should go to...". He then proceeded to tell me all the places I should visit, while I was still wondering how he knew where I was from. It was as if he was my personally assigned tour guide who had been expecting my arrival. This is not a bad thing as the Belfast accent is very easy on the ear. It is like a mix of the Irish and Scottish accent.

So too in Derry, I was walking around looking for accommodation when a man spotted my bag and he ran over, shook my hand and said "Welcome to Derry".

Donegal

A few miles out of Derry and you pass back into the Republic into county Donegal. I've got to say that Donegal lets the team down when it comes to its emblem. The "Brother, you could use a cross" coat of arms does nothing for me.

Having said this though, Donegal a great county. It is in the furthest north western corner of Ireland and its landscape is that of windsweep mountains and bogs. Even though you are never too far from civilisation in Ireland in comparision to say Australia, you do feel a sense of isolation in this county which made me take a mental note to come here if I ever go looking for a remote farmhouse getaway.