My temptation is to say that I saved the best for last, but 43 countries after I started more than a year ago, it’s hard to apply the term “best” as an umbrella descriptor for anything. I have such a fondness for Ireland because it’s a classic example of something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a beautiful country but I don’t know that I’d say the most beautiful. The people are unbelievably friendly but in my experience, so is almost everyone anywhere else. The food is definitely not going to top anyone’s list. It just has a certain je ne sais quoi, an unidentifiable mystique that gives its very name an almost singsong lilt. So, in three parts, a look at my final stop on this trip. Can you hear the strains of a fiddle yet?
Dublin—Belfast, 105 miles
It’s been 18 years since the official peace agreement was signed in Belfast, ending the Troubles between the Catholics and the Protestants, and for the most part, you’d never know there was a war here. Belfast has the gritty, no-nonsense feel of an industrial city that prizes function over form. There’s a kind of beauty in the old docks and industrial parts of the city but for the most part, the feel is that kind of 1970s drab design aesthetic. As you’ll notice, I don’t have many pictures of the city because it’s not a place you go to be visually stimulated.
Belfast is a small city of less than 400,000 people and it has a good character about it. There’s little evidence of property destruction as a result of the Troubles but as a whole, the city still feels kind of empty. Streets seem unnecessarily big and almost everything exists on a side street. You’ll have these huge avenues cutting through the cities with nothing on them, and all the bars and restaurants tucked away in alleys and down tiny streets.
The de facto thing to do if you want to get a general overview of the Troubles is to take a black cab tour. There are about 10 companies that do this, all with names like “Black Cab Tours” or “Black Taxi Tours” or something, and it’s basically the exact same. They take you around to various murals and sites of important events in Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods around Belfast and talk about the history of the conflict. From what I saw, all the drivers are old enough to have lived through it, and part of the selling point is that they can talk about it firsthand.
As you would expect, that’s where it gets complicated. I think it’s first important to note that the peace here is real, unlike most other “peace” agreements between warring factions in a country. That doesn’t mean the issue is settled or violence no longer occurs, but it’s perfectly safe. People still identify as Catholic or Protestant and I’m sure there are prejudices beneath the surface that they gloss over around tourists, but it’s no longer openly violent. I get the sense that while it’s fine to be friends with someone from the other side, marrying a person from the opposite religion would not be looked favorably upon in a lot of families. That said, any violence that still exists is now contained to people who are active gang members and for the most part, fighting over drug territory, so no different than anywhere else.
I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise to anyone that the conflict between Catholics and Protestants has absolutely nothing to do with religion. This is not in any way a fight over doctrinal differences. It’s certainly not a racial conflict; racial diversity is not something you find a lot of anywhere in Ireland. From what I can tell, it’s not a class struggle. To the naked eye, you’d never be able to tell the difference between the Catholic neighborhoods and the Protestant ones. It almost all boils down to a loyalist question; the British had long had a presence in Ireland but nationalist movements really began to gain ground in the 1960s at which point the lines were drawn. Protestants were generally loyalist and backed the British, while Catholics tended to align with the Irish nationalist movement.
Many wars are senseless and the British, like the Americans, have a special ability to stir up massive internal conflict in whatever country they land in. Still, the Troubles seemed to be senseless in a way that goes beyond the normal horrors of war. What struck me as so odd is that the Protestants didn’t seem all that loyal to the British—as compared to, say, the Tories in the American Revolution who had a lot to lose if we’d lost the war. Most Catholics and Protestants in Belfast were solidly middle class so it doesn’t seem to me like either group has more to lose or gain with the British leaving. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but the whole thing just struck me as Hatfield/McCoy style thuggery in a conflict that no one even knew the terms of after a while.
Much as the drivers who lead these tours make gestures at being objective, of course they aren’t. And I don’t expect them to be. My driver was Protestant and had plenty of stories about being personally harassed and victimized as a kid. He pointed out names of cousins and school classmates on memorials for fighters who had died in the conflict. Of course he’s going to be biased. I think that many tourists get turned off by having such a one-sided version of the story so I’m sure these guys are encouraged to tone it down and be objective. The result though was that my driver felt kind of numbed to it, probably as a coping mechanism. If most of us had to go around talking about a group of people we hated, it would take a certain level of emotional reservation to do it diplomatically. Ultimately, I wish he’d told his very biased, emotionally charged version of events, and I would just assume that a Catholic guy would do the same thing with similar stories from the opposite perspective. Still though, I’d definitely recommend doing one of these tours and it’s a good intro if you’ve arrived in Belfast knowing next to nothing about its history.
Aside from the troubles, Belfast’s most prominent role in global history is as the construction site of the Titanic. Harland & Wolff is the shipbuilding outfit that’s still in operation and built the enormous ship in a remarkably quick three years. White Star Lines, the cruise operator, didn’t fare so well and was bought out in 1934. Their track record with their fleet is less than great; they lost a boat in 1893, had several run-ins and near misses with torpedoes in World War I, hit a few landmines, and in one of their final moves, plowed into an American lighthouse service boat in 1934.
Capitalizing on this tourism opportunity, Belfast has built a monolith of a museum that’s really more a shipbuilding history museum than a museum specifically about the Titanic. The first room begins with the thrilling “History of Twine Making in Belfast” which eventually led to the rise of shipbuilding industry in the city. They’ve done a nice job with the whole thing and avoided the usual mistake new museums so often make by just throwing an iPad at everything. If you’re here for the Titanic exclusively, the first half with all the technical shipbuilding history can be a bit tedious, but they come through in the end. The room specifically talking about the sinking is really creative. They’ve taken an almost Luddite approach and rather than do a whole elaborate thing with dramatic videos, they tell the story of the sinking almost entirely using the set of telegraphs and distress calls sent between the Titanic and the other ships it was in contact with that night, the Carpathia being the most famous and the one that rescued the survivors. The Titanic radioed that it had been hit just after midnight, about half an hour after impact. Its last distress signal was sent at 1:45 a.m., after which point it had sunk enough that it lost power. By 3 a.m., it was totally submerged.
What I found most interesting about the museum was just trying to imagine a world in which the word “Titanic” didn’t evoke an eerie sense of the dangers of man’s hubris. It’s weird to think that for the few years during which it was being built and talked about, its name evoked luxury and the allure of international travel like nothing else. Pictures of the interior, which at the time were nicer than many of Europe’s best hotels, can’t help but look macabre when you know where all those beautiful lamps and brocade couches and silk bedspreads ended up.
Aside from that, there’s not much in the way of sightseeing in Belfast. Downtown features some interesting Georgian architecture but for the most part, it’s a quiet city, nice if not terribly interesting. A good jumping off point to explore the rest of Northern Ireland.
When you get outside Belfast, everything changes. The entire west coast of Ireland, from Northern Ireland all the way down south and around to Cork is so dramatic. It’s amazingly consistent in its beauty. Even considering all that, the Antrim Coast is something special. There’s a usual tour here that takes you past the coast’s highlights, beginning with a drive through the very scenic Dark Hedges.
On the eastern side is the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. This bridge is the biggest non-event ever. It’s a rope bridge over a chasm between the coastline and a tiny rock island just off the coast. Bridges like this have been constructed in this part of Ireland for almost a century as a way for fishermen to get a better angle for nabbing migrating salmon. In pictures, these bridges are definitely harrowing, with rickety pieces of wood swinging perilously above the open sea. Obviously, this is not what hundreds of tourists trek across today.
The bridge there today is two years old and on a calm sunny day, it’s only the smallest bit frightening, and I’m a moderately afraid of heights. People make shockingly heavy weather of it; apparently a woman had to be airlifted off the middle of it a few weeks back, which is a unique level of melodrama. Nevertheless, the coastline here is stunning and the history of the bridge is interesting. Just don’t expect the thrill of your life. Right now, Game of Thrones tours of the whole eastern part of Northern Ireland are crazy popular and this is one of the filming sites, so expect lines.
Continuing west along the coast you come to Giant’s Causeway, named for its thousands of interlocking basalt “paving stones” said to have been laid by the giant Finn MacCool so he could walk over to Scotland and fight a rival giant over there. There’s extensive mythology surrounding this whole thing that’s much more interesting than the dry geological explanation for the phenomenon (a volcanic eruption). It’s the area’s most famous attraction and certainly a unique thing to see, but the whole of the Antrim Coast is so stunning that Giant’s Causeway is not the obvious winner among the various sites of interest along the way. It does get the heaviest tourist traffic so getting there early is good for avoiding the larger crowds. It’s worth making the very small climb up to the cliffs above the Causeway to look for the pods of dolphins that like to hang out in the bay.
Finally, right near the border of County Donegal in Ireland, is the very strange Downhill House. It was once the home of an earl and was completely gutted by a fire in the 1851. A halfhearted rebuilding effort has rendered the house an almost complete shell of the original property but with no interior or a roof, leaving this eerie façade perched on a cliff. Also on the estate is Mussenden Temple, modeled after the Temple of Vesta at the Forum in Rome.
I want you to keep reading so I won’t say this is the best scenery in Ireland, but the northern coast is really breathtaking. The relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland is interesting, as people in both firmly consider themselves Irish but being in the UK means Northern Ireland plays by a different set of rules. From a cultural perspective though, they’re very much one contiguous place and Northern Ireland shouldn’t be missed on a trip around the Ireland. Because of the Troubles, it’s still not as popular as the southern part of Ireland so it’s relatively uncrowded. Ireland is hardly a hidden gem anymore so it’s nice to find corners of the country that are still a little less frequented.
Belfast—Donegal Town, 110 miles
In a brilliant marketing move, Ireland has been aggressively promoting the Wild Atlantic Way for a few years now, a 1,500-mile trip down the west coast of the island ending in Kinsale. I followed this route pretty closely and here’s a map of it.
There are some nice parts of Ireland that aren’t on the coast, contrary to what this map might indicate. The counties south of Dublin are beautiful but for the most part, much of Ireland’s natural interest lies along the west coast.
Starting in Donegal, you see some of the best first. Donegal town is solidly in the middle of the pack when it comes to Irish coastal fishing villages that straddle the line between city and small town. Nothing particularly special, but a good place to come back to at the end of the day. On the peninsula west of town is where you’ll find the county’s most famous site, Slieve League.
They’re Ireland’s tallest cliffs, depending on how you measure, though much less famous than the Cliffs of Moher further south. There’s the typical viewing platform along the southern edge, but you can hike up to them from a back road as well so you can enjoy being blasted with 60 mph winds while you try to take a picture.
If you keep heading west, the scenery just gets better. At the tip of the peninsula is Malin Beg, a beach that feels like it’s at the end of the world, near a village that has exactly one store.
Being so far north, Donegal is sometimes overlooked in the usual Ireland itinerary; it took me three trips to the country to finally make it up. Its proximity to Northern Ireland and the Troubles has also kept tourism down, a perception among tourists that hasn’t been a reflection of reality for almost 20 years. The good news it that it has kept Donegal off the radar for longer, something that is particularly noticeably this summer. The perception seems to be that Continental Europe is much more at risk for terrorist attacks than the British Isles so Ireland has seen a boom in tourism the last six months. The downside to this is that you never feel like you’ve found something terribly unique or off the beaten path when you travel here. Donegal, though it’s famous among Irishmen for its scenery, affords you that brief sense of encountering a tiny sliver of Ireland that hasn’t been touched by tourism.
Counties Sligo and Mayo
Donegal—Westport, 103 miles
Heading south out of Donegal along the coast you quickly hit Sligo, an area perhaps most associated with W.B. Yeats who grew up in the county. In addition to Yeats’ grave, Mayo and Sligo both have a lot of prehistoric tombs, collections of less impressive Stonehenge-like rock monuments.
Neither Sligo or Mayo are my favorite counties in Ireland. The crap weather while I was there didn’t help, but this immediate area lacks the drama of Donegal and the serenity of County Clare further south. But Mayo is the gateway to Achill Island. One of Achill Islands best features is you can drive there. I don’t easily get seasick but the north Atlantic is not a force to take lightly.
Ireland is a compact country which makes traveling around incredibly easy; it’s rarely more than a few hours from one place to another assuming you’re not driving tip to tip. But getting out to Achill is a bit of a commitment, and part of what makes it so intriguing. The eastern part of the island is incredibly desolate. On a cloudy day—nearly every day—the entire landscape is grey, from the sea to the sky and everything in between. It’s a very austere kind of beauty. Along the coast are some beautiful beaches and cliffs. The people who live out here have a kind of mettle you don’t often see. It was in the high 50s and overcast the day I visited, and people were jauntily venturing out into the frigid Atlantic without wetsuits and without fuss. It takes a certain resolve to transform a cold, cloudy day into summer beach weather that you only see in places like Ireland and Scotland.
Like up in Donegal, Achill Island feels like a special, untouched place. Something that ends quickly as soon as you head further south. Galway and County Clare in Part II.