Belfast, Northern Ireland
On our last full day in Ireland we took another day tour to Northern Ireland to see Belfast and Downpatrick. We used Irish Day Tours a second time, and they were fantastic again. This tour was much different than the Cliffs of Moher tour we took the day before. First of all, there were only 8 people on the tour so we got a really personalized experience. Plus, we got to see a lot more than usual because we weren’t constantly waiting on people who think tours run on their own time. ?
Belfast was on our list because technically Ireland and Northern Ireland are two separate countries and I want to see all the countries I can while here. I actually had no idea that the island of Ireland had two countries on it. I’m pretty sure I never learned that in geography. If you google “countries in Europe” most of the time Northern Ireland doesn’t even pop up as a country. It’s interesting.
I’m happy to report that I now know a lot more about Belfast and Northern Ireland in general, including the issues between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In short some people living in Northern Ireland would like to remain a part of the U.K. and some would like to leave the U.K. and make a united Ireland. There is a dark history diving the Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast which is still tense to this day. This conflict is referred to as “The Troubles” and you can read more about it here.
What I found most interesting about the entire trip was how our tour guide’s demeanor changed the second we got into Northern Ireland. He was extremely nervous to be driving around there. He wouldn’t leave the van unattended for even one second for fear that it might cause trouble. It was strange and made me a bit uneasy. We didn’t quite understand it until we experienced it for ourselves, which I will talk about later.
Our first stop was the Irish Republican History Museum. Irish Republicans believe that Northern Ireland should leave the U.K. and form a united Ireland. While this museum is completely biased in that direction it really does provide some good background information about The Troubles.
Right outside the museum is a wall of murals dedicated to those who died fighting for their cause. This is another snippet of history that schools in the United States seem to gloss over. I had no idea how long The Troubles lasted, nor how big of an impact they had on the day to day lives of those living in Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Next we visited the Belfast Peace Wall. Since 1971 the communities in Belfast have had peace walls around them. This is to separate the Nationalist communities (Irish Republicans, those who want a united Ireland) from the Unionist Communities (those who wish to remain in the United Kingdom). During times of heightened tension they can close the walls to separate the communities. They still use them. It’s a very interesting experience.
The walls are often covered in graffiti related to restoring peace between the two communities. You can sign the wall if you believe in peace for the two communities. We did this, of course.
After looking at the peace wall we crossed over into a Unionist neighborhood. You can instantly tell the difference. They have the Union Jack flying, pictures and murals of The Royal Family everywhere, and you will absolutely not see an Irish Flag waving around. This is when we could tell that our tour guide was really uncomfortable. He refused to get out of the bus and told us he would give us 5 minutes to quickly snap photos before he took off. One man on our tour was wearing a green shirt with a shamrock on it that said Ireland and the tour guide would not let him even get off the bus with that shirt on. He was afraid it would cause a problem, so the guy had to remove his shirt to quickly look around.
I kinda thought our tour guide was overreacting, but I don’t really think he was now that I have experienced it. The tension really is bad. Maybe it was because we had gotten off of a bus that said “Irish Day Tours”, or maybe they saw that guy wearing an Irish shirt. Who knows. It was strange. For the record we didn’t experience this feeling any other time while in Northern Ireland. Maybe it was just that neighborhood (and they took us there for shock factor), or maybe it was because the other times we weren’t seen getting off the bus. I don’t know but overall I felt welcome in Northern Ireland and I’d go back.
After we left there we went to the Albert Memorial Clock. If you look closely you can see that the clock leans quite a bit. That’s because the clock was built on reclaimed marsh land and over time the foundation has shifted. It reminded me a lot of Big Ben.
Next we went to The Salmon of Knowledge. Each ceramic scale on the fish tells a different story about the history of Belfast.
Then we headed off to the Titanic Museum. If you didn’t know the Titanic was built in Belfast. Stefan has a weird obsession with the Titanic, so of course we went. Sadly, the museum was a dud. It was more about the building and logistics of building the Titanic than anything else. There weren’t many artifacts or anything to look at really. It’s cool to say we’ve been to where they built the Titanic, but we wouldn’t go back and I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone going to Belfast.
My favorite part was the strawberry cupcake we split before leaving. I felt we deserved it after two hours of listening to why they chose a specific width of steel to use on the Titanic. It really was that boring.
After a quick stop for lunch we headed to Down Cathedral in the city of Downpatrick. This is where St. Patrick is said to be buried. We actually had no idea that this would be included on our tour. I think we only got to see it because we had so few people that a lot of time was saved by having 60 less people to corral. There is a St. Patrick’s trail that you can actually walk/drive along and visit a bunch of different sites. You learn about the history of St. Patrick and some Christian history.
St. Patrick’s Grave
On our way back to Dublin we stopped at some castle ruins. The ruins were just ok, but the view was amazing!
We also got to see some sheep!
Overall we really enjoyed Northern Ireland. We want to go back and spend more time in Belfast and see some other things further north. Sadly, the next morning our vacation was over and we had to go home, but this tour definitely ended our U.K. and Ireland trip on a high note!