Northern Ireland: travel, history, stories, songs

Mourne Mountains Northern Ireland copyright Kerry Dexter

The castle at Dunluce, perched out over the sea. The quiet beauty of hiking in the Sperrins, and exploring the mysterious Mourne Mountains. The Glens of Antrim. The Giant’s Causeway. The solid and imposing castle at Carrickfergus. The Kiltsaggart Stone. The story of Saint Patrick told in Downpatrick and the story of emigration told at the Ulster American Folk Park. The story of the Titanic in Belfast. Derry’s seventeenth century walls, and its twentieth century murals. These are but a few of the wonders you could see should you visit Northern Ireland.

Should you go, though? Is it safe to travel in Northern Ireland?

As someone who has spent a good bit of time in Ireland, much of it right up against the border — on both sides of the border — between the Republic and the North, my answer would be yes — a yes qualified with advice, and a bit of music, too, to help in understanding the advice, and the history.

Most often you’ll find a warm welcome from the people you meet, and many a fine experience to enjoy. Northern Ireland does have a long history, centuries of it, of division and violence, however. Perhaps the harshest of these times in recent memory came during the years known as the Troubles, roughly from 1968 to 1998. A tangle of history, politics, and sectarianism along with abusive police practices found Catholics facing harsh discrimination in areas of housing, jobs, and voting rights, among other things. There were peaceful protest marches, and there were ones that turned to violence. There was violence of all sorts on all sides; there were people on all sides who worked for peace, as well. Things were not all tidied away with the signing of what’s known as the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Memories were not all healed and issues were not all settled. Both of those things are still true, and it is not for me to explain the history and the issues and the feelings in a few short sentences. My advice, though, is that when you travel in Northern Ireland

*Keep an ear out for what’s going on. Are you likely to encounter violent situations in Northern Ireland? No. But from time to time there are still bombs, and there are still bullets. You aren’t at all likely to be the target of violence, but you won’t want to walk into it unaware, or to speak insensitively where something has just happened, either.

*Choose where and how to ask your questions. Should you want to know more about the Troubles, there are places to learn. The black taxi tours in Belfast and the tours given by the artists of the Bogside in Derry are designed to answer such questions. Museums and cultural centers can be places to begin as well.

*Travel with respect and awareness. You are not going to know how anyone you speak with in the North feels about the peace process, the history of the Troubles, the longer reach of history, or past and present politics. It is living history.

One way to get a feeling for aspects of that history is to take a listen to the four songs below.

Tommy Sands grew up in County Down right along the border, and it is from firsthand experience of friendship and change and loss that he wrote There Were Roses. Cara Dillon, who sings it here, is from County Derry and she knows it too.

Paul Brady’s song The Island is one many point to as a fine allegory of the Troubles. It is, but I prefer another song of his. You could take it as a conversation between lovers, a search for reconciliation by two friends — or a story about hope for such reconciliation across the island of Ireland. The song is called Follow On and the band Danu has recorded it on their album When All Is Said and Done.

Mary Black grew up in Dublin, her mother’s hometown, and spent summers in her father’s home area in the North. Song for Ireland, which she sings here, is not specifically about Northern Ireland or the Troubles, but it does have a line about dreaming of a land where no one has to fight. Black was asked to sing — by Tommy Sands — as people gathered outside the place where the Good Friday agreement was being negotiated. This is one of the songs she sang. I had the chance to ask her about that once. “If I could do anything with my music to help bring people together, I wanted to do that,” she said.

Cathie Ryan is first generation Irish American, and has lived up along the border between the North and the Republic of Ireland. One of the songs she chose to record on her first solo album was Sean Tyrell’s The 12th Of July (Lament For The Children). Part of the words sum up past and present and hope for the future. Ryan sings

So let the orange lily be
your badge, my patriot brother
it’s the everlasting green for me
and we
for one another

My colleague Sheila Scarborough also has thoughts and advice on traveling in troubled places

Photograph is of the Mourne Mountains in County Down in Northern Ireland. It is by Kerry Dexter and is copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.

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