I’m just back from a wonderful week in Northern Ireland. I used to work there in the 1990s, but it’s over 20 years since I was last there.
I had my kids with me, so I wanted to share with them how remarkable a place it is, what life was like back then and to see how things have changed since.
Day 1: Belfast
Our first day involved a bus tour around Belfast. There are a ton of tour companies advertising trips around the city on a step-on, drop-off basis. There are a ton of things to see, from the new Titanic Quarter to Stormont, the West Belfast peace walls and the flashy new shopping area in the centre of the city. Right beside the Titanic exhibition are the film studios where Game of Thrones is produced – that went down very well with my elder teens. Even though it’s such a long time since I lived there, I was surprised how familiar it all seemed. Once I got my bearings, I could relate so well to the place – that magnetic accent, the effortless humour, the dark mountains in the distance.
Day 2: Belfast and Donaghadee
After a trip to Stormont and a walk through Queen’s University, we drove out to Donaghadee, Co. Down. In the distance, you can see Scotland and the Isle of Man.
Given all the trouble in the world – in Nice, in Munich, in Turkey, and further afield in Syria and Afghanistan, this place seems one of the safest places to be. Years ago it was not like that, but I saw no appetite for a return to the bad old days.
Day 3: North Antrim Coast
One of the most beautiful parts of the island, if not the whole world, is the north Antrim coast. In a small area you have Ballintoy Harbour, the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, the Dark Hedges, the Bushmills Distillery, Dunluce Castle and, of course, the Giant’s Causeway. This is Game of Thrones country for real: massive dark basalts covered the area 60 million years ago, creating a landscape utterly different to the rest of Ireland. I so much wanted to return back here again.
Day 4: Coney Island
On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
Heading towards Coney Island.
What a day Tuesday was! One of the hottest days of the year, hitting 30 degrees in some places in Ireland. We travelled south towards the Mourne district, stopping off briefly in Downpatrick then bathing in the cool waters around Coney Island, just by Ardglass. I can see what Van Morrison saw in this place.
And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?
Day 5: Derry and Malin Head
Travelling the Glenshane Pass between Belfast and Derry, you get this strange feeling of deja-vu. There are uncanny similarities between it and the road between Cork and Killarney, just by the county bounds.
Derry has a very different character to Belfast – this walled city, looking over the Bogside and the Inishowen peninsula. It is a crucible for many of the key events in Irish history – dating from the early middle ages to living memory – the civil rights marches and Bloody Sunday, 1972. I really like this city. Friendly to a fault and dripping with character.
From there we headed out to the walled hill fort of Grianán Aileach, then travelling north to the very northern tip of the island, Malin Head. Driving rain cut our journey short, but it was a trip worth taking.