We didn’t have time to visit the Whiskey Distillery during our coastal day, so we drove across country to the town of Bushmills and had a tour of the distillery, learning about and viewing the whiskey making process, the bottling plant. The tour finished in the bar, with complimentary whiskey tasters. What a way to start our day.
We drove to Londonderry. This city was surprising. Our first impressions were of quite affluent suburbs, with the city is spread out on hills sloping down to a wide river. It is a pretty place with lots of church spires. We parked in the city centre and found the tourist information centre, picked up a tourist map.
The Peace Bridge is an impressive footbridge that was completed in 2011. It has lovely lines, curves, with benches towards the middle.
Londonderry is a walled city. The walls, built in the early 1600’s, are very imposing as they are up to 8m high and over 9m wide in places. There are several gates giving access to the inner city, originally some would have been drawbridges. There are areas with cannons still in position. The wall goes up and down with the contours of the city. New buildings are built alongside, giving a fascinating mix of old and new. There is a grand Guildhall Building and clock tower between the walls and the Peace Bridge.
This part of the old city and the river had a relaxed and spacious feel.
The atmosphere changed dramatically as we drove to the area of murals. It is a long while since either of us has visited somewhere and felt uncomfortable. We did here. From the city wall, we had overlooked a suburb that was openly loyalist, with slogans painted on walls, red, white and blue kerb stones. By the murals, this area was blatantly republican with IRA slogans and flags. Murals depicted several images but notably a fourteen year old girl killed in 1971, and Bloody Sunday in 1972, There were memorials too for Bloody Sunday victims and to hunger strikers in H blocks in the Maze Prison in the 1970’s.
I recognise names from news reports of that time. Bogside in Londonderry, Falls Road and Shankill Road in Belfast, Omagh, Enniskillen, all for tragic reasons. I also remember IRA bombings on the UK mainland, Warrington, Manchester, London Bishopsgate, Canary Wharf, Victoria Station, Hyde Park Barracks and other smaller incidents with offices and stations evacuated, small incendiary devices planted in pockets in fashion shops. We all lived with the underlying threat, coded warnings, disruptions and removal of litter bins in London.
You lose a sense of time with history. It is twenty years since the beginning of the peace process. The Peace Treaty was signed in 1998. During The Troubles, actors spoke the words of IRA leaders during the news reports. I remember hearing Gerry Adams speaking for the first time, although we were used to seeing his image, his actual voice was very different that expected.
This is all recent history and a valid part of Northern Ireland which is recognised as such and included on their tourist maps. One positive aspect of visiting new places is when you want to learn more, know more about the history, the background, the people and timelines of events. We’ve googled while we have been away but I will certainly be reading more in the next few days. As we left Londonderry we passed the “Hands across the divide” sculpture, another visual image of the on going reconciliation in the city.
The drive back to Belfast was across rural areas and moorland, past the “highest pub in Ireland”. It was a fascinating day of contrasts.
We spent our final morning in Belfast driving through some of the areas associated with The Troubles. The republican Shankill Road and loyalist Falls Road are astonishingly close together. There are murals and slogans on the buildings in these areas, flags flying and memorials to the past. Along with the Peace Wall that divided the neighbourhoods, there is now an International Wall, showing the ever changing murals of global conflicts. We spent an hour at the Ulster Museum, which had some interesting exhibits in the mix of history, nature and art zones. After four sunny autumn days, we left Northern Ireland on a grey cloudy day, back to rain again in London.
It has been an excellent mini break, ticking off things on our bucket list, but it has also surprised us and exceeded our expectations.