Thursday, September 29, 2011

Northern Ireland and a couple more days back in the Republic of Ireland

We're alive and mostly well after continuing our clock wise tour of Ireland through the United Kingdom and back south toward our final destination of Dublin. We have kept a pretty aggressive pace over the last week or so but have seen some really interesting sights. We spent five nights in Northern Ireland before crossing back into the Republic of Ireland for our final two nights in Ireland.

taken on the grounds of Glenveagh National Park in Ireland
Here is a run down of where we have been since last post. As we left Ireland we drove through and stopped for a couple hours at Glenveagh National Park. It is a very scenic park with a 19th century castle in it. We then continued on to cross the border into Northern Ireland and spent the night in the town of Derry as the Irish call it or Londonderry as the Unionist in the UK call it. I was somewhat disappointed with the border crossing. There is no marker that we saw that signified we were crossing into the United Kingdom. I would imagine that any sign that is put up by either country would probably be vandalized in about 15 minutes. The first indication that I had that we were in the UK and Northern Ireland was that petrol was priced in pounds instead of Euros. After a night in Derry we drove a short distance to the northeast and spent two nights in the coastal town of Portrush. The final stop in the UK was in Belfast where we also spent two nights. In Belfast we met up with one of Alethea's friends Louise who flew in for the weekend from London. After Belfast we drove back into Ireland to the town of Dundalk where we spent one night. The only way we knew we were back in Ireland was that the speed limit signs switched from being in miles per hour which is how the British measure speed (the only other country in the world that does this other than the US) to being measured in kilometers per hour. There was also a county change sign but nothing letting you know you were back in Ireland. The next day we spent most of the day sightseeing before spending our final night in Navan. On the day we left we drove down to Trim to visit Trim Castle which is where many scenes from the movie Braveheart were filmed.

infamous Free Derry sign in Derry, Northern Ireland
I'll now highlight some of my favorite sights from Northern Ireland. One of the main reasons I wanted to tour Northern Ireland was to see and learn first hand the history of the sectarian differences between Catholics and Protestants that constituted the the approx 40 year period called The Troubles. I would say that I learned quite a bit. The murals in Derry help tell the story from a predominantly the Catholic side although there are a few Protestant signs too. The murals commemorate victims from specific events such as Bloody Sunday in which 13 people were killed by the British Military back in 1972. The murals also show the desire for a lasting peace. In Belfast there are similar murals. However, we saw more from the Protestant perspective than from the Catholic perspective. In Derry the murals are all pretty close together along one street whereas in Belfast the murals and memorials are more spread out and segmented by neighborhood. In Derry we toured everything on foot. In Belfast we actually took a Hop On and Off tour. I have seen these in numerous other cities but have never been on one before. The price was pretty reasonable so we decided to do it. I am glad we did because within 90 minutes we got to see most of Belfast. We drove through Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. What stood out for me where some of the gates and walls that separated these neighborhoods that were right next to each other. Even though the Good Friday Peace Accords were signed in 1998 there was still a period of high tensions and some level of violence up until about 5 years ago. It was only then that the military checkpoints and most of the British Army was withdrawn from Norther Ireland. I understand better how and why things happened during this conflict but it will never make much sense to me. It does makes one hopeful though for other conflicts considering how much these two sides hated each other and how they eventually have come to settle their differences peacefully after so much bloodshed. I am glad we toured these areas. Unlike other parts of the world that I have visited primarily for historical reasons this part of the world is not that far removed from the actual events that give it so much meaning.

Death of Innocence mural in Derry. It is of Annette McGavin age 14, killed by the British Army in 1971
There have been other non violent conflict related highlights as well. The drive leading up to the Glenveagh National Park and the castle were beautiful. At our second stop in Northern Ireland in the town of Portrush we toured both the Bushmills Distillery and the Giant's Causeway. The Bushmills tour was neat because it is an actual working distillery unlike the Guiness and Jameson facilities back in Dublin. We got to see them make their famous whisky (they spell it without an e). They have been making whisky here for a long time. They are now in their 403rd year of production. I enjoyed the tour but was disappointed in the taste of the product. My free sample was the Black Bush that is marketed as being smooth. I didn't find it that smooth. I still say Jameson is much smoother. The Giant's Causeway area that we saw was impressive. The pictures will have to do much of the talking but they have some oddly formed rock formations that I am sure Doug can tell you all about :-). I also enjoyed walking out on a 100 ft high rope bridge over the water at Carrick-A-Rede at a stop along the Antrim Coast on our way to Belfast.

unusual rock formations @ the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland
We also visited a couple of interesting sights once we crossed back in to Ireland. Bru Na Boinne was the most interesting. We toured two tomb complexes that are at least 5,000 years old. This makes them 500 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt. There are two sights to visit. One called Knowth and the other is called Newgrange. I enjoyed the Knowth site more since you can walk up on top of it and view the surrounding countryside. Newgrance does have the advantage of being able to actually going inside to see what the inner chambers look like.

Knowth tomb complex @ Bru Na Boinne, Ireland
This concludes our time in Ireland. I really enjoyed it. It has been a busy 3 weeks. It probably would have been a little more enjoyable to slow down just a little bit. I think what I will remember the most is the beautiful scenery, the sobering history of the country, and all the full Irish breakfasts we had each time we stayed at at B&B which was just about every night. I probably clogged at least one artery with all the sausage and bacon I have eaten over the last three weeks. I weighed myself in Belfast and confirmed what I felt. I have gained 5 pounds so far on this trip. Good thing we are planning on heading to Scandinavia where everything including food is expensive. I'll probably end up starving off the weight that I've gained which I know is not the best way to go about maintaining an ideal healthy body weight. I would still say that the areas I enjoyed the most were the Dingle Peninsula and Inishmore Island followed by the murals and memorials of Derry and Belfast.

final site we saw in Ireland, Trim Castle - where many scenes from Braveheart were filmed
Next up for us are the Baltic countries. First stop is Lithuania with the next two stops being Latvia and then Estonia. We plan on spending 3 nights in each country's capital city. It should be interesting. I've never been to a former Soviet Republic. After the Baltics we plan on at least going to Finland where Alethea has several former work colleagues before reassessing our options. Alethea's shoulder is causing her a lot of discomfort so we may need to come home early and allow her to rest up somewhere and probably visit a doctor. We'll see how the next week and half goes first. Anyway, hope everyone is doing well back home!

Lousie, Me, & Alethea @ a pub in Belfast
Links to Ireland and Northern Ireland photo albums:

Ireland Part I  (these haven't changed since the first Ireland post)
Ireland Part II (probably added 30% more pics to this album from first Ireland post)