Exploring the Emerald Isle: Into the North

The last leg of our trip was spent traveling into the north of the island. On our way we visited central Ireland’s exuberant city of Galway. The lively pedestrian streets were filled with people, food, art, and music. The vibe felt very artsy, cultured, and fun, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that Galway is a Unesco “City of Film” and hosts a variety of festivals every year.

Galway lies between a large lake known as Lough Corrib and the Atlantic Ocean. The River Corrib flows from the lake to the bay and runs right through the city via a series of canals, adding even more charm to the picturesque town.

After wandering the streets on foot, we enjoyed a delicious lunch on the outdoor patio at The Pie Maker. We shared a chicken and mushroom pie served with beets, mashed potatoes, and mushy peas. For dessert we split their signature Irish apple pie with fresh cream. That apple pie was one of the best I’ve ever had.

Bellies full we journeyed onward, north and spent the night at a lovely hotel in Sligo where we enjoyed another meal- a fantastic dinner served up with a pint of Irish beer. We sat in a bright, open dining room that resembled a greenhouse and had a beautiful view of the adjoining garden and grass from our room.

Walking along the Garavogue River in Sligo was beautiful. We stopped off in one of the many bars to catch a football game and have a drink. Like most of the towns we had visited in Ireland, Sligo’s streets were decorated with bright, colorful flowers.

The next morning we had our first bit of fog and rain but it only made the day more magical. For the majority of our travels we were really lucky to have beautiful clear skies and sunshine. However, most parts of Ireland typically receive rain for 14-15 days every month, so to see Ireland without any rain wouldn’t be an authentic experience.

It was a real treat to catch a glimpse of the Emerald Isle under a dreamy, misty haze. Especially when we visited the romantic Glencar Waterfall, referenced by Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his poem, “The Stolen Child.”

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery,
hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
..
-W. B. Yeats

The Nobel Prize winner and his wife, George, are buried at St Columba’s Church in nearby Drumcliff, County Sligo. However, there’s a bit of uncertainty regarding the beloved poet’s remains. Yeats voiced that he wished to be buried quickly in France where he was living at the time of his passing, but asked to be moved to County Sligo once the news of his death quieted. Evidently, his remains were scattered into a communal grave making it impossible to truly and completely return them to Sligo. A quirky statue honoring Yeats was erected in Sligo near the Garavogue River. As one of Ireland’s most notable figures, several other statues and memorials are dedicated to the author throughout the country.

Next we traveled further north to the awe-inspiring Mullaghmore peninsula. The rain stopped briefly and we had a nice view of Classiebawn Castle in the distance.

The view was stunning and I was really envious of the people who were camping along the cliffside in their motorhome. I saw quite a few RVs as we traveled through Ireland and imagined how much fun it would be to explore the beautiful country that way, once you got used to the narrow roads and driving on the opposite of the road, that is.

The storm picked up again when we arrived in the pleasant little town of Donegal, but that didn’t stop our fun. A nice hot cup of Irish coffee (coffee, whiskey, and cream) followed by a cup of tomato basil soup and a 1/2 a croque monsieur sandwich from a local, organic cafe was the perfect rainy-day lunch.

In the dreary weather, Donegal’s town square was pretty much empty and it felt like we had the place all to ourselves as we strolled the drizzly streets. The county’s yellow and green flag was flown proudly all around town in support of a football game scheduled for later that afternoon. One thing we learned quickly- sports and rooting for your team is a big deal!

Next we headed into Northern Ireland to visit Derry, or Londonderry, depending on one’s political views or religion. Before our trip I knew that Northern Ireland was separated from the Republic of Ireland but I had no idea that so much tension, violence, and unrest persists over the situation today.

Without getting too deep into history and politics, between 1920 – 1922 Ireland gained independence becoming the Irish Free State. However, six northern counties, mainly populated by descendants of colonists from Great Britain, opted out of the arrangement, in favor of staying with the United Kingdom. Thus, Northern Ireland was established as part of the United Kingdom and the remaining, larger portion of the island to the south was established as the Republic of Ireland. Citizens in the south are mostly Catholic and Irish- they hope for one, single Ireland, united and free.

Meanwhile the citizens to the north are mainly Protestant and consider themselves as British, like their ancestors- they wish to be part of the United Kingdom. These opposing views led to a period of violence and conflict known as “The Troubles” that continued for three decades.

Bloody Sunday Monument, a memorial to the 14 civilians who were shot and killed by the British Army on January, 30 1972 during The Troubles.

The epicenter for the The Troubles and place where the violence all began was the town of Derry, as the Irish call it, or Londonderry, the name used by the British. We toured the city with a local guide who shared what it was like living through The Troubles and how the people are still living with conflict today. In 2018 a large riot broke out where at least 70 bombs were thrown into the city streets during a Protestant Orange Order parade, a controversial, political event celebrating the British domination in Ireland. Just during this month (August, 2019) over 20 bombs have been thrown across the city walls which separate the Catholic/Irish republican and the Protestant/Ulster loyalist neighborhoods.

We walked along the old city wall built way back in 1613. Even by daylight under blue skies and sunshine it felt a bit uneasy and tense. The mile-long wall provides one of the best-preserved examples of a walled city in all of Europe.

In 2011 the Derry Peace Bridge was opened. Crossing the River Foyle, the bridge was meant to inspire peace between the segregated Catholic/Irish republican and Protestant/Ulster loyalist communities.

Next, still traveling northwards, we went on to experience the bewildering beauty of Giant’s Causeway.

Located up at the tippy top of the island, on a clear day you can see Scotland in the distance. Remarkable sea views aside, the main attraction here are the 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption that occured over 50 million years ago.

According to Gaelic mythology, the columns were built by an Irish giant by the name of Finn McCool, who needed a path across the sea after the Scottish giant, Benandonner challenged him to a duel. They say Finn changed his mind once he caught a glimpse of the monstrous Benandonner and ran back to safety on the Emerald Isle, leaving one of his boots behind along the shore.

The Giant’s Boot- curved rock formation pictured towards the right.

Visitors can walk Giant’s Causeway for free, or pay a small fee for the self-guided audio-tour, available in 11 languages, from the visitor center. Operated by The National Trust, a charity organization focused on the conservation of natural resources in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the visitor center also offers a shuttle that travels down the hill to the causeway and back up again.

Giant’s Causeway was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. It is Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO site and one of only three on the island.

We finished our trip in Belfast, where we stayed at the Europa Hotel, a four-star establishment, infamously regarded as the “most bombed hotel in the world.” The Europa, built in 1971, was heavily bombed during The Troubles, experiencing 36 attacks.

View from our room at the Europa.

Like, Derry/Londonderry, Belfast also has segregated schools and communities, and big, tall walls. One of the most prominent walls is sometimes called the “Berlin Wall of Belfast,” a 25-foot peace wall built in 1963 as a separation barrier between the nationalist Falls Road and unionist Shankill Road.

The peace wall or peace line stands tall behind duplex and apartment homes.

These days the walls, located in what were once the most dangerous areas of the city, are popular among tourists who wish to learn about The Troubles. Portions of the walls are covered with murals chronicling important historical events, honoring influential people, and addressing current political issues, global and local alike. One of the walls includes a section that has been left open for contributions from visitors, who are encouraged to leave their own messages of peace and hope.

Historically, Belfast rose to fame as the industrious birthplace of the Titanic. In more recent years the city has gained popularity as the birthplace of Game of Thrones, the televised HBO series with a cult-like following. We experienced the best of both worlds when we visited the Titanic Quarter, home to the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, where the titanic was engineered, and Paint Hall studios, where Game of Thrones was filmed.

We also visited the Ulster Museum and Botanical Gardens. The gardens were alluring with colorful flowers in full-bloom and the museum exhibits were nothing short of marvelous.

The Ulster features five floors of eye-catching exhibits, covering just about every topic one could imagine or desire. We spent three hours zooming through the museum floors and were barely able to scratch the surface. In order to look at each display and read every placard we would have probably needed a full day. There was geology, botany, and zoology…

…archaeology…

…Irish history and The Troubles…

…fashion and textiles…

…music, women’s print art…

…an extensive collection of fine art spanning from the 17th century through the present …

…and a glorious, hand-woven tapestry capturing all eight seasons of the Game of Thrones series. As a fan of the show, this was definitely one of my favorite exhibits. **Spoiler Alert**

Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman conquest of England, the 217-foot-long Game of Thrones Tapestry celebrates both the global success of the record-breaking series and the long history of linen and textile production in Ireland. I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone who might want to visit the exhibit someday, so I’m limiting the amount of pictures I share…but trust me, I took a lot! I even took a video of the full tapestry as I walked along from start to finish, capturing six minutes of footage. If a visit is not in your future but you still want to see every detail of the magnificent tapestry, you can view it in its entirety and relive the grand story it tells at- www.ireland.com/tapestry .

In addition to the tapestry, the Ulster Museum also features a woven willow throne and three intricate, woven dragons.

The Ulster Museum is also fully accessible and donation-based, so everyone is able to enjoy a visit. Another great, affordable attraction is Belfast City Hall. The lawn is a popular place to relax on a sunny day and inside is a free 16-room visitor exhibition covering all things Belfast.

We enjoyed our time walking around busy Belfast, which is Northern Ireland’s capital and largest city. Nashville, Tennessee and Boston, Massachusetts are sister cities to Belfast, though I’ve never been to either so I couldn’t draw any comparisons.

Belfast was our last stop before heading home, so on our final night in the city we decided to find a place for a celebratory dessert. We stumbled across Fratelli, an Italian restaurant, intrigued by their fun mix-and-match menu. We ordered a trio of sweets that included Morelli’s honeycomb and sea salted caramel ice creams (an Irish favorite), tiramisu, banana mascarpone, lemon cream panna cotta, and chocolate orange mousse. They were fantastic and for the price we did not expect the portions to be so generous. I savored mine along with one more authentic and delicious Irish coffee.

Ireland was truly spectacular and we had a wonderful time visiting. The next morning we made our way back home. Before we headed to the airport I indulged in a shot of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, available at the hotel breakfast buffet. My little “flightcap” was the perfect farewell to a dazzling adventure on the emerald isle.

Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply