Over this past weekend I went on my second and last Foundation of International Education (FIE) trip to Northern Ireland. Somewhat surprisingly many people are unaware that Northern Ireland is in fact it’s own country that still remains part of the United Kingdom unlike Ireland. We left early Friday morning to make the three-hour drive up to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. Leading up to this trip we learned a lot about the dark history of Northern Ireland. For decades Northern Ireland has been at war with itself between two sides battling for national identity. One side the Unionist support the belief that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK while the Nationalist belief that Northern Ireland should return back to Ireland. This bloody warfare continued until recently when a seize of arms was passed. However there will still be occasional shootings and bombings in uprisings. Belfast is still a very divided city. Most communities are completely split between Catholic (Nationalists) and Protestant (Unionist). The schools, shops, and pubs everything is considered to represent one side or the other. Most communities are completely walled in with gates that close from 7pm-7am every single day. The gates wouldn’t even open for emergency vehicles. As soon as we entered Belfast you could physically feel the despair of these people who have lived their whole lives fighting their neighbors.
The first stop in Belfast our group made was a two-part tour led by members on both sides of the Northern Ireland divide. Our first tour guide supported the Unionist side. He showed us a long wall of graffiti that has pictures and messages of peace and hope for the country. Our first tour guide was very friendly and really preached the message of wanting peace between both sides. Our next tour guide was a member of the Nationalist side and a member of the IRA. He was a prisoner of war who was caught by the police while on his way to place a bomb in the city center 15 years ago. He spoke a lot about the sadness and loss of identity he felt by being part of the United Kingdom and said he regarded himself as Irish. He showed us a memorial site for 12 people innocent people who died during the war. Both sides were extremely interesting to listen to and you could really tell this wasn’t a black and white case. Nobody could say for certain which side they supported. After this tour we went and grabbed lunch in the city center and then visited the parliament building. We discussed the different political parties and how they represent both sides on the war and government’s role in the war. We then checked into our hotel and ate dinner there. Since it was Halloween we walked around the city then and watched the huge firework shows that were happening everywhere we looked.
On Saturday we spent a beautiful day outdoors! Our first stop was Crick-a-Rede Rope Bridge right on the coast. We were able to see the beautiful blue sea with rolling green hills as we walked around. We were also able to cross this rope bridge to an isolated Ireland, which was so fun and a little scary! After lots of photos we went to the Giant’s Causeway, a geological masterpiece. Formed by an ancient volcanic eruption creating octagon shaped columns. Legend has it that the rock formations came from Giants that used to inhabit the area. This day was my favorite of the entire trip because we were really able to see beautiful scenery in Northern Ireland. We drove to Derry to spend the night there.
On Sunday morning we got up early to have a walking tour of Derry. The tour was quite chilly but really interesting. Derry was famous for major fighting in the war and many died here in battle. There are Peace Walls spread throughout the city that were memorials to those who lost their lives. We then went to a small museum that spoke about the fighting in Derry. The man working at the museum was incredible to listen to. He himself fought in the war and his younger brother was shot in the street during the battle. The museum was completely heartbreaking to see all those who lost their lives during the war. After the tour we headed back to Dublin.
Our trip to Northern Ireland was a memorable one. I learned so much about Northern Ireland’s history and the hurt people still feel there. Even though most the trip was quite somber I also really enjoyed our time in Giant’s Causeway to lighten things up.