Looking Into The Mirror of Northern Ireland

As a travel agent and travel blogger the one thing that I want to do above all else is show would be travelers that the world is a fun and exciting place to explore. While this sentiment is true, the world is a complicated place.  Here in America, this week has been filled with dreadful news of police killing citizens, police being killed, and the Black Lives Matter movement.  

Herein lies the question, do I carry on blithely as if the world is uncomplicated? Do I show photos of pristine beaches and stunning sunsets, or do I take off the rose colored lens for a moment? I have been sitting on a fantastic travel experience for over a year now, wondering if it was too heavy to share. I think it's about time that I share it.

Hello from early to mid 1990-something at my then favorite haunt - The Harp Inn. I'm sure The Fenians are playing.

I'm a Gen-X girl, born in 1970. Growing up, I watched the nightly news, on our single television, with the whole family. Northern Ireland and the IRA are familiar topics to me.  In my early twenties, I attended Sinn Féin meetings and drank dollar shots of Bushmills whiskey while listening to tales of The Troubles, the dreaded H-Block and guerilla warfare. It was all very romantic to a young woman. Now, in my mid forties, my sister and I were actually going to see first hand that place which captured my imagination in my youth.

Our flight landed in Dublin. We stayed the night and caught the train to Belfast the following morning. During our taxi ride to the the train station in Dublin we gabbed with our taxi driver. I told him we were heading to Belfast and Londonderry, and that I wanted to see where Van Morrison grew up. The taxi driver said Van Morrison was a "wee shite of a man", and that there was no such place as Londonderry - only "Free Derry". This was my first inkling that this was going to be a different kind of vacation.

Once on the train heading north,  we spoke to some other passengers and enjoyed the company. The Northern Irish accent is quite different. It took me five minutes to realize that the woman next to me wasn't suggesting the best place to get eels, but instead ales. My eel loving sister was crestfallen.

As we approached our destination, everything beyond the train window began to change - the terrain, the architecture, even the look of the people. This place seemed more wild, and harder than the Ireland we'd just left. I can't lie - I was concerned that we'd made a mistake in choosing our holiday destination.

The train slowed as we neared Belfast. Looking out as the city revealed itself, I saw two young women standing near a bus stop with baby strollers. One had hair bleached white with the ends dyed cherry red, half of her head was shaved, and she was smoking a cigarette. They weren't play acting rebellion. These girls were hard edged. I was nervous.

The Europa hotel in Belfast is the most bombed hotel in the word.  PHOTO BY JOANNA DACOSTA - 01/2015

The Europa hotel in Belfast is the most bombed hotel in the word. PHOTO BY JOANNA DACOSTA - 01/2015

We caught a taxi from the train station to our hotel - Tara Lodge. Our cab driver pointed out the Europa Hotel saying it was the most bombed hotel in the world, suffering 28 bombings during The Troubles. I wasn't sure, but I thought I heard a bit of pride in his voice. I didn't know his politics, so I can't say that I knew why. Maybe he was just proud of having survived it all. What I did know is that my opinion of Irish politics wasn't something that needed to be inserted into any conversation with a local.

Before you go thinking this all sounds awful, it wasn't. We arrived at our boutique hotel, Tara Lodge, located on a tree lined street of beautiful brick homes. It felt a bit like we traveled back in time to the late 70's. Inside the hotel was warm, and inviting. The staff were fantastic and our room was lovely. Breakfast at the hotel was included, and delicious. I did enjoy a shot of whiskey in my oatmeal a couple of mornings. The staff were very helpful in suggesting restaurants, experiences and giving directions.

Made in belfast is a fantastic place to grab a meal. my burger was followed by a shared sticky toffee pudding. we ate it before I REMEMBERED to take a photo. by joanna dacosta 01/2015

Made in belfast is a fantastic place to grab a meal. my burger was followed by a shared sticky toffee pudding. we ate it before I REMEMBERED to take a photo. by joanna dacosta 01/2015

Our first night in the city we ate at Made In Belfast. On the way to the restaurant our taxi driver passed the Northern Irish bank and told us of an elaborate IRA bank heist in 2004 which netted £26.5 million in pounds sterling. It seemed every place here had a story. While bank heists are interesting, the best story of the night was the restaurant. It was so hip and retro-modern inside that I was taken aback. The waiters were all young men and seemed very Sex Pistols punk rock. The decor was eclectic and reminded of the artwork to the Sex Pistol's song God Save The Queen. The food was fresh, locally sourced and delicious.  If in Belfast then Made In Belfast is a must.

A glimpse of our tour guide. j dacosta 01/2015

Our first venture in Northern Ireland was hopping the train to Londonderry AKA "Free Derry". It was a great train ride. Watching the terrain change as we streamed along was mesmerizing - city, pasture, hills, water and bog. The trip was worth it for the journey alone. We arrived in Londonderry without a plan, so we went to the visitor center in time for a city tour. Being that it was late January, we were the only two taking the tour. Let me stop here to say that this was an amazing experience. I wish I could recall our guide's name. He was a genial older fellow who, before we walked into the old walled city of Derry, said that he was just there to tell the truth of things and that there was wrong on all sides.

Our guide started with the Plantation of Ulster, the forced colonization of Derry with Scottish settlers. We walked the wall, saw the British troop barracks and watch posts which were used to look down upon the Irish Catholics of Bogside. When he recounted Bloody Sunday, the protests that turned deadly on January 30th, 1972 leaving 13 unarmed citizens dead in the streets after a confrontation with British Troops, our eyes were filled with tears. Our tour ended with the recounting of the Good Friday (peace) Agreement of 1998 and a warm & fuzzy view of Peace Bridge. The tour cost five pounds sterling and is worth far more.

View from peace bridge in londonderry. by joanna dacosta 01/2015.

The rest of our afternoon was spent shopping, visiting historic sights and walking across the Peace Bridge. The Peace Bridge(Foyle) is beautiful and the symbolism is strong. It connects to two communities of protestant Waterside and catholic Bogside. The view is amazing. We walked the bridge to Bogside and stopped. You know that feeling you get when you're someplace where you're not meant to be? That is the feeling that my sister and I had in our stomachs when we stepped off the bridge. We walked back, keeping a good pace, and caught our train back to Belfast. It was a really enlightening and emotionally heavy day. 

Edinburgh gins - rhubarb & ginger liqueur. joanna dacosta 01/2015

After our long day, we decided to dine at Molly's Yard which is walking distance to Tara Lodge. This was another culinary surprise. The atmosphere was cozy and intimate. The menu was sophisticated. Our server, Colleen, was great. I loved my desert of rice pudding and "boozy" prunes. Colleen suggested a rhubarb & ginger liqueur to finish. It was quite "lush" as Colleen put it.

Before turning in, we arranged to take the Game of Thrones tour. I was surprised when the tour guide popped around to the hotel in the morning and picked us up. We were prepared to catch a cab to their office. It was a great personal touch. I was a little concerned that my sister who never watched GOT would be bored, but this was an amazing tour. The Northern Irish coastline is just breath taking. That may actually be an understatement. This was an all day tour, we were exhausted on our returned and just grabbed some fish & chips before falling into bed.

On our last morning before returning to Dublin we decided to take a Black Cab tour. The driver started talking about the Troubles, and I just wanted to see Van Morrison's house. My sister and I were still done in from our visit to Londonderry. Our taxi driver pretty much ignored our request, and I am glad he did. He drove us through all of the Belfast Trouble's hot spots, drove us to the catholic areas and took us to the different murals. It was literally one of the most eye opening experiences that I have ever had in my life.

The Black Cab Tour was like looking at the US with our race problems and taking the race part out. We saw catholic homes with chicken wire enclosing them to keep stones and fire bombs out of the house. There were political murals everywhere. There were actual walls or "peace lines" physically separating Catholics and Protestants.

This wasn't the romantic Northern Irish struggle I imagined as a girl. This was seeing the remnants of hundreds of years of oppression. This was the peace. Was it peace or just cessation of fighting?

One of the last places our driver took us was to a mural that floored me. It was a mural of black Americans, black South Africans and black Jamaicans held up as freedom fighters and beacons of hope in Belfast, Ireland. Take a minute and let that sink in. I wonder what our driver thought of the two black American passengers who initially didn't want to be bothered with hearing anything else about "The Troubles".

Cyprus Avenue

I did finally get to Van Morrison's house. I found a new wonder for all of his songs about love and the beauty of Ireland. How he could hold onto poetry and beauty in the height of the violence? When we checked out of our hotel, the man behind the counter said, "Come back to Belfast and tell your friends. We only have eight, or so bombings a year now." I laughed.

While waiting for our train, which was delayed, an over head sign flashing information briefly made mention of a bomb on the tracks then blithely moved along to the next item. No one seemed concerned. It was just business as usual. I looked to the news on my phone and saw that a car bomb had gone of the night before, and there were possibly several devices on the track. Half an hour later we were aboard our train and heading back to Dublin. I wonder if our visitors to America are similarly surprised at the level of disinterest that we have towards shootings.

This is not a cautionary tale. This isn't a warning. Northern Ireland was an incredible experience. There is so much to see for which I didn't have time, like the Titanic museum. I plan on returning soon. I hope you take the time to visit. If you're planning to visit, contact me, I'd love to plan your trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland.