During our “Brian Boru pilgrimage” in 2014, we only made our way up to Northern Ireland briefly, to see the church where the high king was buried following his death at Clontarf. So, we looked forward to seeing this reputedly beautiful part of the island. It did not disappoint. And, though I already put in a good review for him on Tripadvisor, I want to put in a plug for our guide and driver, Mark and the Black Taxi Tours. In the space of a fairly long day, Mark got us to some of the highlights of Northern Ireland, with a fairly in-depth history lesson about the conflict over the past years. I highly recommend this tour, company and Mark!
Belfast became a substantial settlement in the 17th century after being established as a town by British administrator, Sir Arthur Chichester. It was initially settled by Protestant English and Scottish migrants. By the early 19th century, Belfast was a major port, paying a major part in the “Industrial Revolution.” Granted city “status” in 1888, Belfast was at one time, the biggest linen-producer in the world, as well as a major ship yard and rope-making center. The Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built the RMS Titanic, was the world’s biggest shipyard. This all made Belfast Ireland’s biggest city for a brief time. Belfast was heavily bombarded during WWII. This growth and prosperity was not, however, without strife. Throughout Ireland’s history, there has been significant discord, much of it over the issues of home rule, and independence. In 1886 Belfast was rocked by rioting over the issue of home rule, which had divided much of Ireland and particularly, Belfast. The problems would continue through to present day.
While Belfast’s run as a global industrial power ended after WWI, in 1945, it remains a major port today, with commercial and industrial docks, including the Harland and Wolff shipyard, dominating the Belfast shoreline. In 1920–22, Belfast became the capital of the new entity of Northern Ireland as the island of Ireland was partitioned, as a result of the Irish War of Independence in which the Republic of Ireland gained its freedom from Britain. Northern Ireland remained a constituent country of the United Kingdom, along with Great Britain, Scottland and Wales.
The next 30 years were filled with – often violent – conflict (perhaps euphemistically referred to in Ireland as “The Troubles.” Any attempt here to explain this conflict would be feeble. I commend you to do some research and reading on your own if you are not already familiar with this period of Northern Ireland’s history. We heard a fair amount about it, and it really puts some of what we saw and heard into context.
We started our tour with a brief drive through the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, and in particular, a visit to the dry dock where the RMS Titanic was build and originally floated. That part of the port has also become currently famous as the set for some of the scenes in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
Because Belfast was one of our shortest stops, and because of the nature or our tour, which focused on the Northern Coastline, we spent very little time in Belfast City. This was unfortunate, and I hope to return there one day and get a better feel for the city. Mark showed us a small area which he compared with Dublin’s Temple Bar area. It was early in the morning and nothing was moving, but it looks like a place to visit during the evening hours.
During “The Troubles,” at some point, the British were called upon to intervene and British Troops were brought in. Each of the two factions lived in separate parts of the city. Among other things, walls were constructed to separate them and a curfew was imposed. There are doors and gates in the walls which were locked at night. They are still closed at night to this very day. Although the violence has pretty much subsided, it is still discomfiting to drive along those walls.
Our first stop out of town was an area of very old and majestic Beech Trees lining a short road between two farm fields. Known as “The Dark Hedges,” it is said to be the most photographed scene in Northern Ireland. I added to the tally 🙂 . This scene is apparently attractive enough that the Game of Throne producers filmed a scene (The Kings Road; Season 2, Episode 1) there, perhaps adding to its already popular cache’.
We then headed up to another famous and popular scene at the northern tip of the island of Ireland; “The Giant’s Causeway.”
The Dark Hedges were en route to our next destination, Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway. I may need to clarify a bit here. “Bushmills,” contrary to some peoples’ first thought, is not Irish Whiskey (well, not entirely anyway 🙂 ). Situated on the Bush River, Bushmills is one of the prettiest little country villages I have ever seen. We stopped near the bridge into town, over the Bush River, to shoot this pretty little mill (today, I believe it is a gift shop/restaurant). Of course, we would be back later in the day, to visit the Bushmills Distillery.
My image of the Giant’s Causeway is not the typical shot seen on a Google Search. There were hundreds of people climbing around on the rocks, and I just didn’t get anything I liked up close. This shot is more distant, as you begin the walk down to the causeway. This has become a major tourist attraction and park, complete with museum, gift shop, and pay-trolleys. For all the hype, Mark promised us more spectacular views than the causeway, and I agree with him 100%. I think you will, too.
We had an “appointment” with the good folks at the Bushmills Distillery, so we headed back there to do a little tasting. I am pretty sure I had never had even a sip of Bushmills prior to this day.
The history and science of making “whiskey” (“whisky” in Scotland), is fascinating. Enough so, that I will devote a post specifically to our tasting experiences (coming soon). For now, suffice it to say that although I found the “standard” Irish whiskey a bit difficult to drink, all of the distilleries have begun to make more “craft” style whiskey – generally meaning it is aged in prior-used barrels (bourbon, sherry, cognac, etc.,) and that imbues the drink with more (subjectively “better”) flavors and generally a sweetness and more full body, which I enjoyed.
On the way to our tasting, we followed the northeastern coast along the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, back to Belfast. In 2014, we visited the famed “Cliffs of Mohr” and I made many photos of that dramatic seacoast. I don’t think I believed Ireland could have anything more impressive to offer. I may have been wrong. The opening image here, just south of Royal Portrush golf course – where “The” (British) Open is being played as I write, is a scenic view that is a dramatic and beautiful as I have seen anywhere in the world. Slightly further south, Dunluce Castle stands as a medieval monument to early settlement of the region. It can be seen from the golf course and has been shown numerous times during the telecast. It is mostly ruins, but is one of the most dramatic castles we have seen – largely because of its setting.
Meandering further down the coastline, we stopped at a vantage point where we could see and photograph the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, now owned by the Irish National Trust. Our guide indicated that not only was there a fee to cross it, but generally a fairly long wait. We were content to photograph it from afar.
All in, this was perhaps one of the best excursion days we have had in all the years of cruising, with a nice mix of sightseeing, whiskey tasting, and some Northern Ireland history. I hope to be back there one day soon.