Preface: This is merely an account of our own observations as we’ve traveled the island. We fully appreciate the sensitive nature of the civic tensions, especially the last half-century. We regret to offend anyone who’s been affected by the conflict.
Before voyaging to Ireland, we had a basic understanding of the political landscape and cultural divide that the Island of Ireland has endured. We didn’t, however, grasp the intricacies of a past that has been woven by both internal and external forces for many a century.
We came over by very fortunate happenstance and have thoroughly enjoyed both the southern and northern parts of the island. That is to say, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, respectfully. You see, these are two completely different countries, and have been since 1921. At that time, after years of uprisings against the British, the two sides compromised to allow Ireland to receive its own republic in the south and Britain to retain control of 6 counties in the north, with Belfast as the new capitol.
All’s well that ends well, yeah?
The British have influenced the Emerald Isle for over 8 centuries, especially the last 4, when the Crown began heavy colonization. They made it a point to try and “civilize” the Irish through attempts at converting them to Protestantism, a gradual nixing of their language and culture, and an upheaval from their lands.
As you might guess, this led to great resentment of Britain and with that came many revolts. Despite these clashes, however, the British established a successful colony on the island, the north in particular, by the mid-17th century. Many Irishmen would begin to follow the Anglo religion and speak English in order to diminish discrimination and give their families a hope of a different life.
Different factions across the island could only take so much, though, and it all came to a head when the 1916 Rising sparked a movement for sovereignty.
This push, however, wasn’t shared by all. The Protestants, or Unionists, in the north largely wanted to stay loyal to the Crown. This, in part, led to the formation of Northern Ireland during the negotiation 5 years later.
Since that time, much of the same angst has been ongoing, but now with the island having 2 different political entities instead of 1. The Troubles, in some cases, pit brother versus brother in bloody conflict in much of Northern Ireland up until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was reached. The Nationalists, which tended to be comprised of a Catholic-majority, wanted to unify the island and rid it of British occupation. This contrasted with the Unionists, which were of a Protestant-majority and wanted to stay loyal to the Queen.
Additionally, the British army had also made its presence felt, which didn’t shy away from flexing its muscles; so much so that former British Prime Minister David Cameron made a direct apology to those affected by the armed forces in Northern Ireland, particularly during the infamous Bloody Sunday.
In all, the decades-long exchange left over 3,600 dead and thousands wounded, both physically and psychologically. This was a time of extreme tension and terror, with explosives liable to detonate at any time and anywhere.
During our time in Northern Ireland, especially, we were met with the sober reality of The Troubles in places like Derry and Belfast. Through the myriad signs, murals and walking tours on the streets of Rossville and Falls, we had a secondhand glimpse of what life was like during that time.
Despite the peace treaty 20 years previous, though, many locals we had the chance to talk with confirmed that they feared tensions could be escalated again in some areas. In fact, along Falls Road, the gates separating the two traditionally-opposing communities are still locked each night.
Moreover, during the July 12th Fortnight, pro-Unionists take to the streets in a parade of song and dance, sporting the Union Jack flag and complementary tunes. This is sometimes even done with no regard to the neighborhood en route, Catholic-majority or otherwise.
Additionally, it is over this fortnight that large groups of British loyalists gather sizable quantities of lumber pallets, tyres, and just about anything else they want to dispose of, and create very symmetrical stacks to set ablaze. Unfortunately though, some of the items are Ireland Republic flags and symbols, as well as effigies of Catholic figures, such as the Pope.
Now this, of course, does not represent the majority of the Northern Irish population, no matter where their allegiances may lie. Those that participate in these events and any display of violence are most certainly a small, fanatical minority of its citizens. And it also must be said that not all Catholics conform to the Nationalist Movement, just like not all Protestants take the side of the Unionists; that has just been the usual correspondence over the years.
Again, despite the reminders of the turmoil, this has not deterred us from having a fantastic time in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Just after crossing the Carrick-a-rede bridge in Northern Ireland, which is a 100-meter-long rope bridge connecting the island to the mainland. Now a tourist attraction, it used to be the only way the local fishermen could bring back the salmon. They held their nets full of fish with one hand and crossed the bridge with the other
The natural beauty is hard to parallel in any other region of the globe. The vast, rolling green hills giving way to massively-sculpted cliffs is truly a sight to behold.
The history is ready to pounce at you around every corner, from majestic castles to haunted pubs dating back to the Crusades.
But really, what makes the Emerald Isle such an honor to behold is its people.
Yes, the very people who’ve endured such a tough, complex existence for many hundreds of years.
The very people that saw countless days of bloodshed and injustice.
The very people that are living in a still-tense environment in parts of Northern Ireland.
These were some of the kindest, most welcoming people (and pets!) that we’ve come across on our travels. It’s nothing to them to nod and smile and be ready with enthusiasm if you ask for assistance.
And yes, they are even open to conversing about their island’s troubled past...often with ideas on a solution, and an optimistic vision of peace.