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.
Have circumstances ever had it to where you went somewhere or did something spontaneously, that you otherwise didn’t plan beforehand? Sometimes things happen out of the blue that ultimately push you in a direction that was previously unforeseen to you. Typically those occurrences tend to be memorable, be it for good or bad.
What if we told you that you could plan and create the good ones?
While many of these surprise instances occur in general life, many happen within the realm of travel that ultimately you cannot foresee, like meeting new friends and being invited to their house for local traditional cuisine (which just isn’t the same in a restaurant). Experiences like these are great and are truly what’s wonderful about traveling.
But especially when considering getting from one place to another, the power of circumstance is really in your hands. If time and schedule permit it, areas in between your planned destinations can add an enriching, unexpected adventure to your trip.
While searching for bargains, don’t overlook the areas in between your departing city and destination. Literally look at the map and see what’s in the middle and you may end up getting a bonus jaunt that you never would have even thought of.
We’ve been fortunate enough to take advantage of this method a few times on this trip, but the one most rewarding is our current, which happened out of brainstorming how we were eventually getting back home in the Spring.
We originally had it in our minds that we were going to leave from Malta and venture to either Paris or London for a short sit before flying back to the East Coast. This was especially the case as these cities were the cheapest to depart from; so we thought...
Not only was the flight from Malta to Dublin substantially cheaper than to London or Paris, it was also more cost-efficient for flying back home. And to put the cherry on top, two fantastic house-sits enabled us to turn a few days in Dublin into a month-long adventure around the island.
As you can imagine, this within itself has brought amazing experiences that we otherwise would have missed out on, including Melissa being able to reconnect with relatives in Galway after 13 years, and you just can’t put a price on that.
So now, unfortunately, we are at the end of this originally-unexpected trip across the Island of Ireland and it’s time to book the tickets to leave from here to home.
After looking at flights from Dublin & Belfast back to America, we again conversed and decided to break out the map, as we had a slight wonder about what the feasibility of a stop-over in Reykjavik might be.
Lo and behold, a flight from Belfast to Reykjavik ($44!!) and then Reykjavik back to JFK combined to be cheaper than Belfast straight to JFK. Unfortunately, with only a handful of days left in Schengen Territory (more on that later), we have yet to find a short pet-sit, but nevertheless are thrilled about this very unique opportunity.
So if the time permits, don’t be afraid to peruse the map and explore some options between points A & B; you never know what you might find.
To all of our friends and family: Yes, we are (gradually) making our way back home. But for now, we are enjoying these final, unexpected opportunities! :)
Have you ever wanted to go to Barcelona? Who wouldn’t, right?
With it’s unique Catalan culture and language, the Mediterranean Sea, and ancient history, this is an international destination for any traveler.
What about Dublin? I mean, another astounding YES, right?
Most of us have enjoyed a pint of Guinness and have been told by pretentious friends that, “It’s so much better-tasting when you drink it in Dublin.”
This modern metropolis ties centuries-old tradition together perfectly to form a major global hub of the arts, technology and history.
“How on Earth could this happen?” you might ask.
Well, it just so happened in these two spots, that the towns themselves and the immediate surrounding areas turned out to be hidden gems that we had no idea about prior to arriving. These sits especially, have really revealed to us the notion that living like a local offers so much more than wearing the tourist hat.
These attractions are what we envisioned when we signed up for pet-sits in the greater metros of these iconic cities. We were delighted that these sits were three- and two-week-long stays, as we had plans to regularly explore every nook and cranny with our pets. And despite not being right in the city center, both locations offered easy and quick train rides downtown.
So after our combined five weeks in the two cities, we ended up visiting a grand total of 1-TIME.
It feels as though, now, that if we had focused on Barcelona & Dublin exclusively, we would have missed out on broadening activities, like experiencing an annual fire festival (we have the burn marks on our clothes to prove it) in Sant Pere de Ribes with newly-found friends, or immersing ourselves in live Irish folk music while celebrating Good Friday with a pint for the first time (www.pioneeringpetpals.com/blog/aoine-an-cheasta-to-you) in a quaint coastal town.
The City of Tarragona was a short train ride away and offered fantastic glimpses into ancient Roman life in the forms of a greatly preserved amphitheater, city walls and an impressive acqueduct, which citizens relied upon for their water consumption, bathing and cleaning. This city was truly a sight to behold and we were even able to take Harry on the train with us!
Moreover, a really introspective experience in County Meath came in the form of Newgrange, an ancient Neolithic burial and ceremonial site. To the untrained eye, this area might just look like a big hill or mound, but once you get up close, you can see the near-impossible feat our ancestors of 5,000 years ago took to create such an awe-inspiring marvel.
Three generations of work in the making, these early Irishmen used their ingenuity and brute strength to move several-ton boulders from miles away and assemble them into an architecturally-sound passageway and chamber.
Here, they carved beautiful designs in the stone to honor the remains of their loved ones who were set to rest amidst the chamber. It was here where their spirits would dwell until the winter solstice, when the dawning sun would rise and perfectly slip through the only window of the structure and run down the passageway to the chamber, where the sun god would extend his hand to the waiting souls and take them up to Heaven (our tour guide demonstrated this by turning all of the lights out inside and used his flashlight to mimic the sun, which that alone gave us chills).
But really, the accessibility to trails and parks enabled us to take our dogs-at-the-time, for long adventures that we all really enjoyed. From seaside cliffs, national parks and a religious Mecca in Montserrat, to sheep-populated fields and seals bobbing in the bay in an old Viking town, these are memories that we will certainly hold dear, and we like to think that Harry, Eli & Kim will, too.
Don’t get us wrong, we ended up visiting both Barcelona & Dublin and absolutely loved them. Everything we mentioned previously about both holds true and then some, and will certainly make it a point to return.
However, being lucky enough to be situated in such ideal locations for a good length of time enabled us to really explore and find out about these magical areas of Spain & Ireland, that sadly (or maybe not so sadly) many travelers will not get the opportunity to visit.
And to do a lot of these things with our furry friends really makes it that much more special.