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Tourist and Non-Tourist Ireland and Northern Ireland

A city with enormous and often-painful history, Northern Ireland's second city is Derry to the Irish Nationalists (and road sign makers in the Republic), and Londonderry to the Loyalists (and road sign makers in Northern Ireland).

Our group of 17 students and three adults is met at the airport by Jon McCourt, a former IRA man turned peace activist. He shepherds us onto an elderly Mercedes bus—we're going to see a lot of this particular bus in the next week—and off we go north into the countryside.

The first thing I notice is how multicultural the whole country seems to be. Driving through places like Drogheda (pronounced dráh–kha–dah) (Republic) and Omagh (Northern Ireland), we see Afghani kebab shops, Indian restaurants, Polish and Baltic groceries mixed right in with all the Irish pubs. Jon says there's been a lot of emigration from Eastern Europe, especially once they joined the Eurozone and were entitled to hassle–free immigration—but also from Africa and South Asia.

Drogheda is a surprisingly large town, with a lot of history. The site of a massacre by Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s, it's also associated with the ministry and martyrdom of Saint Oliver Plunkett, who was framed and executed after doing community organizing and performing such radical activities as opening a school that served both Catholics and Protestants. St. Peter's Church (www.saintpetersdrogheda.ie) actually displays his head and a few of his bones, along with the door to his prison cell in England. The church is also home to quite a few lovely stained glass windows, a beautiful bas-relief of the Last Supper in the altar, a magnificent pipe organ, and quite a bit of other art, following a restoration in 1996. A few blocks in one direction, a ruined church with big stone arches–according to Jon, the site of Cromwell's massacre. The other direction led to a gate that had been part of the 13th-century ramparts surrounding the city.

A bit out of town, Monasterboice is well worth a stop. Once an abbey, what mostly remains is a classic round tower (in the old days, a place where the locals took refuge during a Viking siege, and met their doom there)–and the graveyard, including several massive Celtic crosses dating back 1000 years or so, each elaborately sculpted with biblical story themes. Most of the visible graves, though, were much newer. The majority were 20th-century, and the oldest other than the crosses that I saw was from 1799. I guessed that the cemetery was layered, and the older graves were several layers deep. Looking at the above-ground gravesites in many places, Jon said I was probably correct.

From there, we passed into Northern Ireland and through Omagh, site of the most violent IRA car bombing, with 29 deaths, in 1998 (after the Troubles had largely settled down, for the most part). There's a glass monument at the site, and according to John, the death count was higher because of a false report that the bomb was a couple of blocks farther uptown, at the courthouse so the authorities herded people down toward the actual location. And then back into the Republic, in Donegal, to Inch House, Burnfoot–our home for the next week on lovely, rural Inch Island, at an educational center dedicated to conflict resolution.

There are a few obvious differences crossing between countries: Euros vs. pounds, kilometers vs. miles, Gaelic/English vs. English-only signage, and road signs pointing to Derry vs. Londonderry. But where we crossed, it's easy to miss the actual border. You're in Strabane in Ulster, and then you cross a river and you're in Lifford in the Republic. At the border on the Buncrana-Derry road between County Donegal in the Republic and County Derry in Northern Ireland, it took me several crossings before I noticed the stone marker, sign to note that speed limits are calculated differently, and a small, unobtrusive "welcome to Donegal" sign.]

Inishowen Peninsula

Misty hills and rivers. The highlight was Grianàn, a 1400-year-old ring fort on top of a tall hill, built on the ruins of a much older Bronze Age structure, able to control four river valleys. It had no roof, and Tony Johnston (proprietor of Inch House and our guide for the day) said it was probably built without one. It may have had both religious and security purposes and according to Wikipedia, was likely the seat of government of the Kingdom of Aileach. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grianan_of_Aileach] According to Let's Go Ireland, the site was used at least as far back as the Druids 4000 years ago, though the current fort dates from the 600s and was heavily restored from a ruined state–and was used for illegal Catholic masses during the years of the draconian anti-Catholic Penal Code.

Then down the hill to Burt Circular Chapel, St. Aengus Parish, a modern (1967) Catholic church, also in the round and clearly built to pay homage to the ring fort. (A nearby hotel repeats the round stone motif once again.)This was a product of Vatican II and the effort to democratize the church; the circular seating allows most congregants to be very close to the altar. It reminded me of the Church in the Rock in Helsinki, but it was much smaller and more austere. Some cool Celtic carvings grace a wall just outside the church.

Our final stop was the cemetery of a Protestant church in Fahan Parish, just off the causeway to Inch Island. There, we viewed the grave of Agnes Jones, trained by Florence Nightengale and credited with introducing hygienic nursing into Ireland. It's still possible to faintly discern the Greek letters on a couple of graves from around 600 AD, providing evidence that written Greek did survive in Ireland when it had been forgotten elsewhere. Graves from same period with Tree of Life and dove imagery made me wonder if Jews were buried there. The actual church contains work of a famous stained glass artist, but it was locked.Other attractions on the peninsula include the Doagh Famine Cottage, the little town of Buncrana with its surprisingly active nightlife, several mountains and some of the best-reputed beaches in Ireland.

Derry/Londonderry

A city with enormous and often-painful history, Northern Ireland's second city is Derry to the Irish Nationalists (and road sign makers in the Republic), and Londonderry to the Loyalists (and road sign makers in Northern Ireland).

The city centre (as they spell it there) is jammed with beautiful Baroque, Georgian and Victorian buildings, from the magnificent cathedral-like Guild Hall with its ornate windows and clock tower (a secular building, long devoted to government–under renovation and closed to the public in the spring of 2012 as I wrote this) to the Verbal Arts Centre (an oral history and writing centre within a 19th-century gabled and turreted former Protestant primary school that looks like something out of Phillip Pullman's Oxford), to the taverns and stores and towers of the Diamond, as the central square is known.

What you don't know by just looking is that dozens of these buildings have been rebuilt after bombings.

The city walls were built by Ulster Protestants between 1613 and 1618. This city claims to be the only one in Europe that has maintained its entire original wall, which has never been breached by an invader–thus its nickname (one among many), "The Maiden City." At that time, the River Foyle (which runs through the heart of the city) was much wider, and the walls marked most of the territory of the island where the original city was built. Reclaimed land allowed the city to expand by orders of magnitude, over four centuries.

Later in the 17th Century, Catholic King James II of England (also on the throne of Scotland and Ireland) came to the city and was refused admission when a group of 13 "apprentice boys"–young men training in the various trades–got hold of the keys to all the city gates and locked the king and his men outside. The king, in turn, besieged the city for 105 days, blockading the river so supply ships couldn't deliver food and arms.

But when someone hung a crimson banner (rumored to have been dyed red by the blood of martyrs defending the walls), the ship captains knew the tides were right to run the blockade. And once the blockade was broken, James, unable to defeat Londonderry when it was starving, understood he could never take the city when its populace had been fed.

Each major church had its own primary school, but as Protestants left the city side of the Foyle for the opposite shore (called Waterside), many of the denominations could no longer support a school of their own. The one remaining Protestant grammar school is now mixed-denomination, and many of its students are bussed in.

And this is part of the sectarian story of Derry/Londonderry, where no trip is complete without walking through Bogside, site of the Bloody Sunday massacre of January, 1972. This Catholic community is home to a series of stunning murals about the Troubles as well as the Museum of Free Derry, which documents Bloody Sunday and other aspects of the conflict. The museum offers walking tours of Bogside guided by accredited guides who were directly impacted by Bloody Sunday, and it's a very powerful thing to walk through the streets with someone who was there.

While the city and its neighborhoods are now committed to peace, and Loyalists work with Nationalists in all sorts of reconciliation activities, the tension hasn't gone away entirely. Signs and memorials and political graffiti are constantly visible. Still, there's a general understanding that 30 years of violence did not help anyone's cause, and the need to move on is beautifully expressed in the recently opened Peace Bridge, a pedestrian crossing between the city centre and Waterside, where the vast majority of Loyalists live. We were told that people who had never been to the opposite neighborhood crossed the bridge the day it was opened, and it's much used by both tourists and locals.

Derry is mercifully lacking in tacky souvenir shops; we saw only one. Compared to the dozen or so charity thrift shops in the centre, that's pretty remarkable. One tourist shop that is definitely worth a visit is The Donegal Shop, 8 Shipquay Street. This little store has a very fine textile collection. Every hat or scarf or sweater is beautifully crafted. Not cheap, but a satisfying experience even if you don't buy anything.

The Antrim Coast

On the far northern edge of Northern Ireland, north and east of the pleasant beach resort of Portrush, are three don't- miss attractions, all very close to each other.

First, Dunluce Castle, an extensive 16th-century ruin on the cliffs so close to the edge of the sea that the kitchen once fell in (during a banquet, no less). The MacDonnell Clan stronghold was heavily fortified and considered unbreachable; the two times it was conquered both involved inside assistance.

Next, Giant's Causeway, a remarkable series of giant red basalt naturally formed Legos, many of them flat tan hexagons stacked into pillars, rising out of a field of black lava. Thousands of the stones are very close in shape and size (perhaps two feet across), and the symmetry is one of the attractions.

The Irish legend has numerous variations, some of which can be seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant's_Causeway. The one we were told is that this was a causeway to Staffa Island in Scotland, a mere eleven miles away and with a similar volcanic formation, built by the giant Finn McCool (a Paul Bunyan figure who features prominently in Irish folklore) to bring back his bride, the sister of another giant, Benandonner. Benandonner, McCool's enemy, stormed across the causeway to fight McCool, who pretended to be a baby and tricked the Scottish giant into thinking McCool was much larger and stronger than he was. The terrified Benandonner ran back across to Scotland, destroying the causeway as he fled.

Visitors get to see not only the causeway, but also rock formations known as McCool's pet lion, his grandmother, his head, and even his pipe organ. The causeway wall is a popular spot to climb and photograph (and you'll hear many of the world's languages spoken by others at the wall. Beyond, a short footpath leads directly to the base of the pipe organ, and from there, up to the top of the cliffs.

Finally, visit the tiny uninhabited island of Carrick-a-rede, accessible only by the famous rope bridge: two planks over a wire mesh, dangling from a pair of ropes, high over water and sharp rock. In the old days, dozens of shepherds crossed over a much more precarious single-rope bridge every day. Today, while it looks terrifying, it's actually quite easy to cross, and the complex offers wonderful scenic views of the cliffs, caves, and sea.

Both the causeway and the bridge are administered by the National Trust, custodian of many historic and scenic sites around the UK. If visiting both, consider a membership, especially if you qualify for the educational rate, and particularly if your itinerary includes other Trust properties. It may be cheaper than buying a bunch of separate admissions.

We ended our day with dinner in Portrush. I can recommend without hesitation Don Giovanni's, 9-13 Causeway Street, http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g209952-d1872149-Reviews-Don_Giovanni_s- Portrush_County_Antrim_Northern_Ireland.html. Well-prepared Italy-style thin-crust pizzas and a wide selection of pastas, reasonable prices, and an accommodating staff. The food would be good anyway, but after a week of Irish cuisine, garlic, tomato sauce, and red pepper flakes were especially welcome.

Glenveagh National Park

Spectacular views of lakes and mountains, a hike through peat bogs and marshes, a 19th-century castle/hunting lodge with most of its original furnishings, several splendid gardens (rhododendrons and azaleas were blooming during our May visit), and an inside look at the lives of the upper-upper class from the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II. 21 completely different sets of china, each containing more than 300 pieces! Greta Garbo stayed here, and John Knowles wrote A Separate Peace here.

While I've seen more interesting examples of the 1%'s home's and palaces, not many are as scenically situated. The house tour and garden access, at E5, is optional; no charge to walk the 4 km (a bit over 2 miles) up to it.

Titanic Belfast

"Purpose-built" (as they say in these parts) to be a major tourist attraction, this huge new museum opened March 31, 2012, and its building within sight of the old shipyards where Titanic and her sister ships were built is already a Belfast landmark. Even on a Tuesday in May, it was drawing a good crowd.

The museum starts with a very good introduction to the history of working-class Belfast, with exhibits covering not only shipbuilding but other key industries, especially linen. I found this section enjoyable and interesting, although using as much audio as it does, the museum would benefit greatly from headsets instead of having visitors sort out six or eight different audio streams coming from different parts of the galleries. This section had a clever device I haven't seen before: actual historical photos, enlarged to fill a wall, with video silhouettes of people in period dress superimposed so they appear to walk the streets, as well as some cameras that added silhouettes of some of the visitors. This made the whole photo appear alive, and it was a while before my brain processed the information that only the silhouettes were moving, and these were actually black-and-white still photos from 100 or more years ago.

Then there's a quick ride that's supposed to simulate ship construction, which I found annoying, uninformative, and not worth the time I spent waiting for my turn. Couldn't even get a decent photo, because the car is constantly jerking around to a different direction.

Next, some galleries chronicling the Titanic's construction, launch, and voyage. One area covers the partially completed and not-yet-outfitted ship's launch from Belfast. Other galleries convey the experience of being on the ship, including not only the glitterati of their time, but also the 2nd and 3rd class passengers, as well as both elite and low-level members of the crew. A few individuals' stories are highlighted–some who survived, including "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, and some who perished. I appreciated the attention to class issues throughout the museum.

I somehow missed the section on the Titanic's story in film over the years, even including a Nazi propaganda film that depicted a German as the heroic rescuer getting women and children into the lifeboats.

Not to be missed: the four-minute 3-D video simulated tour of the empty ship, starting at the boiler rooms and completing at the wheel house on the top deck.

Another cool section covers the discovery and salvage, sweeping the sea floor to show detritus such as shoes and bottles.

One surprise: how few actual artifacts were on display. There are far more in the tiny little Titanic museum crammed into one room behind a jewelry store in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts.

Dublin

A city both vibrant and beautiful, and by luck, actually sunny and warm during our visit. Very multicultural, and also very walkable. From Parnell Square to Temple Bar on the opposite side of the River Liffey is only about ten minutes, and from Temple Bar to St. Stephen's Green about the same. Much of the city dates from the Georgian period (mid-1700s to mid-1800s)

Literary Dublin

It would be possible to spend every waking minute immersed in writerly culture for several days straight.

Start your literary immersion at Dublin Writers Museum, 18 Parnell Square North, www.writersmuseum.com. The features brief bios, sample works, occasional artifacts, and historical trivia relating to hundreds of years of Irish literature will give context for everything else you'll explore later. Only writers no longer living are featured, but the range is impressive. Of course, there are the obvious, like Jonathan Swift (who managed two simultaneous long-term unmarried liaisons over several decades), James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker, and George Bernard Shaw–but also quite a few I wasn't familiar with, including a scattering of women. You can see a facsimile copy of the Book of Kells without waiting in the long line or paying the hefty admission fee to see the real thing. E8.50, but pick up a discount coupon from your hotel or the tourist information offices. Allow about two hours.

Don't miss the amazing Chester Beatty Library, at the back of Dublin Castle. This free museum has an enormous collection of manuscripts, many of them beautifully illustrated, going all the way back to papyrus scrolls written by Saint Paul. Something of a specialty in religious texts from around the world: Qua'rans, Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, Christian Bibles, and one Hebrew Torah scroll. There were also some massive pieces of Oriental art furniture, several prints by Albrecht Dürer and a gruesome series of antiwar pictures by Goya. No charge. Two hours recommended here, as well.

There's also a literary pub crawl, among other events: actors bring you from pub to pub and do dramatic readings of the writer's works as you reach their favorite haunts.

And if you pass an interesting statue, ask if the locals have a name for it. The statue of Molly Mallone and her wheelbarrow at the entrance to Trinity College is "the tart with the cart" (cockles and mussels were not all she sold, apparently), and a lovely woman in a pool on the west side of town is "the floozie in the jacuzzi." This is a culture that understood sound bites long before television existed.

Other literary sites in Dublin include the James Joyce House (adjacent to the bridge named for him), Trinity College Library (featuring the Book of Kells, as well as a rare surviving original printing of the 1916 Easter rising independence proclamation, and a massive collection of antique books), the National Library (equivalent to the Library of Congress and containing a copy of every book published in the country, as well as a major exhibit on Yeats), several theatres with a world-class reputation (among them the Abbey and the Gate), an 18-hour self-guided walking tour through Joyce's Ulysses (several variations available at ), George Bernard shaw's birthplace, and probably dozens of others.

Other Passions

It would be just as easy to pick an itinerary based on music, Irish history and archaeology, drinking, visual and sculptural arts, sports (including your chance to try such native events as hurling or Irish football–which looks like a weird melange of rugby, soccer, basketball, and American football but is actually older than most of those)–or pretty much anything else. Dublin, a city of just over 1.2 million, has a lot going on.

Random Discoveries

Capel Street, from Parnell south to the River Liffey: numerous Asian restaurants (Chinese, Korean, Filipino). J. McNeil pub and musical instrument shop has traditional music Thursday and Friday evenings. South of the river, Capel becomes Parliament Street. One block in on the left is Mezze Lebanese pizzeria, where I got an awesome and very large falafel sandwich including salad, onions, hummus, tahini, and hot sauce.

French breads and pastries at Paris Bakery, 18, Moore Street (a street that also has an outdoor produce market and several international food courts for cheap and interesting lunch buffets featuring cuisine of both the Asian and African sides of the Indian Ocean).

Parnell Street east of Parnell Square starts as a row of Irish pubs, but rapidly morphs into a large Asiatown: Korean, Malaysian, Japanese, Filipino, as well as Chinese.

Cafe Bia, O'Connell Street near the Spire, is a good place for crepes, scones, and coffee (in this town with remarkably few cafes).

Milano, in Temple Bar: Quite decent pizza and an extremely accommodating staff.

Hop On, Hop Off Bus

Two competing companies run unlimited-access buses with live narration. We chose a package from the Dublin City Bus (the green ones) that included a very nice guided walking tour of downtown, a return ride to the airport (aboard the 747 city bus, not the airport express) and 48 hours on the Hop On. The bus can get you to many points of interest, including the Jameson distillery museum, the massive (40-acre) Guinness complex, Kilmainham Gaol (where Easter Rising conspirators were imprisoned and executed), vast Phoenix Park, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (housed, with typical Irish irony, in a soldiers' retirement home built in the 1680s), and of course many downtown sites. The quality of the tour will depend on the driver's mood, of course. We got one who was excellent, and one who mediocre. Important: if your goal is merely to get somewhere, the slow meander through Dublin's most crowded streets will not do you well. Hop on the Luas (tram) or a regular city bus instead–or just walk; it's only about 40 minutes all the way out to Kilmainham.

Side Trip: Howth

About 40 minutes on the #31 series of buses takes you from Abbey Street a couple of blocks off O'Connell to Howth Summit, the top of a scenic hill above the small town of Howth (both Howth and neighboring Sutton are also accessible by DART rail).Get off the bus and walk down the hill on the blue trail to a scenic overlook of the town (and some paths to get to it), or walk up the hill to the cliff walk. We ended up following the purple trail along a big chunk of cliffwalk, descending slowly and beautifully to Sutton, and including a few spots near the bottom where it was very easy to get out on the beach. It was a really nice hike, and for the first two hours, almost empty of other people. Near the bottom we started running into dog walkers and groups of European tourists. The only problem was that this particular route offered no way out after the lighthouse until we got all the way to Sutton, and then we still had to walk another 20 minutes or so past the junction of the summit road, because buses run much more frequently to Howth Summit than to the base.

This was my favorite of all the hikes we did in Ireland, and so close to Dublin!

Bring good walking shoes, a water bottle, long sleeves and long pants (the trail is a bit brambly in places)–and a camera.

Galway

Described as Ireland's most livable city, Galway is attractive, touristy, and fun. With only 70,000 people or so, it's far smaller than Dublin, and has a very compact downtown, full of cafes, pubs, tourist shops, restaurants, waterfront views, street musicians…per capita, it seems like a more happening place than Dublin. It's also a much cheaper place to buy high- quality woolen goods than either Dublin or Derry–perhaps not surprising, since it's the nearest city to the Aran Islands, where much of Ireland's sweater industry is concentrated. There are several adjoining stores; we got a beautiful scarf at O'Maille, 16 High Street, www.omaille.com

By happy accident–a chance conversation with a shopkeeper who happened to be the official bell ringer–we got to ring the bells at the 12th–century St. Nicholas Church (Anglican), where Columbus reputedly prayed on his last stop in the Old World. My wife, who had played carillon during her school years at Cornell, played the Cornell alma mater and several other songs.

Another happy accident: our day in Galway Town was a Saturday, so we got to enjoy the weekly outdoor market, which not only offers lots of organic and even some biodynamic–a much stricter certification–produce, but also such delights as handmade raw chocolate, soaps, craft items, and hot food stalls offering inexpensive lunch items including crepes, falafel, and Indian food. The market is just outside St. Nicholas Church and adjacent to the wonderful Sherman's Cheesemongers–itself well worth a stop for its amazing selection of artisan cheeses and some free samples.

Day Trip from Galway: Cliffs of Moher and the Burren

Some places are jammed with tourists simply because they're just really cool. Such a. Place is the Cliffs of Moher, a spectacular scenic vista rising 213 meters up from the sea, with mist-shrouded views of the Aran Islands, the Connemara coast, and of course, the curved series of cliffs and the dramatic rock formation known as The Stack. Walk left and go past the crowds; you can get dramatic photos including both the Stack and the castle tower–a 19th-century fake built to extract money from tourists, and still doing a very good job at it. Instead of walking to the tower, hit the visitors centre for a lovely photo exhibit of the cliffs in various weather and light conditions, and some of the plant and animal life (even a puffin).

The half–day tour we chose, through Healy Bus, included several stops in and around The Burren, a large limestone mountain that appears from a distance as a single bare rock. When you actually walk on it, though, you see that the stones are broken up, and in some places, teeming with plant life. In fact, many species of plants and animals are found nowhere else in the country. 28 of Ireland's 33 species of butterflies can be found here. We didn't find out until we were already on the bus and stopped to pick up the walkers that an earlier departure would have included a guided hike.

However, we did get to do at least a bit of rock–walking as we explored the 5500–year–old Neolithic tomb at Poulnabrone Dolmen, a little limestone beach, and the courtyard of Dunguaire Castle. And from the bus, we glimpsed one of six remaining authentic thatched–roof cottages in the county, as well as quite a few newer buildings with thatched roofs, including a hotel that claims the largest such roof in the world. Our guide also pointed put an ancient earthen ring fort, but despite a second pass, we couldn't locate it.

Warning: although the website says it returns around 5, the 11:20 tour actually returned more like 6:20 on the day we went.

A Scenic Side Note

Many places in Ireland have beautiful springtime scenery, mixing luscious deep greens, bright greens, and the beautiful yellow fields of rapeseed in bloom. One of my favorites was along the N20 from Limerick to Mallow: mountains, rolling fields of the lushest green I've seen outside of Guatemala, and the occasional quaint town.