Don’t give yourself ONE day to see everything, like we did!
I originally booked our trip not realizing how many fun things there were to do in Northern Ireland. I didn’t do the exhaustive research I typically would, because about the time I was booking it my daughter announced her engagement. I’m kind of a one-thing-at-a-time person and had less time than I would have liked to put the wedding together, so I dropped everything and planned the wedding, and then hurried to finish trip-planning just a few days before we left.
If I had planned better, I would have booked at least one night in Belfast. Our itinerary worked–we drove from Sligo to Derry/Londonderry, where the roads immediately improved as we drove into Northern Ireland, and over to the Antrim Coast. We saw Dunluce Castle, The Giant’s Causeway, and Carrick-A-Rede, which are all very close to one another, then hit Belfast, then Newgrange and back to Dublin. But it was WAY too rushed!
We’ll plan better next time! Here are the things that we did see and love:
This is where they film Game of Thrones, which I’ve never seen. The ruins of Dunluce Castle, built on the dramatic coastal cliffs of County Antrim by the MacQuillan family, bears witness to a long and tumultuous history.
It was soon afterward seized by the MacDonnell clan around 1550, led by the famous warrior chieftain Sorely Boy MacDonnell.
In the 17th century Dunluce was the seat of the earls of County Antrim and saw the establishment of a small town in 1608. You can explore the findings of archaeological digs within the cobbled streets and stone merchants’ houses of the long-abandoned Dunluce Town.
An interesting local legend states that in 1639, part of the kitchen next to the cliff face collapsed into the sea, after which the owner’s wife refused to live in the castle any longer. Supposedly, when the kitchen fell into the sea, only a kitchen boy survived, as he was sitting in the corner of the kitchen which did not collapse. However, the kitchen is still intact next to the manor house. You can still see the oven, fireplace and entry ways into it. It wasn’t until some time in the 18th century that the north wall of the residence building collapsed into the sea. The east, west and south walls still stand. Make of that what you will.
The Giant’s Causeway
Thousands of years ago, (some geologists say millions) the Antrim coast was the site of intense volcanic activity. Highly fluid molten basalt seeped through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau. As the lava cooled it contracted and fractured somewhat like drying mud, with the cracks propagating downward through the mass as it cooled, leaving pillar-like structures, which over time fractured horizontally into “biscuits”
There is an entertaining myth that a Scottish giant, Benandonner, is threatening Ireland. An enraged Irish giant, Finn, grabs chunks of the Antrim coast and throws them into the sea, forming a ’causeway’ for Finn to cross and teach Benandonner a lesson.
Unfortunately, Finn sees Benandonner from a distance and realizes that he is alarmingly enormous! Finn beats a hasty retreat, followed by the giant, only to be saved by our hero’s quick-thinking wife who disguised him as a baby. The angry Scot sees the baby and decides if the child is that big, his father must be really huge, and Benandonner flees back to Scotland.
The myth may have been influenced by a group of identical basalt columns (a part of the same ancient lava flow) on the Scottish Isle of Staffa, directly across the sea.
We had fun climbing around the causeway, but were frustrated that we had to purchase two tickets to the Visitor’s Center, which we had heard was disappointing and did not want to bother with, in order to park and walk down to the Causeway. We drove around briefly and tried to find another place to park, but there wasn’t one–the visitor’s center has made sure of that. It was worth it, because where else can you see this phenomenon? But still frustrating.
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
Carrick-A-Rede is a rope bridge in Ballintoy, County Atrim, that connects the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede. It was originally built by salmon fishermen over 350 years ago so they could access the tiny island. It spans 66ft and is 98 feet above the rocks below. You buy your ticket up near the carpark and hike maybe a mile to where the rope bridge is, wait in line, cross it, wait in line again and cross back. It was exhilarating!
We only had a couple of hours in Belfast and we really wanted to take a black cab tour, which took up all of our time, but was worth it. You can schedule your tour in the Visitor’s center, pictured below. They will pick you up right out front, and you can use the waiting time to enjoy the beautiful architecture around that area.
You can choose from a couple of different black cab tours. We wanted the political tour, also called the mural tour, because we wanted to know more about Irish history. Deklan, our driver and tour guide, was an IRA member and participant in the troubles, so he gave us a firsthand account.
The political tour centered on the ‘troubles’, which occurred from 1960 to 2004 in Northern Ireland. My understanding is that it was a fight over the 6 counties of Ulster (Northern Ireland) by the Irish Catholics, who wanted them to remain with the Republic of Ireland, and the Protestants, who had emigrated from England to Ireland and wanted the 6 counties to belong to the United Kingdom. Ultimately the 6 counties were allowed to vote whether to stay or separate.
Deklan’s tour focused on how persecuted the Irish were by the Protestant’s as well as England, of course, and I fully sympathize with the Irish Catholics about the 6 northern counties, but it’s hard to completely believe all that you are being told when you are standing in front of huge murals of Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, renowned communists, as they are being praised for their revolutionary mindsets.
The tour moved from the Lower Falls road to Shankill road, where the violence that had taken place was still obvious, with damaged buildings and rundown housing prevalent, and the ironically misnamed Peace Wall, a 45′ tall Prison-esque structure that divides the Catholic and Protestant communities towering over the dilapidated housing.
If you stand near the Peace Wall and peer down it’s length, parallel to it, you can see the metal cage-awning-type structures that have been constructed by the inhabitants of the homes along their rears, which face the peace wall, to prevent further destruction from rocks, bricks, bottles and worse thrown over the wall by the Protestants.
The tour then visited the other side of the Peace Wall–the Protestant side–where we signed our names and were shown some pretty famous signatures. The tour culminated with a couple of murals in the Protestant neighborhood, one of William of Orange, and another a patchwork quilt with women’s names and then a quick stop at a prison, with an old, abandoned courthouse across the street.
The mural of William of Orange confused me. Declan had a STRONG North Ireland accent and was hard to understand, but it seemed like he was saying the Catholics grudge stems from back in 1690, when William of Orange, a staunch protestant, conquered Ireland, and that they continue to present day, which seems odd to me. I wonder, though, if we (The United States) were still controlled by England, if I would feel differently.
Some of the inner city schools are still segregated and whenever new housing is built in the city, the walls are lengthened as well. All of the gates in the walls are closed to traffic at night and on weekends. Half of the city flies the Union Jack, while the other half fly the Irish flag. The troubles have not ended, but they are lessening.
Visiting Belfast paradoxically gave me both greater understanding and further questions. Our black cab tour was fascinating and made our Belfast stop full and exciting, plus we left with more questions than we began with, which is great! We bought a couple of history books from an Irish bookstore before leaving.
Questions are a catalyst for learning!
Belfast is only about 2 hours north of Dublin, which was where we were headed next–to catch our flight home. Newgrange is on the way, but we were too late for a tour. Learn from our bad example and leave yourself more time, ha, ha! We stopped and took pictures anyway.
We were sad to leave Ireland, but happy to get back to our kids! We always miss them! And I think Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Nate, who are tending the kids and the farm, are happy to have us back as well!
Next time we will bring our kids for sure!
Read about the rest of our adventures in Ireland here: