Unlike the Republic of Ireland (with its images of endless green fields, fountains of Guinness and melodious ballads with haunting tin whistle solos), Northern Ireland’s recent history (from the past 90 years) has left it with an unenviable reputation: riots, terrorism, military misbehaviour and the like. Nevertheless, there are lot of interesting things to see in Northern Ireland.
Hence, Northern Island can be a pleasant surprise – even though, in fairness, it shouldn’t be. The fields are just as green, the music is just as haunting, the leprechauns are just as non-existent (which is good, as I couldn’t imagine anyone so annoying), the accents are just as impenetrable (though very different), and most of the violence ended years ago.
Negotiating your way along the narrow and winding (but wonderfully smooth) roads of the Antrim coast, the waterfalls, emerald hills and mighty cliffs make it clear that the south of the island has no monopoly on Irish beauty.
In the north, the Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s answer to Uluru or the Grand Canyon – a natural wonder, millions of years old, that is so unique that it looks like a scene from a fantasy novel: thousands of basalt stone columns, facing the crashing waters of the North Channel.
Nearby is the village of Bushmills, famous for the whiskey of that name. (Unlike the Scottish, the Irish insistently spell ‘whiskey’ with an E.).
The distillery has operated since 1608, and now holds regular tours and tastings, where you can compare the smooth taste of Bushmills single malts with the smoky, vastly different flavour of Johnnie Walker.
It’s part of Northern Irish life. Hotels have bottles of Bushmills Original on the breakfast buffet, suggesting that you add it to your porridge.
Driving west (if your whiskey-tasting allows), you can reach Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, Londonderry – just Derry, or ‘Legen-derry’, to its denizens.
It has been designated the first UK City of Culture for 2013 – 400 years since a wall was constructed around the city centre to defend against English and Scottish settlers.
The wall still stands, sturdy and magnificent, though it has offered surprisingly little protection against centuries of upheaval, culminating in the civil rights movement of the late twentieth century.
It was the scene of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 13 unarmed civilian demonstrators were shot dead by British paratroopers.
How does this city carry the weight of its past? The same way that any sane people would do: they joke about it.
They can laugh about their violent history, without pretending that it never happened. Large and dramatic murals, painted on the walls of estates outside the walled city, show scenes from the conflicts of the recent past.
I was strongly advised to do a ‘warts and all’ tour, walking along the one-mile circumference of the walled city with local legend Martin McCrossan, who has shown people the sights for decades. He is older now, gradually losing his red hair, but his weathered face suggests that he clearly hasn’t had a life of relaxation.
After all, he’s spent most of it in Derry. But he is now friendly and constantly smiling, happy to be living through the peace.
To prove that he has none of the traditional regrets, he’s a Catholic, married to a Protestant. “We’ve been married for 28 years,” he says. “It only seems like 50, but that’s beside the point.”
Leaving Derry, the centre of Northern Ireland is filled with quiet towns and beautiful churches, both Catholic and Protestant.
In Armagh, the dominant buildings are both Saint Patrick’s Cathedrals – one of each. Both have stood there for hundreds of years.
Next to the Protestant St Patrick’s, separated by a gate, is the Uluru Bistro, winner of numerous awards in Northern Ireland (including Restaurant of the Year).
Uluru promotes itself as Northern Ireland’s only Australian restaurant, which didn’t really surprise me. Yet my waitress, bubbly and efficient, has a distinctly Northern Irish brogue. She is Sara Coppard, co-owner of Bistro with her husband, chef Dean. Now he’s an Aussie. The two of them met at Bondi Beach.
I’m not sure what ‘Australian cuisine’ is supposed to mean, but the menu reads well. Crispy squid with Asian vegetables and lime mayo. Char-grilled venison with wilted baby spinach.
Naturally, there is kangaroo on the menu – marinated, and served with braised red cabbage, kumera chips and a red wine jus.
Sara says that, while lamb or beef are seasonal, the imported kangaroo is the only meat they can rely on throughout the year.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is the dessert menu. No pavlova.
“We took it off the menu for now,” smiles Sara. That’s fine, as pavlova is so common in Northern Ireland eateries that anyone with a craving (or homesickness) can probably get some at the local pub.
After staying a night in one such pub, in the nearby town of Moy, I return to Belfast,
Northern’s Ireland’s capital and largest city. Belfast has also had a restless past, but it is one of those major cities – like Beirut or Berlin – which has survived war and conflict to become a vibrant, agreeable city.
After returning the Peugeot 207 to the rental place, I meet a black-cab driver called Billy Scott, a cheerful bloke who can talk non-stop about his home city.
As we drive through the streets, he shows me the sights. He shows me the factory where Sir Hans Sloane invented milk chocolate.
We continue past Ulster Hall, where Led Zeppelin first played Stairway to Heaven, and stop at the Duke of York, decorated with labels and bottles from whiskey brands throughout Ireland (some of which haven’t been produced for over 70 years).
As we drive past colourful murals, reminding us of some of Belfast’s more notorious history, Billy points out that the city has now turned a corner.
“Belfast was recently surveyed as the second safest capital city in the world for tourists after Tokyo,” he says. I couldn’t find any such survey results, so I’ll take his word for it.
A few blocks away is the Northern Bank headquarters, scene of the UK’s greatest bank robbery in 2004, in which thieves ran away with £26.5 million (sterling).
You can still get robbed in Belfast. At the Merchant Hotel, for example, you can purchase a Mai Tai, the world’s most expensive cocktail, at £750 a glass. The reason? It’s the only bar in the world with a bottle of the original J. Wray & Nephew rum, a crucial component of Mai Tai.
But Belfast’s pride and joy is on the shore of the River Lagan. Titanic Belfast, a museum and oceanography centre of the same dimensions as the ill-fated passenger liner (but remaining safely on land) was built to celebrate the RMS Titanic’s centenary in 2012.
Of course, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,523 people with it. Before the tragedy, however, it was the most impressive ship of its time, a marvel of engineering.
In Belfast, you can buy a T-shirt saying: She was all right when she left here.
Since Titanic Belfast opened, more than a million people have visited, and dozens of couples have been married in the ballroom (diligently modelled, like the movie set, on the original ballroom).
Titanic Belfast celebrates a time when Belfast was a bustling, wealthy city, better known for boat-building than bombs. It’s a reminder of Belfast ingenuity.
But also, by making light of a great tragedy, it’s a tribute to Northern Ireland’s positive outlook. Perhaps nothing deserves more celebration.
The author visited Northern Ireland with the assistance of Tourism Ireland and Aer Lingus.