It's August in Northern Ireland, and a too-hasty faith in the Good Friday peace agreement--aimed at ending decades of conflict between Protestants and Catholics here--has lured me here to explore the land that lies beyond the Troubles, as the well-publicized violence is often called.
Of course I find beautiful things, many visited only rarely by Americans during recent years, everywhere I go. There's the Antrim Coast, consisting of narrow, wind-carved cliffs that soar above the Atlantic and weave through tiny, three-pub coastal villages. The seven Glens of Antrim, the country's series of national parks connecting with the Antrim Coast road, offer sights ranging from spectacular waterfalls to pastoral meadows. Strangford Lough, an 18-mile-long lake, is Northern Ireland's answer to Chesapeake Bay, its banks lined by handsome, prosperous estates. Mount Stewart, a golden 17th-century manor house, is surrounded by lush gardens and gentle hiking trails through a forest dotted with family mementos, like a realistic white stag perched at the base of the family graveyard. At this estate, which sits on the edge of the lake, an Irish garden features sculpted yews carved into harps and shamrocks. And over there, a bed of red begonias is planted in the shape . . . of the bloody red hand of Ulster.
The open-palmed appendage, dripping with blood, is a potent, visceral symbol of the Troubles poised quietly in the flower bed. It derives from an ancient myth of two chieftains battling to beat each other to the shore of Ireland. The chieftain lagging behind cuts off his left hand and flings it on the shore, winning control of the kingdom by his own blood. That such a stark political message is embedded in an otherwise pastoral tourist attraction reinforces a fact I confront again and again: Even for a traveler seeking innocent pleasures in the countryside, it is virtually impossible to avoid the Troubles. Politics in Northern Ireland are woven into the texture of daily life, not just brought out for elections or demonstrations. It reveals itself through colors--curbs are painted red, white and blue to indicate Protestant territory, orange, green and white in Catholic communities--flags that champion historic conflicts such as the "Battle of the Boyne," and visual symbols that decorate things everywhere (the orange lily and the shamrock are the botanical icons of Protestants and Catholics, respectively).
I traveled to Northern Ireland during so-called peacetime--the tragic post-agreement bombing at the marketplace in Omagh occurred two weeks before my trip. I'd hoped to dig into the country's attractions beyond the headlines. But I found myself, either by choice or circumstance, confronting the Troubles constantly.
The modern conflict in Northern Ireland began in 1920 when the British Parliament partitioned the island of Ireland into two nations. The north, also known as the six counties of Ulster, was dominated by Protestants, due largely to a centuries-long British effort to uproot native Irish Catholics and give their land to settlers from England and Scotland. The mostly Catholic south, whose patriots had been fighting for freedom from Britain since 1916, was, five years later, granted it. But the Brits had no intention of giving up control in Northern Ireland. To quell a potential uprising by the Catholic minority, it passed legislation that legalized discrimination against Catholics.
Fast forward: It's 1969, and the Irish Republican Army, the Catholic nationalist organization that had been engaged in relatively peaceful efforts at achieving political equality, is newly inspired by America's civil rights movement. The effort turns bloody, pitting violent Catholic and Protestant groups against each other in the streets of Belfast, Londonderry and other cities. Thus begins the nearly 30-year conflict that the current peacemaking efforts are trying to resolve. Over the past three decades, more than 2,700 people have been murdered, and countless others maimed.
Prior to this year's Good Friday peace agreement, one other serious attempt at mediation was attempted in 1994; ultimately it failed. Efforts this time have progressed further, but Protestant peacemaker David Trimble, who shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize with Catholic counterpart David Hume, captured the less-than-optimistic attitude I heard countless times during my visit when he said, "I hope very much that this award doesn't turn out to be premature."
If peace does hold, Northern Ireland, long avoided by all but the most adventurous travelers from the United States, could become a popular place to explore. In the meantime, is it safe to go there? Tourism officials, naturally, claim that it is--saying that no American tourists have been killed as a result of sectarian violence there. While the conflict is largely contained within the Protestant and Catholic communities, the randomness of incidents, such as the August bombing at the crowded town market at Omagh, reinforces the point that there are no guarantees.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I'm poking around Donegall Square, Belfast's main shopping drag, soaking up the local color. The square is a pedestrian mall housing the same midmarket chain stores you see everywhere in the United Kingdom. But on this afternoon--prime shopping time--the crowd of shoppers is sparse. Which makes the unmistakable sounds of an encroaching parade--the pounding of a drum, the whistling of a flute--all the more strange.
It's an Orangemen's parade, the Protestants' annual last-Saturday-in-August demonstration. The group consists of several hundred mostly middle-age men wearing crew cuts. "They march," a passerby says wearily as they snake past the Disney Store, "for reasons known only to them." Hardly anyone stops to watch. A man sits in Dunkin Donuts eating a chocolate-frosted cruller.
Stumbling onto a demonstration like this is one of the things that make Belfast a fascinating place to visit right now--but again, it only magnifies the presence of the Troubles for a visitor. Sure, Northern Ireland's largest metropolis offers attractions like the Ulster Museum, the Botanic Gardens and St. Anne's Cathedral. The neighborhoods surrounding Queen's University offer boutique hotels and chic restaurants and nightclubs. Founded in the early 17th century, Belfast is surrounded by the Green Hills and the Lagan River, which empties into the Irish Sea. Many of the elegant Victorian town houses, remnants of the city's days of industrial prosperity--the Titanic was built here--remain intact.
"If we have peace, it's a pleasant and unremarkable city," says Ian Hill, a longtime Belfast resident. "If we hadn't had a war--an English-speaking war--would we have gotten so much attention on the world stage? In a few years we'll return to a provincial city, once the novelty of war is gone."
For now, however, that novelty has spawned a cottage industry of tours that spotlight charming historical places--and showcase the war zone. Most tourists hire taxis, whose drivers double as tour guides of the West Belfast neighborhoods known as the Shankill (the Protestant side) and the Falls (the Catholic community). But the greatest evidence that the Troubles have gone mainstream is that Gray Line has added twice-weekly "war zone"-themed motorcoach tours to its roster of otherwise predictable tourist itineraries.
Aside from the Peace Wall--a three-foot-thick, 23-foot-high concrete structure that divides the Catholic and Protestant communities--the primary attraction in West Belfast are the murals that each side uses to champion its cause. On Spier's Place, located just off the Shankill, one mural portrays two evil men wearing masks and holding automatic weapons; an accompanying poem laments their dirty deed: "You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye/ who cheer when soldier lads pass by/ sneak home and pray you'll never know/ the hell where youth and laughter go." Underneath the murals, there are often fake-flower arrangements. These memorials to local warriors are more potent and public than a gravestone in a distant cemetery.
My cab is piloted by Billy, a Protestant from the Shankill, so we start there. He shows me three crosses on a hill at Townsend Street. They symbolize new life--"It's been five to six months since they went up and not one person has destroyed them," he says proudly, as if to prove that things are getting better here. There are a lot of tidy 1970s-era row houses, built to replace those burned in earlier conflicts, and many have flags hanging from poles over the front door. Curbstones are painted red, white and blue.
The Shankill itself looks like the main street of any dying lower-middle-class neighborhood: burned-out buildings, well-stocked bakeries, boarded-up row houses, windowless pubs, neon-lit gas stations. And churches: Billy says 23 different Protestant denominations are represented along Shankill Road alone.
On our way to Falls Road and its Catholic enclave, we pass through the Peace Wall. It's a quick trip, 10 seconds, no more--"There's just that wee bit of distance in fact," Billy says. On this side, you see the same everyday stuff, although the kindergartens, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, and rocket-proof police stations remind you that this is no ordinary city.
Here, Billy is different, too. As we drive up Falls Road, he locks the doors, closes his window. He's worried about being hassled on the Catholic side. He says it's obvious he doesn't belong here, but in my eyes it's hard to see why. "The differences are not as remotely challenging as the journey you make between Hindu and Muslim," says Malachi O'Doherty, a Northern Ireland journalist who has lived in India. "Compared to ethnic diversity anywhere else in the world, similarities are pretty strong."
That doesn't make Billy's fear any less potent, however. Or mine. Not being Catholic, I say I don't belong here either, and he laughs. He's more concerned for his safety than mine.
"You're a tourist," he says. "You can go anywhere."
There are signs of prosperity here, signs that the Catholics are succeeding in some ways in their fight for equality. A splendid Safeway has just opened, a block and a half from the headquarters of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm. The modest post-World War II two-story stucco bungalow has bombproof grills, steel doors, blast-proof outer walls, video cameras.
As Billy drops me off back in the center of Belfast, he offers some advice that's almost a warning. "This is not the land of sweet singing ballads. This is hard, strong, dramatic--and violent."
Belfast has dampened my mood, and I'm now in a hurry to get out into the countryside. What's nice about Northern Ireland's compact size is that my first stop, Carrickfergus, a Norman castle that marks the beginning of the country's famed Antrim Coast, is only 12 miles away. In fact, Belfast is no more than 100 miles from any point in Northern Ireland. The province itself is about the size of Connecticut.
The Antrim Coast runs like a spine up the northeastern edge of the country, bordering the North Channel and the Atlantic. Outside of Belfast, it's the region's top tourist spot. Along the east coast run the seven Glens of Antrim, as well as numerous charming villages. I spend a couple of hours strolling well-trod paths in Glen Arm, the southernmost forest, and it's a perfect antidote to Belfast, if only momentarily. Among the liverworts, late-summer blossoms and a stream so clear you can see fish flicking in it, I relax.
Sometimes you can forget about the Troubles, particularly at Northern Ireland's most popular attractions. The Giant's Causeway, which consists of more than 37,000 basalt columns that stretch from the cliffs above to the sea, is the most dramatic. The flat-topped columns are mostly hexagonal and measure nearly a foot across, resembling giant building blocks. Legend has it that the columns were created by Finn MacCool, a Celtic warrior who built them as a causeway that would extend 18 miles across the Atlantic to Scotland's Isle of Straffa, where his lady love waited. He never finished. The less romantic rationale credits their creation to millions of years of geologic activity. I mean to join the rest of the crowd, several hundred tourists thick, in climbing them, but I get distracted by the more intriguing paths carved out of the cliffs above: basalt columns rise up alongside the mountain, resembling a massive church organ.
Nearby, Whitepark Bay, a grassy bowl of a beach protected by an embrace of cliffs, is a minor attraction because of its proximity to the Giant's Causeway. Here, as at the Causeway, you descend hundreds of feet down the hillside via a rambling walkway. But instead of encountering other tourists, you run into a grazing herd of cattle that not only command stretches of beach but also, occasionally, portions of the walkway.
"Shoo!" I say nervously to a bull whose bulk obscures the six-foot-wide path and who, eating grass at the edges, is too busy to pay me any mind. Ultimately I escape by clambering up a rocky hillside.
The ruins of Dunluce Castle, also on the north coast, are plenty eerie. Built in the 14th century and abandoned in 1641 when part of the kitchen collapsed into the sea, sweeping several servants to their death, the roofless castle has a first floor that is as intact and unreal as a Hollywood movie set.
The Antrim coast feels far more remote than it really is. You see more cows than people, the weather's often ragged with a biting wind, and even the pub culture offers little warmth to the outsider. I spent several joyless hours one evening nursing a Guinness at a pub in Carnlough, pretending it was more fun to observe than to participate--in light of the fact that I never succeeded in striking up a conversation with others. It's not meanness on the locals' part. The people seem to be as brisk as the howling wind that dips in and out of the rocky coves. "It's not the Ireland of poets and ballads," said Jerry Wilson, one of the few Americans I met on this trip, eerily paraphrasing the cabby's assessment of Belfast. "It's stark and strong. But it's still Ireland."
On the other hand, the Strangford Lough region southeast of Belfast is, on the surface, softer. The lough--a conservation area comprising islands and reefs, mud flats and marshes--is home to the Brent geese that migrate every winter, as well as oyster catchers, curlews and wading birds.
Mount Stewart sits on the edge of the lough and evokes a grandeur more common to the British countryside than to Ulster. The 18th-century estate, the childhood home of a foreign secretary to England during the Napoleonic Wars and still in the family, is so large (22 bedrooms) that Lady Mary Stewart, a dowager in her seventies, resides in one wing while tourists plod through the other. Her late-model Toyota sedan is parked carelessly by the porte-cochere. Tour buses and tourist cars must park in a gravel lot a quarter-mile away, well out of sight.
I cross via ferry from Portaferry into County Down. The lough is linked to the Irish Sea via the narrow channel here. Ancient history: Saint Patrick, in the 4th century, sailed into the lough when he arrived in Ireland as a missionary. After a five-minute boat ride to the other side, I drive through this farming region, its hills green and soft and estates prosperous. I wind up in Killyleagh, a country village that's a fairy-tale place, bordered on one end by a harbor and on the other by the fancifully turreted Killyleagh Castle, still inhabited.
It's the friendliest place I've been; on a walk through town, every one of the people I pass stop and say hello. On a visit to the local Church of Ireland, occupying the town's best real estate--a hilltop overlooking the lough--I'm urged to stay for tea. A parishioner invites me to attend a sailboat race at the yacht club after dinner. But I don't make it. After dining at the inn's basement restaurant (the only one in town), I poke my head into its pub. The barkeep waves me in, pours me a Guinness. His customers are just as welcoming; by last call, the place feels like home.
With deeply mixed feelings, I depart the next day for Belfast. After a week spent surrounded by natural beauty, from rocky cliffs and bombastic seas to breast-shaped hillsides and a simmering lough, the need to reconnect with Belfast, for all its war-zone seaminess, is strong. Armed with the realization that it's futile to approach Northern Ireland as if the Troubles didn't exist--that the conflict lies deep in the soil and the history of the land--I leave the pastoral Killyleagh to return to the city that has been Troubles Central for three decades. As I drive out of the village, I am barely bothered by the red, white and blue curbs on the edge of Killyleagh.
Back in Belfast I return to the neighborhoods around the Shankill and the Falls. This time, unencumbered by my Protestant tour guide, I poke around the Catholic side.
Despite the increasing intensity of pro-peace political rhetoric in every news report, many residents don't seem to have gotten the message. In one Catholic neighborhood hangs a banner that says "RUC keep out," a warning directed at the Royal Union Constabulary, a Protestant organization. A taxi sports a bumper sticker that reads "Follow me to the Arsenal."
I stop in at the Sinn Fein gift shop, where I'm buzzed in through a metal gate as though visiting a ritzy jewelry shop in a bad part of town. In the dingy storefront, I browse the paraphernalia: a rack of greeting cards featuring, predominantly, condolences; a "Spirit of Freedom" T-shirt; a coffee mug with a picture of IRA leader Gerry Adams shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. A couple of other tourists, hailing from the south, are leafing through a collection of books on the Troubles. One comments, "If there is a God, he wouldn't let this type of thing happen in this country."
Of course the irony is that the Troubles are rooted in acts undertaken in the name of God by people whose religions have many more similarities than differences. The sense of futility is haunting. Outside, the sun is beating down on the red-brick Sinn Fein Help Center next door. Again, I feel the urge to flee. I check my watch; if I hustle, I can make an earlier train to Dublin. DETAILS: Exploring N. Ireland
WHEN TO GO: The best time to visit is April through October, when the weather is more pleasant and attractions are open at regular times.
GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from Washington to Northern Ireland, although British Airways goes to Belfast via London. The cheapest coach fare through March 25 is $564; its spring fare, with 90-day advance, is $671. Aer Lingus serves Belfast via JFK, connecting through Dublin or Shannon. Its lowest fare is $406.28 with a 14-day advance purchase through March; beginning April 1, the price rises to $622.
A lot of travelers combine a jaunt to Northern Ireland with a stay in the Republic of Ireland, renting a car in Dublin, then making the easy two-hour drive to Belfast. But car rentals in the Irish Republic are more expensive than in Northern Ireland (rates are lower because it's part of the United Kingdom), so I took the train--a pleasant 3 1/2- hour ride to Belfast, then rented a car from Belfast City Airport. Hertz and Avis both have outposts there, and at Belfast International Airport.
GETTING AROUND: While Northern Ireland has an extensive bus network (and less comprehensive train service to major towns and cities), your best bet is to rent a car. Other than two major highways leading out of Belfast, roads are of the winding, two-lane variety and are narrower than American roads. Drive on the left as in Great Britain. Signage is plentiful and easy to read; you almost don't even need a map.
WHERE TO STAY: In Belfast, weekends are cheaper than weekdays. Downtown, the Europa Hotel (011-44-1232-327-000) once held the record for hotel most often bombed; rates start at $130. But I found more interesting--and more reasonably priced--boutique hotels and bed and breakfast inns in neighborhoods around Queen's University, which is less than a 20-minute walk to the center city. Rates at the Camera House guest house (011-44-1232-660-026), including a full breakfast, are about $50 a night.
In the countryside, B&Bs are numerous; the Northern Ireland Tourist Board publishes pamphlets listing them. Country inns are also a good choice (offering cable TV, in-room baths and phones, on-site restaurants)--and a good value. They include the Londonderry Arms Hotel (011-44- 1574-885-255), which is centrally located among the Glens of Antrim in Carnlough ; rates start at $100. On the north coast in the village of Bushmills, the Bushmills Inn Hotel (011-44-1265-732-339) has rooms starting at $100. In Killyleagh, at the 20-year-old Dufferin Arms Inn (011-44-1396-828-229), a double room is $100 a night.
THE CURRENCY: Northern Ireland uses the British pound.
WEST BELFAST TOURS: Citybus (011-44-1232-458-484) includes West Belfast on its "Belfast: A Living History" tour. For taxi tours, try Harper's Taxi (011-44-1232-742-711), which covers greater Belfast.
WHAT TO EAT: There's no dominant cuisine, though soda bread and potatoes are served in numerous variations. In Belfast, particularly in the Botanic Avenue area, there are numerous cafes and bistros with innovative and interesting dishes; the Metro, a bistro, is known for its corn on the cob with curry butter. Roscoff is the province's only Michelin-starred restaurant.
Outside of Belfast, choices are more traditional Irish-English; pub fare is a good bet, and for lunch the National Trust tearooms, located in such tourist attractions as Mount Stewart and the Giant's Causeway, offer sandwiches, pastries and salads.
INFORMATION: Northern Ireland Tourist Board, 1-800-326-0036, http://www.ni-tourism.com. --Carolyn Spencer Brown CAPTION: The different faces of Northern Ireland, now tentatively opening to a new wave of travelers: Clockwise from top left, a military statue stands astride a column in Bushmills' town center; a graceful arch frames the ruins of Dunluce Castel; begonias from the bloody red hand of Ulster at the Mount Stewart manor house; and the sea meets the meadows of the North Coast. ec CAPTION: The legendary Giant's Causeway comprises thousands of basalt columns. ec