PERCHED at the very edge of Europe, the North of Ireland is a land apart – under British jurisdiction, yet strikingly different from Britain; on the island of Ireland yet with significant Scottish influence; Celtic certainly, but Calvinist and Catholic in almost equal measure.
A once-troubled land border marks the western and southerly terrestrial limits of the Six Counties; tumultuous oceans and great sea cliffs guard the northern and eastern maritime frontiers.
The land is dotted with ancient stone remains – ever-present reminders that this is the seat of an age-old tradition, home to a once brilliant Celtic civilisation, and for centuries one of the most important ecclesiastical centres in Europe.
But cataclysmic events regularly intervened in the affairs of Ulster, leaving behind a history for which the kindest description would be ‘chequered’. Invasion, insurrection, occupation, famine, religious oppression and partition over centuries eventually distilled down into almost forty years of Troubles in the second half of the 20th century.
The years of isolation suffered in the North during that time have had one advantage. The place is relatively unchanged, and Belfast is in many ways the most Irish, the most traditional of all the cities on the island; ironically here under the British jurisdiction you’re likely to find Old Ireland slumbering on.
But lest you should think that you’re about to visit a remake of The Quiet Man, think again.
Recent bitter riots in Belfast have shown that the Troubles have not totally vanished in the Six Counties – but then any row that was 800 years in the making is likely to leave a few festering sores. However, a visitor to the North is unlikely to be caught up in any sectarian bitterness. On the contrary because the tourist industry in many respects remains at a fledgling stage, locals are only too happy to welcome visitors from Britain, the Republic or further afield.
Last year, of course they had multitudes of visitors to entertain. 2012 was Titanic year – the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the world’s most famous ship, just in case you’re recently arrived from Mars – and Belfast put on its best clothes as it invited the world to its commemoration / celebration of this event. Those celebrations are, in typically Irish fashion, continuing into 2013 and are likely to draw visitors to the city for many more tears to come.
Titanic Belfast, the Ulster Museum, the Linenhall Library, the Ulster Folk Museum and many other venues will give you the complete low down on the singular Atlantic tragedy.
Should you wish to delve into the history of the Troubles, tours are available of all the old (and some of the more recent) trouble spots.
The republican murals in West Belfast are certainly impressive – tours are available, which will also visit the euphemistically named ‘Peace Wall’. In a spirit of even-handedness, see if you prefer the loyalist murals in East Belfast. Keep the verdict to yourself, mind.
These tours, usually by black taxi cab, have guides who can help unfold the historical and religious intricacies of the city. As one said to me as we were surveying North Belfast’s Antrim Road: “The Huguenots fetched up here in the 18th century, from France, trying to escape religious sectarianism. Not a mistake they’re likely to repeat.”
But Northern Ireland has much to offer aside from glimpses into history, both religious and maritime. For sports enthusiasts it has two of the finest golf links courses in the world – the Royal Portrush and the Royal County Down. As a general rule, however, any golf club with the prefix ‘Royal’ in its name means ‘it’s going to cost you’. And they’ll want to see your handicap certificate before they allow you to get your niblocks out. Having said that, the North boasts many beautiful courses which can be played relatively (sometimes very) cheaply.
Two other pursuits which kept the cognoscenti coming to Northern Ireland from all over the world during the bleakest times of the Troubles were fishing and horses.
The rich lime soil of Ireland produces some of the finest horses in the world, and the North is home to the oldest race course in Ireland – Downpatrick – with claims to being the oldest still in continual use.
Every type of equestrian sport is covered in Northern Ireland – from pony-trekking in the hillside to learning how to show-jump. Just about every town is within easy distance of an equestrian centre. People from ages 6 to 80 come to equestrian centres nestling between drumlins, or by the shores of the Irish Sea to learn how to ride.
The top sites for riding include the East and West Strand in Portrush, Portstewart Strand; Florence Court Forest Park, Co. Fermanagh; Greyabbey Estate, Co. Down; Murlough Nature Reserve and Newcastle Beach, Co. Down; and near enough anywhere in the Sperrins in Derry / Tyrone.
Fishing in the North, just like golfing and equestrianism, is world class – but a lot cheaper. Lough Erne, Lough Neagh, the River Bann plus myriad smaller loughs, rivers and streams – not to mention the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean – are all available for every type of angling. For details of licences etc www.dcal-fishingni.gov.uk
Golf, fishing, hiking, hill-walking, water sports and horse-riding are all widely available in the Six Counties – but many visitors just want to tour about and see the sights. Compared to driving in Britain, touring by car is an utter joy. Outside the main urban centres traffic is sparse, and the roads are generally very good.