As someone who identifies with my Irish heritage more than any other, including perhaps American, there was a gaping hole in my understanding of the Irish. We’ve traveled to Ireland numerous times, mostly to spend time with family in Limerick. I feel that I understand the people, the culture, and the history of the island. Despite this, though, I was quite ignorant of one topic: Northern Ireland history.
The Troubles was always a phrase that I just heard in passing. It was a topic that rarely came up in conversation with family, either in Limerick or even with Eric’s mother. She left Ireland when she was 19, over 60 years ago. After all, she left Ireland well before The Troubles began. The topic of Northern Ireland history, particularly over the last forty years, seemed almost taboo. Not something talked about.
I understood the basics of The Troubles, the political conflict lasting almost 40 years, and costing the lives of many people in Northern Ireland. I’ve seen the movies, like In The Name of The Father, and listened to U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday about a hundred times. But, I really didn’t know the details. It was a conflict I didn’t seriously understand other than at a superficial level. It was the main reason why we finally ventured north.
Like I have said about other sensitive topics, like the division of Korea when we visited the Korean DMZ, I have no intention of discussing the politics of the situation. I only want to share our experiences, as two people of Irish descent, learning about Northern Ireland history.
What We Knew About Northern Ireland History Before
Even before we stepped foot in Belfast, we read some blogs about tips for traveling the six counties that make up the North. First off, we heard not to raise the topic of The Troubles if we met strangers out, at a pub, or anywhere. It’s pretty similar when we travel in Vietnam. We don’t raise the topic of the Vietnam War unless someone else does first.
Some of the other tips I read were a little more confusing. I read about how to refer to the north and the south in conversations. This was a little harder to manage. When people asked if it was our first time “here,” we replied, “yes, our first time to Belfast.” When people asked “how long are you here?” we replied, “we are here for about 10 days, and then we head to family in Limerick.” Always careful about how we used the terms. In fact, we weren’t even sure what to call the town where we were spending the most time – was it Derry or Londonderry? It depends on who you ask.
I also read that it annoys people in the North when tourists, particularly Americans, claim to be “Irish.” And, considering we arrived in the North as Amber and Eric Hoffman, we hesitated to identify with people we met in the North until we felt them out a bit.
Now, this may make it appear that the people in Northern Ireland are unfriendly, unwelcoming, or even minimally stuffy. Nothing could be further from the truth. We did not have a single experience that made us feel uncomfortable (other than my run-in with immigration upon arrival in Belfast, a story for another day). We were probably hyper-sensitive to the issue, not wanting to offend. Probably more so than necessary, until we actually learned a little more about Northern Ireland history.
How We Approached Northern Ireland History on Arrival
When we arrived in Northern Ireland, we felt as though we had entered “bizarro Ireland.” Not to make light of the situation in any way, but so much of what we saw, from the landscape to the food, made it seem so similar to our experiences in Limerick.
That said, things were also a little bit different. There weren’t as many pubs in Belfast as there are in Limerick or Dublin. The traditional full breakfast comes with strange fried pieces of bread we are unfamiliar with. The ATMs spit out both Bank of England and Bank of Ireland pound notes, making things a little confusing at first. And, everyone seemed to use the word “wee” as if we had gotten off the plane in Scotland.
It was all very same same, but different. This, coupled with the admonitions we read before we arrived, made me a little quiet, and a little hesitant. In Belfast, we honestly did not engage much with people. We chatted with a bartender at the famous Crown Bar, mostly about the weather and wifi. The same was true at hotels in Belfast and Portrush. The conversations were very superficial.
But, I remained curious and wanted to learn as much as we could about Northern Ireland history. It was why we came to the North. It was to help us understand.
Really Digging into Northern Ireland History
During our time in Northern Ireland, though, we had the opportunity to engage in three very lengthy discussions about The Troubles.
First, we took a black taxi tour in Belfast, which was a ninety-minute tour solely focused on The Troubles, and how Belfast exists today. We saw the famous murals, drove through both the Protestant and the Catholic sides of Belfast, and stopped at the wall that continues to separate the two neighborhoods. A wall whose gates are locked each night around 6 pm, to continue to keep the peace.
During our time in Derry, we stayed at a very historic country house hotel, the Beech Hill. We met with a local historian, who has been studying the history of the hotel, and in particular the time that the Marines spent on the hotel property during WWII. What was meant to be an impromptu half-hour discussion of the house turned into a tour of the grounds, and afternoon tea, with a five-hour discussion of the history of Derry, including a discussion of The Troubles.
We also toured Derry with a licensed guide. Our time in Derry was coordinated with the Northern Ireland Tourism Board. Our intention was to learn about the current food scene in Derry. But, our walking tour focused on the historic walled city, the status of the current economy, and the plans for future development. It also included a discussion of The Troubles and a talk about Sunday Bloody Sunday. We walked along the roads of the historic event that occurred in the native Irish, or “bog side,” of Derry.
What We Learned About Northern Ireland History
Again, I won’t go into specifics of The Troubles. After all, I am a food travel blogger, not a political historian. What I will say is that it was thrilling to see the landmarks I had previously only seen on the television, including the famous murals in Belfast, the location of Sunday Bloody Sunday. It was fascinating to learn about The Troubles, from three different perspectives, all from people who lived through it.
As for being uncomfortable raising the concept of our Irish heritage with people in the North. Generally, when mentioning we were headed to family in Limerick, we gained some street cred, even with the last name Hoffman. And, at one point in Derry, our guide asked me about my heritage. When I told him my maiden name was Amber Siobhaun O’Malley, he replied: “oh geeeeze, that’s Irish.”
Still, I probably would not raise the topic of The Troubles at a bar in Belfast with a drunken local – I mean that can’t possibly end well.
By the end of our stay in Derry I not only felt more comfortable with what I once considered a taboo topic, but I felt a little silly that I was so hesitant when we first arrived. The famous Irish hospitality does spread across the island.