As someone who identifies with my Irish heritage more than any other, including perhaps American, there was a gaping hole in my understanding of Irish history. 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: the history of Northern Ireland.
For many travelers to the north, they probably feel the same way. In this post, I will cover a brief history of the Northern Ireland Troubles. As part of this review, I include recommendations on activities in Northern Ireland that help travelers learn and understand one of the hardest to understand issues in modern history.
What We Knew About The History of Northern Ireland Before
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 Irish 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. It’s the main reason why I wanted to learn about Northern Ireland history, from people who lived there.
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, trying to understand what is the history of Northern Ireland?
Ireland vs. Northern Ireland
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 to 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 the creation of Northern Ireland.
How We Approached Northern Ireland 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.
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.
A Brief History of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland hosts one of the most contentious conflicts of modern time. Here is a very, very brief history of the conflict. England first came to the island in 1167, although the English and the Irish never completely united. The population over centuries lived side by side, often with the main difference being their religion – the Protestants versus the Catholics. The conflict doesn’t revolve solely around religion, though. The English were occupiers, and throughout history confiscated Irish-owned land, particularly in northern counties. The Irish organized a rebellion in 1798, influenced by the French and the Americans. Eventually, this was quelled.
By the twentieth century, there was a cultural revolution on the island. The goals were to preserve native Irish culture and language, including Gaelic. In the early 1900s, Sinn Fein formed, to promote an independent Ireland. Many in the north, particularly in Ulster were more interested in remaining part of the British Empire, in part because of their Protestant religion. Although things were quiet during World War I, the Easter Rising in 1916 was the unofficial start of the Irish rebellion against the British. After the British quashed this rebellion, the popularity of the independence movement surged. In 1921, Ireland split in two with the Government of Ireland Act. Six Protestant counties in Ulster became Northern Ireland.
The peace held for several decades. In the 1960s, though, the economy started to falter in Northern Ireland the same way it did in England. A change in political control over the north reignited the interest in an independent Northern Ireland. Violence erupted in 1966 and continued for years. Over the decades, the IRA and Provisional IRA continued to stand up against British troops, and these disputes eventually were termed the Troubles. It resulted in Bloody Sunday, on January 30, 1972, when the British army violently suppressed an Irish civil rights march in Derry.
During this time, famous Irish civil rights activists like Gerry Adams and Bobby Sands sacrificed for the benefit of Northern Ireland. This included prison hunger strikes, but also included terrorist attacks. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was signed and saw the direct rule of Northern Ireland, placed in the hands of local government. It was a cease-fire, but Northern Ireland still remains a part of the UK.
Best Places To Visit in Northern Ireland For History
Many travelers flock to visit the Bushmills Northern Ireland distillery, or the Giant’s Causeway, just a little farther north. But, to learn about the history, Belfast is the place to be. Some of the most important attractions in Northern Ireland include those that address The Troubles and how Northern Ireland was created.
For me, an experience that exemplifies the best of Northern Ireland has to be the black cab tour in Belfast. This 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.
Check out these Belfast tours and activities to learn more about the story of Northern Ireland:
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.
FAQs – How to Visit Northern Ireland
Here are some of the questions we often answer about how to understand and explore the best of Northern Ireland.
- What are the 6 counties in Northern Ireland? The island of Ireland includes a total of 32 counties. It is often referred to as 26 and 6, meaning 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland and 6 counties in the north. The area of Northern Ireland includes 6 counties of County Antrim, County Armagh, County Down, County Fermanagh, County Londonderry, and County Tyrone.
- What are the airports in Northern Ireland? There are two airports in Northern Ireland. Although there is an airport in Derry, the primary airport is in Belfast. It’s also pretty easy to train or bus from Dublin to Belfast, making it easy to reach.
- What are the best hotels in Northern Ireland? There are some lovely boutique hotels in Northern Ireland. We stayed at one outside of Derry, at the Beech Hill Hotel. Simply lovely. I will note that there are not enough hotels in Belfast for current demand, so book early. Check out these recommended hotels in Belfast here.
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Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.