Northern Ireland: a place of contrasts

I’m currently on a week long trip to Northern Ireland: a place of contrasts which leaves the traveller in me overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape and the historian in me with her head spinning. After only a few days it’s clear to me how appallingly difficult it must be for any historian writing about the turbulent past of this area to find a balance between the stories of the past and the ongoing narrative of the present.

I’ve never studied the history of Ireland in any depth. During my younger years at school, Ireland tended to be taught as a footnote to the political situation in England at the time. I learned about Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, the Phoenix Park murders and Charles Stewart Parnell without ever really going into their significance within Ireland. Later, as an adult, I read more widely, inspired by the novels of Leon Uris, Trinity and Redemption. I learned something of the Civil War horrors while at University. But all of these have come in snatches, bits of information read and stored away, without ever finding time to read around the subject and develop an overview.

This trip has changed that for me. Spending time in Belfast and Derry, reading accounts of the confusing relationships between the English, the Scots and the Irish of all persuasions has reminded me that through the centuries this has been so much more than the simplistic explanation of conflict between Protestants and Catholics which was what I remember being told as a child, watching the violence explode across the evening news week after week through the seventies. IRA bombings were a reality of life, coming close to home on more than one occasion, and all I can remember back then was a sense of anger at feeling under threat over a cause that I did not understand and felt was none of my business.

I’ve travelled to Ireland many times since then both on holiday and as the former owner of a Manx Irish dance school. I’ve made friends and grown to love the place but most of my trips have been to the south where the sense of history is just as strong but very different. Here in the north, the feeling of the past whispering in the ear of the present is far stronger.

Yesterday we went for a trip to Derry / Londonderry and visited the Free Derry Museum and the Siege Museum; history through different lenses. Even the fact that I’m not sure which name to call it is an indication of the complexity of dealing with the history of this region. It would not occur to me to write Banjul / Bathurst or Zimbabwe / Rhodesia or Thailand / Siam in a blog post, but the difference in the name given to the walled city is more than a matter of history here, it’s a statement of allegiance.

In my own writing so far, the turbulent history of Ireland is a back story that I’ve not explored, but being here, it’s a back story that I can see coming to the fore at some point. Michael O’Reilly is a central character in the Peninsular War saga and it has occurred to me more than once that his history as an Irish rebel and fugitive from justice must be in direct conflict to the bonds of friendship he comes to feel for the Englishmen he fights alongside through the long years of the war. I’d like to know more about the young Michael and how he ended up where he did.

Alongside the historical complexity of this region is the stunning beauty of the scenery and that can be appreciated without needing to understand any more. Coming from the Isle of Man, I consider myself a connoisseur of fabulous coastlines and this one is definitely up there with the best. Travelling back on the Lough Foyle ferry yesterday evening into Magilligan was magical.

I love Northern Ireland and will definitely be back. Before I do, I’d like to have read a lot more about the history and feel more at home with the events and the people that have shaped this place. But even for the casual holidaymaker in search of beauty and peace and incredibly friendly people, I would highly recommend it.

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