Northern Ireland Reemerges Renewed

- June 1, 2016

Northern Ireland’s recent past is a story of tragedy, political intrigue and violence. When the province emerged from 30 years of sectarian conflict — a period known as the Troubles — its fledgling tourism industry faced the formidable challenge of overcoming decades of grim media coverage. How would it do that? Curiously enough, by drawing on tragedy, political intrigue and violence. In this case, the tragedy dates back more than a century. In 1911, the world’s most famous ship launched from the slipway of Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard. If the Titanic had gone on to enjoy years of uneventful service, its name would have been lost to history. But months later, when it struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank, it gave rise to a legend that captures the imagination to this day. A major project to redevelop the shipyard was initiated at the dawn of the millennium, reinventing the area as the Titanic Quarter with high-scale apartments, a science park, the campus for Belfast Metropolitan College and a film studio. The magnificent, shimmering, aluminum-clad Titanic Belfast, a museum and event venue, serves as the centerpiece and features an impressive interactive exhibition dedicated to the great liner. It offers a great learning resource for visitors of all ages. The film studio, occupying the shipyard’s vast paint hall, marks the spot where the political intrigue and violence now play out. In 2010, the studio became the base for the HBO blockbuster series Game of Thrones, with much of the location filming at sites within Northern Ireland. For a generation of fans, the real-life strife of Northern Ireland’s recent history has been superseded by the fantasy version. With Game of Thrones tourism becoming a significant earner for the province, fans flock here to trek through Westeros, Winterfell, the Stormlands, the Iron Islands and Tollymore Forest. Several companies offer dedicated guided tours, complete with costumes.

Giants' Causeway

Giants’ Causeway © HORIA VLAD BOGDAN | DREAMSTIME.COM

The success of Game of Thrones exemplifies Northern Ireland’s resurgence since the peace process took hold in the 1990s. After decades as a blighted backwater, the province has begun to flourish as a center for innovation and creativity. Local science fiction author Ian McDonald also typifies the cultural renaissance, as his recent novel about feuding families on the moon, Luna, is set to become a CBS TV show: Game of Thrones in space. McDonald lives in Holywood, just outside Belfast, and passionately boosts his home region, its beauty long overlooked by outsiders. “I’m a huge fan of the North Down Coastal Path, which runs eight miles from Holywood to Bangor at the very edge of the sea. It can be walked, run or, my preference, biked. If it gets too much, you’re never more than half a mile from a train stop.” Another of McDonald’s favorite places is The Gobbins Cliff Path, located on the Islandmagee Peninsula 20 miles north of Belfast. “It’s a series of tunnels, catwalks and gantries slung across the faces of the eastern cliffs, a few meters above the waves. It’s possibly the most steampunk thing you can do in Northern Island. “The place that never fails to settle and relax me is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre at Castle Espie [12 miles east of Belfast]. I’ve been a member for years. It’s glorified duck feeding, really, but what ducks! And what a sense of place and landscape! Its location opens up the whole fascinating labyrinth of islands and causeways of Strangford Lough, ripe for exploration and discovery.”
Scrabo Tower overlooking Strangford Lough

Scrabo Tower overlooking Strangford Lough © EDD1979 | DREAMSTIME.COM

Inevitably, the trauma of the Troubles still weighs heavily on modern Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast, where “peace walls” continue to separate nationalist and unionist communities and tensions rise during the “marching season” (the unionist Orange Order holds parades each July along bitterly contested routes). But for much of the year most of the city sports an air of normality, and outsiders may all too easily remain oblivious to the complex undercurrents. For an insider’s view, take a Black Taxi Tour with a driver/guide who will share many of the city’s secrets and answer your questions. A typical tour takes in Shankill Road, one of the city’s main flashpoints, where pro-unionist murals decorate many of the buildings. You’ll then move on to nearby Falls Road, a nationalist stronghold, where the murals celebrate the Irish Republican Army and the nationalist cause. The Garden of Remembrance on Falls Road includes a marble memorial dedicated to the IRA volunteers killed during the Troubles. Although the divisions continue to run deep, remarkable political progress has been made in the past 20 years, and you can witness it for yourself by attending a session of the Northern Ireland Assembly at the imposing Stormont Parliament Buildings, set within formal grounds to the east of the city. Here nationalist figures rub shoulders (and lock horns) with their unionist counterparts. For all the continuing difficulties, Stormont provides hope that democracy will prevail over violence. The hinterlands of Northern Ireland, one of the most sparsely populated parts of the United Kingdom, offer spellbindingly beautiful scenery. The Mountains of Mourne, in County Down in the southeast of the province, are popular for trekking, cycling and rock climbing. Lough Neagh (pronounced “Lock Nay”) is the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. And on the northern coast, one of Europe’s greatest natural wonders, the Giant’s Causeway, comprises 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. Last year, the province registered an 11 percent rise in the number of overseas tourists. For a generation, Northern Ireland was known to the world for all the wrong reasons. Now, as the Troubles are committed to the history books, this scenic and endlessly fascinating place is finally attracting the attention it deserves.

Northern Ireland Info to Go

Most flights arrive at Belfast International Airport, often referred to as Aldergrove, 13 miles west of downtown. Transfers cost £7.50 (approx $11) by bus, or £31 (approx $44) by taxi. Some flights from the U.K., Ireland and Europe use George Best Belfast City Airport, three miles northeast of downtown. Taxis to downtown cost £10 ($14).

Where to Stay in Northern Ireland

Europa Hotel Belfast Known as “the most bombed hotel in the world,” this 5-star hotel was attacked 28 times during the Troubles. Now it is better known for comfort in a prime central location. Great Victoria Street, Belfast $$$ Jurys Inn Belfast This 190-room property boasts a good location and represents great value for money, though it can be a little noisy, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Great Victoria Street, Belfast $$ The Merchant Hotel Located in the Cathedral Quarter, known for its restaurants and bars, this luxurious 5-star hotel occupies a fine Victorian building, formerly a bank. 16 Skipper St., Belfast $$$$

Restaurants in Northern Ireland

Holohan’s at the Barge Located on a barge moored on the River Lagan, Holohan’s serves a menu centered on Irish fare using the best local ingredients. 1 Lanyon Quay, Belfast $$$ James Street South Enjoy contemporary cuisine in a modern setting. Chef David Gillmore’s five-course Taste of Ulster menu offers a culinary tour of the province. 21 James St. S., Belfast $$$$ Kitch Restaurant Old favorites such as Irish stew, fried chicken and burgers get a reboot in this trendy eatery. 61-63 Dublin Road, Belfast $$

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