We took our last student tour to Northern Ireland this past weekend and visited Belfast, Derry, the Giant's Causeway, and a lot of shooting locations of Game of Thrones. Northern Ireland separated from the Republic of Ireland in 1921 and became it's own country in the United Kingdom under British rule. This means that Northern Ireland operates on the Great Britain Pound rather than the Euro, which was not friendly to my wallet because the current conversion rate is $1.55 for every 1 pound. We had some free time when we got to Belfast so Bridget and I grabbed some lunch and found an Urban Outfitters store to walk through. We finally felt like we were back in America. We went on a political tour of Belfast later in the evening. Belfast is where the Titanic was built and docked before setting sail. It was the center of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland from the 1970's to the late 1990's brought on by separation of the Catholic and Protestant people. The people who lived through the times describe it as what we see going on in Iraq and Afghanistan today: bombs sporadically going off taking out streets at a time, soldiers constantly patrolling the streets, and violent riots between the people. Belfast is home to Europa Hotel, Europe's most bombed hotel, that was bombed 33 times during this period. Our bus driver took us to the International Peace Wall where artists from all over come to paint murals of present and past world conflicts. We then drove on Shankhill Road, the main road in the Protestant community, and Falls Road, belonging to the Catholic community. Both roads were considered 'no-go' areas during the troubles and were a constant scene of violence. They are covered in peace murals and there are shrines to the Queen of England all along Shankhill Road. Our bus driver then took us to the Belfast Peace Wall. I thought that the troubles in Belfast had gotten a lot better over the years, but I learned that this is the wall that still separates the Catholic and Protestant communities to this day. Every night, the gates to the wall close at 10:00 PM and are heavily armed. If you get stuck on the wrong side, you are forced to walk around the entire outskirts of the city before being able to get to the other side. The walls are lined with barbed wire and the walls of the guard station have been built so high up in order to keep bombs from being thrown over. We drove through both the Protestant and Catholic communities and almost every house had the British and Irish flags flying respectively. Our tour guide told us that the city wants to take the walls down, but it's up to the people living in the community. They refuse to let them be taken down because they still fear what might happen once they are removed.
The next morning, we toured the Titanic Belfast. The museum is built on the port where the Titanic was docked and directly next to Titanic Studios, the filming location for all of the indoor scenes of Game of Thrones. We were able to see recovered artifacts, hear voices of the survivors as they told their stories of when the ship went down, and see live footage of exploratory footage that is currently going on. After the Titanic Museum, we drove to two famous locations where Game of Thrones is shot, the Dark Hedges and Ballintoy Harbor. There were Game of Thrones obsessed people on my bus actually acted like the world was ending when we were at both places. I don't watch the show and was still equally as impressed. Our next stop was Giant's Causeway, home of 40,000 basalt hexagonal columns lining the coast that were formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. Out of all the places I have been in Ireland, this was by far my favorite. We went later in the afternoon so a lot of tourists had already begun to clear out. You hike down the side of a cliff that has a winding road all the way through it and the views are incredible. We had 2 hours here and I could have spend 2 days exploring everything.
On Sunday we had a walking tour of Derry, home to the infamous Bloody Sunday. Our tour guide, Garvin, was the cutest old man I have ever seen. He has lived in Derry his entire life and experienced firsthand the troubling times in Northern Ireland. I'm pretty sure he's also the most popular man in Derry because everywhere we went someone said hi to him. He gave us background history of the city during these times before we started our tour. British soldiers arrived to patrol the streets in 1971. At first, they welcomed the soldiers with open arms because they thought that they were going to halt the violence between the Catholics and the Protestants. However the British turned to internment and were locking people up for no reason, granting them no trial, and telling them that they were in jail due to the Queen's pleasure. The people of Derry had seen the impact that Martin Luther King Jr.'s marches had, and they began to hold their own civil rights marches every Sunday. Bloody Sunday refers to January 30, 1972. During a peaceful protest march, the British soldiers shot 26 innocent people. 14 of them were killed, our tour guide's relative being one of them. All of the victims were shot while fleeing the protest or while helping the wounded. The street where Bloody Sunday occurred is lined with murals dedicated to those who died. In 2010, the British Prime Minister issued an apology to the people of Northern Ireland after the victims were finally all proven innocent. Today, the river still divides the Protestants and Catholics in the city of Derry. The European Union donated the Peace Bridge that combines the two sides. At the end of our tour, Garvin told us that someone in Hollywood had recommended his tour to Will Ferrell. In 2008, he gave a private tour to Will, his dad, and his brother.