The Troubles—the history of violence between the Catholic minority and Protestant majority in Northern Ireland--are as much a part of the Ulster landscape as the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim. And yet Northern Ireland has much to offer, travel there is safe and visitors are welcome.
Northern Ireland’s predominantly Protestant six counties stayed with Britain while the southern 26 counties became the Republic of Ireland in the 1920s. But it was an uneasy peace and in the 1960s, the Catholic minority began an intense civil rights movement that authorities crushed, igniting a cycle of violence that raged throughout the 1970s and erupted sporadically in the1980s and 1990s. Then, President Bill Clinton appealed for peace and in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement made the North a sovereign entity, with neither the Republic of Ireland nor Britain laying claim to it.
There have been some outbreaks of violence since, as recently as 2009; the tensions between the Protestants and Catholics still simmer. Calm reigns at the moment, but even when violence did hit, it was tactical and targeted. Visitors have a certain tourism immunity. “It isn’t your fight,” is the general attitude of the North, and Belfast and Derry remain safer for visitors than many American cities.
You have to know the history to understand and appreciate this small land and its rugged beauty. Belfast and Derry, the two major cities, are easy to navigate, with magnificent monuments, the country’s third major city, Armagh is its spiritual center, with both Catholic and Protestant bishops. But what will take your breath away is the beauty of Ulster.
Small towns are hidden away in the green countryside. Fishing villages line its coast. The towers and steeples of parish churches rise behind trimmed hedgerows. Ruined castles, a legacy of Ireland’s effort to rid itself of the British since it invaded in the 12th century, are now architectural treasures. The 12 peaks of the Mountains of Mourne fill the horizon in southeastern part of the country
The nine Glens of Antrim stretch north and east from Belfast, an area whose rocky ad dramatic coastline contrasts with serene inland landscapes of deep-green glens and quiet forest parks. Long a difficult-to-access part of the country, with mystical names whose original meanings are long lost, it is now a stunningly beautiful drive. It includes the otherworldly Giant’s Causeway, 40,000 mostly hexagonal basalt columns rising out of the sea. And it’s also home to the Bushmill’s Distillery, which dates back to the early 1600s.
Summer is high season but fall and spring are an excellent time to visit. Winters mean the sun sets at 5 p.m. and rainy days, but there’s always cheer in a nearby pub. This is a good place to begin enjoying Northern Ireland’s food. In this respect, it’s a land of great bounty--fresh seafood, locally raised beef, lamb and produce; an abundance that has helped reinvigorate of the Northern Ireland food scene, including its pubs as well as in contemporary restaurants.. You’ll also want to sample local microbrews.
Northern Ireland has good public transport, with good roads, buses and trains. It has three airports and ferry links with England and Scotland.