Ireland, Part I ~ Beginning in the North

September 11, 2017
The Irish coast near Ballintoy, Glens of Antrim – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2017 all rights reserved – Click to view a larger image

By Andrea Cleghorn

Norwegian Airlines descends into Belfast airport on inaugural flight from Providence – Image (c) Andrea Cleghorn, 2017 all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

The first time I went to Ireland was in 1976, at the end of a six-month, off-season trip to the Continent. The trip had become hard work: I was tired of my three shirts and three sweaters and trying to find radiators that could dry a pair of jeans overnight. I was traveling by train with a boxy, not-ergonomic backpack that could be carried like a suitcase; the polyester skirt and basic black dress had long ago been jettisoned to lighten my load.

Click this link to view a 22-page album of Andrea Cleghorn’s pictures from Northern Ireland – Images of Ireland – Part 1

In Ireland, I was happy to eavesdrop in restaurants, fully understand directions, and read street signs. Even before the euro standardized international currency, Irish money seemed more straightforward, without an impatient or aggressively helpful salesperson grabbing coins out of my hand while I mentally tallied the bill.

My companion and I took the ferry to Dublin in time for St. Patrick’s Day, quite possibly the worst time to see Ireland.

American tourists dressed in all 40 shades of green, were thick on the ground, sometimes literally. We were advised to go to Ballsbridge, both for the dog show and to be able to get a drink on a religious holiday. The Irish went there, but the tourists didn’t know about it.

We admired a long bench of what are called ‘red setters’ in Ireland. I photographed a trio of red-haired brothers, all in school uniforms. What I couldn’t have known then was that the couple who owned one of those beautiful dogs would, decades later, become my best friends in Ireland.

We saw the sights, but it was a sad time in Ireland. Mothers with babies were begging on the bridges; there was a pervasive grimness throughout the city, and we didn’t even consider traveling to the North. It was the height of the Troubles.

Basically living on trains during the course of that marathon trip, we paid little attention to the news of the day. We knew enough to stay out of Portugal, to be careful in Spain, and to be wary of the six counties of the United Kingdom that share the island with the Irish Republic, and make up Northern Ireland.

The idea of visiting Northern Ireland was not on my radar at the time.

Politics changed, of course, and peace came. Years later, I touched down in the North a couple of times, once for a combined north-south tour visiting three gardens a day for a week. It was a dizzying collection of glorious color against a backdrop of gray houses and stone or whitewashed stucco cottages, with dazzling blue skies alternating with dismal ones.

When I had a last-minute chance to join a group traveling to Northern Ireland this summer, I didn’t hesitate.

Norwegian Air hit the trans-Atlantic skies this spring, shattering fare records that sold out before most people saw them in the rear-view mirror. And the fares kept coming, not as dramatic as the first ones, which were less expensive than taking a train to New York, but still prompting the identical response: “That’s for round trip?

My flight took off from Providence on July 3, with fireworks exploding over Narragansett Bay, and landed in Belfast on a foggy morning. TSA at TW Green was a breeze, and so was arriving in Belfast. So far, so good.

The Celtic Tiger came to the Republic of Ireland with the European Union. The economic recovery brought high tech, American companies, better roads, prosperity, massive migration from all over, tantalizing tax breaks for holiday homes, and zero unemployment.

Many Irish citizens I have talked with over the past few years think the new affluence was a mixed blessing. Though it was a godsend in many ways, a lot of people felt the materialism that came with it brought a degree of separation from each other and a certain competitiveness.

This was not my grandfather’s Ireland.

It wasn’t Ireland’s Ireland either, and once again the economy took an enormous swing when the Crash of 2008 hit the country hard.

Ireland is recovering and on her way back, but now there is a lot of ambiguity on what will happen with Brexit. Northern Ireland, along with the rest of the United Kingdom will take a step away. And what will happen with the Irish Republic still firmly attached to the European Union? There is talk of a wall between the two, usually mentioned in hushed tones.

Many years ago, the Irish on the Republic side going to Northern Ireland meant answering a few questions by customs officials on the Republic Side, and customs backed up with a military presence on the other.

Today the Irish in Northern Ireland are now close to half and half Catholic/Protestant. And there is a sizable proportion that is neither.

Belfast is a cosmopolitan city. There are stark reminders of the hard times in certain neighborhoods, but you have to go looking for them. The Shankill Road/Crumlin Jail brings images — some of them fueled by movies, or by vibrant murals with political images or disturbingly violent ones.

Derry/Londonderry, an ancient walled city, boasts a peace park and a peace bridge; the landscape is thick with messages to heal the past hurts.The cement wall that once divided the factions from the 1970s to the turn of the century remains, covered with murals and topped with concertina wire. The message is peace, but to an outsider, it feels unsettling, a bit threatening.

In the end, Ireland was Ireland: Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom comprised of those six counties in the northeast, or the Republic, the remaining 26 counties to the south. Information on both countries is available at

I have not become adept at identifying regional accents, so the people I run into are all just Irish to me, and I was glad to be reunited with both.

Please stay tuned: This autumn I will share the Northern Ireland I saw this summer, including the Antrim Coast with the Giant’s Causeway; a museum in a tiny town dedicated to one incredibly talented and well-known poet; the place where the “unsinkable” Titanic was built; and a delicious tour through Belfast.

Editor’s Note: Bedford writer Andrea Cleghorn has kindly shared her travels in Ireland with The Bedford Citizen for several years.

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