Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Magical Northern Ireland

I feel like Ireland is one of those places that everyone and their mother has been too.
This is not true of Northern Ireland.

While everyone wants to visit the rolling green hills of Ireland, no one seems to want to visit the neighbor to the north. I am here to inspire you to give Northern Ireland a chance. You'll love it!

I think a lot of hesitation in visiting Northern Ireland still stems from the Troubles. Yes, this was a rough point in their history, but Northern Ireland is a lot safer than it used to be. I have been to Northern Ireland twice, so far. The fist time I flew there with some friends, and then stayed with a girl I knew from the Ulster Project. The Ulster project brings kids from Protestant and Catholic families to America to bolster friendship in the younger generation. In high school I had a Catholic girl stay with my family for a month during the summer. When I went to Northern Ireland to visit I stayed with a Protestant girl I had met because the girl who had stayed with me was on holiday. The second time I flew over with my dad and brother to Ireland, then took the train up to Northern Ireland by myself. I again stayed with the same family.

I never once felt unsafe while I was in Northern Ireland. Granted I was staying in a town called Cookstown, not in Belfast. I have visited Belfast though, and it seems like a nice, friendly, clean city. There were protests in Belfast while I was there in 2013, but they were not that bad from what I have heard. Obama was also in Ireland while I was there, which I thought was pretty cool.

There are definitely still some issues in Northern Ireland. The first time I went to visit, one of the Protestant girls from the Ulster Project had been dating one of the Catholic boys. After they broke up, he refused to interact with any of the Protestant kids anymore. We ran into him (me, the Protestant girl I was staying with, and his ex) while walking around Cookstown. He greeted me warmly, but acted like the two girls were not even there. A very strange experience.
My first trip to Northern Ireland was during the Orange Parades, which would have been a very dangerous time to be there during the Troubles. It is a very pro-Protestant holiday. We went to a bonfire where the centerpiece of the huge pile of wood was the Irish flag. Protestant Northern Irish see themselves as British, even though their Northern IRISH which has always cracked me up. Though the bonfire had a very party-esque vibe, I have a feeling it could have turned less friendly if a Catholic had shown up. Still, there was no violence that I know of during the Orange Parades that year. 

Every year Northern Ireland gets safer, and the younger generations are less caught up in the feuds of the past. Anyone who still says Northern Ireland isn't safe is exaggerating or has never been there.

The point of this post though is not to focus on the safety concerns surrounding Northern Ireland. (I'm not saying you shouldn't be aware of safety concerns in countries you travel to, but a lot of times they are blown out of proportion).
The focus of this post is to tell you why Northern Ireland is AWESOME and you should definitely go there.

Reasons Northern Ireland is a magical place to visit:

1. Friendly Locals
The Northern Irish may not always like each other, but they are just as friendly to foreigners as their southern counterparts. Since less tourists visit the north, they are always super excited to talk to foreigners. This is especially true of Americans. They love talking to Americans. They love listening to our accents, though I got told I didn't sound as American as actors in movies (I might have a Pennsylvania dutch accent okay? It is barely noticeable!) Everyone I met in Northern Ireland was super hospitable and so friendly.
Especially the family I stayed with. I swear, some of the nicest people ever. The first two days I was there my debit card wouldn't work and the mom gave me forty pounds. When I tried to give her the money back once my card was working, she insisted I keep it. They also fed me so much and did my laundry for me. And drove me everywhere. Nicest. People. Ever.
Every person I met in Northern Ireland was just like them.

2. Short Travel Times
Northern Ireland is not a big place. It doesn't take long to travel anywhere, even from end to end. Travel to Ireland is also a quick trip. I believe Dublin to Cookstown was about two hours driving. I think it was a bit less on the train, but I was busy making friends with the girls I sat with so I am not sure of the exact time. (We bounded over how hot Northern Irish actors are.)
England is right next door, and flights to mainland Europe are quite cheap as well.
There is so much to see in Northern Ireland you could spend your whole time there.

3. History and Folklore
Northern Ireland is just as rich in history as Ireland. There are cairns and fairy circles littering the landscape. The castles in Northern Ireland actually tend to be larger and more typical of what you would imagine castles to be like than in Ireland. The rich in Northern Ireland were British, so they had more money for castle building. There are some of the little tower castles like in Ireland too.
There are lots of historical sites. I loved the slightly interactive Navan Fort. Two locals pretend to be from the era and take you to a little hut and tell you about their lives. The guy handed us a sword to examine and was quite impressed when I check the balance. I am a well rounded individual (read: quite nerdy).

The cathedral we went to was absolutely stunning. I had never been to an actual cathedral before, churches at home tend to be small, and the sheer size boggled my mind. The whole building was gorgeous as well, with lovely stained glass, sculptures, and sweeping ceilings. There are tons of cathedrals around Northern Ireland, and while I only went inside one, they all look gorgeous.

4. Candy
The other food is good too, but I love British candy so much it hurts. I always eat so much chocolate when I'm in Northern Ireland, and I always bring a bunch back. It is unbearably good. The other thing I really liked in Northern Ireland was the black current juice. I've never seen it in the States. It was so refreshing when we were hiking.
Like Ireland, Northern Ireland is always good for some yummy potato dishes. English food is the most common sort, though the best Chinese food I have had to date was in Northern Ireland. Go figure.

5. The Scenery
This is the most important point of all, which is why I saved it for last. Northern Ireland is absolutely breathtaking. The Giant's Causeway is by far the biggest tourist attraction in the north, but it is only one spot of many. There are the aforementioned castles and fairy circles, beautiful old houses, quaint towns, soaring cathedrals, and cairns. Most of all though, Northern Ireland has natural beauty. There is so much green and the ocean is so blue. There are cliffs, mountains, lakes, valleys, forests, and the ocean. What more could you ask for?

Do you want to go visit Northern Ireland now?


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