By Graham Wade and Mikayla Cree
On Thursday, we packed our bags in Donegal and said good-bye to the Republic of Ireland (for now, anyway!) and began our journey to the North of Ireland. Northern Ireland is a separate country and is a part of the United Kingdom, unlike the Republic of Ireland. For now, there is a “soft” border between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, so to cross the border is merely to drive across it. You only know you’ve crossed because the signs begin to read in miles instead of kilometers! But, if you’re familiar with Brexit, you know that soft border may not last much longer. A bit more on Brexit later.
We began our journey toward the North with a visit to a museum about the tale of Tuatha De Danann. Here, we learned about three groups of “supernatural” people, the Tuatha De Danann, the Firbolg, and the evil Fomorians, and their struggles to control Ireland. These people became the gods of pre-Christian Ireland. Here are Hailey and Mikayla trying on some battle equipment, ready to fight those Fomorians!
Next, we visited Grianan of Aileach, which the characters in Tuatha De Danann used as a burial grounds, according to legend. Standing here now is a reconstructed ring fort. This style of architecture dates back to 1000 BC, so this building was probably used for ancient religious ceremonies in accordance with Solstices or the movement of the stars. After Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in 432 AD, it became a meeting place. While Christians no longer gather at the ring fort, they do gather at the foot of the hill at the church modeled to look like it!
In the 1100’s AD, the fort was a stronghold for the prominent O’Neil clan, and the King of Munster attacked it in retaliation. The fort was mostly destroyed and the King took the stones. It was finally restored in 1878, and according to our guide, Dezzy, who grew up in the area, it has been used as a children’s playground ever since! Dezzy shared with us his fond memories growing up around this structure, and he and his wife still organize music festivals here during Solstices to commemorate its original purpose to the ancient Irish.
Dezzy also shared memories with us of his experiences as a child living in a “border town.” At the time, there was a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the North, so the divide between the two was far more prominent. Since Customs controlled what came in and out, the exchange of goods between people North and South of the border was nearly impossible. Dezzy said it was “great fun” to make money in his youth, smuggling tea and tobacco across the border, hidden inside the frame of his bike. Because of the complications of a trade war with England, at one time even butter was smuggled.
After this visit, we finally crossed the border into Northern Ireland. Our driver, Philip, pointed out an old border checkpoint that had not been used since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Customs checkpoints like these may be reinstated with Brexit, which is the motion for Britain to exit the European Union. Since Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland is still a part of the EU, this could make trade and movement of people between the North and South of the border very difficult again. This has been a hot topic of conversation since we arrived in Ireland, as the people are very worried about the unknown future of their border. Crossing the border, we noticed a change in the architecture from the North to the South. The buildings were often made of brick, uniform, and close together, creating a suburban look not as prominent in the Republic of Ireland. We entered the city of Derry/Londonderry and again noticed the abundance of brick and English architecture.
After lunch, we took a walking tour of Derry, led by our guide, Garvin. He was a former mailman who has lived in Derry his whole life. He now runs tours to explain the history of the city, focusing especially on the city’s current message of peace. Our class loved Garvin’s theatrical personality and storytelling skills. Alexis says “He was my favorite tour guide yet,” and many students echoed her opinion. His passion for his “wee city” made for a lively tour, and we especially appreciated his willingness to talk about “The Troubles” of the area during the 1960’s and 70’s, in which a lot of violence was exchanged between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Military who patrolled the area at the time. We walked the city walls while Garvin told us about the history from King James and William of Orange to present day Derry. During the Troubles, these walls were guarded by the British Military, and the public could not walk on them. Anyone who came close was held at gunpoint. Now, the public can wander the walls as they please, and we so enjoyed the view from its highest point!
In large part, Derry’s conflicts have arisen from its divide between Protestants and Catholics. To resolve these tensions, there have been many murals and projects for peace erected around Derry. There even stands a Peace Bridge between one side of Derry’s river and the other, connecting the Protestant and Catholic areas of the city. With our new understanding of Derry’s history, our tour left us in solidarity with the city’s efforts to promote peace. The bridge is long and windy, to symbolize that while the road to peace is difficult one, it is worth the journey. We could not agree more!