Our Irish journey took us from the western part of the Republic further north and into a different country, Northern Ireland. Make no mistake about it, Northern Ireland is a very different country than the Republic of Ireland. For example, its currency is the British pound, not the Euro, and the economy of Northern Ireland is strongly tied to the United Kingdom (which it is a province of) and much less to the European Union than the Irish Republic. Speed limits are posted in mph instead of kmph, and you’ll find those classic bright red British mailboxes and telephone booths everywhere. Beyond the superficial stuff you’ll meet a people who are more traditional and Protestant (members of the Church of England, Methodists or Presbyterians descended from the Scots planted here by the crown to “integrate” Catholic Ireland) than they are Roman Catholic. Most Northerners support the British monarchy and government, rather than the Irish self-governance.
These political and religious differences have been the cause of much disharmony and disagreement between those living in the North and in the Irish Republic. Loyalists (aka Unionists, Protestants) want unity with England. Republicans (aka Nationalists, Catholics) want one Ireland. The history of strife between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Unionist and British government forces in Northern Ireland is well known and will not be repeated here as it is tragic and on principle I really dislike political discussions. My purpose is to make you aware that there are real differences between the regions and that as a traveler you can’t help but notice them. Fortunately, most of these differences have been mostly resolved and as of this writing, Northern Ireland is a safe and fun place to visit. You don’t have to worry about being caught in armed or social conflict here.
Northern Ireland has a population of just less than two million (as compared to the Republics 4.5 million). This region constitutes a sixth of Ireland’s land mass, but there are some real travel gems here like the Giant’s Causeway (which was our main reason for traveling this far). And Northern Ireland really is North — as far north as northern B.C and the Alaska panhandle, although with a milder climate because of the moderating influence of the sea.
As with all of Ireland, the scenery is beautiful and you’ll meet memorable folks. Some of the travel gems in the North include the Antrim coast, many small charming towns and larger cities like Derry and Bristol, and Lough Neagh (the UK’s largest lake).
Our time in Northern Ireland was limited and because we had a car rental, we chose to stay in the small town of Portrush and avoid the larger cities. Portrush is on the Antrim Coast and a good base from which to see the north. It’s a seaside resort situated on a mile long coastal peninsula, about a hour from Belfast and at the end of the train line. It has a small town charm, but with the services you’d expect from a tourist center (good restaurants, lots of B&Bs, a few activities). It’s very easy to explore on foot, has a appealing harbor, and offers nice views of the Antrim Coast from many vantage points.
Portrush is a popular coastal vacation destination with Europeans who come here for the family friendly attractions (like amusement arcades and a small children oriented amusement park), to play golf, swim on its sand beaches in the warmer summer season, and to use as a base from which to see the Antrim Coast. We’ll be discussing the very interesting attractions around the Antrim Coast in two upcoming blog posts.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, we roomed at the Beulah House B&B, a nice centrally located place run by a charming couple. Rachel cooked a great breakfast for us each morning and couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful.
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