Q & A: Should I Change My Plans to Visit Belfast and Northern Ireland?
I’m going to Belfast this summer. Don’t know whether I should be worried about the recent riots? (note: this article was originally posted in June 2011)
– Tanya Wren via Twitter
I should start by confessing my bias. I love Northern Ireland, so it pains me every time the country gets bad press.
Last week at the same time one of her own was celebrating victory at the US Open, Northern Ireland made headlines as two nights of riots on Belfast’s east side were stealing the spotlight.
Rather than drill down a list of stats illustrating facts like you are more likely to get hit by a bus than get caught up in violence in Northern Ireland or outline how recent events differ from those of the 70s and 80s, I chose to ask people who live in Northern Ireland, people who just visited, and people who will be visiting soon to share their thoughts on the topic.
Hopefully by reading what they have to say, you will either feel confident in your decision to steer clear or find your enthusiasm roused for your trip to a wonderful corner of Ireland.
A special thanks to everyone who volunteered to be included in this post both in words and photos. Feel free to leave your comments at the end.
Life Must Go On
Cindi Callaway is putting the finishing touches on her first Irish itinerary.
I’ve not been to Belfast or any part of Ireland before. The area is so historic, how could I not visit when in Ireland? I have to admit, I’ll be traveling with my sister-in-law who was born in Belfast and she goes back every three years.
I’ve been reading about the riots and violence, and I’m not phased about it. My brother took his honeymoon there during the troubles and continued to go back. I’m not going to let some riots affect my enjoyment of a holiday. I’m from Washington, DC, so I’ve lived with the threat of terrorism my whole life, and life must go on.
I’m excited about the trip. Especially looking forward to seeing the Giants Causeway.
Putting This Part of Ireland on the Map
John Bustard, a SUP’rstar from www.SurfSUPNI.com and fixture in promoting his region of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast and Glens.
It’s been pretty disappointing for the 99% of the population who are getting on with all this and running great experiences and events and putting this part of Ireland on the map in a positive way!
I think it’s important to put things in perspective. There are always going to be areas (which in context are not exactly centres of tourism) in the US and in Ireland that may not be appropriate for visitors seeking a fun and safe experience.
That said, many folks want to visit somewhere with a little ‘edginess’ in order to make it interesting. I think our social history is appealing, and I think Northern Ireland has come along way in articulating its story in a more positive way. It’s easy to avoid trouble here. Just take the main tours and enjoy the many signature trails available.
Just be open about your concerns when visiting here – say something like “I’d like to have a fun and safe trip in Northern Ireland – anything going on I should know about?” People are SO honest and friendly (even those with quite polar political opinions!). WE NEED YOU GUYS to continue to believe in us so please keep enjoying the best golf, most amazing scenery, and best experiences in Northern Ireland.
I’ve attached an image from one of our cross community projects – kids from Bushmills and Portstewart hanging out together and learning Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP). I’ve been involved in this sort of cross-community stuff for 10 years, and it’s so normal nowadays to see groups coming together that the issues have dissipated on most levels.
So – if your folks are nervous, tell them not to be and just ask good questions on arrival (like I would if I arrived at New York’s Grand Central info point as a greenhorn visitor). Hey, if you’re still nervous – book a paddleboard lesson with me at www.surfsupni.com, and I’ll evacuate you from the beaches if your still a little shook – Is it a deal?!
Not Willing to Risk Becoming an Innocent Bystander
Judy Arnold returned from her visit to Ireland last week and she intentionally avoided Northern Ireland on this trip.
As an adult I have no problem visiting Northern Ireland and have done so with my sisters.
However, I did not and will not take my grandchildren into possible harm’s way. Even if tourists are not being targeted, innocent bystanders can be just as harmed or dead.
Second Safest City in the World
Dr. Tim Campbell of the St. Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, shared his thoughts.
Belfast was recently voted the second safest city in the World after Tokyo. No matter where your visitors are coming from it will be more dangerous to stay at home than come here.
News reports about Belfast always get worldwide attention, but a little disturbance in one street far from the city centre for two nights is hardly worth reporting and has already been forgotten about here. Most cities have areas you’d rather not go to, but Belfast is actually safe in all parts, bar some very rare and isolated incidents like this one.
NO Issues of Feeling Unsafe
Christy Jackson Nicholas just returned home to the US from Northern Ireland with more cherished memories and artwork.
We didn’t stay in Belfast, but we did land at Belfast Airport. There was no indication anything was more militant than anywhere in the US — in fact, it was a lot friendlier than the TSA (Transporation Security Administration) in the US usually is :)!
We had NO issues of feeling unsafe as we stopped in a town near Belfast on our way to points north. We stopped in a mall for some supplies, and I honestly didn’t even stop to think about the fact that we were near Belfast.
The people are friendly and treasure the Irish tradition of hospitality. We had no worries in the small towns at ALL. Even in Derry, a larger town, there were no issues – and this was just a few weeks ago.”
Respect Through Music and Action
Kerry Dexter, a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland and a writer at www.musicroad.blogspot.com, appropriately chose music in her reply.
The people of Northern Ireland are warm and welcoming, and as with the rest of the island, history is a living thing. The best piece of advice I can offer is respect. Before you go, listen to the song “There Were Roses” written by Tommy Sands from County Down and sung by Cara Dillon from County Derry… then go, have a great time, and be respectful.
In terms of respect, taking photographs of murals is fine, whatever neighborhood you are in. Taking pictures of people in these areas is often seen as intrusive. Laughing or joking about murals may also be seen as offensive. Taking photos of police stations and PSNI members (police officers) is also not wise as it may put them on edge.
It’s not necessary, or advisable, to share your opinions about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland no matter how friendly your companions may be or how many pints you’ve drunk. Most people in Northern Ireland want to get on with their lives.
Yes, tensions may run higher during what’s known as Marching Season in July when the Orange Order host parades, but as mentioned before, most people in Northern Ireland just want to get beyond this.
Republican colors are green, white, and gold; Unionist are red, white, and blue. It can be seen as disrespectful to sport one side’s colors when you are in an area or a pub clearly marked with the colors of one side.
It’s important to remember there is a lot to explore in Northern Ireland, so be sure to take in these songs that celebrate its beauty: Hills of South Armagh sung by Briege Murphy and County Down sung by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh with Dan.
It Would Be a Shame
Moya McAllister, a native New Yorker just returned from Northern Ireland.
I was there in May and had a lovely time both in Belfast & with family in County Down.
There are so many beautiful places to see in Northern Ireland, like the Giant’s Causeway, the rope bridge at Carrick-a-rede, music and dancing in Cushendall (where my parents met), and the Glens of Antrim — especially Glenariff, Queen of the Glens. It would be a shame to let the actions of a small few who won’t let go of the hate, or worse, who use the hate for their own financial ends, drive away much needed tourism. Their bad behavior reflects poorly on the very real, wonderful, warm, lovely people who live in Northern Ireland.
I’d Travel to Northern Ireland Any Day
Bernd Biege live in the Republic of Ireland and writes About.com‘s Ireland Travel section.
To be honest – I’d travel to Northern Ireland any day. Even watching the parades on July 12th is now big deal these days for visitors.
Northern Ireland’s security situation is complicated – so much so that visitors might be scared away despite only a minimal risk. A risk much lower than the risk of being a traffic victim.
Trouble-Free for Nearly 20 Years
Joy Harron works with B&B owners in both the Republic and Northern Ireland through B&B Ireland.
Northern Ireland is a very safe destination, it is mainly rural and has been trouble-free for nearly 20 years. Belfast is very safe as well, it has seen a little disturbance in recent weeks but overall is a beautiful Victorian city and well worth a visit.
In Belfast tourists can take scheduled tours of the troubled spots of the past, they are very interesting for people who have an interest in Northern Ireland’s history. This site has further details – www.belfastcitytours.com.
As for safety, the same rules apply for Northern Ireland as do any other destination.
Marches are common around this time of year, but are well-policed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Marches can be very interesting for tourists to see, they are part of Northern Ireland’s heritage.
It is All a Matter of Perception
Michele Erdvig is the author of Ireland Dream Trip and hosts an Ireland travel forum at www.IrelandYes.com from her home in the US.
Traveling in Northern Ireland or anywhere else is all about “perceived threats”. How do we look at the world around us and what threatens to kill us every day?
Should you avoid a trip to Northern Ireland because you might be blown up? Should you skip that tropical vacation because a tsunami might wash you away? Should you forget about a cruise because the ship might sink? It all depends on your comfort level with those scenarios.
Terrorists use the press to spread their terror. In turn the press inadvertently becomes their tool by concentrating on “newsworthy” events – most of which are negative. Good news is always eclipsed by bad news. The Belfast riots get the headlines on page one; US Open Champion Rory McIlroy’s homecoming to Northern Ireland is buried in the sports section. It is all a matter of perception.
Northern Ireland is a beautiful little corner of the world where I have never once felt threatened. I have just safely returned from a visit. I drove Newtownards Road (where the recent riots occurred). I drove through Belfast. I drove through Derry. I saw no problems, no riots and no terrorists. I wasn’t even accosted by a pickpocket.
The worst thing that happened was that a bird bombed my husband, and I had to clean up the mess! As a tourist I was warmly welcomed by the friendly people of Northern Ireland. I enjoyed the beautiful countryside, the Antrim coast, and a festival at Mount Stewart.
Will I continue to visit Northern Ireland as I have for the past 38 years? My perception is that it is worth the risk. But it is your perception that counts for your trip. Only you can make that decision.
Much Safer Than Any of the Big Cities
Bit Devine was touring Belfast and Northern Ireland the week of the riots and many of her Ireland photos can be viewed at www.rinconcreekstudios. zenfolio.com.
Our friend who gave us our one-hour whirlwind tour of Belfast, covering all the main points, kept talking about the ongoing riots. He even drove us through where the riots were happening. Much to his dismay, it would seem, there was no action taking place and the area was calm. We were on Falls and Shankill roads taking photos of the murals. We were downtown taking architectural and street scene photos. It was just another day in any large city.
I wish people would understand that anywhere in Northern Ireland is much safer than any of the big cities in the US. I have never felt unsafe anywhere in Northern Ireland whether traveling by myself or with others.
We Fell in Love With the North!
Maura McDonough Shay was in Northern Ireland doing a bit of “research” with her husband who happens to be the chef at McCarthy’s Tea Room in Bethlehem, PA.
We were in Belfast last month for three different days, and I never felt scared. The only time I felt a little uneasy was in Armagh because one of the streets we were walking was so quiet and empty – I was worried maybe we were in the ‘wrong’ part of town. But I was never fearful.
We stayed in Annalong but traveled all over. We loved Downpatrick, Newcastle, Bushmills, and Glenarm. St. George’s Market in Belfast is fabulous! Loved the St. Patrick Centre in Downpatrick and also the Down Museum — so much history!
We fell in love with the North! We want to move there. The people were very friendly and always helpful. We actually liked that it wasn’t as touristy as the Republic.
One of the main reasons we went to Belfast was to meet up with the author Tony Macauley. He wrote a book called Paperboy, about his time as a 12-year-old paperboy in 1975 Belfast. He gave us a tour of the city using the book as a reference. His goal in life is to bring the two sides together. It was a very powerful experience!
I Pictured Things Would Be Different
Pat Hayes’ accidental trip to Northern Ireland conjured an unexpected reaction among his family from the US.
We chose to play it safe and skip Northern Ireland this trip. We thought we were on a secondary road in County Monaghan when we stopped for gas and found out we crossed the border and didn’t even know it. There were no checkpoints, not even a sign on that road.
I guess we pictured things would be different. Once we were there, my mother, who was the most worried about going to the North, asked, “How far are we from the Giants Causeway?” Unfortunately, we were too far away for a day trip.
A Peaceful City, Proud of Its Heritage
Sandra Gray from Canada visited the area her father was born and shares photos from the trip at www.aquinnahimages.com.
I was incredibly blessed to travel to Ireland with my dear 80-something dad this time last year. He took me to the ancestral farm where he grew up in Dundonald, Belfast. I had the most incredible trip meeting aunts, uncles, and cousins!
There were many times that I was prompted to consider the “troubles” that had occurred in this region over the years, however, not once did I feel even remotely threatened or unsafe. We even toured the city of Belfast aboard an open-topped double-decker bus, travelling through neighborhoods where extreme violence was rife for many years.
I was thrilled to see Belfast promoting itself as a peaceful city, proud of its heritage, and what it has to offer to tourists the world over. I found the people of Belfast to be kind, warm, friendly, and helpful to say the least. I plan to return many more times to pursue my love of photographing this incredibly beautiful, inspirational country!
Leave Your Comments Below
Your comments are welcome. If you reference a particular statement from above, be sure to note it. And above all, BE NICE :)!
PS – I should note that many of these entries resulted from a call I put out to our Twitter and Facebook followers.
• Northern Ireland Security Situation – About.com
• Northern Ireland- A Dangerous Place? – About.com
• The Truth About Belfast’s Riots – The Guardian
• Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland – University of Ulster
• Belfast Bonfires & Marching Days – Irish Fireside Podcast
• About Those Northern Ireland Travel Warnings – Irish Fireside Podcast
• BBC Northern Ireland • Belfast Telegraph • Belfast In Your Pocket