I’ve spoken many times about the importance of using a local guide when you visit a destination that is new to you. It’s just one of the many ways that we encourage our clients to #VacationForGood and I was able to follow my own advice on our trip to Northern Ireland.

This was not the first trip to Ireland for myself and my husband, but it was our first journey into Northern Ireland. During our previous Ireland trips, nearly 15 years ago we had always toyed with the idea of visiting the North, but never felt that it was quite stable enough for us to do so.

 

When the opportunity presented itself for us to visit Northern Ireland on this trip, we jumped at the chance.  We planned out an itinerary that included two nights in Belfast and knew that we wanted to learn more about the “Troubles” as they call the years of conflict that marred this beautiful country for decades. I was able to contact a local supplier and arrange for a private tour of the neighborhoods and murals in the city.

 

Murals along Shankill Rd

 

 

Our driver, Eugene, picked us up at our B&B. We spent the next three hours learning about life in Belfast and it was fascinating to learn more about the events that took place in my lifetime.

 

 

Eugene sharing the story behind this mural in the Protestant neighborhood
Eugene sharing the story behind this mural in the Protestant neighborhood

 

 

Eugene shared his story with us, he is 63 and grew up in Belfast as a Catholic. His wife is Protestant. Shortly after they were married they lived in a Catholic neighborhood. However, once the landlord discovered that Eugene’s wife was a Protestant they were given one week to move. He then changed his name, apparently Eugene is not a Protestant name, and they moved to a Protestant neighborhood for a few years. Unfortunately for them, Eugene ran into someone that he had known as a child – obviously someone who knew he was Catholic. That night men in balaclavas and weapons gave them only 24 hours to leave their home. They left Northern Ireland for the next 8 years and only returned when Eugene’s mother in law was in ill health.

 

Mural in the Protestant neighborhood.
Mural in the Protestant neighborhood.

His story certainly struck a cord with each of us and greatly enhanced our experience. This was not the kind of information we could have gotten on a HoHo bus (those big, double decker hop on hop off buses with narration in any language you choose) but his information didn’t stop there. He took us into the Protestant neighborhoods first and showed us many of the murals lining the streets and posted on buildings. He took the time to explain what life was like both at the height of the troubles and still today. There are murals for “heros” who killed many Catholics – there are also murals of Protestants that were killed by rival Protestant gangs and painted as a warning to others. There were memorials to those who fought for their communities and tributes to those who endured hunger strikes.

 

 

Mural on the Catholic side of the peace wall.
Mural on the Catholic side of the peace wall.

Eugene took us to a section of the wall that still divides the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast. He showed us photographs of the streets and the aftermath of bombings.

 

Eugene showing us photos of the area during the height of the Troubles.
Eugene showing us photos of the area during the height of the Troubles.

 

He took us to a section of the wall, now known as the Peace Wall and explained how this particular section was designed by the children of Belfast. In the photo below you can see the windows and doors that represent the future, the metal waves are meant to represent jump ropes and display inspirational quotes from the Dalai Lama “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values”; Kahlil Gibran “Your neighbor is your other self dwelling behind a wall”  and Bill Clinton, who helped broker the peace agreement “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.”

 

 

Along the peace wall
Along the peace wall

 

It was particularly touching to see my daughter add her name to the signatures on the wall.

 

 

 

 

Adding her signature to the peace wall
Adding her signature to the peace wall

Eugene explained to us that there are 6 gates in the wall, 4 of them are still closed nightly and the other two can be closed at any time as well. He showed us where the wall had been raised in the 90’s and again in the 2000’s due to increased violence. He showed us where as recently as 10 years ago bombs scorched sections of the wall very close to homes.

Burn marks on the wall, above the flower arrangement
Burn marks on the wall, above the flower arrangement

 

 

He told stories that will stick with us for years to come. These are the types of personal experiences that truly enhance your understanding of the destinations you visit. These are the types of experiences that make you dig deeper to understand the similarities that we share are much greater than the differences. Northern Ireland is a First World country, the stories we heard from Eugene and others that we met would have you believe that perhaps we were in the Middle East, not Europe. It was important for me to share this experience with my  my young daughter so that she can expand her education beyond the walls of her classroom and have a better understanding of the world around her. She was able to interact with people younger than myself who looked like her, believe in the same God she worships, lived much like she lives and had experienced a much different life. Again, we could not have had the same experience on a large tour, or had we insulated ourselves from the locals we met while in this beautiful city.

 

 

I encourage you to step a bit out of your own comfort zone the next time you travel and take a private tour, engage with the locals, and simply immerse yourself in the culture. You will be rewarded in ways you can’t yet imagine.

Are you ready to try it out for yourself? Click here and let’s get started on a local immersion for your next vacation today!

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