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Changing holiday plans

20 December 2010

This summer I visited Ireland, the first in over forty years, my trip was part business in Belfast and part pleasure with an extended weekend across the border in County Donegal.

My business embraced helping my wife organise a conference for all the English, Welsh and Northern Ireland music services; these are the organisations that provide all the music education in primary and secondary schools. Northern Ireland was seen by many as an odd choice and even though it takes less time to reach Belfast than from most places in the mainland than to visit London from the provinces and at considerably less cost. Perceptions are funny things but that strip of sea seems to signal an insurmountable obstacle to travel. Initial conference bookings were slow then suddenly during the last 2 weeks prior to the event when hotel room reservations were about to be cancelled there was a rush of bookings with the inevitable injured parties with whom we had to say ‘no more room we are oversubscribed!’

It was the most successful conference for years yet it should have been the most depressing. The conference theme was all about coping with expected education cuts! The reasons: the warmth of the Irish welcome, some great speakers and even better music from various schools across Ireland who wowed the audiences with African drumming, a harp ensemble, the Irish fiddle, whistle, Lambeg and Bodhran drums supported by traditional dancing – jigs, reels the lot – all magnificent stuff and performed with gusto and obvious enjoyment. And the kids turned up dressed in proper school uniforms to boot without their shirts hanging out and ties askew.

Ireland is a wonderful conundrum of charm and bigotry, lyrical literature contrasting with the harsh, uncompromising language of their politics.

You will have perhaps heard of the so called ‘peace wall’ in Belfast. This is a monstrous forty foot high structure that makes the old Berlin wall look like an amateur affair; it weaves its way across the city’s residential districts in all its magnificent ugliness, punctuated by murals of freedom fighters and graffiti. The gates still close at night to stop the Protestants crossing Catholic estates and vice versa. It’s what we have learned to expect in Palestine but not in a British city yet we rarely hear anyone talking about it? Life just goes on as normal except now open top coach tours take visitors to where famous IRA or UDF murders took place and occasionally still do.

A lovely Irishman in Belfast said to me: “the problem with Ireland is that we were all born with a drink in our hands and we have never learned to put it down”!

Which neatly brings me to the Republic of Ireland – the land of bars, betting shops and the craik – the lulling poetic banter of the tap room, punctuated by humour, story-telling and ample quantities of the black stuff – the Guinness.

My wife and I decided to drive across country from Belfast to Donegal, avoiding the main routes. Our journey was through lovely countryside that had been known until very recently known as ‘bandit country’ as it straddles Ireland/Eire border. In fact, when we were there a bomb was planted in a village in County Monahagn, although we didn’t know about until later which was fortunate as we may have been more circumspect with our route planning!

We were just entering a pretty little village right on the border when we were startled to see what appeared to be a prison with very high walls, barbed wire, look out towers, gun emplacements and search lights. It turned to be the local police station at Kesh, obviously a place that had been much attacked in the past but it still remained a highly fortified citadel today; there it sat a ghastly ghetto in this charming rural hamlet with shops and cottages surrounding it. The contrast could not have been more shocking.

The Republic beckoned; no border as such just a change in tarmac and road signs, now in two languages Irish Gaelic and English and the road markings in yellow. Lots of properties seemed to have been newly renovated reflecting the recent but now crashed property market. Further witness to this decline was the considerable number of homes and small housing estates half finished and abandoned to weeds. Some cases the houses were fully completed save for the gardens, some displayed ‘For Sale’ signs but many were languishing empty just waiting for better times ahead.

It would seem that now might be an opportune moment to be buying if the Republic takes your fancy. However, this apparent standstill was as much about everyone trying to cash in on the seemingly unstoppable property bubble as well as those who decided to build or convert old property without any formal planning permission having been granted. So if buying is on your agenda, caveat emptor as they say – buyer beware!!

Now, I am very fond of Scotland having family roots there and holiday at least once a year in the Highlands to fish, walk and take in the magnificent scenery. My only reservation about Scotland is the surly manner in which the locals, particularly on the west coast greet the English visitor. There often is an underlying current, a barely suppressed hatred of any Sassenachs from south of the Border. Because I have an English accent doesn’t mean that I have not got any Scottish blood coursing through my veins. My family on both sides were Scots but I never lived there although I have a Scottish name. I hate these assumptions and buried prejudices, everyone should be welcome; after all, it is us tourists that bring much needed money into the local economy.

My son went to Edinburgh University, his choice not his parents. He was astonished that when England were playing in any sporting competition against a foreign side – it could be Greenland, Rumania or Tahiti, it didn’t matter who, the Scots would always support the opposing side to the English team.

Ireland is certainly an equally beautiful country to Scotland either in the north or south. It enjoys similar scenery, remote landscapes, fabulous coasts and empty beaches that are there to be discovered and enjoyed. But the rub is that these great qualities can be combined with warmth, humour and genuine interest about visitors having a good time. Everybody we met was helpful, friendly and keen that my wife and I should experience the very best that Ireland could offer. This again was in complete contrast to what my eyes told me about Kesh police station and that horrible Belfast peace wall.

Anyhow, for future UK holidays my wife and I have decided that from now on that we are going to risk being killed softly with Irish blarney, lovely seafood and incomparable hospitality instead of being murdered by looks from disgruntled Highlanders with the English Grudge!

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