Border crossings: First-time visitors describe their experience of Ireland North and South

Few people from the Republic of Ireland are habitual visitors to the North. And many people in Northern Ireland have never been South. Last month, The Irish Times invited eight people to cross the Border for the first – or almost first – time and share their impressions

Few people from the Republic of Ireland are habitual visitors to the North. And many people in Northern Ireland have never been South. The Irish Times invited eight people to cross the Border for the first,or almost first time and share their impressions Video: Kathleen Harris & Darragh Bambrick

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

In this age of easy access to foreign travel, crossing the Border to visit the other half of the island is not particularly high on Irish people’s agendas, especially in the Republic. Perhaps too many chill factors remain, notably the legacy of the Troubles for southerners and the high prices in Dublin and other tourist destinations for northerners.

Coverage of Northern Ireland in the southern media is now largely limited to the annual, and often alarming, marching season and to legacy issues such as on-the-run republicans and the continuing deadlock over flags, parades and dealing with the past.

None of this helps to make the North an attractive destination for southern weekenders or day trippers. With weaker sterling, the days of thousands of people heading north because of lower prices in the shops are largely over, although the practice is still common in the southern Border counties, from Donegal to Louth.

The cross-Border flows are particularly low from south to north, and these are reflected in the tourist figures. People from the Republic made 400,000 trips to the North last year for at least a night (7 per cent down on 2012 and 18 per cent down in the 12-month period to March this year), compared with four times that number – 1.6 million overnight trips – made by northerners travelling south.

The number of trips made by people from the Republic to France was nearly 50 per cent higher than that made to Northern Ireland, and the number of trips to Spain was more than three times higher.

The more than 1.5 million trips made by northerners to the South make Northern Ireland the Republic’s second-largest market for tourists, in terms of numbers, after Britain.

It is curious that while, in the Republic, billboards and television adverts trying to persuade southerners of the delights of Northern Ireland are everywhere, there is little corresponding advertising in the North.

The numbers crossing the Border to work or study are much lower. According to the 2011 censuses, just 14,800 people commuted regularly between the two jurisdictions – only 0.4 per cent of northern residents, and an even smaller 0.2 per cent of southern residents – for these reasons.

The disappearance of the joint council of the two business confederations, Ibec and the CBI, hasn’t helped the situation, although the cross-Border citizens’ information service, Border People, continues its excellent work.

Young people in particular seem less interested in acquainting themselves with the other side of the Border. Whereas for their parents the all-island nature of long-established organisations such as the churches and the main sporting bodies, notably the GAA and the IRFU, often saw them cross the Border, most younger people would prefer to spend a weekend, courtesy of low-fare airlines, in London, Paris, Amsterdam or even New York than in Belfast or Dublin.

The result of this lack of contact is often ignorance and even prejudice. Many northern Protestants continue to insist on seeing the Republic through an outdated mid-20th-century lens, back to when it was a poor, largely rural and overwhelmingly Catholic country.

Similarly, southerners often still fear that violence is not far beneath the surface in Northern Ireland. The reality is that most disturbances are restricted to a few socially deprived areas of Belfast; outside those areas, the North has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe.

The imbalance between southerners who have gone north and northerners who have come south was evident in putting together these interviews. I had little or no difficulty finding people in central Dublin and west Cork who had never been to Northern Ireland, but it took me many weeks to track down their counterparts in Belfast and Co Antrim.

To my surprise, even in my home town of Ballymena – a unionist stronghold if ever there was one – a trawl of relatives, local journalists, Presbyterian ministers, unionist politicians and community workers failed to uncover a single person who had never been to the Republic. Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope in that. NEVER BEEN NORTH Claire MacSimoin and Andrea Flanagan, from Dublin

The Troubles were never real to people like us’

The sun i

s shining without end when Claire MacSimoin, a Dublin social care worker, and her friend Andrea Flanagan, a childcare worker, visit Belfast. Their impression is that the city is “very friendly, good fun, very safe.”

They meet Kim Jackson and Elaine Baillie, who are from a mainly unionist area of north Belfast, when the Belfast women were visiting Dublin. Now their northern hosts are taking them for an evening in the Harp Bar, in the city’s Cathedral Quarter.

“There were clearly both Protestants and Catholics in the bar. There wasn’t the big divide you might have expected,” MacSimoin says. “Everybody there was enjoying the craic. People didn’t care about your religion or political allegiances. You might have expected that people would have to pick a side, but that seems to be all gone.”

Their nervousness about dangers they felt they might face in Belfast quickly evaporates. “We had wondered, would you say the wrong thing? Would you have to be careful what you say? Would they be friendly to southerners or not? But it wasn’t at all like that. People weren’t on edge, trying to suss you out,” says Andrea.

They are particularly struck by how safe the streets in the city centre are. “At 2am we had to walk through back laneways, looking for a bank machine. You felt very safe. You’d feel more on edge doing that at home,” MacSimoin says.

They have the same sense of security during the day. “There were no obvious homeless people or drug addicts in the city centre. We didn’t see so much poverty and social deprivation as you would see in Dublin. Could it be that there are more services for such people in the North?” asks Flanagan.

They are both impressed and shocked by the murals they see when they take a black-taxi tour of the working-class areas most affected by the Troubles. They find the artwork more aggressive in the loyalist areas, full of men in balaclavas carrying menacing-looking weapons, whereas in republican districts there are more small memorial gardens, commemorating everybody from Bobby Sands to innocent children killed in the violence.

They do think it a bit strange that the taxi driver had driven them into ordinary housing estates to see the murals. “The local people must have felt they were in a zoo, with people driving through their estates, pointing at things and taking pictures of them, invading their space and their privacy. But people seemed quite happy about it, smiling and waving to us,” says MacSimoin.

Their taxi driver remarks that if he had told people in the early 1990s that in 20 years he would be driving tourists around the Falls and Shankill Roads, people would have thought him mad. He says that, after all the years of conflict, people in Belfast want to get on with their lives and learn how to live together – life was hard enough in the city’s working-class areas “without all that sectarian stuff”.

MacSimoin and Flanagan say that the basic difference between people in Belfast and Dublin is that those in the North lived through 30 years of the Troubles, and seeing armed British soldiers and violence on the streets became normal for them. Their taxi driver says that when he was nine he saw a soldier shot but was so used to the conflict that he and his friends carried on playing football.

“The Troubles were never real to people like us in the South who are now in our early 30s,” says MacSimoin, although she remembers learning as a teenager, “with absolute shock”, about the Omagh bombing of August 1998, the last big atrocity. Flanagan recalls that her father would go north to attend soccer training camps in the 1980s and early 1990s.

They are also astonished by the city’s peace walls between Protestant and Catholic areas. “Until you see them you can’t imagine them. I didn’t realise how close they were to peoples’ houses, right on top of them, with houses on both sides running right up against the walls,” says MacSimoin.

The other thing that strikes them is Belfast peoples’ strong attachment to their culture and traditions. “For the Protestants it’s about flags and parades. The only equivalent in Dublin might be wearing the green on St Patrick’s Day and perhaps people flying the flag of the Dublin football team,” MacSimoin says.

On the Catholic side it seems to be more about religion. They pass a novena at St Peter’s Cathedral, on Falls Road, and cars are parked everywhere around the church. The congregation that spills into the streets consists of young and old alike. “There seemed to be a real pride in being a Catholic, even if not all the people there were regular churchgoers,” MacSimoin says. Catholic festivals in Dublin mainly involve older people, she says.

Do they feel closer to the North after their visit? Definitely, they say. “We’ve seen the reality of the place, and we’d come back,” says MacSimoin. “Before it was a separate place you didn’t think much about. We’re very removed in Dublin. Belfast is not discussed or talked about, only if it comes up on the news.”

“I’m definitely glad I came. It was a fantastic experience of a lovely city. It was like being on holiday,” says Flanagan.

NEVER BEEN SOUTH Elaine Baillie and Kim Jackson, from Belfast

Social deprivation is more striking in Dublin

and the price of vodka is ridiculous

“I thought of the South as a rural place. I thought there would be more cobbled streets everywhere in Dublin, like there are in Temple Bar. But it was quite refined and sophisticated. It looked beautiful in the sunshine – everywhere looked clean and tidy. I didn’t expect that.”

That’s how Elaine Baillie, an office manager from the mainly unionist area of Ligoniel in north Belfast, describes Dublin when she visits it for the first time. Her sister-in-law, Kim Jackson, who works with Northern Ireland Alternatives, a restorative-justice organisation, says Dublin was “more European than Belfast, even though it’s only 100 miles away”. Both come from a Protestant background.

“It’s much more multicultural than Belfast, with all the tourists and immigrants,” says Jackson. But she also sees Dublin’s darker face. “The wealth and poverty side by side in the city centre are much more striking than in Belfast – the party lifestyle and people having fun beside the obvious social deprivation. We were surprised to see so many people begging for money, which we found a bit intimidating sometimes.

“You can wander into deprived areas quite quickly, places where you feel more vulnerable and where you say, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ In Belfast the city centre is for shops and socialising, and people there would be dressed quite smartly. The poverty in Belfast is not so obvious in the city centre. It’s more out in the communities.”

Everywhere Baillie and Jackson go they find friendly people. Waiters come out of restaurants to direct them to other places to eat. A DJ they meet in a pub takes them to his radio studio and introduces them on air.

Baillie and Jackson have never thought of Dublin as a historic city until they go on a bus tour of the city and hear about James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, U2 and King William of Orange’s connections with it. “Very old and very beautiful” is their conclusion.

What do ordinary unionists in Belfast think of the capital of the Republic these days? “Ordinary people in unionist areas would consider the Republic a different country, so they wouldn’t have any issues with it. I don’t have any issues with people in Dublin. I might have more issues with people on the Falls Road,” says Jackson. “Years ago, during the Troubles, if somebody had committed a crime and come down here for protection, that would have angered people, but that doesn’t happen any more.”

During the Celtic Tiger years people in Northern Ireland regarded the Republic as the more affluent area. “However, we’d see ourselves as more affluent now, after the economic collapse [in the South]. High unemployment and emigration are more of an issue down here.”

One traditional source of suspicion remains. “People in Northern Ireland still see the Roman Catholic Church as having done a lot of damage here. The church is still turning a blind eye to paedophile priests. The Catholic Church is still not addressing these issues, although the new pope seems to be going out of his way to set things right,” Jackson says. But something else has changed: former loyalist paramilitaries she spoke to had no objection to the idea of Pope Francis coming to the North.

What do Dublin and Belfast people have in common? Their sarcastic sense of humour and their love of the craic. More seriously, Jackson says, “What young people have in common is that there is no work for them, not enough is being done for them, and they are leaving the country in droves. They get their education here and then they take it elsewhere, which is a great pity, because without them we won’t be able to develop our communities, either here or in Northern Ireland.”

Do they feel Irish? “Definitely Northern Irish,” they say. Jackson adds, “I feel a little bit Irish. I feel I do have a connection. In Northern Ireland there are Protestants who get Irish passports because it’s safer to travel on them.”

Would they come back? They might. “It’s expensive. The price of vodka in our hotel was ridiculous. With cheap flights from Belfast to Europe, it’s as easy to go somewhere like Amsterdam, where the good weather is guaranteed and the shopping’s cheaper. We don’t see Dublin as a good weekend away because of the price of things here,” says Baillie. NEVER BEEN SOUTH Rodger Connor and Judith Beckett, from Portstewart, Co Derry

‘There’s a healthier attitude to life down here’

Rodger Connor and Judith Beckett, from Portstewart, Co Derry, are spending a weekend at the Curragh, in Co Kildare, for the Irish Derby. Apart from a couple of one-day trips for rugby internationals, neither of them has been to the South before.

“It’s not a place I’d ever thought of coming to visit,” says Connor, who is a health-service manager from a unionist background. He is well travelled and, until recently, had a holiday home in Turkey. During the Troubles “it was not so much the impression of the South itself being a hostile place – it was more that it was tarnished by the Border region, which we saw as a dangerous area, hostile to Protestants”.

As they prepared to come south they were still slightly concerned that they would be treated differently. Beckett, a healthcare worker from a mixed-religion background, poses this concern as a question: “Would people down here tarnish us with the brush of sectarianism?”

In the event only two people even bother to ask where they are from. One is an American tourist, the other is a friendly Corkman behind the bar at the Curragh Racecourse, who asks if they’re from “the wee North”.

They stay at Lawlors Hotel in Naas. “Driving through Naas, and seeing all the wee local pubs, I did wonder what kind of reception we would get in there. And then I thought, probably the same as in pubs in any Northern Ireland town. There are working men’s pubs in Coleraine I wouldn’t go into,” says Beckett.

Her image of people in the Republic, “taking out the politics”, had been that they were “happy, easy-going, laid back”. Her visit only confirms this impression. “Is there a genetic difference with Protestant men in the North being more highly strung?” she says, rhetorically. “I think there’s a healthier attitude to life down here.”

Connor makes the point that they have been treated like any other tourists, and treated very well. “We’d do the same for southerners visiting Portstewart. People in Kildare are working hard to sell the image of this area, and that’s a good thing.”

Beckett and Connor say Fáilte Ireland doesn’t do enough to promote places like the Curragh and the Irish National Stud north of the Border.

Both are impressed by the people they encounter. “The staff in the hotel, the service at the Curragh and the Irish National Stud, they all seem to enjoy their work. They have enthusiasm and pride in what they’re doing,” Beckett says. “They’re proud to be Irish and proud to be serving the public in whatever way they can.”

Connor says locals are “quite forward-looking”, which, he imagines wouldn’t have been the case 30 years ago. “It seems to be something that happened during the Celtic Tiger. I don’t think the crash has affected it too much, because they’ll be back on their feet again soon.”

Beckett and Connor are particularly enthusiastic about the Nigerian taxi driver who drives them from the Curragh to Naas. “His attitude was outstanding, and he was really good craic,” says Connor. “His children were born here, and when we asked him if he ever thought about going home, he says, ‘I am home.’ That was nice and surprising and speaks well for the place.”

Connor prides himself on being a bit of a chef, and is pleasantly surprised at the quality of the produce and the preparation of the food. “We’re surrounded by top-class restaurants on the north coast, and I didn’t expect the quality of food to be equalled here.”

His strongest impression of the weekend is the carnival atmosphere of Irish Derby day, even though he is not a particular fan of the equine industry. He jokes that he warned Beckett on the drive down that he wasn’t going to be walking around in horse manure all day. Regardless, he didn’t encounter any. “The Curragh was an amazing environment – everything was so professional.” “Professional” is a word that crops up frequently in our conversation.

For Beckett, as a horse lover whose father is a Cheltenham regular, the high point is seeing world-class steeplechasers such as Moscow Flyer and Beef or Salmon up close in their retirement home at the Irish National Stud.

So why have they never come south for a holiday before? “The roads used to be rubbish,” says Connor. “People in the North always saw the South as a poor country. So why would you go there? You’d want to take your holidays somewhere nicer, and not somewhere where a Mars bar cost more than £5.”

But in their hotel they “ate and drank as cheaply if not more cheaply than at home”. They also had to cross the “psychological barrier” of thinking that Kildare is a long way south of Dublin – a problem many Dubliners also have with places north of Belfast – but “with the motorway from Belfast and the ring road around Dublin it’s a doddle to get here now”.

Has coming down to the Irish Derby made them feel a little bit more Irish? “When you live in Northern Ireland and come down south, you’re from the North, so you’re different. When you go to England you’re always seen as Irish. I feel I’m Northern Irish – not really Irish but more Irish than British,” says Beckett.

“So we’re between a rock and a hard place,” Connor adds with a wry smile.

Do northerners and southerners have much in common? “We have everything in common,” says Connor. “If there were any differences, these were polarised by the Troubles. But people here have many more similarities than they have differences with people in Northern Ireland.”

NEVER BEEN NORTH Susie McCarthy and Tony Sheehan, living in Schull, Co Cork

It was intimidating to see such a heavy display of flags in two towns

On the three summer weekends when our four couples cross the Border for the first time, the sun seems to forget this is Ireland, shining as if on the Costa del Sol.

“The weather was so good you almost felt you were in a foreign place, but people were so friendly you felt you were at home,” says Tony Sheehan, a physical-education teacher from the west Cork village of Schull.

An experienced sailor, Sheehan feels particularly at home in Portrush, the Co Antrim seaside resort, because of the dramatic spit that some of the town sits on, with sea on three sides and some of Europe’s best beaches stretching in every direction. “All Tony needs to feel at home is a pier,” jokes his partner, Susie McCarthy, an accountant originally from Limerick.

McCarthy and Sheehan have few qualms about heading north apart from the long drive. Their images of Northern Ireland have little or nothing to do with the Troubles but are of the Titanic Centre and of Belfast as a party city.

They are not disappointed. They are hugely impressed by the Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim Coast Road, an undiscovered jewel of Ireland’s coastline for most southerners. “We spent two and a half hours at the Giant’s Causeway and could have spent the day there. The coast road was as good as if not better than the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, in Australia, which we visited a few years ago. The way the road hugs the rocky coast is absolutely magnificent,” says Sheehan.

“I’d never appreciated the sheer beauty of the northern countryside before. It’s rarely shown on TV, which shows much more about Belfast,” says McCarthy.

There are only a few nervous moments. These happen when they pass through two loyalist towns festooned with union flags for the marching season. “It was intimidating to see such a heavy display of flags. You wouldn’t see that in England,” says Sheehan, who has studied in Cheshire. “We got a bit anxious driving a car with southern registration plates and not knowing whether we should stop.”

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board might note that one of these towns is Bushmills, where the visitor centre at the local distillery, one of the oldest in Ireland, is a much-advertised tourist attraction.

In Portrush, which in the past has had its share of drunken young loyalists carousing through the streets in the weeks before the Twelfth of July, they feel completely safe and surrounded by very friendly people. The place has a great buzz during the day, although it goes to bed early, with pubs closed by 11.30pm.

McCarthy’s best memories are of plunging into the Atlantic breakers on the town’s East Strand and of fulfilling a long-held dream of walking across the vertiginous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge between the north Antrim coast and an offshore island.

Both remark on the town’s fine restaurants: Ramore for the crowds and the craic; Jackman & Pye for the seafood.

They would definitely think about going back for a holiday break. But they also say that holidays for Irish people these days are more likely to involve trips abroad, that they are spoiled for choice for short breaks with Kerry on their doorstep, and that their B&B landlady in Portrush warned them that when it rains on the north coast “you’re done for”.

It is not quite McCarthy’s first time to cross the Border. She recalls that she was in Northern Ireland once as a child with her mother and that the shopping centre they visited was bombed a week later. That all seems like centuries ago. “I had an image of the North in my head, but now I know it, it’s much better than that image.”

Andy Pollak is a journalist and former director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies

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