If you’ve followed me for a while now, you’ll know that most of my travel content thus far centers around Spain and the US (and the differences between the two). A place where I’ve made a home and life for myself in the past decade and the other, my home country. However, I’ve never managed to write about a country that has completely captured my heart and it’s one I have a standing invitation to go to every summer for the foreseeable future.
In September 2019, I added a new country to my homes away from home around the world when I got married to my Northern Irish fiancé on a shockingly warm and sunny (albeit windy!) day at the Presbyterian church in his hometown on the North Coast.
That country is none other than Northern Ireland, a severely underrated part of both the UK and the Isle of Ireland if you ask me. I could list a whole lot more than just ten reasons why I love Northern Ireland but I’ve managed to narrow it down to the top contenders in this post.
The possibility of meeting someone from another country while living abroad in Spain didn’t even really occur to me until a couple of years after I met my now-husband – in quite practically the rainiest town in all of Spain: Santiago de Compostela.
I was never one of those people who dreamed and pined away for the island like so many other Ireland lovers had before me. The abundance of rainy days and green landscapes certainly did intrigue me but they didn’t convince me enough to plan a trip there because the locals also spoke English.
(Or so you’d think depending upon which part of the island you visit!)
Unbeknownst to me, my very first visit to that mystical island coincided with meeting my future in-laws and seeing the part of the Emerald Isle where my husband grew up.
I am very fortunate to now have family and a few new friends in a country so rich in history and beauty as Northern Ireland. And since I’ve spent a considerable amount of time seeing different parts of it (and some from my window in self-isolation), I feel compelled to share more and hopefully inspire you to visit the Wee North one day soon.
Now that that’s all said and done, let’s get to having some good craic, shall we?
The endless shades of green pastures
Up until this year, I’ve only managed to visit NI during the summer twice of the five trips I’ve made to the country.
Do you know what visiting in the winter means?
Lots and lots of gazing into pitch-black landscapes either from the windows inside a cozy house or car.
There’s nothing like the first time you see the sun begin to set around three-thirty in the afternoon on a chilly winter’s day. It’s odd, to say the least, and even after three visits, you think I’d find it normal. Only the contrary, I’m only sort of used to it. I’ve helped a few locals come to the realization that Northern Ireland does get really dark in the winter.
A little bit of perspective on your home country goes a long way, doesn’t it?
Nevertheless, I had incredible luck the day after I landed in Dublin. The coach bus ride up to Belfast (and then later picking up my husband’s car to continue the journey up to the North Coast) was foggy and misty so I hardly saw the coveted green pastures and rocky coastlines countless guidebooks and movies have shown me in decades past.
(Travel tip: if you’re traveling from Spain, flying from Madrid to Dublin is the fastest and most direct way to travel to the island.)
On the second day of my first visit, I woke up to the sun shining and blue sky peeking out from under the fluffy clouds. Much to my surprise within a couple of hours later, the clouds and light sea fog burned off and the day took on a brilliant blue hue, albeit short-lived. My word, though, it felt magical.
Five visits later and I am still in awe of how just how intensely green the fields and pastures are. You can certainly tell during any given year if the island has had an even more rainy season than usual. And as a friend told me a few years ago: everyone falls in love with the land of 50 shades of green. If you grew up in a dry, arid climate, then the damp, verdant Isle of Ireland is definitely something you should experience in your lifetime.
Bottomless cups of tea all year round
As an ode to my love for Twinings tea in a previous post, I shared how my great-grandparents grew up in England (outside of London) and immigrated to the US in their mid-to-late twenties around the early 1900s. My grandpa (their youngest son) grew up with tea time with sugar cookies that his mother specialized in but tragically never wrote the exact recipe down for them. He never drinks tea any other way other than black with milk and sugar.
As I’ve been told many times before, my great-grandmother managed to retain a bit of her English accent whereas her husband didn’t maintain a lot of his during his 50-odd years living in the United States. She grew up in West Ham and most likely had a Cockney English accent which is much, much harder to hide and tone down so it’s no wonder that it stayed with her even longer than her lack of belief in Americans to make a good cup of tea.
Now that you know a bit more about my family’s history with tea, it’s easier to understand that drinking tea and having tea time were two things that brought me and my husband together.
You don’t meet too many American families who prefer tea over coffee when it comes to family get-togethers but a lot of my extended family and I are tea drinkers. It felt so natural to me to slip into a sort of familiar yet new-to-me tradition in another country when I developed feelings for my husband all those years ago and then met his parents early on in our relationship.
My first full day on the North Coast at the end of 2017 consisted of waking up at my boyfriend’s home for tea for the very first time, spending more time with his parents, meeting one of his mentors at his house, stopping for tea at a couple of cafés due to the bitter cold and then capping off the night with one last cuppa. I love these wee metal milk jugs (see above). 😍
Now, as the wife of a Northern Irish man, I drink tea when we go up to his parents’ house with dinner no matter the season because it’s always temperate enough for a hot cuppa. And later that evening, we have bedtime tea –a ritual that has always been a custom for my husband growing up.
Breathtaking natural beauty and ancient ruins
Ballycastle, Northern Ireland
The first official view of Northern Ireland’s rugged coastline surrounded by its signature greenery was Carrick-a-Rede Island. It’s fitting too because I had spent months (and now years) beforehand dreaming of walking across that wee rope bridge. However, a combination of the weather and opening hours (read: they close really early and it gets dark even earlier than that) has made it nearly impossible to walk across the rope bridge. Whenever it reopens, I will be in line as soon as I possibly can to go across it!
And when my husband and I were only friends back in the summer of 2017, he hunted for a postcard with the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge on it to send to me before he went back to Spain for another school year. He’s lucky he even found any postcards because, in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, it’s nearly impossible to find a single postcard unless you go to the USAF Museum Gift Shop!
Antrim Coast Gems
The Dark Hedges
The House Across the Street From Bregagh Road and the Dark Hedges
Downhill Strand & Mussenden Temple
The View from Scrabo Tower (Newtonards)
There are so many more places I’ve yet to see and explore around the six counties in Norn Iron (see the slang section for the definition of this phrase). I’m very blessed to not only be able to live in a country as beautiful as Spain but to also have access to quite possibly the greenest country I’ve ever seen? It feels like I won the lottery and I remind myself how lucky I am especially on my bad days.
Articles and Resources on Northern Ireland Travel
Cathy from the Girl Who Goes details how you can manage a day trip up to the Giant’s Causeway from Dublin.
(Although, the point of my post is for you to be inspired to spend a lot more time than a single day.)
And finally, but not an exhaustive list of articles, Liz from Young Adventuress has an affinity for the verdant island and is actually one of the very few bloggers who acknowledge that Northern Ireland is separate from the Republic of Ireland. So many internationally-minded travelers have either never even been to Northern Ireland or they only spend a day or two in a rush to visit it.
It is only about 5500 square miles (or about the size of the state of Connecticut) but it is definitely worth it!
Kind-hearted, friendly people
I don’t even know where to start when it comes to talking about the (Northern) Irish people. There are so many nice things to say about them honestly.
One thing that has stuck with me over the years is an impression a group of strangers made on me back when I was just getting to know the country.
Looking back on it, however; I realize it was the act of kindness that was displayed and not the people who were involved. What was that good deed, you might be asking yourself?
Well, it was the simple act of holding a door open to the Bob and Berts coffee shop that we had just left. One nice young man held it open for seven(!) people and every single one of the members of that group thanked him personally. My jaw hung open as I watched the exchange play out.
If you had looked at my face at that moment, it had to have looked like I was in shock or horrified at what I was looking at.
Quite the contrary!
I was stunned yes, but also in awe of the kindness I had witnessed. And very touched even to this day.
That day and the day we got married are two moments in time when I experienced such a welcoming mixture of both kindness and gratitude from his family. And I feel very grateful and privileged to have had these experiences and connections with the people in this wonderful land.
Never-ending lexicon of Irish slang
I swear that I have learned a new word or a new way to pronounce the same word every other day.
This isn’t to say that I’m upset about any of this. I am a lifelong learner.
And I’m also someone who had previously said, “I’ll never say the word ‘wee'” to my husband when we were just (albeit closer) friends in early 2017. Later that same year and the day after my 29th birthday – I’ll never forget it- this phrase naturally slipped out of my mouth as Andrew went to put our tray away at one of the Sevilla Starbucks’ locations: “I just want to take a wee photo [of the Catedral de Sevilla].”
He hadn’t heard me in all honesty because he had walked far enough out of earshot that he really did miss what I had said that one fateful Sunday morning. But, since it was such a big deal for me to go against my ingrained American terminology, I had to tell him. And now I use the word every day almost five years later. It is one of the inevitable side effects of dating someone from a different city or country or dating someone in general. You pick up on their words and phrases and vice versa,
I get frustrated in a good way (think of a fist shake into the air with a smile on your face). My mind is also blown most of the time I learn a new word or heard it spoken in context by a local. I want to write a separate post on some of the most popular and/or peculiar Irish slang words so I’m not going to go into as much detail here.
I will say that whether you visit the country or marry someone from it, the huge lexicon of slang the Irish possess is mind-boggling. It will keep you entertained for years and years, let me tell ya.
One of the words that stuck out to me that Andrew taught me when we were pretty much only acquaintances at the time. He was leaving Spain for the near future (as far as I knew back then) and because I likely wouldn’t ever see him again (ha!), I asked if he could teach me a couple of slang words from Northern Ireland on his last night in Santiago.
Definition: ruined, incapacitated, broken
Seeing a word as strange as this one might not stick in your mind but that was not the case for me. He taught me another one as well but I don’t remember it to be honest. Banjaxed just stuck for some reason and I never told anyone in my family that he had taught me some slang words or really that I had met a kind Northern Irish man with a good sense of humor back in 2015.
But my goodness, I was so excited when I heard my future mother-in-law say “so the car (or tire) was banjaxed.” in the living room while she was telling a story to Andrew, his dad and me during our first meeting.
I whispered to Andrew while her attention turned back to the TV that was murmuring in the background.
“Your mum said banjaxed” with a gleam in my eye and a grin on my face.
I think he enjoyed how much I loved listening to all the different accents and hearing some of the words he taught me in the country itself.
So my hope for you is that you too will get to experience that same type of excitement I (still) have when you’re listening to and absorbing all of the Northern Irish accents and slang.
Shout out to two podcasts co-hosted by Northern Irish folk that have helped expose me to more accents. The Rend Collective’s Chris and Gareth from (or around) Bangor, UK on Where’s the Joy in That? and Mel from County Armagh on the Making an Effort podcast.
You’ll never look at rain the same way again
Some time ago, I wrote about how living in a rainy climate changed me back when I was living in Santiago de Compostela. It is a magnet for rain but this wee country knocked it off of the number one rainiest place on my list. Pack a good waterproof raincoat, some rain boots if you plan to be outside a lot or go hiking and an umbrella but be forewarned it might get broken if the weather is really intense. The wind gusts up there are something else and I won’t lie. I have almost thought I would get blown away if it hadn’t been for my love’s strong grasp on my arm as we linked arms and walked along the coast. They are strong and could easily rip an umbrella apart so my advice is to stick to a raincoat with a good hood!
The tenacity of the Northern Irish people throughout history
One of the things I love the most about Northern Ireland is that it possesses a rich yet complex history. It’s one of the oldest settlements in Europe and pretty complicated for such a wee place.
I must confess that I didn’t know more than a handful of details about it almost seven years ago.
It was the part of Ireland that belonged to the UK, Belfast was the capital and the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland had a tricky relationship throughout the centuries. However, I didn’t know or couldn’t exactly remember why their relations were tense.
That was about all I knew until my husband came into my life and taught me loads of things. It helps that he has both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in History. Being in a relationship with him means that I have a built-in tour guide nearly everywhere we go so that’s a big plus!
The history between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is, in a word, complex. Derry is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on the Isle and references to it date back to the 6th century. It’s worth exploring for at least a day and seeing the historical districts, the old architecture and reflecting on the city’s story.
The reason why it is referred to as both Londonderry and Derry depends on where you are from. However, Londonderry is most often used in the United Kingdom because of London’s (and the central government’s) investment in the city hundreds of years ago. The name Derry originates from the old Irish word Doire meaning, “oak grove” or “oak wood,” due to the large quantities of oak trees in that area.
I highly recommend a visit to the Tower Museum that’s located within the historic walls and tells the story of Derry from the 1600s to the present day. It highlights its tumultuous past, the people’s struggle for civil rights (from 1968 to 1972) and the conflict (The Troubles) that ensued between the Catholics and Protestants on the island. There are also tunnels and interactive exhibits to give you a real feel for what life was like throughout its history.
And I definitely recommend a visit up to the lookout point at the top of the museum to see the city itself but I got so engrossed in the historical depictions and posters that we ran out of time to do that. So, definitely plan a good amount of time to be able to go through the content inside the museum at a reasonable pace and allow enough time to enjoy the rooftop views, especially if it’s a rare sunny day.
And if you’re an American who’s visiting for one of the first times, be careful referring to the country as Ireland. Over the last few years, my eyes have been opened to the fact that it’s sort of a stereotype that Americans play up and refer to that part of the world as Ireland, when in fact, it’s composed of two separate countries: The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It’s not “North and South Ireland” or “the North.”
I won’t deny that I have opted to say Ireland or that my husband is Irish (since he has dual nationality with the Republic of Ireland now) for simplicity’s sake or if I need to give a brief overview of my background. And because I don’t want to go into so much detail and explain why he’s British but not English. However, if I meet someone who does seem open to learning about the differences between the two countries or they ask me, “Is he from the part of Ireland that belongs to the UK?” then I will happily go into more detail. I just feel that Americans as a whole should learn more about the island’s history and give Northern Ireland a chance when planning a trip there. But, overall be careful what you say when referring to the two countries or else you may find yourself lost in an argument with a taxi driver one day.
For a sort of lighter and more entertaining (yet dramatic) way to learn about the country’s history, Derry Girls on Netflix is a great series that melds both pop culture from the 90s and major historical events that affected Derry at the time.
How locals love Americans (and their own connections to the US)
Chances are you will most likely be familiar with Irish immigration to the United States in the 1800 and 1900s. In fact, about 4.5 million Irish immigrated to the US and at one point comprised about half of all immigrants around the time of the nation’s civil war. A lot of Americans living there or who were born there today have Irish ancestry and travel to the Isle of Ireland to trace their family roots.
Family connections to the Isle of Ireland are likely one major reason why you’re thinking of planning a trip there. In 2019, the island received 11.3 million visitors. This was during a regular year of tourism so the numbers may not be quite the same post-pandemic but there are lots of signs pointing to the official return of travel this year. However, a lot of people I’ve talked to recently want to take a trip, especially an overseas trip that they’ve had to postpone for a couple of years (myself included). Book early and plan for a little extra travel time (and waiting time at the airport) because it’s set to be a busy summer for places like Ireland, Spain, Italy, France and Portugal (and even more crowded on the islands attached to each of those countries.
The Irish really like having Americans visit and many of them will tell you about family they had move to North America (with a special interest in Canada from the Northern Irish). They, like so many others around the world, love American music, movies and TV shows and generally love hearing about where you’re from and why you came to visit Ireland. Join one of them for a pint or a cup of tea and you’ll quickly make a new friend!
Though the Titanic never made it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to its final destination in New York City in 1912, the Titanic visitor center in Belfast, where the famed ship was built, is well worth the money and time. The building alone is unique and impressive but the two-hour-long self-guided (or privately guided) tour through the nine different galleries is incredible and really helps bring the whole voyage to life. And you can even buy some specially blended tea called Titanic Tea in the gift shop, though now they sell it outside of the shop and even in the US if you want some to remind you of a visit to Belfast, otherwise known as, the “Big Smoke.”
Chili chicken penne pasta (and other delicacies)
My first chili chicken dish
Bob & Berts
Black Currant Cordial
Wee Milk Jug Milk
Because I love a Northern Irish man
A Northern Irish poet I recently discovered, Seamus Haney, compares marriage to his wife, Marie, to the scaffolding masons erect to use for the beginning stages of building construction. Here is an expert from his poem entitled, “Scaffolding”:
[Masons] are careful to test out the scaffolding; / Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points, / Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints;” — work that’s not spent on the edifice itself but supports the greater work to come. Their care only pays off “when the job’s done,” when “all this comes down” to reveal “walls of sure and solid stone.”
Throughout the course of knowing each other, my husband has told me all sorts of quirky fun facts and great stories and shown me countless pictures (and places in real life) of Northern Ireland. The happiest he ever made me back when we were friends was extending an official invitation to stay with him and see his country in person one bitterly cold January evening when I was nursing a cold a few years ago. Thanks to that firm foundation of communication, trust and respect we established as friends, it turned into the very thing we needed to build our love on and I have been particularly grateful for that experience in the past couple of years.
Getting married almost six months before a global pandemic struck has led to some rocky and unstable times but the one thing I can count on is him and how firm our love for one another is.
It is magical to see him in his home country and it’s something I definitely recommend everyone do whenever they meet an Irish person (friend or otherwise) outside of their habitat. You need to see them in their country – it just gives a whole new perspective on who they are and the way they live. I’m very blessed to have had so many incredible experiences -both wet and dry- in this country so far and I look forward to all the new things I’ll learn both about Northern Ireland and my handsome and incredibly charming Northern Irish husband as time goes on!
Have you been to Northern Ireland before? Is there anything about it that I missed or should visit (or try) the next time I’m up there? Let me know in the comments!