11. People and Politics

Published on 5 May 2023 at 09:34

On the summit of Mount Errigal

Today was day 11 of our road trip around Ireland.  Our route took us up Mount Errigal, around the Horn Head Peninsula to Glenveagh National Park, and across the border into Derry.

Our plan was to catch the sunrise from the top of Errigal, so we left our B&B at 4am and started hiking at 5, just as the sky was beginning to lighten. Errigal is the highest mountain in Donegal and it took us an hour to gain 1600 ft in elevation. As we climbed the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up. By the time we reached the summit we had to hunker down and walk as close to the ground as possible to stop the ferocious wind from whipping us off the path and over the edge. It was definitely one of the scarier moments in my life! Sadly, the low cloud cover meant that we never got to witness our Irish sunrise, but the views from the lower slopes of the mountain were still spectacular.

From Errigal we grabbed a cup of gas station coffee and drove up to Horn Head. Coffee shops in Ireland rarely open before 9am, and drive-thru's are non existent, which leaves the gas stations as your best bet if you are looking for an early morning fix. There are some trails you can walk on Horn Head, but by this time we were so exhausted, and it was such a cold blustery day that we didn't do much more than sit in the car, relax, and enjoy the view.

The next stop on our itinerary was Glenveagh National Park. This spectacular park covers nearly 40,000 acres and encompasses the wild beauty of the Derryveagh Mountain range and the beautiful valley of Lough Veagh and Poisoned Glen, which is enclosed by spectacular cliffs. We got to the park just as it opened at 9:15 and caught the shuttle bus from the visitor's center along Lough Veagh to the castle.

It is amazing how a land can be so incredibly beautiful and yet have such a tragic history. Glenveah Castle was originally the home of John Adair who was notorious for his eviction of families during the great famine of 1845 to 1848. The famine was the result of a blight that led to the failure of the poor man’s staple, the potato crop. More than a million people died as a result of starvation and disease and by 1856 over two and a half million had been forced to emigrate. The crisis was made even worse by landlords like John Adair who continued collecting rents and mercilessly evicted tenants when they fell into arrears.

It’s just an hour’s drive from the National Park across the invisible border into Northern Ireland. 400 Years ago England planted protestant settlers in this area in an effort to assimilate the Catholic Irish into Protestant Great Britain. Unfortunately, with their “Might is right” attitude (which had them claiming the most fertile land for themselves), all that happened was that the Eastern portion of Northern Ireland became more Unionist – Protestant, English/Scots, while the south and west (bordering the Republic) remained more Nationalist – Catholic, indigenous Irish.

When the 26 counties that make up the Republic of Ireland won their independence in 1949, the remaining 6 counties (all of whom were predominantly plantations from Great Britain and still considered themselves British) chose not to join with them. This left the 35 percent of the population who made up the Catholic Irish minority feeling marginalized. The separation between North and South was further entrenched by the advent of WWII, when the Republic stayed neutral and Northern Ireland fought with Britain on behalf of the Allies. Ongoing anti-Catholic discrimination by the government finally led to the Troubles, a brutal conflict that lasted nearly 30 years and only ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Peace Accord.

Derry (or Londonderry if you are a Unionist) played a pivotal role in this conflict. When Ireland was being divided up, the River Foyle was the logical border. But for economic reasons, Great Britain chose to keep Derry, which is otherwise on the Republic side of the river. This became a much-contested territory during the Troubles. In 2011 a pedestrian bridge, called The Peace Bridge was built across the river to symbolize the end of hostilities.

After checking in to our Airbnb for the night we took a walk around the massive stone walls of Derry. Almost 20 feet high and just as thick, they encircle the old city in a mile long oval loop. These walls hold an almost mythical place in Ireland’s history. It was here that a group of apprentices, bravely made their stand by shutting the city gates in the face of the approaching Catholic army under King James II. Protestant defenders manned the walls in a brutal 105-day siege. This defiance turned the tide in the favor of the newly crowned Protestant king, William of Orange, who arrived in Ireland soon after and defeated James at the Battle of the Boyne.

Walking through the Bog Side (a Nationalist Neighborhood), with its famous murals painted on the walls of many of the buildings that serve as memorials to a tragic event that happened here, was heart wrenching. During an organized civil rights march, British soldiers opened fire on innocent civilians killing 14 people. This event, called Bloody Sunday, served as the spark that ignited a wave of sectarian violence that rocked Northern Ireland for many years. 

Crossing over the river on the Peace Bridge is a disconcerting experience as the settlements on either side appear to be worlds apart, with the depressed economic state of the Nationalist side (from years of discrimination) standing in stark contrast to the prosperous looking Unionist side. 

From the devastation of the Great Famine, to the injustices of the occupation, and atrocities of the Troubles, Ireland has endured her share of tragedy.  But despite every challenge, the thing that strikes you most about the Irish people is their tremendous openness and joy-filled hospitality.

We have met some amazing characters in our travels - from the quirky older gentleman who walked with us part of the way up the Gap of Dunloe, regaling us with stories from his time as a young wide-eyed country boy visiting his sister in America, to the old gardener at Glenveagh Castle who randomly asked Rach if she had ever been paddled as a child (that was an interesting conversation!), and our Derry B&B host who was not shy of talking politics. At the end of the day, these are the heart and soul of Ireland and we have been privileged to walk along side them for a little while and hear their stories. 

Dawn hike up Mt Errigal, Glenveagh Castle and National Park, Derry - The Bog Side, Derry City Walls, Peace Bridge, Londonderry, Walled City Brewery

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Sandra Gerber
a year ago

You are certainly doing it all Dy. Wonderful descriptions of mountain climbing, definitely not for the faint hearted! Love the photos too