The landscape of Northern Ireland writes its own folklore: the islands of Rathlin, Islay, Jura and the coast of Scotland appear and disappear in mist and clouds. The shore is chequered with black basalt and white limestone. Waves break on white rocks peppered with black ones and the cliffs gleam in the sunshine. As you approach the Giants’ Causeway basalt dominates the coastline. Names of places like Port Moon, Port na Spanaigh tell their own stories. Houses, field and garden walls are built of the white limestone or black hexagons. On Rathlin Island the RSPB reserve is a whirling mass of puffins, razorbills and guillemots where the noise, the smell, the spectacle is a short-lived miracle every summer. Here also, the many seals haul themselves out on to the rocks, moan eerily and slip in and out of the water according to the tide. Hares stand to attention as you pass. Local men hold model yacht races on an inland lough: the boats are handmade to a traditional design and their proud owners have to wade out into the water to push their boats out to catch the wind during the many summer competitions.
Back on the mainland, we couldn’t help noticing the Union Jack bunting that fluttered in the villages. At the approach of one coastal town a huge crown bedecked the centre of a roundabout. A few miles further along, Irish words appear in shop and pub windows with ne’er a red, white and blue flag in sight. In one die-hard Unionist village pavement kerbs had been painted red, white and blue while in the neighbouring village the kerbstones were painted the orange and green of Nationalist colours. The idea of painting kerbstones seems quite extreme to me, something more than hanging up a Union Jack with the picture of the queen in the middle.
In Derry there’s a beautiful new Peace Bridge across the River Foyle, and plans laid for when they are UK’s Capital of Culture next year. Over the years although we had witnessed so much on television about the Troubles we had not begun to understand anything of the nature of the conflict until we caught a glimpse of the terrifying closeness of the deadly divisions between the Bogside estate and the much more affluent walled interior, once dominated by Protestant Unionists. In the Free Derry Museum we watched a video of a huge demonstration by some thousands of people against the brutal policy of internment without trial that had been held on the very beach at Magilligan Point we had walked only the day before – seven miles of silvery sands where we had collected shells, found pink dulse to eat, drunk Irish Coffee (ie with whisky) in a local pub, driven past a huge prison in the dunes. What was particularly moving was the story of Presbyterian Minister Dr David Latimer’s relationship with Martin McGuinness which had been such an inspiration for the whole peace process. That royal handshake next week is going to be a powerful symbol.