BELFAST, Northern Ireland — As most locals will tell you, Northern Ireland is a safe, warm-hearted and fascinating place for Americans to visit.
But even the casual traveler should go armed with some working knowledge and a good sense of what not to do and say in this challenging, confusing land.
The background: Northern Ireland came into being in 1920. Protestant unionists loyal to Britain kept Ireland's northeastern six counties within the United Kingdom, while the island's other 26 counties (today the Republic of Ireland) won relative autonomy after a bloody guerrilla war.
Northern Ireland's more than 900,000 Protestants and 600,000 Catholics disagree on fundamental issues, none of them ostensibly about religion. The nationalist minority could be considered the "natives," to the extent they are largely Gaelic, Roman Catholic and anti-British. Most Northern Protestants (mostly Presbyterians and Anglicans belonging to the Church of Ireland) trace their ancestry to 17th-Century colonization from Scotland and England, yet after a dozen generations' residence, most today consider themselves "British" first and "Irish" second, if at all.
Northern Ireland captured world headlines in 1969 when the Catholic minority's civil rights campaign for housing, hiring and electoral reforms deteriorated into violence amid a Protestant backlash. The British Army was ordered onto the streets to quell the urban rioting, a development that ultimately triggered the reorganization of Catholic militancy in the form of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. About 470 people were killed in 1972, by far the worst year of bloodshed.
The real danger: The tourist board, which recently intensified its efforts to attract visitors, would like you to believe there's no longer a problem. And for the tourist that's largely true. This disputed corner of the United Kingdom can be a violent and threatening place for those who live here (23 people have been killed so far this year), but most bombs and bullets here have specific targets and none of them are tourists. Not one American tourist has ever been killed or injured in connection with what colloquially are known here as "the troubles." In recent months, scores of businesses have been firebombed--but at night, when they are empty.
Sadly, the situation today resembles what a British minister once called an "acceptable level of violence"--one not substantively more threatening than what a visitor to Los Angeles might encounter.
The only danger that a tourist is likely to face is mastering life on the left side of Ulster's accident-prone roadways.
Getting around: Northern Ireland is about 85 miles from top to bottom and 110 miles wide, an almost claustrophobically small place. Yet it embraces a wide range of physical beauty--the glacial-carved valleys of the Antrim Glens, the geologic wonders of the Giant's Causeway, the caves and lakes of soggy Fermanagh (Fer-MAN-uh), and the undulating greenery of the Mourne Mountains in County Armagh (Ar-MAW).
Roads throughout Northern Ireland are superior to those of the Irish Republic, and gasoline is cheaper (though no bargain in either country: about $4 a gallon in the North, $5 in the South). Even so, it takes more time to get from A to B in Ulster than it would on Interstate 5. Obstacles on narrow, hedge-lined roads may include elderly bicyclists, tractors and more than a few blase cattle and dozing sheep. At night, these winding country roads get darker than a cow's stomach and are no fun to negotiate.
When exploring the border lakelands of Fermanagh and Tyrone, be wary of barricaded roads. The British Army mans fixed checkpoints along the border separating North from South. Just display your American driver's license and you'll suffer nothing worse than the camouflaged trooper's curious query, "How do y'like Northern Ireland?"
'The crack': Enjoying a good evening's conversation with Northerners--in local parlance, "the crack"--is for many tourists the highlight of their trip. American tourists will be assumed ignorant of the situation in Northern Ireland, so they have considerable leeway in flaying hosts with questions.
But to avoid stepping on anyone's toes, visitors who want to engage locals in even idle political conversation should first try to figure out which "side" they are on. This is, after all, a major survival sport of the land.
There are "Protestant" and "Catholic" names. Sean, Brendan, Mary, Siobhan and Seamus would probably be Catholics; Billy, Ian, Iris, Heather and Nigel most likely are Protestants.
The language that people choose can be a giveaway. What do they call their homeland? If they say "Ulster" (historically, the nine northern counties of Ireland), they are almost certainly Protestant. The same applies if they say "the province," as both confer a false formality to what really is an ill-defined place. But if they say "the North," "the six counties" or just "Ireland," all bets are they're Catholic.