Walking into the past

There’s no better way to understand the past than by walking through history in some of Ireland's oldest cities

Hands Across the Divide statue in Derry - Londonderry
Hands Across the Divide statue in Derry - Londonderry

So says Neil Hegarty, author of Dublin: A View from the Ground. “History begins at the grassroots. It’s layered in the streets and the buildings.” It’s also true that the low-rise, human scale of our cities makes them an enticing prospect for a walk. And Dublin city is no exception.

Croagh Patrick in Westport, County Mayo
Croagh Patrick in Westport, County Mayo

Dublin to Derry-Londonderry

Although based in Dublin, Hegarty grew up in Derry-Londonderry and is proud of it. “A walk around the city’s 17th-century walls mixes colonialism, political history and classic urban planning, which is pretty much a perfect insight into a complicated history,” he says.

Derry City Tours take visitors through that “complicated history”, via the Bogside, the murals, the Apprentice Boys and the marching season traditions, earning high praise on TripAdvisor: a Boston visitor calls it “the best walking tour I have been on”.

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Beauty in Belfast

A vastly different city, Belfast’s setting is a wonder, it is “beautiful up on the hills, with achingly long views southwest to Strangford Lough,” says UK author Will Self in The New York Times. The Historic Belfast walking tour follows the 1660s street layout and takes in the city’s Victorian glories.

There are political history tours, guided by former prisoners; and even the night-time Belfast Ghost Walk. But the city’s soul is in the docks, where the world’s most famous ship was built in 1911.

The £100 million Titanic Belfast Attraction is “dazzling and powerful”, according to The Washington Post, and the Titanic Walking Tour where you can look into the Titanic’s dry dock is the only way to grasp the ship’s jaw-dropping size. It’s an experience that scores five stars on TripAdvisor.

County Cork’s Titanic Experience

“Titanoraks” should also pay a visit to the pretty town of Cobh, near Cork city, Titanic’s last port of call. The Titanic Experience opened in February 2012 in the original offices of the White Star Line. And much of the town has remained unchanged, including the pier from which the doomed passengers embarked. “The tour guide's enthusiasm and passion alone make this a worthwhile trip,” reports a visitor from London about The Titanic Trail in Cobh.

The Famine footsteps of Mayo

To understand anyone you must walk a mile in their shoes, goes the saying, and the Famine Walk in Mayo is a haunting way to do this. “It’s a beautiful walk,” writes Charlie Connelly, author of And Did Those Feet: Walking Through 2,000 Years of British and Irish History. “The unmistakable outline of Croagh Patrick rises in the haze and accompanies you for most of the journey.”

But at this spot in 1849 “a sunken-eyed procession of skeletons” walked 10 miles in a hopeless quest for charity. They were refused and many died on their way home. Following their route is a powerfully moving experience.

Connelly and Hegarty agree: memorials and books are good aids, but actually walking the paths of our forefathers brings the past vividly to life.

It’s the best history lesson you’ll ever have.

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