When I flew to Ireland two months ago, much of Asia was suffering through the coronavirus outbreak, which was then quite remote from the rest of the globe.
How the world has changed since then. I now feel fortunate that I managed to witness the country's famed edge-of-the-world landscapes and hearty pubs before the world shut down.
I also got to experience the indomitable Irish spirit, manifest in song.
Whether it was the convivial pub atmosphere captured in English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran's Galway Girl or the visceral violence of a deadly civil rights protest that inspired Irish rockers U2's politically charged Sunday Bloody Sunday, a seven-day bus trip around major cities in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland brought these songs to life for me.
While the tour, organised by youth travel company Contiki, is mostly a chance for those aged 18 to 35 to check off major tourist sites within a short period and do fun things like cycling tours and distillery or brewery visits, I enjoyed the sobering parts the most.
This was especially so in the Northern Irish capital of Belfast and its second-largest city Derry, where conflict on the streets is recent history.
With its vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene, and designer and brands-lined streets, it is hard to believe that no more than 30 years ago, steel gates effectively shut off Belfast's city centre every evening.
Remnants of those times remain, for example, at the Sunflower Public House, where a steel security cage at the entrance - a relic from conflict-laden 1980s Belfast - belies the popular pub and pizza joint inside.
Within walking distance is the queer quarter and a drag bar that is the home ground of Ireland's well-known drag queen Blu Hydrangea, who gained fame on reality TV contest, RuPaul's Drag Race UK.
Progress and the past co-exist almost seamlessly now.
Tourism has been boosted by attractions like the Titanic Belfast museum, the world's largest Titanic experience for visitors, and popular HBO series Game Of Thrones, which was filmed in Belfast for nearly a decade.
But venture further into the urban residential area and it is apparent the divide still exists.
The imposing and ironically named 6m-high, 12km-long "peace wall" that separates the Protestants and Catholics is a modern-day Berlin Wall, painted with graffiti and art that speak of harmony.
The country underwent three decades of political conflict, referred to as the Troubles, where more than 3,500 people were killed. It ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Like in Berlin, there was an equivalent of a Checkpoint Charlie - the name given to a Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War - at the Belfast wall, which was manned by the police and soldiers from 7am to 7pm.
Our guide Jim, who lived through the Troubles, handed out markers on the bus for us to leave our messages on the wall.
"There is great symbolism in signing that wall, every signature means a push away from the past," he said, adding that, just like in Game Of Thrones, "there are antiheroes on both sides".
"Until the photos of those who died come off the walls in homes on either side of the wall, really, it's about the walls in people's hearts at this stage," he said, adding that he hoped the wall would come down "in two generations".
It was an unexpectedly emotional experience for me. Touching the cold concrete wall covered with words and art, I found space to pen a line from the famous anti-war song of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band: "All we are saying is, give peace a chance."
In the nearby Northern Irish city of Derry, we went on a Bogside walking tour - so named because the neighbourhood was once underwater.
This time, our guide was Ronan, who has a Malaysian Chinese Protestant mother and an Irish Catholic father, and is himself a Buddhist who preaches peace.
He took us to the Bloody Sunday memorial, where a granite obelisk commemorates unarmed civilians killed by British troops in the Bogside massacre in 1972.
With the lines so deeply etched in the sand between Protestants and Catholics till this day - there are separate newspapers for each religious affiliation - the line in U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday, "how long must we sing this song?" has even greater relevance.
But there is visible progress. Ronan pointed out that his young children "never saw soldiers on the streets, only tourists".
He added: "The only way we're going to achieve peace is to have our kids do everything together - going to the same schools, playing music and sport together."
The pall of the past has not dampened the shine of the city and its people, and the tether to history and culture is strong.
Traditional Irish music, for instance, is very much a living tradition and one that is part of daily life. You can pop into a pub on any given night in Belfast or the cities of Dublin and Galway in the Repubic of Ireland, and find a group of musicians playing "Irish trad" on instruments like the penny whistle, Irish flute, fiddle or bagpipe-like uilleann pipes.
Sometimes, the playing is accompanied by storytelling songs with vivid narratives, such as walking through Galway landmarks; chancing upon black-haired, blue-eyed girls, like in American musician Steve Earle's Galway Girl; or the ballad of Dublin's enigmatic fishmonger Molly Malone, sung by Irish folk band The Dubliners.
Graceful traditional Irish dancers, with their ramrod straight backs, intricate footwork and high kicks, add to the jaunty vibe.
Sure, there are pubs that play the tourist-friendly cover songs, like Ed Sheeran's version of Galway Girl.
But the iconic Irish pub - no matter which part of the country you are in - is the great leveller, where religion and politics are left at the door and a good "craic" (the Gaelic term for fun and enjoyment) is to be had by all.
• The writer's trip was sponsored by Contiki.
• Save up to 15 per cent and pay US$1,314 (S$1,900) a person on Contiki if you book your Ireland trip before March 31. While there is a flexible deposit of US$200, if travellers need to make changes to their travel plans up to 30 days before the departure date, Contiki will not charge a fee. Go to contiki.com or call 6337-8166 for more information.
3 THINGS TO DO
Ireland is associated with gorgeous scenery, extra-friendly locals, fantastic pubs and its two most famous beverages - Guinness and Irish whiskey. Here are three things you must do there.
1 HOME OF GUINNESS
It is true. Guinness does taste significantly different and, I dare say, better in Ireland. The creamy stout is so synonymous with the country that it would be remiss not to visit its home - the Guinness Storehouse - in Dublin. Entry for adults from €19.50 (S$30.20 ) via guinness-storehouse.com.
The seven-storey premises is like a Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory but for stout. The tour takes you through Guinness' 260-year history and how the beer is made. The upper floors are home to the Gravity Bar, as well as smaller bars like the "stoutie" room, where you can get a picture of your face printed on the head of a pint for €6.50. At the Guinness Academy, learn how to pour the perfect pint. And at the Guinness Open Gate Brewery, sample limited-edition brews like pilsners, sours and ales that rotate regularly.
2 VISIT A WHISKEY DISTILLERY
Ireland is known for its tripledistilled whiskey, which goes through three stages of refinement, resulting in a smoother-tasting product.
There are more than 30 distilleries in Dublin, including the chic and contemporary Roe & Co Distillery. Located in the former Guinness Powerhouse, the space opened in June last year and features new-to-market whiskey, whose creation was led by a female team.
On the tour (€25), you can see the copper pot stills from an elevated glass walkway, make a whiskey cocktail based on the five pillars of flavour (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami) and end with a cocktail made at the bar.
For a traditional distillery tour, go to Jameson's Middleton distillery in County Cork, about 21/2 hours from Dublin. See and touch the world's largest copper pot still and visit a live maturation warehouse. At the end of the tour (€23), you can do a side-by-side tasting of three different whiskeys: Jameson Irish Whiskey, one Scotch and one American-style whiskey.
3 EXPLORE UNBRIDLED NATURE
The scenic coastal roads that make up the route of the Wild Atlantic Way stretches 2,500km and showcases Ireland's most rugged landscapes. Two of the most popular attractions are the Cliffs of Moher on Ireland's west coast and the Giant's Causeway on the northern tip of Northern Ireland. The drive to both places from Dublin is a little over three hours.
The Giant's Causeway (entry from £12 or S$20.40 for adults) has a stark beauty, compounded by hexagonal rock basalt columns rising out of the water's edge. Formed from volcanic eruptions some 50 to 60 million years ago, they look hand-carved and out of this world. With its several hiking trails and an interactive audio guide, you can also head up to higher vantage points.
At the Cliffs of Moher (entry starts at €4 for adults), you remain high along the cliff with a view of the vast ocean. But unpredictable weather means your shots of the dramatic cliff faces may be obscured by fog or rain.
• Note: All of the places mentioned above are currently closed due to coronavirus restrictions by the authorities.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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