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WisBusiness: Madison tour operator headed to N. Ireland

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – A decade ago, few Americans would have dreamed of traveling to Northern Ireland for a vacation.

But times have changed.

And the “Troubles,” as the conflict between predominantly Loyalists and the Nationalists was called, have subsided.

The two sides, once bitter enemies, are now sharing power.

With that calm, Madison travel entrepreneur Philip Ryan – a native of Dublin, Ireland – is launching plans to take adventurous travelers to Belfast and the six Irish counties that remain part of the United Kingdom.

Ryan, whose company is called “Inroads Ireland, Tours off the Beaten Path,” isn’t going to simply take his charges to see rugged coastlines, ancient forts and quaint villages – though there are plenty of those.

He’ll also take them to the walled city of Derry to see poignant protest murals – including one that commemorates “Bloody Sunday,” when British soldiers shot and killed 13 protesters.

And parts of Belfast, including the Falls Road, where a building sports a huge portrait of Bobby Sands, a Sein Fein member of Parliament who died in a hunger strike for Irish republican rights.

Nearby is Shankill Road, which has murals celebrating the opposing Ulster Volunteer Force.

“Americans haven’t been going to the North unless, perhaps, they had family there,” said Ryan, who led tours to the Republic of Ireland last summer.

“Most Americans go to County Kerry or Dublin, but the North has a lot to offer, too.”

Ryan said residents of Ulster have embraced tourism as a way to bolster their economy. He said hotels are being built and new airlines are flying into Belfast.

“Things are quite different than when I went there in years past,” said Ryan, who once led low-budget tours to the North for a company called Tir Na Nog (which translates as “land of eternal youth.”)

“Walls are down, the checkpoints are closed and the barbed wire has long been rolled up,” he said. “The enforced segregation of the two sides has ended and the region is encouraging visitors.

“Ulster is thriving and there has been a renaissance because of the peace,” he said. “In places that were once barricaded, there are now bustling shopping areas.

“Some call this ‘dark tourism,’ where visitors go to former conflict zones like Ulster, Croatia and Serbia,” he said. “The North fits in there because of its troubled past. But it is certainly beautiful, too.”

Jim Donnelly, a history professor at UW-Madison, agreed that Northern Ireland has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. He said the region is doing well and – as a result of the “peace dividend” - could receive as much as $50 billion in investments from the United Kingdom alone over the next decade.

Though the North’s economy has lagged behind that of the Republic, it has still grown at a healthy rate and outperformed many countries in the European Union.

“There has been an escalating amount of tourism in the North since then,” said Donnelly, who has led study groups to the North to see the murals and other points of significant political interest.

Donnelly said the Republic gets more than 7 million tourists annually and “the North is trying to siphon off as many as possible.”

In addition to its riveting political history, Donnelly said the North has some of the “most spectacular scenery on the island, especially the ‘Giants Causeway,’ which is considered a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. According to legend, it was built by the giant Finn McCool.

Ryan said he will use local cab drivers in Belfast and Derry to chauffeur his clients around to see different sites.

“Because they were often associated with the different factions during the Troubles, you never quite know who you will get,” he said.

After visiting Belfast, which Ryan said often reminds visitors of London, he will lead travelers up the rugged coast of County Antrim. The groups will also cross the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge to get to an island filled with puffins, kittywakes, razor bills and other birds.

After a few days in the North, Ryan said the tour will cross over into the Republic’s County Donnegal and County Mayo to see more cultural and historic sites.

He said hopes the new offering will be embraced by travelers, but he said “it’s hard to tell" what the reaction will be.

“I think some people are still put off because of what happened there,” he said. “And it can be hard to fight old perceptions. But even during the Troubles, the fighting was in specific areas.

“But we will be traveling in small numbers,” he said. “I hope to give a sense of what the place is all about. We won’t go to gawk, but to learn.”

For more information on Ryan’s trips, go to www.inroadsireland.com or call (608) 238-7326 or call (888) 220-7711. The eight-night, seven-day trips cost $1,700 and include lodging, breakfasts, guide service and transportation in Ireland by van.

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