As Northern Ireland transitions from past to present, there is a sense of cautious optimism about its future.

Despite its post-Brexit uncertainty and its post-Troubles struggle for identity – one that bares and blurs the lines of Irish history (and the History of Ireland) – the region and its 1.8 million residents are confident that their darkest days are behind them.

“Young people here who were born in 1998, or after, have no immediate memories of The Troubles,” notes journalist and author Eimear O’Callaghan over steamed mussels at Harry’s Shack in Port Stewart. “For many of them, it was as if it simply never happened.”

O’Callaghan, whose bestselling memoir Belfast Days recounts her tempestuous teenage years in the city’s Catholic, west-end enclave of Andersontown, believes that letting go of Ulster’s immediate past is both a blessing and a burden.

“On the one hand, it is very important that we continue to discuss the conflict, so that we may heal and learn from those tragedies. On the other hand, it is quite understandable that the next generation just wants to move on from it…”

While the area’s biggest export has traditionally been its people – and specifically young people looking to build better lives for themselves in Europe, North America and Australia – there is a growing sense of hope and trust amongst millennials that two decades of peace has brought about an enduring prosperity, and perhaps, a reason to stay.

The numbers appear support that belief. Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate remains low at just 4.7%. The capital city of Belfast is booming with huge growth in both the IT and financial sectors, and continues to cement its reputation as an entrepreneurial hot-spot. Most significantly, perhaps, the region’s tourism sector is expanding at an exponential rate; in 2016, visitors spent over £860 million (1.128 billion USD) in Northern Ireland, with 4.6 million overnight stays sold, and close to 100 cruise ships calling into port. As well, business tourism has seen a 25 per cent spike since 2015.

With a host of natural and man-made attractions across the area – and as trust in a lasting peace continues to develop – those numbers are expected to soar even higher in the coming years.

A game-changer, of course, has been Game of Thrones.

The massively successful HBO television series has been shot on location across the six counties for seven seasons, bringing big bucks into Northern Ireland’s burgeoning film sector and inspiring fans from around the world to explore the region’s raw and rugged landscapes.

“Thronies, we call them affectionately,” chuckles Tourism Northern Ireland representative Billy Scott, referring to the series’ huge throng of followers. “They are mad for the show, and we are happy to have them here.”

Scott is quick to note that while the region has always been a popular destination for those-in-the-know travelers, Game of Thrones has pushed Northern Ireland’s uniqueness into the global spotlight.

“The show is what has gotten visitors through the door. Once they are here, many of them are quite surprised to discover who we are and how much we have to offer. And word has spread like wildfire, especially through social media.”

That’s good news for a place renown for decades of bad news.

“Things are still a little shaky,” cautions Scott. “And yes, it will take some time to rebuild broken bridges, but we are heading in the right direction. There is a sense of hope here now, one that I have not felt for some time, that there is some light at the end of those ‘Dark Hedges’ – especially, and most importantly, amongst our young people.”

Together at the Table

If a culture is characterized by its cuisine, then a group of young culinary artisans are redefining Northern Ireland’s identity.

“Twenty years ago, you would be hard-pressed to describe Northern Irish cuisine,” admits Aiden Morrow, the youthful manager of Glenarm Estate in County Antrim.

“Unlike Italy, France, Japan and elsewhere, where the food is instantly recognizable, we are only now making a name for ourselves in the culinary sector.”

Along with homegrown dairy, poultry and vegetable produce, Morrow lists meat and seafood as staples of the region’s diet.

“Here, at the estate, we specialize in locally sourced smoked salmon and Shorthorn beef. We offer our product on-site, and sell it at area markets on weekends. We have picked up a few awards over the last year or two, and that has helped to shine a spotlight on the ‘real food’ industry in Northern Ireland.”

Just a few miles west, Ursa Minor Bakehouse in Ballycastle serves up the very best in ‘real’ bread.

“We have taken things back to basics,” says 28-year-old master-baker Dara O’hArtghaile, who – along with his wife Ciara – founded the facility in 2014. “Our bread has only three core ingredients; flour, water and salt. We use no preservatives, nor additives of any sort. It tastes as it should, as it traditionally did for our ancestors.”

The result is a hearty, wholesome – though never heavy – sourdough base that is both delicious and nutritious. Along with fresh, daily-baked loaves, the couple and their 10-person team produce a number of other delights, including an assortment of organic, artisan coffees, cakes, and pastries.

“We also work with several local and area food producers to help educate people on the benefits of healthy eating,” says Dara.

“It is a shift in the lifestyle paradigm here, and it will take time, but there are many of us now moving in the same direction.”

Sandy Cole agrees.

“Our motto is Forward Thinking Farming,” says the 26-year-old co-manager of the family-run Broughgammon Farm in Ballycastle.

Along with his parents and siblings, Cole is committed to environmentally sustainable food production.

“We work with a farm-to-fork philosophy,” he explains. “Our main product is cabrito (goat) and free-range rose veal. We raise the animals in the most humane and ethical manner possible, and they are always properly groomed and well-fed with natural grass and hay.”

The business’ biggest challenge to date, he notes, has been the backlash against the consumption of meat products.

“One of our aims here is to provide proper information on the nutritional benefits of a balanced diet. We do that through a variety of in-house events, including our ‘Goatober’ festival, our annual ‘open-farm’ weekend, themed dinners, and workshops, where we emphasize food quality over quantity.

“People are always amazed to learn that there are so many great ways to properly prepare and enjoy meat – as we say here, whatever floats your goat.”

Options are a hallmark of Northern Ireland’s progressive palate, and you won’t find more anywhere than at the Walled City Brewery in Derry-Londonderry.

“Right now, we have 10 craft beers on tap,” notes the site’s twentysomething brew-master Josh Kyle, adding that many of the ales are monikered to reflect the area’s personality, including ‘Stitch’ (linen industry), ‘Wit’ (Irish humour), and ‘Cherry-Londoncherry’.

“While the art of craft-brewing isn’t new, it is relatively new to our part of the world. Guinness and the other major producers have had a monopoly on the marketplace for a long time here, so we have our challenges to be sure, but so far so good.”

Founded by James Huey and his wife Lou in 2015, the brewery – which also serves up artful appetizers, main plates and tapas – rests its head upon the four pillars of FLAQ; flavour, local, authenticity, and quality.

“We really do have something for everybody,” continues Kyle. “If someone says that they don’t like beer, we reply that it is only that they haven’t found their favourite flavour yet.”

The trend towards artisan food is a major step towards better physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health for the region’s residents, says holistic nutritionist Debbie Caskey.

“We have seen a major shift in the way that we think about food and eating in Northern Ireland over the last two decades,” says Caskey, who also runs the Stradeen Luxury Boutique Bed & Breakfast in the stunning seaside town of Port Stewart.

“A food revolution by any other name is still a revolution…and this one leaves a much better taste in our mouths. And what’s great is that the movement is all being driven by young people – young people who are working together, often across once-divided communities, with a simple and common vision for the betterment of Northern Ireland. There is room for everyone at that table.”

For the love of learning

A myriad of multi-media museums and exhibits are engaging, educating, and entertaining students across Northern Ireland.

Learning in Northern Ireland has been a hot-potato issue for generations; the 1923 Education Act, granting free primary and secondary level institutional learning for all, was embraced by some communities and rejected by others. In 1947, the Act was revised to include university level schooling. By 2000, the Act had been semi-repealed, with small annual tuitions imposed. Since that time, schooling costs, both in ‘State’ (Protestant) and ‘Maintained’ (Catholic) schools have soared.

“It is one of our foremost challenges,” explains Derry-Londonderry Deputy Mayor John Boyle, a long-time area resident and councillor. “Not only do we need to invest in attracting students to our schools, but we need to find new ways and means to keep them here once they have graduated.”

A former schoolteacher, Boyle believes that education is the key to the region’s future growth.

“The love of learning, and of ideas, will ensure a peaceful and prosperous tomorrow for our young people. Ideas inspire communication which, in turn, creates connections. As we have seen, the worst thing we can possibly do as a community is to stop talking with one another.”

And while enrollment at all levels has been steady over the past two decades, other public institutions have taken a lead in learning.

The Siege Museum and Exhibition in downtown Derry-Londonderry hosts a permanent display of the history of the Siege of Londonderry (1689) and of the Associated Clubs of the Apprentice Boys of Derry. Included in the museum are artifacts, video, audio, and other interactive forms of media. Visitors can also experience one of the finest collections of meeting rooms used by the Loyal Orders; the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the Orange Order, the Women’s Orange, and The Royal Black Institution.

“We just love seeing young people walk through these doors,” shares manager Billy Moore. “And they love seeing the period costumes, the replica ships, cannons and swords – it makes it all very real for them. This isn’t a boring old history book or lesson – it is our heritage, here and now, brought to life through an engaging experience.”

Moore adds that museum staff members are also involved in many outreach and community initiatives, including sharing information, resources, and best practices with other local institutions.

“It helps to generate greater dialogue and understanding between our communities.”

One of those likeminded facilities is the newly-expanded Free Derry Museum, located outside Butcher Gate – one of four arched entryways along the city centre’s 17th century Derry Walls – just a few blocks down the hill from the Siege Museum.

Located at ground-zero of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre in the Bogside district, the one-floor exhibit honours those who perished or were wounded during a peaceful civil rights demonstration on January 30, 1972.

“It is said that if we are unwilling to learn from our history, then we are doomed to repeat it,” states site director John Kelly, whose brother Michael was among the 13 murdered by British paramilitary that day. “That is one of the core messages we teach visiting school children, whether they are from here or away.

“The wee young ones are certainly the most inquisitive. They aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions, some of which might seem quite obvious,  but – for whatever reason – rarely seem to be asked by adults.”

Kelly says that older students marvel at the centre’s multi-media displays.

“Along with authentic articles – such as handwritten notes, imagery, art, posters, banners, clothing, and even weaponry – the audio and visual elements give the kids a modern, present perspective on the past. We also offer an in-house app for their mobile devices, and many of them enjoy greater engagement with the exhibit via that method.”

Similarly, in Bellaghy – less than an hour’s drive southeast of Derry-Londonderry – the Seamus Heaney HomePlace uses a myriad of mediums to edify audiences of all ages about the life and work of the region’s finest scribe.

“I like to think that Seamus himself would have approved of what we are doing here,” smiles manager Brian McCormick, who also happens to be Heaney’s nephew. “Like the man himself, and his writing, HomePlace is deceptively simple and modest.”

Sure enough, behind the bright and spacious two-floor veneer are a maze of playful and interactive displays that include touch screens, video reels, audio recordings, photographs, block and sliding puzzles, jigsaws, hats and helmets, objects to see and touch, and a special creative zone where visitors can dress up, write, draw, colour, craft, or simply sit down and read.

“We work with many schools across the region,” notes McCormick, “and the students are always engaged, educated and entertained. The hope is that most of them will leave here with a greater appreciation of Seamus, his poetry and prose, and the arts in general.

“Perhaps the most important thing, however, is to get our young people thinking and talking together, and thus inspire a life-long love of learning.”

Creating Culture

St George’s Market is the last surviving Victorian covered bazaar in Belfast. Located close to the River Lagan and the city’s Waterfront Hall, the facility was refurbished in the 1980s and now hosts over 300 vendors each weekend, including food sellers, gift retailers, and crafters of all sorts.

“I have been making and selling bespoke jewelry here for about six years,” shares local artisan Dawn Newberry, who fashioned her business – A Thousand Kisses – after a Leonard Cohen song.

“There has been a real resurgence in arts and craft here over the last two decades, especially amongst younger people. These days, it is not unusual for students of our local art schools to start up their own businesses right after graduation.”

Efficient online merchandizing, and cost-effective social media, means that young people can now afford to set up shop regularly at area agoras.

“I need to be here each week,” continues Newberry. “Customers need to see my work in person, feel it, and try it on. And it is important for me to meet people face to face in this milieu, chat with them, and get to know them.

“There is something very special about this space; look around you – there are lots of teens and tots about, and no one is staring at a screen.

“Our young people are talking with one another, laughing aloud, experiencing this together as one community.”

Outside the bustling market, about two dozen men and women, some from away but most from home, have gathered for a guided food excursion.

“I am impressed that we are seeing more and more area residents join us each week,” says Taste & Tour guide Caroline Wilson. “I think that many of them, especially the younger ones, are pleasantly surprised to learn what we’ve got cooking in our very own backyard.”

Over four hours, Wilson and her troupe tramp around the city centre, sampling an assortment of locally produced artisan goodies, including organic breads, meats, fish, sweets, and more.

“Most of the spots we stop along the tour are run by men and women in their 20s,” notes the thirtysomething. “They hold high ideals about their craft, and they are true wizards at what they do – mixing and matching natural ingredients into something scrumptious and nutritious.”

That culinary alchemy is on display just down the road, in the city’s creative Cathedral Quarter where, each day, the youthful Master Chef Gareth McCaughey and his team at The Muddlers Club spin basic and whole dietary elements into gastronomic gold.

“We are always dreaming up new and inventive ways to prepare and present our meals,” smiles the lightly-bearded and heavily-tattooed hipster, pointing to his eatery’s multi-course menu. “With nouveau cuisine, things can get quite imaginative in the kitchen – sometimes, maybe a little too imaginative.

“When we get it right, our patrons let us know, because their plates are clear, they pay their bill, and they come back. When we get it wrong, however, we usually know right away by the small explosion on the grill followed by a big poof of smoke arising from one of our pots or pans. I suppose it is a little like chemistry class used to be in school. But sooner or later we figure out the right formula, and the final results are delicious.”

Belfast’s changing tastes are accompanied by its changing face; the city’s Cathedral Quarter is also peppered with dynamic and diverse street art.

“The city is awash with works from both established and emerging artists,” says Adam Turkington of Seedhead Arts, who – among his many roles in ‘Alternative Ulster’ – organizes Belfast’s annual, autumn ‘Hit The North’ street art festival.

“The majority of the murals are done with spray paint, but some of the pieces are so good and so complex that you would swear that they had been done with oils and brushes.”

Colourful collages from the likes of Nomad Clan, AKA Cbloxx, Aylo, Dan Kitchener and Irony have given a new voice – and look – to local and area residents.

“Belfast has always been covered in graffiti,” notes Turkington. “However, most of it was of a divisive nature. Some of that stuff is still there, for sure, but almost all of it has now been painted over by the next generation.”

~ Stephen Patrick Clare