Take a tour of Northern Ireland—with a little help from the ‘Derry Girls’

Long characterized by the “Troubles,” Northern Ireland is finding a new way to tell its story through the popular Netflix show and other pop culture touchstones.

There’s a scene in the series finale of the hit Netflix show Derry Girls that wouldn’t have happened in real life before the April 10, 1998, signing of the Good Friday Agreement. (Spoiler ahead!)

A newly 18-year-old Orla arrives at Derry’s city hall to register to vote in the referendum on the agreement, which would end decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. After striking oddball poses for her ID photo, the teen dances her way home surrounded by children in traditional Irish dancing clothing.

The city hall is one of the many sites Gleann Doherty might take you to on his walking tour dedicated to the comedy series. That’s not just because it’s an iconic scene to fans of the show, but Doherty wants to give them extra context: Before the peace agreement, he says, you never saw Catholics like Orla set foot in the government building. “You do bring in some wee serious issues as you go along,” Doherty says of the otherwise lighthearted tour.

Derry Girls is just the latest attraction in a tourism transformation that began 25 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement. Before that, the world primarily associated Northern Ireland with its conflict known colloquially as the Troubles.

“Northern Ireland probably would have been one of the top five places not to go in the world,” says Odhran Dunne, chief executive of Visit Derry. “I think the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was a marker to progress and to move on.”

(N.B. One major holdover from the Troubles is the name of the historic walled city itself, which is both Derry and Londonderry. But most people just call it Derry.)

Over the years the region has found new ways to entice travelers, from Belfast’s shipyards that birthed the Titanic to the country’s scenic coastal driving routes and the fictional battlefields where Jon Snow once fought on Game of Thrones. Through tourism, Northern Ireland has taken the opportunity to reinvent itself—and work through its contentious past.

Conflict tourism

Some tourists began to arrive in Northern Ireland even before the peace process concluded. They mostly came to see sites of the Troubles made infamous on the nightly news—from where the events of Bloody Sunday took place in Derry to the “peace walls” that still separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast.

Conflict tourism can be found in former war zones across the world, from Cambodia to Bosnia—a phenomenon that Feargal Cochrane, an expert on political conflict, writes “treads a narrow line between solemn pilgrimage and exploitative voyeurism.”

(Is it OK to participate in ‘dark tourism’? It’s all about intention.)

Any kind of tourism can be a balm for a devastated economy, but Northern Ireland’s wounds were fresh. Tourism officials turned instead to other ways to lure visitors and take control of the narrative that had been shaped by news of bombings and gunfire. “You’ve got to fill that void with positive things,” says Gerry Lennon, the chief executive officer of Visit Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s newly established tourism offices promoted Belfast’s vibrant city life, spectacular rural landscapes, and local culture—“anything but the Troubles,” says Emily Mannheimer, a lecturer at the Erasmus School of History, Culture, and Communication in Rotterdam, Netherlands, who studies conflict tourism in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, the demand for Troubles tourism was mainly left to communities to meet. And they did. Murals commemorating violent clashes and honoring paramilitary heroes began to dot urban landscapes. Private tour companies, left largely unregulated, emerged to guide tourists through it all.

“How do you regulate your own experience of growing up in the Troubles or what you experienced? That’s very difficult,” Dunne says. “We never shied away from the story. It was all about creating space for the different communities to tell their side of the story.”

In deeply divided Belfast, that hasn’t always been easy to navigate. Mannheimer says tour guides developed a code of sorts: Instead of one straight narrative, they would talk about the Troubles from the perspective of the neighborhood they happen to be standing in. Then they would cross the peace walls and recount events from the other side’s perspective.

Being known for the right reasons

To really become a tourist destination, Northern Ireland had to build up its infrastructure—Derry, for example, didn’t even have a hotel until the late 1990s.

Although slow to take root, those investments have ushered in tremendous change in the last decade. Belfast opened a museum dedicated to the Titanic—which was built in its shipyards—in 2012 and began to attract major global events and conferences.

(You know how it sank. But how was the Titanic dreamed up?)

Derry, meanwhile, went through its own renaissance. Its iconic peace bridge opened in 2011, literally transforming the city’s image. Then in 2013, it debuted as the United Kingdom’s first City of Culture—a designation that would make Derry the host to cultural events all year long. Dunne says these milestones turned Derry into “somewhere to want to visit for all the right reasons.”

To take advantage of growing interest in Ireland’s natural landscapes, tourism officials established in 2014 the 1,600-mile Wild Atlantic Way. Tracing the island’s western coast, the driving route rivals the likes of California’s Pacific Coast Highway.

(Here are 9 must-see stops along California’s Pacific Coast Highway.)

Northern Ireland also became a go-to place for screen tourism—especially after the 2011 debut of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Located about 30 minutes outside of Belfast, the Game of Thrones studio tour brought some 350,000 visitors in 2018 alone. Between 2015 and 2018, Lennon says, “that’s when you start seeing the awakening of the power of tourism.”

As tourism expanded, Northern Ireland began to grapple more robustly with Troubles tourism. Take the Ulster Museum in Belfast, for example. Its first foray into the conflict was in 2009 with an exhibit that even William Blair, the museum’s director of collections, says “was fairly uninspiring.” In 2018, the museum opened its Troubles and Beyond gallery with artifacts and imagery that tell the story from multiple perspectives—not just Protestants and Catholics but women, ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community.

"Museums at their best are increasingly comfortable dealing with complicated issues because those are the issues that matter,” Blair says. “The key is collaboration, especially dealing with the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland. The key is listening and learning.”

Doherty says that he’s seen a similar shift in the people who sign up for his walking tours of Derry’s former conflict zones. More and more, he says, they’re coming to Northern Ireland not for prurient interest, but because they want to listen and learn about peace and reconciliation from a country that’s been through it.

‘Derry Girls’ effect

Pop culture has played a key role in this transformation. In recent years one cultural touchstone has reached an even larger audience: Derry Girls, which aired its third and final season on Netflix last year.

Although there have been plenty of television shows and movies depicting the Troubles, Derry Girls is arguably the first that people from Northern Ireland actually like. It’s funny and relatable—and, maybe more importantly, it showed that life really did just go on for people growing up in a city where bombings and police barricades were the norm.

Doherty was skeptical when he first heard about the show, expecting the usual Troubles melodrama. But then he “sat down and watched it and laughed my leg off.” It was while they were watching the penultimate episode of the first season that Doherty’s wife suggested he launch a Derry Girls tour.

It is now massively popular, nearly on par with his tour of the site of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre. But it’s not just fluff—for Doherty, it provides a subtle opportunity to educate people. During his tour, for example, he might explain that the reason cousins Erin and Orla share a chaotic multigenerational home is because there were restrictions on property ownership for Catholics.

Visit Derry, too, saw the potential for the show early on and encouraged such tours. This summer the city plans to double down with a new immersive Derry Girls experience, an exhibit and walking trail with sets, props, and virtual reality experiences. In the meantime, Tourism Ireland has tapped two of the Derry Girls, Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin) and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Michelle), to be the faces of its new marketing campaign.

“That has been a dream for us in terms of marketing,” Dunne says. It’s not just the name of the show or its international success on Netflix, he adds, but the way the series depicts the people of Derry. In real life, too, he says, they’re warm and social—and don’t take themselves too seriously.

“I think that’s what’s translated hopefully in the series,” he says. “That’s ultimately what our greatest selling point [is] beyond the culture and the heritage. It’s the people that make the place.”

(Here’s how to visit 9 places from your favorite movie.)

The future

Dunne is optimistic that tourism in Northern Ireland is only going to get bigger, particularly as those who binged Derry Girls on Netflix plan their future vacations.

“There’s lots of different fans right across the globe who have never even been to Ireland but once they do make it here they’ll definitely come to Derry,” he says. “We look back five years ago, we would never have thought something could come in and have such an impact.”

As for Belfast, Lennon says the city aims to double its tourism revenue by 2030. “Belfast was mentioned in the same breath as Bosnia and Beirut, and now genuinely we compete with Barcelona and Berlin for conferences and cruise ships,” he says. “That transformation is complete, but we certainly are not going to rest on our laurels.”

He’s quick to add, however, that tourism is more than just a potential cash cow for Northern Ireland—it’s intimately tied to the peace process. “Tourism is far more important to us,” he says. “It’s a step along our journey of political progress, social progress, economic progress, toward being a truly cosmopolitan European city.”

Amy McKeever is a senior digital editor for National Geographic.

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