Crumlin Road Gaol website: book your tour here

Journalists who are unfamiliar with Northern Ireland can, like anyone else, have a rather one-dimensional view of life here.

Below are some pointers for anyone wanting to research a fuller picture of life in Northern Ireland - including background on politics:

-          This year has brought us a buzz with the celebrations surrounding the UK City of Culture: Derry - Londonderry. For the wider cultural picture, there’s the comprehensive Culture Northern Ireland website.

-          To add historical context to current politics, try the themed history of events from the CAIN Web Service (CAIN standing for ‘conflict archive on the internet’), an essential source of information on politics from the start of the conflict to the peace process, produced by the University of Ulster.

-          CAIN is complemented by the BBC’s Chronicle, which tells the story of BBC News in Northern Ireland and is a valuable archive of television coverage.

-          For something right up to the minute and unashamedly political, try the award-winning topical blog Slugger O'Toole, which monitors events at the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as other local issues.

-          The Troubles are now part of the education syllabus for GCSE history. The BBC website has a background to the conflict, exploring some of the themes - including introductions by journalists such as Peter Taylor.

-          For current political information, there’s the official site for the Northern Ireland Executive.

-          Politics can overlap with tourism: there are now officially more peace walls in Belfast than there were when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and, strangely, they rival the Titanic for tourist interest, being listed in various ‘what to see’ guides.

-          You can also spend time in prison, and exit through the gift shop at the former Crumlin Road Gaol, which not only has guided tours but special events such as a Johnny Cash tribute and film screenings.

-          For detailed numbers and other information, local programme-makers head to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, and to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland for older records.

-          In addition to the City of Culture activities, a range of new festivals have been established in the past few years: Enniskillen hosts the second annual Samuel Beckett Happy Days festival in Fermanagh at the end of August; October sees the 51st Belfast Festival featuring José Carreras among others; Derry/Londonderry hosts additional events including the Foyle Film Festival; the West Belfast festival is one of Europe’s largest community arts festivals but still retains a flavour of its political origins as a commemoration of the introduction of internment; the Auld Lammas Fair has taken place in Ballycastle at the end of August since the 17th Century. 

-          Finally (for festivals), the largest Irish cultural festival, the Fleadh Cheoil Na hÉireann, is being hosted in Northern Ireland for the first time this year when it kicks off in Derry on 11 August.

-          County Down’s Mountains of Mourne were said to be the inspiration for local lad CS Lewis’s description of Narnia, and are now known as a backdrop to the television series Game of Thrones. Other locations are promoted internationally by Northern Ireland Screen.

-          The streets of Belfast will soon be full of police - for a welcome reason - with the arrival of the World Police and Fire Games next week. It’s a biennial event for serving and retired police, fire, prison and border security officers which expects to welcome more than 7,000 competitors from 60 countries.  

-          Future stars of world football will be appearing in the Derry and Coleraine for the annual Milk Cup tournament, now in its 30th year, starting on 28 July. BBC Northern Ireland will be broadcasting the highlights.

-          The best and bravest motorcyclists attend the North West 200 event each May.

-          The Ulster Sports Museum showcases the achievements of Northern Ireland’s sporting talents over the years - from Mary Peters to Joey Dunlop and George Best. 

-          For more traditional cultural history, there are the national museums which have regular family events for a younger audience.

-          Northern Ireland also has a fair share of high achievers from the past couple of centuries, and the Ulster History Circle makes sure they are recognised in blue plaques.  

-          Then there’s the Belfast Music History Bus Tour run by the Oh Yeah! Centre - an exhibition centre which aims to help the next generation of musicians follow the likes of Ash and Van Morrison by offering rehearsal space and seminars.  

-          Finally, on a personal note, I would recommend Retronaut for general archive fun, including memorabilia from the Titanic. For more Titanic research visit the BBC News page Titanic 100 for timelines and connected stories. And for all the facts and figures try Encyclopedia Titanica.

So there you go. It’s a rich mix. If Northern Ireland needed an online relationship status, it would read “It’s complicated…” 

And that’s even before we discuss the banknotes.

Have a good rummage.

Van the Man

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