Interview with Stephen McPhilemy

Stephen McPhilemy (here showing off his hometown of Londonderry).

Stephen McPhilemy leads our Ireland tours each year. He also runs his own tour company and owns a youth hostel in Derry. In 1997, his business won the UK Young Business of the Year award.

Stephen recently sat down with us to answer questions about what it was like growing up in Northern Ireland, and his thoughts on tourism.

Tell me about your childhood.
Well, it was a very happy childhood, but there were soldiers and helicopters around all the time. But that kind of stuff seemed normal to me because that's what we knew. I witnessed my first murder when I was four years old, however, so I think I always knew there was a different, more peaceful world out there than what I was experiencing.

How has Northern Ireland changed over the years?
A lot more tourism is coming through, and that's helping the economy. But most people still just go to the Republic of Ireland when they visit. They never make it this far north. But Rick Steves — he believes no Ireland tour is complete without visiting the north. It's frustrating because no tourist has ever been attacked, but there's still a perception that it's dangerous to visit.

But isn't there still a lot of segregation?
Yes there is. If you're Catholic, you live in one area, and if you're Protestant, you live in another. And I recently read somewhere that a typical person living in Northern Ireland can tell if you're a Catholic or Protestant 27 different ways. For example, if your name is Sean Murphy, then you're a Catholic. If your name is Victor Montgomery, then you're a Protestant.

The violence ended in 1994, but the community is still divided. Depending on your religion, people go to different schools and bars. They're frightened to talk about the problems. But it's well worth the visit — Northern Ireland is rich with history and culture. It's safe...and it's real.

How are the people of Northern Ireland and the people of Republic of Ireland different?
Well, I told a story about how in 1992 this drunk Irishman named Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace to get a kiss from the Queen of England. I was telling this story to a group of tour alumni here in Edmonds, Washington, of all places, and somehow my recounting this humorous anecdote to Americans got picked up by the front page of the Irish News (the Republic of Ireland's main newspaper). The Northern Irish caught wind of this, and they were furious. People said I should "stay low," whereas the Republic got a great laugh out of the whole story. The Northern Irish like to keep their cards close.

Didn't you meet Brad Pitt once?
Yes. I was a student at university and Brad wanted to speak to someone so he could work on his accent. So I got to tutor him for a while. It was pretty funny, though, because the meeting was picked up by the campus newspaper with a picture of the two of us with the following headline: "International Sex Symbol Meets Hollywood Superstar."