11 October 2014

Northern Ireland

And the craic was good......

Willie Gregg, The Harbour Bar, Portrush
(And it was Belfast Black, not Guinness)

And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear
Clean water for to quench my thirst
And I shall watch the ferry-boats
And they'll get high
On a bluer ocean
Against tomorrow's sky
And I will never grow so old again
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain

Van Morrison - Sweet Thing

From Belfast we drove north.  Good roads with much less traffic than mainland UK. Past Antrim and Ballymena, then by Killagan Bridge on the A44 toward Ballycastle. The countryside closed in and the road almost became green.  Ballycastle Bay is pretty, but the view from Kinbane is beautiful, with the basalt cliffs of Fair Head to the East and low-lying Rathlin Island out beyond the headland with its tiny ruined castle before us.

Looking East from Kinbane - Fair Head in the distance

Rathlin Island is Northern Ireland's only inhabited offshore island, with a population of approximately 100 and around a quarter of a million nesting seabirds. The RSPB have a reserve and centre here, and last time I saw this island was from the cliffs of the Oa reserve on Islay last December, which apart from anything reminds me how far north we have come.

Part of Kinbane Castle and Kinbane Head, with Rathlin Island on the horizon

Further along the Antrim coast is Ballintoy Harbour, This picturesque coastal nook is where Theon Greyjoy arrives back in the Iron Islands and where he later admires his ship, the Sea Bitch. This is also where he first meets his sister Yara......  As if I have ever seen Game of Thrones!  It is, however, a spot of charm, still with Rathlin Island hovering on the horizon, and a mix of rock crumbling up to a raised beach and down to a neat little harbour,

Looking West from Ballintoy, Bengore Head in the distance

With a very fine cafe for shelter and nourishment......

Irish Stew and Tea in Ballintoy Harbour

There is a jagged jumble of chalk and basalt here, and the harbour was first built in the mid-eighteenth century to support the mining and quarrying industries.  Today, it is mainly tourism, and a little fishing, that fuels the local economy (though I wonder whether anyone has ever thought of making a film in this picturesque spot?)

Ballintoy Harbour with Rathlin Island in the distance

Though Ballintoy is attractive in itself, and it is near the thrilling Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the biggest draw in Antrim is World Heritage site The Giant's Causeway, which has given its name to this stretch of coast, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  

The 37,000 polygonal basalt columns that make up this 'causeway' were formed in volcanic activity 60 million years ago.  Forget Game of Thrones; this is the Transylvania of Dracula Untold ("Dracula Untold” is Dracula unbold — unoriginal, unimaginative and utterly non-unprecedented. This Vlad the Impaler has all the edge of Vlasic the pickle: New York Post)......

But it is remarkable, and has been on the map since the Royal Society announced it in 1693, and then Dublin artist Susanna Drury popularised it with her watercolours in 1739.  Novelist William Thackeray was disappointed (I've travelled a hundred and fifty miles to see that?)

But in the hands of the National Trust, with their 2012 state 0f the art Visitor Centre, this is one of the most popular sights in the British Isles (well over half a million visitors per year).  American and Japanese cruise ships dock in Belfast and smart coaches (and friendly taxi drivers) whisk tourists up to slip and slither over the amusingly tricky pavement.  I gather that in the summer months it is crowded here, to say the minimum.....

As it is, the crowds - schools, ladies in headscarves, men in anoraks, families celebrating their children's birthdays, clients of the Paddywagon (Award Winning World Famous Tours of Ireland) - form a gentle mob, and not every basalt column is perched upon.....

There are walks and climbs here too - it's not just a roll-on-roll-off escalator - and if you have the puff then there are fine views to be had.....

Gannet's eye view

The long distance profile (with Inshowen Head in the background) is impressive.....

And the views to the west, as far as Donegal, are very fine as well......

Portballintrae clings to the shore just near Bushmills, where the oldest licit still in the world pulls the tipplers like a liquid magnet....

And a couple of miles further west, you could stay at Dunluce Castle, if the MacDonnells' kitchen (complete with cooks) hadn't fallen into the sea during a storm in 1639, causing the clan to translocate to Glenarm, leaving another wild film set to the mercy of HBO.

Dunluce Castle

In Portrush I wish I had the requisite coin to follow the instructions on the telescope, 

But for change, naturally, I have to repair to The Harbour Bar, favourite haunt of Rory McIlroy  (2,169,920 followers on Twitter; winner of the U.S. Open in 2011, the Honda Classic in 2012, and the PGA Championship the same year.... named the PGA Player of the Year, PGA Tour Player of the Year, and awarded both the Vardon Trophy and Byron Nelson Award) whenever he has had enough of tee time at Royal Portrush Golf Course (which will host The Open in 2019, so book now for a seat at this bar....)

Waiting on Rory......

Just Tweeting Rory.....

I have to say that the charms of The Harbour Bar, under Willie Gregg's management, are hard to resist, and I would stay, and stay, and slip slowly under the spell of dark beers, tv screens full of the Open, and maybe shots of Bushmills, but I have to drive, and night falls. Leaving the bar, with golf balls putting round my brain, another northern Irishman tugs at my sleeve, and as the clouds fill the sky, Van Morrison's words from Avalon Sunset circle above, and the salty smell of the Atlantic and the pull of exile hits me.....

On a golden autumn day
All my dreams came true in Orangefield
On a throne of Ulster day
You came my way in Orangefield
How I loved you then in Orangefield
Like I love you now in Orangefield

Van was thinking of his schooldays.  Nostalgia is all very well, but daylight comes round again, and in the morning we head south through the Sperrin Mountains.  The road narrows, the SatNav blusters, and road signs peter out.  Scenery takes over, under a bright sky Mr Morrison calls on me again....

And up on the hillside it's quiet
Where the shepherd is tending his sheep
And over the mountains and the valleys
The countryside is so green
Standing on the highest hill with a sense of wonder
You can see everything is made in God
Head back down the roadside and give thanks for it all

Then we follow the Glenelly Valley and turn south to Omagh, where the flowers in the smart high street cover the bloodstains of history.  Through Dromore, Irvinestown and down to Enniskillen, in the borderlands.  The theme of exile returns.  

Too long in exile, been too long in exile
Just like James Joyce, baby
Too long in exile
Just like Samuel Beckett baby
Too long in exile
Just like Oscar Wilde

Too long in exile
Just like George Best, baby
Too long in exile
Just like Alex Higgins, baby
Too long in exile

Portora Royal School was the alma mater of both Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde and well known left-handed batsman and medium-paced bowler Samuel Beckett, and blue plaques on the facade bear this out, though there isn't even a ghost to be seen.  A friend of ours taught here once, and in his honour we also drop in on William Blake in the High Street......

Suffering long time angels enraptured by Blake
Burn out the dross innocence captured again

Where quiet corners hold hushed conversations eavesdropped by Adrian Dunbar (Director of Catastrophe at the Happy Days Festival earlier this year)   The craic is good......

And out on the waters of Lower Lough Erne I imagine we are in wild swan country, even though Coole Park is miles away.....

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky

W B Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole

On to our last overnight stop, the Twin Cathedral city (and birthplace of the late Ian Paisley) of Armagh (the least populated city in the whole of Ireland and the fourth smallest in the United Kingdom).  Somehow it is not quite what I was expecting: The Gas Lamp is closed, 

My kind of pub.  Except it is closed.

There is a wry desperation about the cobbler's

J Kerr, Shoe Sales and Repairs: Note the advert on the corner of the building....

And I wonder just what it took to convince Malachy (named after Saint Malachy, born here in 1094) that he needed this extraordinary transformation.... The main difference seeming to be that he has lost his glasses.....

Across the street something is wrong.  These are photographs of houses.  Do photographs of people live in them?

The Bistro (The Bistro offers a stylish, modern setting alongside the best in Irish fusion cuisine, together with favourites family dishes of pizzas and pasta) of the Charlemont Hotel (The Charlemont is proud to offer a diverse range of luxury accommodation within our complement of exceptionally designed bedrooms) is empty, and we dine to the quiet whisper of universal muzak.  Upstairs the bar is dead, so we trek back past St Patrick's Cathedral (that is St Patrick's Church of Ireland Anglican Episcopal Cathedral where Brian Boru is buried, and not Catholic St Patrick's Cathedral which is on the other side of the city) and down to Red Neds on Ogle Street for a ball or two of malt.  

This bar is busy, and various screens transmit sporting scenes from artificial racecourses and replays of golfing triumphs. Punters scribble betting slips and shoot out a side door, returning moments later to pick up their pint and return to perusing the racing pages. Red Neds was purchased in 1907 by Edward O'Neill (Red Ned from whom the bar takes its name) and today it is still in the family and owned by his grandson Malachy.  MacSuibhne, who should know, says that this is probably the best bar in Armagh. Good stout, good craic, and the chance of a wee flutter.  Hard to whack!  We feel at home, confident that we have found the night life.  So, craic-full and bespirited, we turn in (in each of our rooms you will discover elegant furnishings and superb facilities that create a haven of relaxation), intending to be up early.

But it seems we missed the real night life.  At one thirty I am woken by what seems to be a wild street party, with people strumming guitars and singing in the street, shouts and laughter, the unmistakable sounds of drunkenness....

It turns out that there are exams in the College, so students are preparing.....

Oh the morning sun in all its glory
Greets the day with hope and comfort too

We leave before dawn, and motor down the A28 to Newry and Warrenpoint.  The road is quieter than the hotel.  Dawn lifts over Carlingford Lough, and we drive down through Rostrevor and on to Kilkeel. The Mountains of Mourne rise on the left, while the sea shimmers like beaten pewter on the right.

We pause near the Bloody Bridge, where in 1641 Sir Conn Magennis slaughtered such a number of prisoners taken from Newry that the river was said to have run red for seven days.

Love of the simple is all that I need
I've no time for schism or lovers of greed
Go up to the mountain, go up to the glen
When silence will touch you
And heartbreak will mend.

The mountains are exceptionally beautiful, and I wish I had time to divert myself, to walk here, but, turning to the sea, I hear again the words of Van Morrison as I gaze across the water:

Whenever God shines his light on me
Opens up my eyes so I can see
When I look up in the darkest night
I know everything's going to be alright
In deep confusion, in great despair
When I reach out for him he is there
When I am lonely as I can be
I know that God shines his light on me

Not exactly what I think, but I know someone who does......

We have to leave.  

But I will go back.  There's more to see, and the craic is good.....

Tried in vain to forget
Just how it ought to be
Over and over and over and over again
`Bout what it means to me

Toyota Auris, 1.4 Diesel Eco
381 miles in 48 hrs
(£58 for diesel)

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