By Patricia Keegan
Flying over the neat, square, green fields of Belfast on a shuttle flight from Heathrow, I am captivated by the tapestry below. Shades of gold, deep green and pale green, blending with a pink glow from the setting sun, evoke tranquility and peace. Cows and sheep graze blissfully. This lush, eternal land stands unspoiled, the strength of its beauty untarnished by history.
Though I was born in Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland, as I look down on the mountains and fields outside Belfast airport, I feel a familiarity with its distinct beauty. I am thrilled by the anticipation of freely exploring the six counties of Ulster that I have never seen.
I am not alone in my enthusiasm. A young couple returning from a vacation in Spain lean across me to see their homeland. The woman's eyes shining with tears, she whispers, 'Oh, it's so good to be home.'
Since all the hotels in Belfast were full, I picked up a Hertz rental car at the airport and headed for Bangor, a historic seaside resort. Maureen, a Northern Ireland tourist board representative, offered encouraging words.
'It'll be very easy once you find the road to Bangor. If you get lost, just ask anybody, they'll be delighted to help you.'
Maneuvering out of the airport with a map on the seat next to me, I set out to find Bangor, hopefully before darkness descends and leaves me on lonely roads to be chased by leprechauns.
Driving on the left, my first mistake, on exiting the airport, was to automatically look left at a circle. Lo and behold, from the corner of my eye I saw a thousand chariots descending from the right. I pulled back in the nick of time.
Driving in Ireland is itself an adventure. It takes only a few hours on the roads of Northern Ireland to realize how well marked they are, and only one or two stops ,meeting the Irish people, to understand how friendly and hospitable they are. By the time I reached the seaside resort of Bangor and checked in at the Marine Court Hotel, I felt rewoven into Irish society.
Belfast -- An Alive City!
Nestled in a valley ringed by mountains, this bustling city of close to half a million inhabitants appears to be in a state of vibrant renewal. Impressive Victorian and Edwardian buildings, including Belfast City Hall, have a clean and polished look. The City Hall is open to visitors, and inside its marble interior is a mural by Belfast artist John Luke, depicting the founding of the city, a good place to start exploring.
In the 17th century, Belfast was a village just beginning a mercantile economy. In 1888, with a population approaching 300,000, Queen Victoria, who had visited the town in 1849, gave Belfast the status of city and the citizens built city hall, completing it in 1906.
Ulster Museum describes the rise of the city alongside fine art collections featuring the works of Belfast artists Sir John Lavery, William Conor and Gerard Dillon. There are exquisite samples of china, silver and glassware, together with natural history and geology exhibits stretching back 9,000 years.
The Linen Hall Library's 20,000 books include a Robert Burns collection and documentation of Belfast's most recent history. A wall inscription tells us it was founded 'to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general inquiry.' The library has been lending books since 1788.
St. Anne's Cathedral, built in 1899 and consecrated in 1904, has a beautiful mosaic depictingSt. Patrick landing at Saul in 432 A.D. With its strong literary and musical tradition, Belfast considers the arts an important part of daily life. There are numerous small theaters throughout the city. Major performances are held at the Grand Opera House, Ulster Hall, and Queen's University. For an evening of good humor, the Empire Bar on Botanic Avenue is venue for the Empire Laughs Back, a sharp, satirical comedy targeting everybody and everything.
Discovering the Glory of Antrim
Although many Irish ballads refer to the beauty of the Glens of Antrim, I was familiar with most Irish scenery and did not expect to enter a state of bliss. It seemed to happen just after the first sign for the Antrim Coast Road which took me through the glens and on to Ballycastle. I drove for many miles through green velvet without seeing another vehicle. I felt as though I were in a heavenly garden surrounded by every conceivable thing of beauty. My joyful journey took me on roads that ran under archways of trees, that curved through mountains, descending into small villages with castles rising in the distance. I saw cows standing on high meadows seeming to lean against the sky, forests filled with trout streams, lush green everywhere and many beaches with ribbons of white foam breaking along the edges of the sea. I heard myself singing all the way through Antrim as my little car took on wings.
Glenarm, the oldest of the villages, has long, narrow streets leading to Glenarm Forest, where there are bridle and walking paths and waterfalls spilling from mountaintops. Glenarm Castle, which looks like the Tower of London, is the home of the Earl of Antrim.
In Cushendun, the entire village and beach is preserved by the National Trust for its Cornish style cottages and unspoiled beauty. Flowing through Cushendun, the river Dun is noted for salmon and sea trout, and if you want to go fishing, you just drop your boat into the mouth of the river.
Glenariff, considered the 'queen of the glens,' has a series of waterfalls plunging down through a gorge traversed by a path crossing rustic bridges. One cascade is named tears of the mountain. The park is also a national nature reserve with access to caravan and campsites. The view from the visitor's center down through the glen was described by Thackery as 'Switzerland in miniature.'
From Ballycastle to the Giant's Causeway
I continued driving through a spectacular landscape. At one point I pulled into an overlook and saw, in the distance below me, what looked like a miniature village nestled in a curve of green cliffs sweeping to the sea. I felt a magnetic pull to get a closer look. Continuing on the main road, I turned onto a long lane cutting through fields. I judged the path to be about the right distance to the place I had sighted. As I came closer to the sea, I passed two farmers standing at a gate. They didn't stop me so I assumed it was not a private road. Reaching a dead end at the very edge of the sea, I was thrilled by what I found--five houses and one tiny church, flowers and roses growing in front gardens, all warmed by the sun and completely protected on all sides by high cliffs. The peace and solitude here was spellbinding, I felt I couldn't leave without knowing more about where I was.
There I discovered Bernie McKay, a rugged and healthy looking man with alert, blue eyes. He looked as though he had spent his life outdoors and, indeed, he had spent most of his life salmon fishing on the high seas.
Bernie told me he had grown up in Portbraddon. His father had owned all the land in the area and did all the construction. Portbraddon is one of the oldest spawning areas in Western Europe. Bernie, an expert on the history of the area, showed me the remains of the Templastragh Church, built in 648 by St. Gobhan, a carpenter, blacksmith and preacher. There is an intriguing stone slab on the northwest comer with a crude drawing of a cross and letters difficult to decipher. He is working with the local historical society to rebuild the church, as well as writing a book about Portbraddon. Saying farewell to heavenly Portbraddon and Bernie Mc Kay, I left with an indelible memory of beauty and goodwill.
From Portbraddon I headed toward the Giant's Causeway. There I checked in at the lovelyCauseway Hotel.
I set out to explore one of the wonders of the world. Nobody should visit Northern Ireland without seeing one of Ireland's greatest treasures. It extends 18 miles along the coast and is Northern Ireland's most famous landmark and a World Heritage Site. Crashing waves beat against a coastline of 40,000 six-sided basalt columns formed by volcanic and fissure eruptions over eons of time. Some of the oldest rocks in the area are of Jurassic age (135-190 million years ago). Most were formed after a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. It is a prime example of the earth's evolutionary history during the Tertiary epoch.
Walking alongside these six-sided basalt columns, the symmetry of their cut is remarkable. As a guide explained, when you look at cracks caused by hot sun on mud, all lines are equally divided, similar to these giant columns formed by heating and cooling in the surrounding atmosphere.
Like everywhere in Ireland, the Giant's Causeway has its own legends. Here lived the giantFinn MacCool, whom they say built the Causeway to bring his wife across to Ulster from the Scottish island of Staffa.
Donegal--The Republic's Northwest County
An Alternate Trip from Dublin to Donegal and Back
Serene and apart for centuries, County Donegal missed the western world's siren call to industrialize, modernize and bring its resources into the swiftly moving currents considered 'progressive.' So the big, destructive wave of the industrial era bypassed Donegal and most of western Ireland where houses are spread miles apart and velvet, green hills sweep down to white capped waves.
But there is no lament about being a small spoke left out of that 'progressive' wheel. The people along the Northwest coast have turned to creative ways to make a living and are linked by computers to the larger world. Towns and villages are not only distinctly beautiful, but alive with life. Women bob in and out of the butcher's and the baker's, chatting with the vendor and bringing home freshly cut meat and bread straight from the ovens.
The streets are filled with modern cars, and at noontime, pubs are filled with businessmen on lunch hour. Life in the local pub begins at lunch with a wide variety of 'pub grub.' Fish and chips, Irish bread and a glass of Guinness seems to be the favorite.
Sitting in Donegal town's O'Hanlon's pub at noontime was a great way to connect with the vitality, confidence, and strength of identity in being Irish in the 21st century.
With the opening of the new airport in Carrickfin, you can fly to Donegal from Dublin or London but we, two couples, rented a car in Dublin for the journey. We detoured slightly for the ever popular medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle in Limerick, then traveled through the western counties to Donegal, where we stayed a few days before driving back to Dublin by the northeast route.
We passed through the city of Limerick, made famous by Frank McCourt's bestseller, Angela's Ashes, portraying a dismal, though humorous, side of the Irish experience almost a century ago. New construction is under way, but we could see the tiny row houses in areas completely barren of aesthetic grace--the background of the writer's sad, young life.
From Bundoran we drove through Ballyshannon and Rossnowlagh to Donegal town, then west through Killybegs and Glencolumbkille.
In Dungloe we stayed at Sweeney's Bed and Breakfast. Dungloe is quiet an relaxing, but outdoor activities abound, ranging from fantastic fly-fishing to horseback riding, bike riding, or scenic hiking. In the evening we found our way to some local dances, both traditional and country western. Before the dance, we sat by the turf fire having a great Craic, catching up with the latest news of Dungloe.
Dungloe lies in the heartland of the Gaeltacht, the Irish speaking area of Ireland. (Of course, everyone speaks English as well.) All road signs are in Gaelic, so it's important to carry a map.
Gaelic, one of the oldest surviving European languages, is spoken in areas of Donegal stretching from Fanad Head in north Donegal to Slieve League in the southwest. Up to the 16th century all Ireland spoke Gaelic, however British rule eventually undermined Irish culture and language. The Great Famine (1845-1848) drained the country of native speakers as the population decreased by four million, who either died or left for other lands. The revival of the language is part of the school curriculum.
We traveled through the northeast counties southbound toward Ireland's capital, Dublin. Dublin is a great pedestrian city with colorful shops, loads of pubs and small, ethnic restaurants lining the narrow streets of the old section just off Grafton Street.
We stayed at the beautiful Merrion Hotel in Merrion Square on Dublin's colorful Grafton Street.
Dublin's cultural life is punctuated by live theater. The Literary Pub Crawl has become a favorite of visitors. The guided tour meanders through the literary haunts of famous writers while being entertained by the richness of the language of Joyce, Yeats and Behan. The two and one half hour crawl features professional actors performing the works of the great scribes with irreverence and humor--a good example of what makes Irish pubs the liveliest in Europe.
The National Museum of Art houses the preeminent collection of Irish artists including a room filled with William Butler Yeats and Jack B. Yeats' paintings. The latter's use of bold, thickly applied color provides a strikingly dramatic effect. I especially liked 'Men of Destiny,' with its mystical aura.
Dublin's bountiful bookstores contain vast collections devoted to Irish history and modern Irish writers. However, if you don't have time to read and want a quick overview of Dublin's tumultuous history, a visit to Trinity College, (home of the Book of Kells), to see the historical overview, 'The Dublin Experience,' is one way to understand more about the fortunes and misfortunes of this great capital and all of Ireland.
Planning a trip to Ireland?
An excellent resource is the 'Be Our Guest' guide detailing over 800 places to stay, plus touring maps, special interest sections and vouchers for free accommodation in Winter and early Spring. The guide is available from the Irish Tourist Board, 345 Park Ave., New York, NY 10154, (800) 326-0036.