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A Corner of Hibernia, Northern Ireland

Solitary road in the mountains of Mourne

Old Bushmills Distillery

Giant's Causeway in County Antrim
by Cynthia Pearson

[From Winter 2010] Everyone knows that Northern Ireland is a gritty, industrial, bigoted and violent place. Right? Actually, with the exception of Belfast and a few other small manufacturing cities in the southeastern part of the country, it is largely agricultural, peaceful, tolerant and quite scenic. Cattle and sheep greatly outnumber grim marchers.

My husband and I needed to be in Newry, a small city just over the border from the Republic of Ireland, for an event in late August. We decided to spend three or four days exploring beforehand. Northern Ireland occupies the northeast corner of the large island known as Hibernia in ancient times. We had been to the better-known Republic on several occasions, and love the friendliness of the people and the spectacular scenery, but had avoided Northern Ireland for all the wrong reasons above. We were pleasantly surprised to find the same Irish charm and friendliness, but with a touch of British reserve.

Northern Ireland is about the size of Connecticut and consists of most of the counties that made up the old Irish province of Ulster. It is a constituent part of the United Kingdom with currently limited devolved powers. It was created in 1922 at the same time as the Republic of Ireland gained independence and it had its own parliament until 1972, when a period of direct rule from Westminster was imposed. The cause of that measure was the violence between the Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists, known as "The Troubles." After the Peace Accords of 1998, a legislative Assembly was created to replace the old parliament.

There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Belfast but many into Dublin, which is only an hour and a half away from the Northern Ireland border by auto. After spending all night in a plane, to drive on the wrong side of the road - while shifting with the left hand - is not appealing. We veered off to Trim, a village in the Boyne Valley with a pretty set of Norman castle ruins. It is a good place to take a nap, do undemanding sightseeing and get used to the time change.

The next day we started the real trip on a planned route that was essentially a large loop around the eastern half of the country, with a couple dashes to and from the center. We stayed in B&B s, ate lunch in pubs and had most dinners at good restaurants. We were seldom disappointed in the facilities or food.

Some highlights of the trip:

Like a British seaside town, Portrush has lots of shops and amusements, but the activities are fishing and boating rather than swimming in these waters of the cold North Atlantic. Nonetheless, a group of pre-pubescent boys wearing wetsuits were having a ball jumping repeatedly about 20 feet down into a sheltered channel, making return trips via metal grips on the wall. We stayed at a B&B , A Pier View, across the street from the harbor. It is run by the widow of a “lifesaver” - a member of the service that rescues mariners. They had completely renovated an old town house into a snug and shipshape place for visitors.

A hostess at 55 North, a good and crowded restaurant along the waterfront, held a table for us for more than thirty minutes so we could relax with a drink in the bar after a tiring day - just because we were Americans. This is the kind of hospitality for which both the Republic and Northern Ireland are justly famous.

On a cold, rainy, windy morning, we abandoned our plan to visit a roofless castle and hanging bridge on the sea cliffs and instead toured the Old Bushmills Distillery. A tot of warming 12-year-old whiskey was thoroughly enjoyed. Tours and special tastings are offered year-round at this 400-year-old distillery.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, Giant's Causeway is an unusual geological formation of thousands of basalt columns, mostly hexagonal, that runs several miles along the Irish shore with some similar columns across the way in Scotland. This is a site worth seeing, rain or not.

Steep, wooded valleys cut by streams running from the mountains of Antrim into the sea make up the Glens of Antrim. We followed the Glenariff river in its wild, scenic glory westward until the countryside again became pastoral.

Hillsborough is a charming village south of Belfast with Georgian architecture, a fort and a manor house of the same vintage, and several first-class restaurants. We stayed at Dunhill Cottage, a new and comfortable B&B on a nearby dairy farm. The farmer and his wife could not have been more genial and helpful. We had to refuse several times their offer to wash our clothes after they overheard us talking about the need to find a self-service laundry. We had an excellent meal at The Plough, in a restaurant hidden up the back stairs from its pub.

The Mountains of Mourne are actually high moors similar to the fells of western England and eerily beautiful. They're uninhabited except for sheep, and the custodian of a large man-made reservoir that provides drinking water to the lowlands. When the clouds suddenly descended at a fast clip we had to turn around and get out while we could still see.

And Belfast. The center of the city is handsome and seemingly prosperous but the harbor area is quite sad as the once mighty shipyards barely operate. Tall fences still divide many working class neighborhoods and countless, huge murals depict the “heroes” and “martyrs” of each side of the fighting. Surely these ubiquitous reminders can only keep the enmity simmering. Our guide on a private tour customized for foreigners was a university student who was quite frank about the fences and the continuing tension between the people on each side. He remarked that in middle and upper class neighborhoods, religion is not an issue any more. That appeared to be the case wherever we went. Storemont is the regal building on a hill outside of Belfast, where the Assembly convenes. We had a private tour guided by a senior civil servant and had the good luck to sit at the same lunch table as a friendly legislator. We learned a great deal about the current political climate that day, but it is enough to say that travel in Northern Ireland is perfectly safe for Americans who don’t barge into certain Belfast neighborhoods during the annual marches.

The notorious marches of the Orangemen, "Marching Season," are held in the summer on fixed schedules. Orangemen are members of the Loyal Orange Institution, a Protestant Irish society originally established in 1795 to maintain the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, in the face of the growing movement for Irish Catholic emancipation. Two marches were scheduled for Newry while we were there. They are meant to be provocative to the Catholic population and, even in this tolerant town, fights sometimes break out. We watched the marches from a safe distance.

And at last, the reason for our visit to Northern Ireland: The Worldwide Gathering of the Clan McAteer. Descendants of an old Northern Irish family gather from all over the world every five years in Ballyholland, a hamlet outside of Newry, to celebrate their heritage. Despite our complete lack of Celtic blood, through friends we had become honorary members of the Clan and were attending by special invitation. The gathering lasted four days and included two evening gatherings at fraternal halls with food and entertainment, a walking tour of Ballyholland, a visit to a traditional farm cottage still inhabited by an old woman, and a worship service. The entertainers were endearing local children or young adults who performed traditional Irish dances, sang old songs and recited stories and poems. Needless to say, the good Irish whiskey and beer flowed on every occasion. It was a very old-fashioned and heart-warming program.

The culminating event was a special mass held in the open air in the hills above Ballyholland. A great rock stands in a secluded spot and served as an altar. There are a number of “mass rocks” around Ireland dating from the time of the Penal Laws when Roman Catholic worship was punishable by death. This one was the worship site of the McAteers of that period. The clan members attending the gathering walked in procession, led by a pipe band, from the hamlet up to Mass Rock. It was a cold, drizzly day but spirits were high and even the small children were good. A cow in the adjacent pasture mooed loudly at the point the sermon became too long and won a round of applause. It was an altogether fitting end to a week in this corner of Hibernia.

The Plough, 3 The Square, Hillsborough, Tel.+44 028 9268 2985
Dunhill Cottage, 47c Carnreagh, Hillsborough, Tel. +44 028 9268 3024
55 North, 1 Causeway Street, Portrush, Tel.+44 028 7082 2811
A Pier View, 53 Kerr Street, Portrush, Tel.+44 028 7082 3234
Old Bushmills Distillery, 2 Distillery Rd., Tel.+44 028 207 33218

Photo Credits: preview: © Rick Carlson, top: © Joe Gough, bottom: © zimous. For Fotolia. middle: Courtesy of Old Bushmills Distillery.

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