My first visit to Northern Ireland was back in the 1980s. It was a foolish North American’s notion of an all-too-quick circuitous tour of the island: get off the ferry from Wales in Dun Laoghaire, drive south and west to the Ring of Kerry, then north to Galway and Sligo and into Ulster to Enniskillen and Londonderry, and then off the island at Larne on to Scotland.

I was stopped and questioned by English soldiers with machine guns while crossing from the south into the north. They looked to be pimply teenagers with guns and they smiled a lot and commented on my “funny” accent. But there was nothing fun or funny about what Northern Ireland was going through in those days.

I remember green, green hills alongside inhospitable-looking towns, with barbed-wire fences around the police stations, phone companies and public buildings.There was such a stark contrast between the idyllic countryside and the impoverished sections of Londonderry that I wondered how such a thing could possibly be…until I remembered what I knew of the long strife-ridden history of this unlucky place.

However, when I returned to Northern Ireland in 2011, it was a completely transformed place. Remnants of the Troubles still existed here and there, including a billboard promoting reuniting the North with Ireland, and random political graffiti on the brick walls in towns. But most of what we saw was very different from the old days.

The dark skies of the past were mostly gone. What I saw was a sunny, friendly part of the world, well worth the trip.

I noticed not long ago that a fellow traveller had asked TripAdvisor if it was still a (political) problem to wear green, yellow or orange while visiting there. The consensus reply was decidedly no, with one writer suggesting, “Might be a risk of being laughed at in public if your outfit contains all 3, maybe.”

My wife, Linda, and I were less concerned with our wardrobe, and more keen on hiking the green hills and mossy forest gullies, finding some rental wetsuits (black, of course) for boogie boarding on the north coast, and toasting to our lucky lives in a friendly pub or two along the way. And I am pleased to report that, on the drive north from Dublin, I kept looking for some sign to tell us when we were entering the North. But I never saw it.

I keep a keen eye out for such things, and usually have a habit of saying something foolish and obvious like, “So, we’re now in Northern Ireland.” But I never got my chance. Either I missed it or it wasn’t there – and neither was the British military guarding the invisible border. We were well past Newry, and on our way to Banbridge, before I realized we had left the Republic of Ireland.

We had rented a small cottage in the village of Breen, not far from Ballycastle, and had some serious exploring to do. A 514-metre-high mountain named Knocklayd, with its head planted firmly in the clouds, presented itself across the road beyond a pasture of sheep that looked like they had been mud wrestling. I found the sheep and the mountain most welcoming as we settled into our cottage, lighting the first peat fire of the stay.

The sweet pungent smell of the burning turf added just the right ambience to our arrival.

Our goal was to explore as much of the northern coast here as possible, so the next day we set out on the B 15 towards Ballintoy. Along the way was the famous Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. Some time in the eighteenth century, locals built the original version of this bridge over the deep chasm that separates Carrick Island from the mainland. The modern-day walkway is still narrow and scary for anyone afraid of heights, as it sways and wobbles from the wind and the tromping of others on the narrow wood planking.

Linda found it daunting and decided to hang back while I bounded across to the island. When she saw me waving from the other side, however, she allowed one of the on-site guides, a young Polish man named Adam, to “talk” her across. After we walked around the craggy rocks and peered down from the heights at the jagged cliffs and surging sea, she decided to let him be her guardian angel on the bouncy trip back as well. Later, it occurred to us that her encounter with a such a kind and helpful young immigrant from a once-ravaged land was a good omen for the future of the (then) hopeful European Union.

After a hike on the big beach at White Park Bay in Ballintoy, we continued west, inevitably finding ourselves pulling into the parking lot at the world-famous Bushmills Distillery. The tour busses had apparently discovered the place before us and – with some of my typical trepidation about such places – we ambled into the gift shop and cafeteria to split some fish and chips and Guinness Pie. I found myself thinking, how clever of the Irish to come up with  a way to have a pint while eating and not even have to sip from a glass. If you want to try this at home, campers, note the advice from the website, epicurious.com, that states, “Irish stouts produce a thick head when poured, so chill the can or bottle well before measuring to reduce the foam.”

I was anxious to get back to nature and away from the hungry (and thirsty) hordes of the cafeteria, so I didn’t allow us to dawdle in the gift shop with its seemingly infinite supply of whiskey bottles and trinkets. And not being a real whisky aficionado, I couldn’t help but wonder, what really could be the difference between a 15 Euro bottle of the regular Irish whiskey and an 80 Euro bottle that looked exactly the same? But that’s just me.

Well fortified by the beer pie, we made our way to Portrush, a prime Northern Ireland surfing destination. Sure enough there were waves and surfers and we planned to return to get wet and banged around by the waves before the week was out.

I recall that we ended a number of our travel days in Armoy, not far from our den in Breen, at a little pub named McClafferty’s Bar. We liked it very much because there was a very friendly, but high strung, little dog there that would greet us nervously as we entered and kept us company in our booth as we deconstructed our day. McClafferty’s is much like many local pubs, we observed. Nothing special or fancy about it: old 1960s-style luan-wood panelling on the walls, and a scuffed linoleum floor with a bar that looked like you might find in your uncle’s basement. It made me ponder the irony that so many “authentic” North American Irish pubs look nothing like this at all. Instead they are all so classic looking in the way that we in Canada or the USA think an Irish pub should look like. Nonetheless, McClafferty’s allowed dogs, the Guinness was on tap, and it didn’t have the air of snootiness I had detected in the more famous and touristy pubs of Ballycastle. So it was our pub for the week.

The town of Armoy began as a monastery founded by none other than Saint Patrick in the fifth century.

Based on my limited knowledge of Irish history, and various travels around Ireland to locations where St. Pat started one thing or another, I’d say that he was a very busy man in his relatively short tenure on the Emerald Isle.

And thanks to a garrulous patron in McClafferty’s, who mistakenly thought we were Americans, it turns out the St. Patrick’s Day – an annual event that at least once got me into some trouble – commemorates the day Patrick died, since no one knows on what day he was born.

A rainy day meant a road trip to Derry and a walk around the top of the city walls built between 1613 and 1618. Obviously the city has spread well beyond those seventeenth century walls, but it seems that here was the “last remaining walled city in Ireland.” And the rainy walk was pretty grand I admit, and well worth the journey to what was once called Londonderry. It was a great way to view the architecture from a height and ponder the gloomy past of this place. As we left through one of the old city gates, we found ourselves wandering out and into a vast modern indoor shopping mall, where all the stores sold much-too-familiar brand names. It looked so much like the shopping malls of New Jersey that I started looking for an exit within minutes.

A guidebook had exhorted that we have lunch at a place called Badgers. Stuthediver on TripAdvisor reports thus: “Just been to Derry with 30 other blokes and basically camped in the Badgers,” intimating that he much liked the place and recommended it. We didn’t choose to camp there, but did have a lunch of leek and potato soup, smoked haddock and blackened salmon.

We got lost trying to find our way out of the city and had a chance to see some of the seedier parts of town, with the graffiti reminding us that there were still some pretty hard grudges hanging around town and that some fragments of the dark days were still alive in Derry. Stopping to ask for directions, we came across a monument that turned out to be The Bloody Sunday Memorial, which Lonely Planet describes as, “a simple granite obelisk that commemorates the 14 civilians who were shot dead by the British Army on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972.” The lyrics from the U2 song suddenly rushed into my head. “How long must we sing this song?” I silently sang as we got back in the car and headed out of town.

The next day, we booted it back to Whiterocks Beach outside Portrush to rent boogie boards and damp wetsuits from a guy named Declan in a van who said we should give him our car keys while we hit the waves.

The wetsuits were a bit leaky, the boards a bit battered, and the water was damn cold, but we had a fine time bouncing around on the waves clearing the cobwebs from our heads.

Our car was still there when we returned, and Declan claimed he had taken it out for a spin to get coffee while we were gone, but I think he was just having us on.

The Giant’s Causeway was on our route home so we joined the throngs for a walk out onto the really-cool basalt columns, unlike any geological formation I’d ever seen. The Causeway was the result of volcanic activity some fifty million years ago and, today is a world heritage site.

Legend is often more interesting than science, so if you prefer, the origin of the causeway was this; Finn MacCool was an Irish giant who was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant named Benandonner. (Presumably this is what giants did in the old days for fun.) Finn took up the challenge and built the rocky road to Scotland so the two could have a good bout. What we have left today is a remnant of the bridge.

It was certainly crowded, but everyone, young and old, seemed cheerful as they wandered about tripping over chunks of jutting basalt. Children from many different nations could be seen climbing out onto the most challenging ledges, as their parents screamed at them in various languages, urging them not to fall into the beckoning blue-green sea below.

We chased around a number of backroads looking for a place called The Dark Hedges, a beautiful and spooky formation of beech trees that forms a canopy over Bregagh Road.

Apparently this is one of the most photographed locations in Northern Ireland, and sometime after our visit it was featured in Game of Thrones. We missed the proper turn-off several times, as there were no signs anywhere guiding us -both indications that this was a worthy destination. We were not disappointed when we finally found it and enjoyed wandering beneath the giant trees, first planted by James Stuart in the eighteenth century to impress visitors wending their way to his estate. There are reports of a grey lady ghost wandering around the neighbourhood but she did not present herself on the sunny afternoon when we made our visit.

We often base our travels abroad around sea and sky, involving both coastal and mountain hikes.

We failed to find our way to the top of Knocklayd, as there seems to be no public path, and our final attempt only led us to an abandoned quarry with a big “No Trespassing” sign, the only one I saw on our trip. So instead, we drove east along a charming backroad from Ballyvoy to Cushendun. It was more of a paved footpath really, lending itself to some most creative driving when passing an oncoming car. It took us through some of the finest countryside in the Celtic world, leading us to Torr Headwith its spectacular views from the headland there looking off toward Scotland’s Mull of Kyntyre.

South of Cushendun is Glenariff Forest Park, with some wonderful hiking trails and luxurious fern undergrowth – a true ‘Irish Spring’ type place. Upon returning to our roost in Breen, we realized we had ranged far and wide but failed to spend much time in our immediate neighbourhood. Why is it that when we travel, sometimes, we miss some of the best things that are nearly under our noses in favour of trekking off to distant sites?

Certainly, there were more sheep than people in Breen, which is not a bad thing in my book, but we had met no neighbours to point us towards any local highlights. So we drove slowly around the immediate countryside looking for clues as to what we should explore. I finally spotted the sign for Breen Oakwood Nature Reserve, which proved to be an amazing find.

Here was a classic Irish gully, filled with ferns and mosses and pure clean water oozing out of rocks. As discovernorthernireland.com observes, “In spring and summer the boggy pools and damp gullies are a heaven for newts and dragonflies, and bluebells and wood anemones are among the woodland flowers.” And it was, to our great luck, spring.

If you do, in fact, have a hankering to be with newts, dragonflies and bluebells, Breen is where you want to be. More than that, hiking through that gully made me feel the presence of something profound that probably can’t be encountered in the Bushmills Distillery, a Ballycastle pub, or at the famous Badger’s in Derry. Here was a quiet green sanctuary of peace and tranquility, with a soundtrack of soft breezes in the oak and birch trees. Water trickles from miniature waterfalls, and tiny birds flit from rowan to hazel to hawthorn. And, when a dragonfly the size of a model airplane chooses to hover in front of your face to inspect you and dips a nod of its approval, you realize that you have discovered one of the many small, unsung sacred places within Ulster’s stunning six counties. ~ Lesley Choyce

More on Northern Ireland here!


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