Category Archives: Ireland

Carrickfergus Castle and Halloween

I have mentioned before what seems to be my exceptional good luck with the weather in Ireland. Except for a whole day washout in Galway in 2017 and the ten minute squall at the Gobbins Coastal Walk this year I have always enjoyed good weather.

Today was no exception so after an excellent full Irish breakfast (in a stack) we left the Titanic Quarter, crossed the river and made our way to the railway station because today we were visiting nearby Carrickfergus (what a great Irish name that is) to see its mighty castle.

On the way we passed the Belfast Big Fish. There is a sign saying no climbing but William missed that and clambered onto its back regardless. William is good at jumping and climbing.

The train journey alongside the western shore of Belfast Lough took just about twenty minutes and we arrived at about midday in a curiously subdued (for a Saturday morning in a fair sizes market town) Carrickfergus town centre. With nothing to distract us such as a market for example we made our way directly to the harbour and the castle.

Carrickfergus Castle is a Norman castle, the oldest , biggest and best preserved medieval building in all of Northern Ireland built on the north shore of the Lough to manage and protect the entrance to the emerging port of Belfast and the navigable River Lagan.

It was here that King William III landed in 1690 on his way to the Battle of the Boyne, a decisive battle in the struggle for supremacy in Ireland in which William was victorious and secured Protestant domination in Ireland for over a subsequent two hundred years. Carrickfergus remains even to this day a staunch Unionist/Protestant town.

There is a statue of King Billy with his massive hat close to the harbour.

We were looking forward to visiting the castle but the door was firmly closed. I told William to go and knock and he pounded so hard that anyone inside might have imagined it was under siege. A young man emerged and told us that the castle was closed today on account of this being Halloween weekend and an unofficial public holiday. This seemed odd to me, why would you close a tourist attraction on a bank holiday when you might expect higher than normal visitor numbers.

The man said ‘come back on Monday’, I said ‘We are going home tomorrow (Sunday)’ and he helpfully suggested ‘Come back next time you are in Northern Ireland’.

I was intrigued by this but it seems that Halloween is rather important in Ireland and people here tell you that Halloween traditions were begun and influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain, the beginning of Winter, the dark months, which are believed to have pagan roots. Some go further and suggest that Samhain may have been Christianized as All Hallow’s Day, along with its eve, by the early Christian Church.

Anyway, whatever, The Irish claim ownership of the Halloween tradition. Apparently they used to carve turnips and light a candle inside to represent the souls of the recently and dearly departed. Carving a woody turnip I can only imagine to be extremely hard work so the Irish must have been glad to find that when the emigrated to America that there were no turnips and pumpkins were abundant and much easier to work with.

We all know what happened next, over the years the USA hijacked the Halloween tradition and turned it into a commercial bonanza which has spread across the World. In the process the historical and cultural significance has sadly been swept away in a tsunami of tacky consumerism, much like Christmas and Easter.

We all do it…

In the UK I personally lament the fact that Halloween has completely eclipsed Bonfire Night and the ‘Penny for the Guy’ tradition but I suppose the environmentalists will applaud the fact that we no longer light thousands of polluting bonfires on November 5th.

With the castle closed and nothing to detain us longer in Carrickfergus we took the train directly back to Belfast.

Where we did some more sightseeing…

A Walking Tour of Belfast

After completing the Antrim Coast Drive and a visit to the Gobbins Coastal walk we arrived late afternoon in Belfast.  I have been there before and written a post about it previously…

… lazy I know but…

… Read The Full Story Here

The Dark Hedges and Something Unpleasant Underfoot

It seemed that we were staying ahead of the weather forecast which had predicted storms and heavy rain and after completing a strenuous walk at the Giant’s Causeway we returned to the unofficial and much cheaper car park and set of back along the Causeway Coast

First stop was the ruins of Dunseverick Castle which Kim and Margaret declared not worth getting out of the car for and then swiftly on to Whitepark Bay Beach where we stopped for barely five minutes because the girls were of the opinion that it was rapidly approaching coffee and cake time so we continued on to Ballintoy.

Here there was a charming harbour and an old limestone quarry and information boards that told us that the crushed limestone was shipped to England to pave the roads of Manchester and Liverpool.  Another told us that inevitably this was a location setting used in the TV programme “Game of Thrones”.

Ballintoy in September was rather sedate but it seems that it can get rather overcrowded in the Summer.  I read a newspaper report that on one day in July the local council dealt with so much illegal and dangerous parking that they ran out of car parking violation tickets.

Except for a rather nasty smell in the harbour it was all rather lovely but it really was time for coffee and cake now so we made our way from the harbour to the village and stopped off at a suitable establishment.  I rarely join in this mid morning coffee break because I resent paying £3 for a cup of coffee or £2.50 for a mug of tea when down the road in a pub I can get a pint of Guinness for £4.  It simply makes no economic sense.

From Ballintoy we drove south to the Dark Hedges.

The dark hedges is an avenue of beech trees that were planted in the 1750s in the grounds of Gracehill House a Georgian mansion built by the Stuart family, descendants of a cousin of King James who had been granted the land but who had died in a shipwreck. They wanted to create a compelling landscape to impress visitors who approached the entrance to the mansion.  The Manor House is still there but a private residence and the Stuart legacy is this fascinating avenue of spooky interlinking tree boughs.

I say spooky because of course, such an ancient stretch of road is bound to have horror stories linked to it and visitors are warned to watch out for the ‘Grey Lady’. Local legend has it that she haunts the thin ribbon of road that winds beneath the ancient gnarled beech trees. She is said to glide silently along the roadside, and vanish as she reaches the last tree.  I couldn’t help thinking that I wished some of the tourists might disappear so that I might get a decent picture, but I suppose this stubborn couple do help provide a sense of perspective.

It was a fascinating place and maybe we were lucky to see it because Beech trees reach maturity at no more than two hundred years and those making up the Dark Hedges are well past that.  The Dark Hedges came under threat a few years ago when highway authorities proposed to fell many trees for safety reasons but the avenue was taken over by the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust – and is now the subject of a Heritage Lottery Fund project to protect the popular landmark but I suspect that there is only so long that they can remain on an environmental life support machine.

From the Dark Hedges we returned to the coast at Ballycastle where we walked on the beach and had a pleasant hour or so until I had an unfortunate incident with a pile of dog poo which required fifteen minutes or so of boot cleaning.  I might have mentioned this before but I completely detest dogs and their inconsiderate owners and I am in complete agreement with Bill Bryson on his matter…

“It wouldn’t bother me in the least…if all the dogs in the world were placed in a sack and taken to some distant island… where they could romp around and sniff each other’s anuses to their hearts’ content and never bother or terrorise me again.”  –  Bill Bryson

The weather was deteriorating now and the promised rain was beginning to threaten so we called an end to the day of beaches and beeches and headed back to Bushmills where we arrived back in pouring rain.

Tonight’s dining was no more successful than the previous.  We booked a table at a nearby hotel but when we got there the prices were way beyond our skinflint budget so we declined to order and went instead to a Chinese takeaway, took it back to the guest house and sat and enjoyed a well prepared meal and a glass of two of red wine.  Very satisfying.

The Giant’s Causeway

An early start was essential today for two reasons.  We were visiting the Giant’s Causeway which is number one visitor attraction in Northern Ireland and gets very busy and secondly the weather forecast predicted a storm and heavy rain.

I have been to the Causeway before and wrote about it then and as nothing much as changed in sixty million years or so I will avoid repeating myself here.

Read The Full Story Here…

The Causeway Coast, Derry to Bushmills

After negotiating our way out of the city we headed east and started our coastal drive at Magilligan point, a nothing sort of place really at the edge of an army practice firing range and close to a high security prison.  We stopped for coffee and watched the ferry as it crossed Lake Foyle on its way to the Republic and visited a restored Martello Tower, built during the Napoleonic Wars as protection against invasion.

There wasn’t a great deal to detain as at Milligan Point so we began the one hundred and thirty mile road trip along the coastal scenic drive which clings to the coastline like velcro alongside a ribbon of continuous sandy beach.

Enjoying the sunshine we stopped frequently at the empty beaches stretching expansively both east and west to watch the Atlantic breakers raging in on a strong wind that tousled our hair and tugged at our coats, walked along the crisp firm sand and filled our willing lungs with salty sea air.

We left the coast briefly to visit the ruins of Downhill House, a stately mansion built in the late eighteenth century by Frederick 4th Earl of Bristol and Lord Bishop of Derry, an exceptionally wealthy man who imagined a classic mansion in a scenic location and lavishly filled with fabulous art and a well stocked library.

It didn’t turn out to be a very good spot and it suffered from salt corrosion, Atlantic storms and a major fire which did extensive damage in 1851.  It was restored but during World War Two it was used as a billet for the RAF and the men living there had little regard for history or culture and left it in a desperate condition. 

Sadly this is a familiar story about misbehaving troops in requisitioned big houses and country estates and many suffered the same fate. No need for the Luftwaffe to get involved.  Apparently owners in general didn’t mind their properties being borrowed for schools or hospitals but dreaded the armed forces being moved in because this guaranteed damage and expense.

After the war the place was dismantled for its stone for alternative construction work nearby.

After Castlerock we were obliged to leave the coast and drive towards the town of Coleraine so that we were able to cross the inconvenient River Bann, at one hundred miles long the longest river in Northern Ireland and then back to the coast at Port Stewart which was surprisingly busy and we struggled to find a car parking space close to the town.

After a lunch time stop for refreshment we bypassed nearby Portrush and continued to follow the coast until we reached Dunluce Castle. The road is rather precarious at this point, it reminded me of the Amalfi Drive in Italy and we  approached the castle along a twisting route that dropped dramatically down to the cliffs and showed it off to its best advantage.

Even though it was late afternoon and close to closing time it was still rather busy and the car park was full and there were a couple of tour buses out of Belfast disgorging their passengers.  Dunluce Castle was used in the TV show ‘Game of Thrones‘ and for reasons that I don’t understand these filming locations attract thousands of visitors.  On account of this it was rather overcrowded so with natural skinflint tendencies kicking in we declined the opportunity to take the internal tour of the ruins and satisfied ourselves instead with a wander around the exterior.

Actually I am not sure that the £5 entrance fee was really worth it because without doubt the best views were from the surrounding cliffs and that is what I always tell myself when I have been too mean to pay the admission fee.

From there to the small town of Bushmills and our overnight accommodation and after a good day things started to unravel.  While Kim and Margaret settled into the accommodation, Mike and I were entrusted with finding somewhere to eat later.  This proved more difficult than we had imagined and all that we could find was a hotel restaurant but not until half past nine.  We booked it but I knew this would be too late and would meet with disapproval. 

It was too late and it did meet with disapproval so we rang to cancel  and walked out instead for a fish and chip supper.  On the positive side, once forgiven we got to go to the pub.

Derry/Londonderry – A Walk Along the Bogside

We have visited Ireland, North and South, five times and never once have we experienced bad weather.  Kim refuses to believe the stories about how wet it can be.

It was a beautiful morning, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.  As I mentioned before we were staying in the Nationalist Bogside area of the city which has a controversial and unhappy past.  It was peaceful enough this fine morning  but has had a recent bloody and violent contribution to the Troubles.  Indeed some historians identify Londonderry/Derry/Stroke City as being the very crucible of the bloody civil war.

In the 1960s Catholic Derry considered itself to be suffering religious and political persecution (quite rightly as it turns out) and the city became the flashpoint of disputes about institutional discrimination. Despite having a nationalist majority the city was permanently controlled by unionists due to the partisan drawing of electoral boundaries. In addition the city had very high unemployment levels and very poor housing. Overcrowding in nationalist areas was widely blamed on the political agenda of the Unionist government, who wanted to confine Catholics to a small number of electoral wards to effectively restrict their influence.

In August 1969 following the annual Protestant Apprentice Boys Parade Nationalists clashed with police in an incident remembered now as ‘The Battle of the Bogside’ which directly led to widespread civil disorder in Northern Ireland and the intervention of the British Army.

Worse was to come on Sunday January 30th 1972 when during a Catholic civil rights march thirteen unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers, another thirteen were wounded and one further man later died of his wounds. This event came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

This incident remains an open wound between the two factions and the British Army but the current official verdict was delivered by the Saville Commission which was published in June 2010.

The report concluded, “The firing by soldiers on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” Saville stated that British paratroopers “lost control” fatally shooting fleeing civilians.  The report states, contrary to the previously established belief that no stones and no petrol bombs were thrown by civilians before British soldiers shot at them and that the civilians were not posing any threat.”  Not the British Army’s finest hour!

Just outside the city walls and only a short walk from our guest house was the very place where the Bloody Sunday confrontation took place so walked down the hill from the fortress walls and saw three famous monuments, ‘You Are Entering Free Derry’, a message painted on the gable end of a row of terraced houses, long since demolished, the Bloody Sunday memorial itself and a third monument remembering the Maze prison notorious now for internment without trial, hunger strikes and the death place of the most famous hunger striker of all, Bobby Sands.

There are guided tours of the Bogside but we chose to do this by ourselves and although it felt quite safe on the busy main road I do admit to  becoming uneasy whenever we strayed into the side streets where signs invited the British to ‘Get Out Now’ and others encouraged local people to join the IRA.

We weren’t put off by this however because we wanted to see the murals, works of urban art really.  These were less political statements but a visual telling of the story of the Bogside troubles.  The political statements were there too but these were smaller information boards which told a sectarian and I have ro say a very one sided story.

I am glad that I walked down to see this but after thirty minutes or so I was happy to leave and walk back now to our car, pack our bags and head east for a drive along the Causeway Coast.

 

Staycation in Northern Ireland

After eighteen months of Covid 19 and lockdown restrictions we were desperate to get away. Going to Europe remained an assault course of paperwork and additional expense so we opted instead for a semi-staycation and planned a week in Northern Ireland. We got to go on a flight which made it feel like a real holiday even though  we were staying in the United Kingdom.

Not so long ago most people would no more thought about visiting Northern Ireland than having a few days away in North Korea, it wouldn’t have crossed their minds to go to Ulster more than go to Uganda and Belfast would be on a travellers wish list that included Beirut and Baghdad. Now things are changing and Northern Ireland is reinventing itself as a tourist destination.

So we set off from East Midlands Airport to the city of Belfast and to the Province of Ulster.

Ulster is made up of nine counties in the north of Ireland and to make things complicated three of these are in the Republic and the other six make up what we know as Northern Ireland. 

The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920. Northern Ireland was created in 1921, when modern Ireland was established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

There is a phrase that the Irish frequently use themselves which is “Only in Ireland” which is used to justify the idiosyncrasies of the country without offering a detailed explanation.

The partition of Ireland into north and south is a good example…

… Ulster has no political or administrative significance and exists only as a historical sub-division of Ireland. The other three are Connacht, Leinster and Munster. The map above shows the geographical split.

The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920 because these were areas where Protestants were in the majority and had vehemently campaigned to remain part of the Unionby all means which may seem necessary’ which inevitably included violence and civil disobedience.

Except that they weren’t because in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone they were in the minority but were included anyway. County Donegal was catholic but was separated from the principal border city of Londonderry/Derry and County Londonderry which now has a majority catholic population. Donegal is so far north in fact that at the most northerly point it is further north than Northern Ireland.

How complicated is all that? No wonder the Irish issue has taken so long to try and resolve.

From the airport we drove to the city via the market town of Antrim where we stopped for a short while at the castle grounds before continuing west to Derry/Londonderry which is the most westerly city in the United Kingdom. To complete the geography the most northerly is Inverness in Scotland, the most easterly is Norwich and the most southerly is Truro both of which are in England.

The city might be Londonderry/Derry or Derry/Londonderry and we were confused about what we should call it because we didn’t want to offend anyone.

The name Derry became the accepted name of the town around the sixteenth century but it was at this time point that the prefix of London entered the equation. The Plantation of Ulster in 1608 saw the British Crown seizing land in an effort to anglicise Ulster and create a loyal and acquiescent population here.

The various lands were handed over to different guilds of London traders to develop and manage. In recognition of their financial investment in 1613 by Royal seal the city was renamed Londonderry.

The names of the city, county, and district of Derry or Londonderry continue to be the subject of a naming dispute between nationalists and unionists. Generally nationalists favour using the name Derry, and unionists using Londonderry. Legally, the city and county are called Londonderry while the local government district is called Derry. There have been attempts by the nationalists to officially ditch the London bit of the name but only the Queen has the authority to permit this and so far she has declined to do so.

Confused? We were. My favourite solution to this problem is the name given by a Northern Ireland radio broadcaster called Gerry Anderson who christened the city with the alternative name Stroke City and residents have increasingly embraced the unofficial name skilfully circumventing the linguistic minefield of Derry vs. Londonderry.

We were staying in the western majority catholic/republican Bogside area of the city so on arrival we considered it prudent to be careful to call it Derry.

It was mid afternoon and after approving our accommodation we set off immediately to explore the city.

A to Z of Statues – O is for Oscar Wilde

A rather strange statue of Oscar Wilde lounging in a very unflattering pose on an uncomfortable looking granite rock which I didn’t care for a great deal.

t seemed to me to be somewhat inappropriate, the poor man clinging on like a piece of lichen to a boulder with his legs wide apart showing his crotch which was what got him into a whole load of trouble in the first place!  Dubliners have christened it the ‘fag on the Craig’.

Other statues in Dublin…

Read The Full Story Here…

 

A to Z of Statues – M is for Michael Collins

We were going to visit the Michael Collins Museum and as we waited for it to open at ten o’clock we walked around the square in search of photo opportunities.

Michael Collins is one of the great characters (heroes?) of Irish history, a soldier, a politician, a patriot who was eventually betrayed by a man less worthy (Éamon de Valera) and murdered in an ambush somewhere close to Clonakilty at Béal na Bláth.

Read The Full Story Here…

One Word Challenge – Point

This week I have decided to join in with Debbie Smyth’s One Word Sunday challenge

Skelligs View Car Park, Kerry…

It has to be said that this was a really odd place. It seems that wherever coaches stop in Ireland an unusual ensemble of strange people and entertainers beam down from out of space and put out a collection tin.

In this windy remote place the oddest of all was a sort of farmer chap who looked as though he hadn’t washed his hands or combed his hair for several years who sat on two battered sofa cushions and invited people to have their photograph taken with a litter of kittens barely old enough to be away from their mother and then some lambs who looked to me to be highly sedated. I think the chap was highly sedated as well, probably on Guinness!

But he actually seemed positively normal next to the man a badly out of tune accordion and kicking a piece of metal plate in some sort of unholy row that I can only imagine was designed to scare witches away.

Walking back to the car in a state of dazed amusement I decided to take his picture but he saw me raise the camera and he was not very happy about it. Perhaps he thought the camera would steal his soul but on reflection I think it was because I hadn’t put any money in the tin. “Don’t point that feckin’ thing at me” he yelled, “Don’t point that feckin’ thing at me”. I took the picture and gave a jolly wave but he wasn’t going to be that easily placated, “Don’t point that feckin’ thing at me”, “I’ll set the dog on yer, I’ll set the dog on yer”.

Now I suffer from a real fear of dogs and a paranoia of being mauled to a canine death and normally a threat like that would turn by backbone to jelly. The British Geological Survey Team in Edinburgh measures earthquake activity in the UK and has been known to sometimes get confused by the seismic activity created by my violent shaking when faced by a dog and has even issued a false earthquake event alert.

On this occasion however I didn’t think I had a lot to fear from an obviously shagged out old collie that was wearing a flat cap tied to its head and whose best people attacking days were a long way behind it. The poor thing could hardly stand up let alone chase anyone that it was set upon so I gave another cheery wave and dawdled defiantly back to the car. I was supremely confident that I could make the five metres to the door faster than it could cover the fifty metres or so to get to me.

Back in the car I suddenly worried that this might be the time that the engine would blow up and I might be in a spot of bother after all but thankfully it fired into life and I deliberately drove slowly past him and gave him a another cheeky wave as he continued to make his pointless threat – “I’ll set the dog on yer, I’ll set the dog on yer”. What was it going to do – bite the tyres?

Anyway, there was no warning light on the dashboard about geriatric dog attacks so we just laughed and carried on to the exit.