My first trip to Northern Ireland – July 1994
The recent sad passing of the great peacemaker, John Hume, brought me back to my very first trip to Northern Ireland. It was July 1994 and I was on my very first holiday ever with my Mam, Peggy. The “Troubles” were still ongoing at the time; indeed the Loughinisland massacre had taken place just the previous month. To be honest, up to then our impressions of Northern Ireland
were coloured by our RTE evening news bulletins of the 70s and 80s when newsreaders Charles Mitchell or Don Cockburn inevitably started each broadcast with the latest tragedy/ atrocity from “the North”.
By the mid-90s though, there was a feeling in the air that peace was on the way (although it wasn’t a foregone conclusion and the Good Friday Agreement itself would take another 4 years). It was therefore with a certain degree of trepidation that Peggy and I headed North. However, we both were curious to experience it and knew from the many songs celebrating its magical beauty; from Carrickfergus to the Mountains of Mourne; that it was a place worth going to. Nothing prepared us though for the spectacular Glens of Antrim; those beautiful valleys made famous by the song Danny Boy (Peggy’s favourite): "Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling from glen to glen, and down the mountain side."
So …..I booked a trip with CIE Tours which would include the return train from Dublin to Belfast, a few days stay in Ballygally at a haunted castle (!) and bus tours to The Giant’s Causeway and around the Glens.
Train Journey - Dublin to Belfast
So we departed from Connolly Train Station, Dublin for our train venture north through Malahide and hugged the scenic coast from Skerries, passing Balbriggan, Gormanston, and Laytown (County Meath) before crossing the historic River Boyne at Drogheda by a magnificent viaduct and into County Louth. We passed through the border town of Dundalk and begin the long climb through the ancient pass – The Gap O’ The North, into the province of Ulster and County Armagh. (In 1994, as both the Republic and Northern Ireland were then part of the European Single Market and Common Travel Area, there were no customs checks or passport controls crossing the border). From Newry, County Down, we shadowed the remains of the Newry/Ulster canal as far as Portadown. From Lisburn, we were in the Lagan Valley and after passing through the southern suburbs of Belfast we arrived in Great Victoria Street Station.
In Belfast – Ireland’s second largest city - we were met by our jovial tour coach driver to continue on our journey along the Causeway Coastal Route, along Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast. I remember craning our necks as he pointed out one of Belfast’s most well-known landmarks, the two Harland & Wolfe Cranes which are nicknamed Samson and Goliath. (That shipyard is where the ill-fated Titanic was built…and in the intervening years since our 1994 visit, a fabulous Titanic Visitor Centre has been built there.)
Leaving Belfast we proceeded to the town of Carrickfergus (YouTube video above as sung by the late Clancy Bothers - from my home town - & Tommy Makem). We had a short photo-stop at the 800 year old Norman Castle there. The driver played Carrickfergus on the coach tape recorder which made it all the more magical. We then took the coast road north from here. Near Ballygally we drove under the historical Black Arch.
Ballygally Castle Hotel
Soon we reached our hotel, the beautiful Ballygally Castle. Sitting proudly on the Causeway Coastal Route, the 400 year old castle section of the hotel is the only 17th century building still used as a residence in Northern Ireland today. This ancient castle with modern facilities, good food, friendly staff, sea views and a resident ghost, Ballygally Castle makes a cosy base for exploring the north coast. The beach is just across the road! The hotel is 40 minutes from Belfast and close to the start of the glorious Antrim Coast Road, which leads to the Giant’s Causeway. Here it's mentioned in this YouTube video from The Luxury Travel Show from 2018:
A spiral staircase leads you up the tower to the Ghost Room. The story goes that after James Shaw built the castle in 1625, he was so enraged when his wife Isabella gave birth to a girl rather than a son and heir that he locked her in this room to starve to death. Distraught, she flung herself from the window to her death, and guests have reported seeing her ghost appear and disappear in their rooms, leaving a smell of musty vanilla. Some guests have apparently seen or felt her presence – she’s very friendly apparently!
I have to say neither Peggy nor I were disturbed in any way by the ghost of poor Isabella......but a funny thing happened the first night we were there. Two elderly sisters from our tour group had one of the tower rooms and finding it difficult to sleep because of the floodlights then at the front of the hotel, one of them came down the stairs from the tower in her billowing nightie and white hair to ask the young night porter if he could switch off the floodlights….and frightened the living daylights out of the lad…as he thought she was Lady Isabella coming to get him 😂
Myself & Peggy before dinner (above) - Ballygally Castle - 1994
Regional Food & Drink
Ghosts aside….we all had a tasty evening meal in the Garden Restaurant in the hotel which is a lofty space with light oak floor, ivory walls with old Northern Ireland tourism posters and an oak-beamed ceiling. The hotel prides itself on sourcing food locally. Afterwards we joined in a sing-song in the hotel’s dungeon bar which was great fun.
After a good night’s sleep, uninterrupted by Lady Isabella, we made our way in the morning again to the Garden Restaurant. From the breakfast menu we both chose the Ulster Fry. Substantial portions mean that, unlike Isabella, you’re in no danger of starving to death. Breakfast is a comprehensive hot and cold buffet of locally sourced ingredients, with that nice local touch: Bushmills whiskey and cream to liven up the porridge. Just don’t drink the whole bottle. 😊
The Giant's Causeway
After breakfast, we all boarded the coach for our trip to the amazing Giant's Causeway. Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The causeway is an almost seamless hexagon rock formation stacked side by side like pieces of a puzzle. It looks Magical!
There are 40,000 basalt columns interlocked like perfectly shaped hexagons making the mighty causeway. The hexagon rock formations were a result of 50 to 60 million years old volcanic activity. Most of the columns are hexagonal, although there are also some with four, five, seven or eight sides. The tallest rocks are about 12 meters high. The solidified lava in the cliffs is 28 meters thick in places. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea.
The legend of Giant’s Causeway
Wonder and legend has surrounded the creation of the Giant’s Causeway. According to legend this was built by Finn McCool. Finn was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant named Benandonner.
Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. When Finn sees Benandonner, he realises that his foe is much bigger than he is. He hides. His wife Oonagh, disguises Finn as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the size of the 'baby', he reckons that its father, Finn, must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn would be unable to chase him down.
Giant's Causeway - Notable Features
The Giant's Causeway has some interestingly shaped structures. Some resemble objects such as A Giant's Boot, reddish weathered columns known as Giant’s Eyes, Shepherd's Steps, the Honeycomb; the Giant's Harp; the Chimney Stacks; the Giant's Gate and the Camel's Hump.
Giant's Causeway Wildlife
You can see some seabirds, such as fulmar, petrel, redshank, guillemot and razorbill. The rock formations have plants including sea spleenwort, hare's-foot trefoil, vernal squill, sea fescue and frog orchid. Elder duck, rock pipits and wagtails can also be sighted.
We had a lovely time walking down to, and exploring, the Causeway and although the day was overcast, the rain held off.
Glens of Antrim
The following day we set off to explore the Glens of Antrim, known simply as The Glens in Northern Ireland. The Antrim Glens are located (not surprisingly) in County Antrim 😂. Leaving Ballygally Castle heading north, we reached the fishing village of Carnlough. (In recent years it has gained popularity since it was featured in HBO’s hit-series Game of Thrones as Braavos in Season 6!) We took some photos there of the red post-boxes and-phone-boxes. At that time, post-boxes and phone-boxes in the Republic were always green….so this was a bit of a novelty. Also, the road signs in the North are in miles while shown in kilometres in the South. And of course the currency in the North is Sterling while in 1994 we used the Irish Pound (Punt) in the South (the latter changing to the Euro from 1 Jan 1999).
Further along the coast, we traveled through Cushendall and then Cushendun. The latter has been a landing place and ferry point between Scotland and Ireland since settlements began about 9,000 years ago. Long a conservation area, its proximity to Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre shows how strongly these two places were once connected.
The volcanoes that formed N. Ireland’s mountains are now long-extinct and worn down but the most famous Slemish Mountain (Slieve Mish) can be spotted from many places along the Causeway Coast. Slemish is an old volcano and the first known Irish home of Saint Patrick. It rises about 1500 feet (437 metres) above the surrounding plain, and it is actually the central core of an extinct volcano.
An interactive map is available online here and if you go to the website you can click on each of the locations and see the history and areas of interest.
The names of the 9 Glens of Antrim, translated from Irish, helps shed some light on their original meaning:
Where do the Glens of Antrim begin?
The Nine Glens of Antrim run from Larne in County Antrim on the east coast almost a direct run to Ballymena. I was delighted to see the sign for the latter as during the late 1970s the CBD school in my hometown of Carrick-on-Suir was twinned with Ballymena but I had never been.
From Larne the rugged cliffs of the east of Ireland stretch towards the north for over 80 miles – these cliffs are broken only by the nine deep glens of Antrim. Riddled with stories, legends, ghosts, castles and the remains of churches and graveyards the Glens encompass a vast range of incredible scenery, diverse wildlife and bird habitats and beauty beyond anything you have ever seen before.
Each of the Glens has a name and a history as you can read a bit about here:
This Glen is named for a Princess. Taisie was the daughter of the King of Rathlin Island – King Dorm. Glentaisie is around 8 km long and is the farthest north of all the nine glens. It can be found on the way to Ballycastle on the western side of the Knocklayd Mountains.
Glendun holds many secrets including “The Altar in the Wood which is hidden in Gregagh Wood. This altar is a rock carved with a crucifixion scene and it dates to the 16th century when the penal laws forced Catholics to attend mass in secret. Glendun is a deeply peaceful place with the largest area of woodland in Northern Ireland.
Courtesy of Laverty Aerial check out their youtube channel for more great photos
Glenshesk opens out to the sea near Ballycastle with superb views of Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre, which can be spotted on clear days. Glenshesk is a wild and untamed area. Just outside Ballycastle lies the ruin of Bunamargy Friary, which is famous for its “Black Nun”. The nun wished to be buried at the entranceway of the chapel so that “she might be trodden under the feet of all who entered”. Her grave is marked by a round holed cross the only one of its kind in Ireland.
Glencorp means the “glen of the dead” or “glen of the bodies”. More than likely because of the history of early Christian farmsteads and raths that were often attacked and only the bodies remained. There is a mound called the “Fort” in Fainaglass but it has now been identified as a Bronze Age barrow burial mound that dates from 2500 to 500BC.
In Glenaan there are many remains of wallsteads (ruined walls of an old house) and the abandoned village of Knockban, which was deserted in the 19th century. There is no farming left in the area although peat is still cut by hand for the fires, the self-sufficiency of the past is long gone. This glen is also the site of Ossian’s Grave. The grave is a double-chambered horned cairn. Legend has it that Ossian (Oisín) was a great poet and warrior who was the son of Finn, the leader of the Fianna.
This Glen’s name simply means the “glen of Eamon”. It is often called the heart of the Glens this deep, wide glen sweeps down towards the village of Cushendall. Due to its preponderance of beautiful waterfalls in the Glen Cushendall was one of the first places in Ireland to have electricity generated by the rushing waters. The Glen flows down the slopes of the Trostan Mountain, which is the highest mountain in County Antrim, between Lurigethan and Tievebulliagh. There is a promontory fort on the summit of Lurigethan that is enclosed by a series of ditches and banks. There is also a famous Stone Age Flint Factory where many fine examples of axe-heads have been uncovered.
The “Glen of the Army” is the most southerly of the glens and has at its end the town of Glenarm. Glenarm is also home to the estate of the Earl of Antrim. This area is home to the MacDonnells since the 1600s. The body of Shane O’Neill (from the Battle at Glentaisie) is said to rest here, but it is without his head which legend has it was sent to Dublin Castle to be displayed on a pike. Glenarm Castle, dating from around 1750 with early 19th century alterations (Restored around 1825) lies near the village and the Antrim estate extends up the Glen for about four miles on both sides of the river. Near the castle can be traced to the remains of the old church Templeoughter, the upper church.
Glencloy is shaped like a sword. The glen sweeps out to the Irish Sea at Carnlough and is surrounded by white chalk quarries with the distinctive landmark of the White Arch over the coast road near the harbour area. Excavations nearby have discovered that the area has been occupied from around 4000BC.
This is a perfect u-shaped valley with ladder farms, spectacular waterfalls, and peat stained rivers and streams. The glen runs down to the sea at the tiny village of Waterfoot. The Glenarrif Forest park has some jaw-dropping view across to the Scottish coast. You can also see some spectacular views to the ruin of Red Bay Castle which was destroyed by Cromwell in 1652.
Our tour of the Glens ended back at Ballygally Castle where we had time to freshen up before dinner. Afterwards we again went to the dungeon bar. We caught up with the Kerry women we had befriended in the group to whom Peggy sent Christmas cards afterwards.
The following day we were bussed back to Belfast for the train down to Dublin. Although our trip to Antrim was short, the memory of it stays with me all these years. We had had a great time with great people in stunning surroundings. It was also the first of many trips I took with Peggy who passed away in 2014, twenty years later. I had many more precious holiday moments and laughs with her.
As for “the North”, if you haven’t been, I would wholeheartedly recommend. We never once saw any trouble. The average tourist will never see police or army in tourist areas. We felt completely safe at all times. I’ve been back a number of times since. If you are looking for something akin to a staycation during this continued Covid-19, the Glens of Antrim fits the bill. GO, EXPLORE, ENJOY!!
Bucket List Items Ticked Off in the above Blog post
Number 34 - Eat/ Drink Regional Foods/ Drinks - Ulster Fry in Ulster
Number 57 - Travel - 7 Continents - Europe
Number 58 - Travel - 80 Countries - Northern Ireland, United Kingdom
Number 59 - Travel - 80 Hotels
Other Blog Posts
Blog 11 - Sydney, Australia
Blog 12 - Hong Kong, China
Blog 17 - Beijing, Xi'an & Shanghai, China
Blog 19 - California, USA
Blog 27 - Scotland
Blog 28 - Barbados
Blog 29 - Canada
Blog 30 - Alaska
Blog 31 - Everglades, Florida
Have you been to the Northern Ireland? Tell me about your experience in the comments section below.
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My name is Mary and this is my bucket list blog ...having survived a near-death experience. I hope it encourages you to "live your best life". See how I'm completing my own bucket list items. And let me know how you're getting on with yours!