Northern Treasures: A Taste of Ulster
Here, in our continuing Irish Holidays series, we'll visit some of the towns, castles, and churches, then glimpse the turbulent past in this province known by some as Ulster, by others as the Six Counties.
Driving is a pleasure on well-maintained roads and motorways. Even minor roads are signposted, and there are frequent laybys for rests, caravaning, or picnicking. Don't be daunted by fickle weather; that's what keeps the country its gorgeous shade of emerald green. Showers eventually drift away, and what remains are skies of crystal blue and the cleanest air on earth. Travelers can see most of the attractions in a week's time, and with no more than five hundred miles of driving. Here are some favorites.
Belfast is ringed by high hills, a sea lough, and a river valley. Elaborate sculptures adorn many Victorian and Edwardian building doors and windows in this city of half a million people. Stone-carved heads of gods and goddesses, poets, and scientists peer down from bank buildings and old linen warehouses. In contrast, much of the city center has been modernized, allowing pedestrian traffic where cars once dominated. Benches are located conveniently for observing the city's views or for listening to the street musicians.
The main shopping area is dominated by the 1903 Classical Renaissance styled City Hall with a statue of Queen Victoria at the front. In the years following her 1849 visit, many streets, a park, and a hospital, the deep water channel, and a university were named after her. A half mile away, the Tudor cloister and mellow brickwork of Queens University grace the city skyline. Designed by Charles Lanyon and completed in 1849, the university is but one of many city buildings by Lanyon.
A fine opera house, botanic gardens, and the Ulster Museum are more of the Belfast sights. Southern Belfast is home to many moderately priced restaurants, pubs, and accommodations. Check out the hand-cut crystal in the covered arcades, visit an art gallery, or stop at St. Anne's Cathedral. The Duke of York offers a fine musical pub evening. Nearby visit Cave Hill for a grand view of Belfast. A tour of the Belfast Port and harbor will take you past the wharf where the Titanic was built (the gothic Albert Memorial Clock Tower looks down upon the Harland and Wolff shipyard), and in the Lagan Valley Regional Park, one can walk along towpaths past canal locks and lock-houses.
Openings/closings, contact numbers:
A few miles distant, stands the massive castle of Carrickfergus, built in 1180 to guard the approach to Belfast Lough. The Norman, John de Courcy, overthrew the kings of the north of Ireland and established his rule from Carlingford Lough before building the castle keep.
Carrickfergus Castle - open 10am to 6pm Mon-Sat, 2-6pm Sun. Medieval banquets and a medieval fair held in the castle during summer. (028) 9335 1273.
Derry, set on a hill on the banks of the Foyle estuary, has a long, tumultuous story of nearly one thousand years of siege. Founded as a monastery in the oak grove by the sixth century monk St. Columb, the spot was known as Doire. Today, one may walk around the unbroken eighteen-foot thick seventeenth-century walls which have withstood numerous sieges of the city and see cannon pointing blackened noses over the ramparts.
Four main streets radiate out from the Diamond to four gateways--Bishop's gate, Ferryquay Gate, Shipquay gate, and Butcher's Gate. Within the city walls are several historic buildings, among them the 1633 Gothic Cathedral of St. Columb, the charterhouse, and the Guildhall. From the quay behind the Guildhall, a flood of emigrants sailed for the New World. Georgian houses line the main thoroughfares within the city walls. More modest houses are found in the narrow side streets. Basement pubs and shops are a feature - in the basement of 8 Shipquay St. one can buy Irish linen, tweeds and woolens.
Tourist Information Centre - 8 Bishop Street. Ask about guided tours of the city walls. (01504) 267284.
Armagh has been the spiritual capital of Ireland for fifteen hundred years, and the seat of both Catholic and Protestant archbishops. St. Patrick called Armagh "my sweet hill" and built his stone church on the hill where the Anglican cathedral now stands.
Many Georgian buildings in Armagh are of the warm-colored local limestone called "Armagh marble." Examples are the archbishop's house and the courthouse.
The present day Anglican cathedral is mostly a nineteenth century restoration around the thirteenth century shell. Brian Boru, who drove the Norsemen out of Ireland, is buried in the churchyard. On the hill opposite stands the twin-spired Catholic cathedral which was begun in 1840.
The popular game of road bowls is played only in Counties Cork and Armagh. A metal bowl, weighing one and three-quarters pound is hurled down curving lanes and roadways in this unusual sport.
Northeast of Armagh is a rich fruit-growing center, famed for its apples. The seventeenth century settlers coming from Worcestershire laid out their orchards in the same manner as those of the Vale of Evesham.
Armagh County Museum - The Mall. One of Ireland's best small museums. Library, art gallery, natural history room. Open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat. 10am-1pm and 2-5pm. (028) 3752 3070.
North Antrim is home of the Giant's Causeway, a mass of basalt columns packed tightly together. The tops form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea. There are forty thousand of these columns, mostly hexagonal, but some with four, five, seven, and eight sides. The tallest are about forty feet high. Until the coast road was developed in the 1830s, the road to the Causeway was rugged and difficult. However, the route passed by Ireland's oldest brewery, Bushmills, and lucky travelers were soon revived.
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge - On A2 5 mi. west of Ballycastle. The bridge spans a chasm 80 ft. above the sea between the mainland and a small island. In position during April-Sept only. Access along cliff path, 15-min. walk from National Trust carpark at Larrybane. (028) 2073 1582.
Dunluce Castle - On A2 3 mi. E of Portrush. Open 10am to 7pm Mon-Sat and 2-6pm Sun April to Sept. (shorter hours in winter). Guidebook available from visitor centre. Film show.
See these delights and more as we return next week and head south to Fermanagh and Tyrone, stopping first to look over the Sperrin Mountains and green glens of Antrim. We'll also cover events, transportation, and accommodations.
Until next time.
Copyright © 1997-2012 Suzanne Barrett and licensors. All rights reserved.