16.01.2017 - 19.01.2017 9 °C
Right, time to explore Ulster… First stop Carrickfergus Castle. We had the place all to ourselves, and got to enjoy the views and play dress ups without any other pesky tourists around to spoil the fun. Oh the joy of Ireland in winter! From there we took the coastal route north, stopping in for a coffee in Ballycastle because sometimes you just need to stop and have a break from all the rolling green hills and sun fading away slowly over the sea…
We arrived in Coleraine (a little different from its Victorian namesake) and then promptly disappeared to Portrush to make it in time for the early bird dinner special. It was absolutely well worth it – one of the best meals we’ve had on the trip, and I imagine Simon will still be raving about those crispy pork tortillas in another six months.
The next morning we set off for The Dark Hedges, famous for being a filming location for Game of Thrones and supposedly a stunning road where the trees form an arch. Sorry Hedges – but you need to lift your game. There was more ambience from the trees that line the driveway at Glenormiston College, and we’ve been down more beautiful roads driving to Adelaide. Points for trying, but I wasn’t much impressed. On the plus side, we did manage to be there on our own, as we arrived just as the Paddy Wagon tour bus left and then we left just as the Finn MacCool tour bus arrived.
Our second stop was much betterer – Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. And I don’t think we have ever been greeted with such enthusiasm and genuine warmth from a parking attendant before! There were all the usual suspects – green hills, blue seas, crashing white waves – plus the slightly unusual opportunity to walk across a rope bridge onto a small island. The bridge had a tendency to wobble somewhat in the middle but was nowhere near as terrifying as they would have you believe. And it was well worth it to be able to stand on the island and spot Scotland hiding in the distance.
Once we’d had our fill of Ireland’s natural beauty, we headed to the Old Bushmills Distillery to sample some of the manmade beauty. We had a tour and a tasting, and then found a café that sold delicious scones that were really more like the love child of a scone and a muffin. Mmm.
We went home via the Europcar depot in Coleraine to get permission to take Spud into the ‘south’, the Republic of Ireland and were struck, yet again, by the sheer and utter friendliness of Irish people. You’d think we’d have become accustomed to it by now.
Dinner was back in Portrush, where we sought to challenge ourselves by trying to choose dessert from the vast array of options on display. Oh it’s a tough life.
On Wednesday we headed to Londonderry aka Derry aka Doire… and arrived perfectly in time for a walking tour with John McNulty, The Most Irish Man Of All Time. He was everything you want from a tour guide – hilarious, knowledgeable, and able to talk while walking backwards. Winning at life. We walked the walls and saw the city from on high, and then saw the city at street level. We saw the murals of The Fountain (‘no surrender’) and of Bogside (‘you are now entering Free Derry’) and we also saw a less political mural advertising a nearby Italian restaurant. Catholic, Protestant, atheist – we’ve all got to eat.
We went to the Museum of Free Derry, and were shown to a room that contained a slideshow on the events and the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. We were amazed to discover that it was an actual, genuine, real live, oldschool slide projector. Fan-bloody-tastic. Stevie T would have been impressed.
We finished our day in Derry at the Guildhall, which had some seriously specky stained glass windows and an interesting exhibit about the “Plantation” of Ulster – and not the tree sort of plantation, but the plantation that involves English and Scottish settlers being planted into Ireland.
Learning for the day done, we drove into the Repulic of Ireland with little more fanfare than a sign advising that speed limits were now in kilometres rather than miles. This may change once Brexit becomes a reality, but for now, we popped across the border with ease and with a distinct lack of customs or passport control. We arrived in Carrigans, checked into our apartment, put a load of washing on and just generally rocked out in a most domestic way.
We missed Northern Ireland so much, that we went straight back again the next day. Bizarrely, we drove south to get back into 'The North'. Back into miles, back into pounds, and off to the Ulster American Folk Park. I hate to harp on, but the people there were stupidly friendly too – the Irish have a wonderful way of asking where you’re from, and then saying “you’re very welcome to <insert place name here>”. It makes you feel like a guest of honour, every single time, even when they fail to pick your Australian accent and ask what part of England you are from. Either people here need to work on their accent-detection skills, or we need to broaden our drawl.
Anyways – the day was spent learning about patterns of Irish emigration, with a particular focus on those who headed across the Atlantic to America. It was a Sovereign-Hill type establishment, with buildings (original and replicas) showing the different living conditions of people from different backgrounds in Ulster and in the New World. Again, the joy of touring in off-season meant that we saw only seven other people the whole time we were there. And no rain to ruin the outdoor experience either! Several days without rain… Ireland may be declaring a state of drought if this continues much longer. We shall be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.