A Northern Ireland Primer: Moors, Mountains and Sea

Murals in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Murals in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Kent E. St. John photos.

By Kent E. St. John

As I swirled the ice cubes in my rocks glass the bartender gave an exaggerated shiver. “Ice gives us the willies, ever since the Titanic,” he said. The Northern Irish have a self-deprecating wit that flies at will.

Understandable when you think of the “troubles,” that period when political and religious differences made living hard and headlines worldwide.

Schoolgirls at the St. Patrick Centre
Schoolgirls at the St. Patrick Centre

It was in 1986 that I first rented a car in Dublin and headed north; it was eye-opening and friends asked why. “Why?” rarely comes up anymore when mixed with Northern Ireland. “Why not?” is far more frequent.

St Patrick’s Center

As I headed from Belfast Airport to the St.Patrick’s Center in County Down with my guide, popular playwright and director Ken McElroy, we talked about his favorite thing about Northern Ireland.

“Northern Ireland is somewhat like a miniature version of the Irish Republic; we have the moors, mountains, and sea. Many of the historical events and famous fables actually took place in Northern Ireland and all in a space that is small,” he explained. I decided to use the next six nights to test his theory, a week with a different experience every day.

St Patrick’s Trail

If St. Patrick was around these days, he most likely would be considered a Northern Irishman, adopted of course. It is in County Down where he spent most of his time. In fact, the Center of Downpatrick’s displays make that quite clear; there is a Protestant and Catholic cathedral in the city and the center really goes out of its way to keep a nonsectarian view.

The multi-media St. Patrick Centre, about forty minutes south of Belfast, is a wonderful beginning to exploring Northern Ireland and its Christian roots. Better yet much of it is in the very words of St. Patrick, it seems he took notes.

Above the center is the gravesite of the patron saint of all Ireland; from this hilltop that the mountains and valleys where he spread the word can be seen. A wonderful place to begin the rambling and start thinking Northern Ireland.

Railroad Baron

We headed to the beachfront town of Newcastle and the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, once a stop for wealthy families traveling via the railroad. The resort today maintains the elegance that drew those who gathered wealth from the huge part Northern Ireland played in the industrial boom.

The waterside setting of the resort and town makes for a great place to lounge and relax. To further that experience I headed to the spa for an amazing detoxing hot seaweed soak.

Several rooms are equipped with the music of your choice and steam showers ending with a huge tub filled with local seaweed and hot saltwater, a glow guaranteed.

As any wealthy railroad baron worth his purse would do, I settled into the resort’s Oak Room for a meal worthy of a king. The dark-paneled room with candlelight matched perfectly with the local rack of lamb and the final assortment of organic local cheeses set off with a vintage port — the first of many fantastic meals the North would offer.

Newcastle is a typical seacoast resort town; the Slieve Mountains in the background take it up quite a few notches.

The Black Cab tour of Belfast
The Black Cab tour of Belfast

Fore You

If anything is more revered than great whiskey in Northern Ireland, it is the fine art of swinging a club and a perfect stroke. In a place where Tiger’s deeds are a back note, a Nick Faldo designed course is big news, especially when right out of the gates it is talked about as the best in the UK.

Even better is that it is the first in all Ireland, north or south. The Lough Erne Golf Resort is in that enviable position. Playing on one of its two championship courses with the wonderful lake surroundings and Castle Hume is a pleasure no golfer should miss.

The 120 rooms and suites live up to the course, nicely laid out with every need known to man available; in fact, though a holy sin, golf isn’t necessary for a visit.

The Thai massage in the wonderful spa mixed with exploring Enniskillen and the Fermanagh countryside is reason enough for any sane soul. Or as simply put by Rory McIlroy, the Erne’s touring pro, “a great place to play and a great place to stay.”

Mr. President

An ironworker at the Ulster Folk Museum
An ironworker at the Ulster Folk Museum

A quarter of all US Presidents have descendants in Northern Ireland, Bill Clinton and Teddy Roosevelt to name two. I usually don’t like contrived or built-up parks, but I confess I found the Ulster Folk Museum quite a delight.

Different buildings and settings of original items show the history of Ulster’s good times and bad, famine, or feast. The farmhouse of the Mellon Family was of particular interest, the Mellon’s move to the US proved a good one as they built up a huge banking fortune.

The impact of the Northern Irish on American history is large and powerful. The famine boat in the park shows that the trip wasn’t an easy one. That thought stayed on my mind as I headed to Londonderry, perhaps the best place to get a feel for Northern Ireland’s recent troubled times.

Londonderry or Derry

I’ve been to Northern Ireland several times over the years, but have not been back to Londonderry since 1986; in those days British troops patrolled the streets and things were in disarray. While Belfast captured most of the headlines in those days, it was Derry that really was the cauldron. Not surprising considering the Great Siege of 1688.

Children in Derry
Children in Derry

The Catholic King James held the town captive, and it was saved only by the quick action of the Apprentice Day Boys, still greatly celebrated by Protestants today.

Today the murals of the Bogside, seen below the walls that encircle the heart of Derry, are more reminders than political statements.

Today the place retains a bit harder edge than the rest of Northern Ireland but in a way that draws interest. A perfect night in Derry would be an amazing meal at Browns Restaurant, perhaps my best meal in Northern Ireland followed by some pints and some music at Peader O’Donnell’s Pub.

Your feet will be moving and a good time had by all. Whatever you call it, Londonderry or Derry, this city should not be missed!

Bushmills Boogie

A rainy day and it was off to a hat trick stop on my week-long ramble, a historic inn, a whiskey distillery, and the natural beauty of the Giant’s Causeway. Take 40,000 hexagonal basalt stones and place beneath cliffs 300 feet high and throw in a pounding sea with Scotland in the distance for good measure.

Giant's Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway

If you could it would be as popular as this World Heritage site! Some say Finn Mac Cool built it to get to Scotland to take on his rival Benandonner. I did hear though in a very distinct Scottish voice that it was just the opposite, Finn ran. No matter you will be captivated.

Since the 13th century, Bushmills Distillery has been making magic, Irish Whiskey, the water of life. A tour is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon, the tasting that much more so… Besides the Bushmills Inn is right down the street and a most pleasant place to cozy up.

This old coaching inn has all the modern needs and yet keeps its traditional feel. Hidden nooks and fireplaces gladden the heart and a meal fills the soul. I personally could spend a whole week just taking in the local sea views and sipping the magic water!

Belfast over the Blues

Belfast was once the world hub of just about everything relating to science, industry, and fine living. In the seventies and eighties, the Troubles caught the world’s attention and people stayed away. Now it is a city that is vibrant and alive though the Shankhill and Falls districts do get many tours of the once-troubled hot spots.

The Titanic Center under construction
The Titanic Center under construction

A fine way to spend time in the city is to walk the pedestrian center and shop or dine. The Opera House and Ulster Museum stand out in a city that seems to breed standouts, Van Morrison, Liam Neeson, and Kenneth Branagh are all natives. That could well explain the fine theater scene the city offers.

Belfast also offers one of the finest hotel standouts, the Merchant, a five-star wonder, and the idea of a local. This one-time bank has rooms to love and a bar that excels in color and flavor.

The Spa is decadent and the rooftop gym with Jacuzzi is a knockout. Its location in the Cathedral Quarter makes walking to any attraction easy.

Europeans have started flocking to this city so the nightlife has hopped up and kept pace. The Titanic Center opened its doors to great fanfare and crowds a few years back–though truth be told, Belfast already offers anything a visitor could want. It’s the perfect place to begin or end your next visit, with many direct flights from the U.S.

Further Information

This article is just a primer to Northern Ireland. To plan your own visit to a piece of heaven go to discovernorthernireland.com. The site has info enough to keep you happy in every way on your visit.

The hotels visited on my own ramble to Northern Ireland were all wonderful and different, something for everyone, from coaching Inn to fantastic gold resorts Northern Ireland has just what you want and at all price levels:

The Merchant

The Slieve Donard

Bushmills Inn

Lough Erne Golf Resort

Giant’s Causeway

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