Watch the scudding clouds and the light playing over the emerald fields and silvery loughs, and you'll agree that a wee spot of rain can't detract from the magic of this beautiful place.
By Cathy Eden
Northern Ireland occupies just over 14,000 of the Emerald Isle's 84,430 sq km. This tiny north-east corner is known for the footballer George Best, the golfer Rory McIlroy and the dockyards that produced the ill-fated Titanic. It had the Troubles too, of course – everyone knows about them – but they aren't something to boast about.
'Why would you go there?' puzzled friends asked. ' Isn't it rather grim?'
For three decades preceding a 1998 peace-brokering agreement the answer was yes – very
grim. Northern Ireland came into being in 1921, when six counties were partitioned by Britain, separating them from the 26 counties that would later become the Republic of Ireland. Violence erupted in the late 1960s between unionists (mainly Protestant) who wanted to remain in the UK, and nationalists (mainly Catholic) who favoured a united, independent Ireland. Rumbles of the drawn-out, bitter fight that left thousands dead still echo in some neighbourhoods, and there is a kind of code, almost impossible for an outsider to grasp, that categorises people via name or street address into one camp or the other.
But despite Northern Ireland's ongoing political complexity, it is neither grim nor lacking in
attractions. Its capital, Belfast, may be small – tour guides call it a 'boutique city' – but it is vibrant and interesting. Shady avenues are lined with elegant red brick terraced homes, inviting coffee shops and popular pubs that ooze character. There are the big name stores, educational and cultural facilities found in any other major centre, but the atmosphere is friendly and the pace nothing like frenetic London. Wherever you go, people are quick to engage in conversation. The Irish call it 'craic' an umbrella term for the entertaining, lively interaction that's a national pastime.
As to why I'd go there, well, my neighbours offered me an air ticket to vacate my house so that they could live in it for a month while they renovated theirs. I jumped at the chance to visit my sister and her husband, who live a little way out of the city, in Holywood (pronounced 'Hollywood'), on the shore of Belfast Lough, where deep grey waters slap against a winding coastal footpath that goes all the way to Bangor.
A dinky train with three Noddy-blue carriages offloads commuters right beside the sea. The
sharp breeze whips round you as you hurry to the crossroads. The famous Maypole (said to be the mast of a Dutch ship that ran aground in 1700), dominates the intersection, waiting for the first day in May when dancers holding colourful streamers retrace the steps of a centuries-old tradition.
The High Street is a bustle of small shops and businesses, many occupying historic buildings
that keep the town-scape low rise and intimate. Stately terraced houses march up the hillside, offering grand views of the lough from the white-painted bay windows. From my second-floor bedroom I see familiar oak trees, but while the ones in Cape Town are dumping torrents of dry Autumn leaves, these are flaunting lush Spring finery. And there is rain; not the roof-drumming downpour of a Cape winter, but a steady, silent leaking that goes on for days.
The Emerald Isle wouldn't be emerald without rain, but the weather, it has to be said, counts
against this scenically gorgeous place. Not that the shirt-sleeved locals mind. Smiling through the drizzle, they'll greet you with a guileless, “Lovely day, isn't it?” or, “What a fine, soft day we're having,” which means, “Aren't we lucky it's just a wee shower, with no hailstones?” At first you snarl a bit, coming as you do from a place that has real sunshine, but after a while, once you've given up the expectation of warmth, you see that they are right about the loveliness of the day, regardless of the elements.
Over a third of Northern Ireland's population is concentrated in Belfast's metropolitan area and along the shores of Belfast Lough. That means that the rest of the territory is under-populated, spacious and unspoiled. Ten minutes out of Holywood, County Down is one big meadow. Clouds pile in creamy mounds on the wide horizon, then break free to swoop across the sky like great white birds, their shadows running over the green hills and across the farmland in endless shifting patterns. In a moment they can darken and swell with rain, then just as suddenly part, allowing the sun's rays to intensify the already brilliant green landscape, sparkling on trees and pastures demarcated by neat hedges blooming with golden yellow Springtime gorse.
County Down is known for its small, egg-shaped hills, called drumlins, formed as the great ice sheets withdrew, raking the earth into ripples. The hummocky green bumps seem enchanted, as if each might have a tiny doorway to a faerie home, just out of sight. The hills are dotted with white, woolly sheep, and their lambs, skittering about on pipe-cleaner legs, are sheer picture book charm. We pay close attention to the weather forecast and manage to pick bright, cold days for our outings to the neolithic Legananny dolmen on the slopes of Slieve Croob, and to the Beaghmore stone circles, where I stand on the windswept hilltop in wonder. What rituals were enacted at this ancient ceremonial site? Who laid out these circles and rows of stones aligned to sunrise at the summer solstice, 3000 years ago? This is a land of mystery and myth; of hidden worlds upon worlds.
It's also a land of wonderful names: we drive through Moneynick, Moneymore and several
towns with the prefix 'Bally', meaning 'the place of': Ballywater, Ballynahinch and - my favourite - Ballywhiskin. We visit Norman ruins: Inch Abbey and the slightly better preserved Grey Abbey, where keening crows swarm above the unkempt graveyard. It's so atmospheric you'd swear the sound effects had been scripted. To balance historical overload, we take in a lunchtime classical music concert at the Ulster Hall and visit Ikea: a vast continent that I hike through, overcome with shameful desire for stuff. Thanks to the 20:1 exchange rate, I limit myself to a plastic sock hanger and a one-egg frying pan.
On another day we drive to Strangford Lough, the largest inlet in the British Isles. In
picturesque Portaferry we pop into Dumigan's (one of the smallest pubs in the world) then climb a scaffold of steps inside an 18th century windmill, for a postcard-perfect view of the lough, the greener-than-green countryside and a glimpse of the Isle of Man, across the Irish Sea.
No visit to Northern Ireland is complete without a trip to the Giant's Causeway, on the north Antrim coast. My sister, who is more Irish than the Irish, says it's worth seeing, but not worth going to. I spare her the long trip and take a coach tour instead, leaving from Belfast's famous Europa Hotel. En route there is a stop at the dizzying Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge that spans a foamy gulf. Tourists taking selfies in the middle of the bridge hold up the queue, so when it's my turn I cross with trepidation then hurry back along the cliff path, anxious about missing the bus.
When we reach the Causeway it's swamped with tourists, but they can't detract from the jaw-dropping sight of thousands of hexagonal rock columns, thrusting out of the ground. Volcanic activity is credited with their formation, but the landscape is so alien, so inexplicable, that one has to wonder ... I feel very independent making my way back to Holywood and also very hungry, as a fire drill wrecked our lunchtime stop at Bushmills Distillery. But there's lemon chicken for dinner, served with the most delicious potatoes in the world. Happily, because of all the walking I'm doing, I don't have to hold back.
Before I know it, time has run out. For my last outing I opt for the Titanic experience. I've
passed Samson and Goliath many times – the two massive yellow cranes that are a feature of the Belfast skyline and a reminder of the city's illustrious shipbuilding past. It's all on display in the impressive exhibition centre at the dockyard: interactive screens, a cable car ride, reconstructions and movies that give an account of the building and sinking of the Titanic, in all its fascinating detail. I'm strangely moved by the original job card, a small signboard that reads: Titanic, builder Harland & Wolff Ltd, Yard No 401, Slip No 3, Launched 31 May 1911, launching time 62 seconds. I walk down to that yard where the mammoth liner was built, and contemplate the installation of decking and grass beside it, indicating the numbers who were saved and lost in each class. There is way more grass than decking.
I'm overwhelmed and stricken after my three-hour tour, but a little farewell party at home lifts
my spirits. People always make a trip memorable for me, and I've spent time with my lovely nieces and met many of my sister's friends: colleagues from the bookshop she ran; one neighbour who, inexplicably, is learning Afrikaans; another whose 16-year-old cat, presumed male, has recently discovered to be female … there are laughs and stories and warm invitations to return.
‘I'll be back,’ I promise, ‘just as soon as I've persuaded my neighbours to put on a second
- Published in Fairlady Magazine, November 2015