‘May the luck of the Irish be with you’ were the words spoken to me by the lady at the entrance to the Carrick-a-Rede. The Carrick-a-Rede near Ballintoy, is a rope bridge joining the mainland of county Antrim to the island of Carrickarede in Northern Ireland. It was September and the weather was slowly changing for the worse. The wind was fierce and the rough waters of the Atlantic ocean crashed against the exposed cliffs. It had rained a while back; the half a mile walk to the rope bridge was coarse and slippery.
Ireland is rightly known as the Emerald Isle. Soft green grass covers the sheer majestic cliffs that continue for miles and miles into the sea. The greenish-blue waters of the ocean stretches as far as Iceland to the north and Barra island to the north-east. The rain had momentarily stopped; a pale yellow sun peeped in from behind the puffy grey clouds, infusing life and vigour to my drenched surroundings.
I was reminded of the words of Helge Torvund, a Norwegian poet:
Over the clean stones by the sea
I came jumping today
I meant to ask the sea about something
that’s troubling me.
The sea listened
and I forgot the question.
After the passing of rain clouds comes the promise of a rainbow. A tall and arching rainbow rose from the azure blue waters of the ocean. The spectacular display of colours illuminated the sombre surroundings; it was a much needed assurance for the rest of my expedition.
The Carrick-a-Rede is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. The dangling rope bridge is 20 metres in length and was used by fishermen in the olden times for salmon fishing. Located 30 metres above sea level, the wind-swept bridge is not for the faint-hearted. The words of the lady rang in my ear as I crossed the bridge amidst a steady blast of wind and water.
In Northern Ireland, one cannot be more than 30 miles away from the sea. The country is known for some of the prettiest fishing villages and famous breweries. The drive through the empty roads is very satisfying and pleasing to the eye. On the way to the Giant Causeway, I crossed a few lighthouses, a couple of clustered settlements and the spectacular Dunluce castle. The Dunluce castle is believed to be the inspiration for C.S Lewis’ Cair Paravel – a fictional castle, home to the kings and queens of Narnia.
The Giant Causeway in Bushmills, is one of the primary attractions of Northern Ireland. UNESCO has given it a world heritage site status and much of the area is owned by the National Trust. Cool wind blew from the sea making my walk to the main site very enjoyable. The surroundings were welcoming; it was an oasis of virgin nature, unspoilt, untamed and untouched by man.
Owing to the bright and clear weather, the place was packed with visitors. The Giant Causeway is famous for its natural hexagonal rock structures placed on top of one another, forming giant basaltic columns. This strange phenomenon is the result of a volcanic eruption that took place over 60 million years ago. The cooling and shrinking of lava at different rates has given way to these remarkable geological structures.
Deeply rooted in myths and traditions, the Giant Causeway is also believed to be a bridge built by the Irish giant Finn MacCool in order to challenge the Scottish Giant, Benandonner, in a battle of strength and power. According to legend, victory fell on Finn MacCool after his wife deceived Benandonner into thinking that her son was Finn. Scared out of his wits, Benandonner left Ireland, destroying the bridge in the process. What remains of the Giant Causeway are the shattered debris of the bridge, destroyed by Benandonner, on his flight from Ireland to Scotland.
County Antrim is rich in exotic plants and wildlife. The Shamrock, a three leaved clover twig, is the heart and soul of Ireland. It was first used by Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, to symbolise the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In Ballymoney, the Stuart family had planted over 150 beech trees on the sides of the road leading to their estate. Today, the area is known as the Dark Hedges. In the harsh winters, the dense growth of trees block the feeble sun; an absolute darkness devours the road and its surroundings.
The best way of getting around Northern Ireland is by hiring a car. My itinerary can be summed up in the Google map given below. The most cost effective way to travel would be to start from Belfast and drive to the Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-Rede, Giant Causeway, Dunluce Castle and back to Belfast. Local tour operators such as the Paddywagon tour charges €30 per person for a day trip to the above mentioned places.
In Northern Ireland, I was staying at Belfast, the capital city. Located in County Antrim, the lively and vibrant city of Belfast is brimming with its rich and historic past. Picturesque markets, squares and cathedrals are found in every nook and corner of the city. The Belfast cathedral, built in the Romanesque style, has a fantastic collection of artefacts including the Cathedral cross, science pillar and the Titanic Pall. The Albert Memorial Clock tower in Queen’s square is a famous landmark of Belfast. The City Hall has a prized collection of stained glass windows, depicting events from World Wars, Spanish Civil war, Celtic legends and other matters of interest.
The Titanic Belfast is a museum situated on the banks of River Lagan. In 2016, it was voted as the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction by the World Travel Awards. By the end of the nineteenth century, Belfast had become an important site for shipbuilding. The RMS Titanic was built in Belfast by the Harland and Wolff shipbuilders. It was the largest ship ever to set sail on the seas. It started its voyage in 1912 and was bound towards New York.
In the Titanic Belfast museum (priced at £18.50 per person), one can travel back in time and learn more about the construction of the Titanic. Over 15,000 men were hired over a period of two years and two months to build the ship. Original letters, tickets and model cabins are housed inside the museum. I sat though a brilliant documentary showing the many different objects that were found on the ocean floor after the ship met its tragic fate on April 14. A cable car experience educates the visitors on the complex procedures of ship building. The museum was truly a unique experience; it answered many of my questions, erasing various misconceptions I had had from the 1997 movie, Titanic.
Very few people are unaware of the disaster that struck the Titanic and its passengers. At 11:40 p.m, it struck an iceberg and sank into the bottom of the sea. Walking through the galleries that documented the sinking of the ship, I felt as if I was a part of the panic, the anguish and the holocaust that overtook those onboard. The museum had successfully recreated the harrowing experiences of the last few moments on the ship. Morse coded messages calling for help were sent out to the nearest shipyards. As the ship sank more and more, the frequency of these messages increased. At 2:10 am, the messages stopped coming and all was silent. The whole world grieved the death of 1,503 people who had died in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
Steeped in history and stunning landscapes, Northern Ireland caters to the likes and interests of all kinds of visitors. Ever since I had read The Lion and the Cross: A Novel of Saint Patrick and Ancient Ireland, I knew I had to visit Ireland and see things with my own eyes. The luck of the Irish was on my side. To me, the country will always be an embodiment of all things divine and untainted, its glacial valleys and Norman castles – a fulfilment of another one of my many dreams.
Some useful tips:
- The weather in the U.K is unpredictable. Please carry appropriate rain gear and sturdy boots.
- The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge should not be attempted by people who are suffering from Vertigo.
- Most of the tour operators halt at the Dunluce castle only for a photo-stop.
- It is worth your time to visit St. Patrick’s museum in Downpatrick, County Down.
- Look out for the Northern Lights at County Antrim’s coastline!
- Game of Thrones fans might recognise the Dark Hedges as one of the shooting locations.