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Counties of Ireland - Antrim
While my father was from Galway and was very prejudiced against Protestants from the North, he didn't allow his political leanings to interfere with his love of certain ballads about northern counties and their breath-taking landscapes. He had a wonderful voice and I loved to hear him sing The Green Glens of Antrim... "Far across yonder blue lies a true fairy land,with the sea rippling over the shingle and sand, where the gay honeysuckle is luring the bee and the green glens of Antrim are calling to me..."
The word Antrim means solitary farm which may stem from the fact that at one time the county's nine glens were isolated from each other. In 1834, 28 miles of coastal road were blasted out from the chalky cliffs. Soon after, when the road was opened all the way to Ballycastle, all nine glens suddenly became accessible and the farmers could get to market because the road passes by the foot of each glen.
The road also takes you by by one of the most amazing geographical formations in the world - the Giant's Causeway. This mass of some 40,000 basalt columns descending from the headlands into the sea has been Northern Ireland's most popular attraction for at least 300 years.
Thackeray wrote: 'When the world was moulded and fashioned out of formless chaos, this must have been the bit (left) over - a remnant of chaos." He was very impressed by the strangeness of the place and, as with other sophisticated travelers of his time, had read that the Causeway is a geological freak, caused by volcanic eruptions, and cooling lava.
Ah, but the ancients knew differently: clearly this was the work of giants - especially one in particular. Finn McCool was an Ulster warrior who commanded the king of Ireland's armies. It was said that he could pick thorns out of his heels while running and was capable of amazing feats of strength. Once, during a fight with a Scottish giant, he scooped up a huge clod of earth and flung it at his fleeing rival. The clod fell into the sea and turned into the Isle of Man. The hole it left filled up with water and became Lough Neagh. As the legend goes, he fell in love with a lady giant on Staffa, an island in the Hebrides, and built the Causeway in order to bring her across to Ulster.
The first historical accounts of the Causeway started appearing in the late 17th century. Before the famous coast road was built in the 1830s visitors complained about the ruggedness of the trip. But there was one compelling compensation that made the journey a might bit easier: the town where visitors made their last stop before the final push to the Causeway was Bushmills. Ever since 1608, weary travelers had been revived with magnums of the King's whiskey at the world's oldest (legal) distillery, which is still in business. Today, you won't get a magnum, but you'll certainly be offered a wee drop after the tour!
Steeped in myth and legend and inhabited by giants, ghosts and banshees wailing through the sea mist, Antrim has the most dramatic coastline in the British Isles - a veritable textbook illustrating the geological story of the earth. The ancient rocks stick out as brightly colored cliffs along the edge of the plateau. There are red sandstones, white chalk, black basalt and blue clava. And if that isn't enough to satiate the eyes and the senses, just a short distance inland await the nine awesome glens...
Each of the nine valleys has a character of its own. Together, they form a remarkable realm of rivers, waterfalls and wild flowers. However, 150 years ago, the remoteness of the Glens was daunting. Rushing rivers bisected the land from west to east and the inland track from Cushendun to Ballycastle crossed Loughareerma, 'the vanishing lake'. One day it is empty, the next day it is full. It was not unheard of for unsuspecting coach horses to gallop right into this watery grave, taking the passengers with them.
In general, the people who live in the glens are the descendants of both the ancient Irish and their cousins, the Hebridean Scots from across the narrow Sea of Moyle. The names of the glens, from south to north, are: Glenarm, Glencloy, Glenariff, Glenballyeamon, Glenaan, Glencorp, Glendun, Glenshesk and Glentaisie. Their meanings are not known for certain but the popular translations are: glen of the army, glen of the hedges, ploughman's glen, Edwardstown glen, glen of the rush lights, glen of the slaughter, brown glen, sedgy glen, and Taisie's glen. In legend, Taisie was a princess of Rathlin Island.
Glens folk are great storytellers. They will tell you that the main haunts of the fairies are Lurigethan Mountain and Tiveragh Hill. Mischievous creatures at the best of times, the fairies are said to take devastating revenge on anyone rash enough to cut down a fairy thorn.
While the glens themselves are precious gems in the crown of Antrim, the most precious one of of all must surely belong to Glenariff, the largest of the nine. Here, a series of waterfalls plunges down through a gorge traversed by a path crossing rustic bridges. One cascade is called 'tears of the mountain' and another, the tallest waterfall in the area, is named Altnagowna or Grey Mare's Tail. Looking back at this spectacular sight, it's easy to understand why Glenariff is also known as the 'Queen of the Glens" and why Thackeray described the area as a 'Switzerland in miniature'.
Because the glens were so isolated, most of Antrim's earliest inhabitants settled along the coast. The first Christians and the Vikings were drawn to this north-eastern corner of Ulster and an early Irish fort once stood here. Each of the coastal villages has a distinctive character. The castle at Glenarm is the home of the Earls of Antrim, and Carnlough has a famous inn which was once owned by Winston Churchill. The red curfew tower in the middle of Cushendall was built in 1809 as 'a place of confinement for idlers and rioters', and the National Trust village of Cushendun has pretty Cornish-style cottages and a beautiful beach.
Along the coast road, you'll pass by bays, sandy beaches, harbors and strange rock formations; you'll go under bridges and through arches, and, as the route turns Ulster's top right-hand corner, the green crescent of Murlough Bay will come into sight. This is right before the road climbs to the eerie tableland of Fair Head - Ireland's top-most point on the map. Rising 600 feet above the sea, it's said that on a clear day you can see Scotland.
While Antrim can rightfully boast of her natural wonders, when it comes to her man-made treasures, the county had to await the coming of those master-builders, the Normans. They had a habit of consolidating their victories by building castles, and they knew a good site when they saw one.
The town of Carrickfergus was thriving when Belfast was just a sandbank. It was here, on the shores of Belfast Lough, that Norman John DeCourcy built Carrickfergus Castle in 1180. Henry II was on the throne of England and with his blessing, DeCourcy overthrew the kings of northern Ireland. He established his rule from Carlingford Lough up the east coast as far as Fair Head. In the early 17th century, Carrickfergus was the only place in the north where English was spoken; Gaelic was still the language of Ulster.
The haunting ruins of Dunluce castle, just east of Portrush, date to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Shane's Castle was the family seat of the O'Neills of Clandeboy. It overlooks Lough Neagh and is reputed to be one of the most beautiful estates in Ireland. While most of the castle was destroyed by fire in 1816, it still possesses a prominent profile and the grounds are rich with wildlife which includes a nature reserve, herds of deer and rare breeds of cattle.
There are many other castles and keeps to see, including Dunseverick which is nestled on a large rock overlooking the ocean about seven miles west of Ballycastle. Saint Patrick is reputedly said to have visited here and it was home at various times to the MacQuillans and MacDonnells. It has witnessed several major battles and it was considered so important that the ancient fifth road from Tara ends here.
While the entire county is contained in just over a thousand square miles, there is much to explore and enjoy beyond Antrim's natural beauty and medieval ruins. If you're in Ballycastle at the end of August, that's when the Oul' Lammas Fair takes place. Some say that the fair started out as a sheep market, others that it originated when Sorley Boy MacDonnell ordered a celebration for his nephew. Either way, it's grown to become the biggest annual event in the county and is most famous for it's 'Dulse' - edible seaweed that has been collected from local shores and dried out, and 'Yellow Man' - a yellow candy similar in texture to toffee and taste of honeycomb.
Antrim is also the birthplace of US presidential ancestors and a New Zealand prime minister. The Andrew Jackson Centre is named after Andrew Jackson, 7th president of the USA and hero of the Battle of New Orleans, whose parents emigrated from Carrickfergus in 1765. The centre is a thatched cottage resembling the Jackson home, and is based close to the original residential site. It houses displays related to the life and career of Andrew Jackson as well as the extensive and long standing connections between Northern Ireland and America.
The Arthur Ancestral Home in Cullybackey is associated with the family of Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President of the USA. His father emigrated to America from Dreen in 1815. The cottage has been restored to reflect the living conditions of the period.
The Balance House in Glenary is the birthplace of the New Zealand Prime Minister John Ballance. He was born during 1839 in this, now restored, farmhouse and emigrated to New Zealand where he held the Prime Minister's office during 1891-1893; he is recognized to be the architect of the welfare state. There are exhibitions, audio-visual shows and a library providing different types of information such as the impact Irish immigrants had on New Zealand, pioneer life and Maori culture.
Yet another famous person made his home in Antrim - Guglielmo Marconi. In May 1898, Marconi along with his assistant Kemp, resided at what is now commonly known as Marconi's cottage which lies within walking distance of Ballycastle seafront. The house was used to carry out radio transmission experiments to and from Rathlin Island. Unfortunately, due to the lack of initiative on the part of the local council, the cottage was purchased privately and is now somebody's home.
The linen industry played a large role in the economy of Antrim and details of its development can be seen at the Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn; the Centre is part of the Lisburn Museum and is located inside the former market house where brown linen was sold. It traces the history of the industry through exhibitions and audio-visual shows and there are also live demonstrations of the old linen weaving process using hand looms.
One other natural wonder should be included here: Rathlin Island is situated six miles off the Antrim coast and it offers spectacular cliff top walkways, caves and an opportunity to view one of Europe's most important bird sanctuaries. Species include kittiwakes, razorbills, puffins and guillemots.
So that completes this brief armchair tour of Antrim and perhaps you are wondering why we haven't mentioned Belfast. Truth is, while we know that it offers all of the amenities of a large European city, our preference is to stay out in the country. For us, that's the real Ireland. However, if you'd like to learn more about Belfast and Ulster environs in general, we highly recommend that you visit Go to Belfast.
Called whin in the north and gorse in the east, furze was once a symbol of wealth and fertility of land as is emphasized by the saying: "gold under furze, silver under rushes and famine under heather."
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March 4, 2011
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