Starting mileage: 18757 km
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 22:00
It’s very difficult to find out anything about tourist attractions in NI beforehand; even as the ferry berthed at the Albert Quay, I had only a very vague idea of what to expect. I knew there was a cluster of sights in northern Antrim, along the Causeway Road, and that the loughs and glens were the country’s most spectacular natural feature, but beyond that, my mind drew blank.
Discovering Northern Ireland was like following a trail of breadcrumbs. At the Six Mile Water campsite we picked up a few leaflets about Lough Neagh and its immediate vicinity, and that was our start.
We were in Antrim, and there was one important thing to see in the town: the Antrim Round Tower. Round Towers are the minarets of old Ireland, and perhaps its most characteristic buildings – tall, pencil-shaped turrets, serving both as lookouts against any invaders and bell-towers (although not as we imagine it today: in the old days, bells were small, shaped like cowbells, and held in hands of a monk at the top of the tower). The one in Antrim is one of the best preserved, and stands in a small park, surrounded by trees; it and the Witch Stone nearby are all that’s left of the monastery that gave the town of Antrim its name. The Witch Stone, or Bullaun, is a big post-glacial boulder with a hollow on top: the hollow is said to be always “mysteriously” and “miraculously” filled with water – although as many before us pointed out, it would have been a lot more miraculous if it stayed dry in Ireland’s famous weather (the owner of the Six Mile Water campsite on hearing we’re from London told us ‘at least the weather is better there’ which was definitely a first).
One thing I knew about Neagh was that, like Monty Python’s hovercraft, it’s full of eels – but I could find no mention of any fishmongers or smokeries, which was a great disappointment. We knew of an eel fishery in Toome, and that was where we headed, but it being Sunday – and perhaps even the wrong season for that sort if thing – the fishery was closed, and the eel weir abandoned and empty. Not that it wasn’t a curious sight even so – a line of great eel traps, each with its own heron perched on top; Lough Neagh is Europe’s largest wild eel fishery, and it exports its produce worldwide: the eels here come all the way from the Sargasso Sea to breed.
We continued our mini tour around the Lough, following the leaflet, towards a small village of Ardboe, where one of the finest Celtic Crosses stands in the middle of a very active Catholic cemetery; Catholic cemeteries of Ireland are half-way between Poland and Mexico when it comes to tackiness and kitsch, and are a fairly disturbing sight to the unprepared eyes.
The next thing on our agenda was the Peatlands Park, and we were going to finish the circumnavigation of the Lough and go back towards the east coast, but something we discovered in a leaflet found at the park changed our plans dramatically – and our entire understanding of what there actually was to see and do in Northern Ireland. But first, the Park itself: a large recreation area created on a large peat bog. A bog is a typically Irish landscape, so much so that the English word comes from Gaelic bogach; most bogs are under national protection these days, and it’s easy to see why as soon as you step into one: there is an abundance of lifeforms on the bog comparable to a rainforest, dozens of plant species, butterflies, arachnids, birds all share the moist, fertile peat. It is the best habitat to see the insect-eating plants, orchids, heaths and ferns. In the Peatlands Park you can also see how peat was cut, and if you’re very adventurous, try bog snorkelling, which sounds like an awesome sport.
At the park’s visitor centre we picked up more leaflets, including one that drew my attention immediately: Emain Macha!
I had known about Emain Macha before but had completely forgotten about it, and either way I did not think it was on this side of the border – having not seen any indication whatsoever to its presence. It turned out that not only was it nearby, tonight there was going to be a Lunasa festival there, combined with burning of the Wicker Man.
We sped there immediately, past St Patrick’s mighty and terribly ugly cathedral in Armagh; the entry price to the festival and the fort was mere £6, including parking; the burning of the Wicker Man was scheduled at 9 pm, so we had plenty of time to explore the mound and the fine visitor centre, which includes an Iron Age village where reconstructionists performed various Iron Age crafts such as blacksmithing, baking bread or making currachs – tiny Irish boats made of wicker and animal hide.
It was in this visitor centre that we discovered a small book with a long title: Guide Book to the Historic Monuments of Northern Ireland in State Care. It contained 190 ancient and medieval sites, most of which was completely unknown to us, and it was this book that was to guide us for the rest of our journey around the Six Counties.
Emain Macha is a place where Ireland’s best known cycle of legends takes place: the Ulster Cycle. It is here that King Conor ruled all of Ulster, with his warriors plagued by the curse of goddess Macha which rendered them as weak as a woman giving birth; it is here that Queen Maev led warriors from all four provinces of Ireland in the great Cattle Ride of Cúailnge, and where the great hero Cú Chulainn lived and fought off the invasion. As the guide told us, this is Ireland’s Camelot – except it’s real and we all can climb to its top.
In reality, the great hill was a Iron Age ritual site – and a mighty one at that; at the top of the mound were found remains of the greatest wooden building in Iron Age Europe, dated to 95 BC, an enormous roofed enclosure covering a stone cairn, which was burned down to the ground in some strange rite. Before that, there was a Bronze Age site on the mountain, and there are traces of activity going back to Neolithic; all around the hill there are remains of other, even older sites – sacrificial ponds, burial chambers, etc. Certainly, Emain Macha was a site of great importance for several thousands of years, and a perfect location for heroic legends to take place. Even St Patrick came here, to build his cathedral before being told off by the local chieftain. This hill was too holy even for the likes of him, and he had to contend himself with nearby hill of Armagh.
The festivities began at 8 pm with a brilliant performance of a medieval mummers’ play by the Armagh Rhymers – of which unfortunately we understood very little due to heavy accents and animal masks worn by performers muffling the voices – finished off with a medley of Irish classics, including Molly Mallone and Boys of Armagh.
The Rhymers led us out of the visitors centre on a parade towards the Wicker Man. Along the way each of us received a wish ribbon: it is a Lunasa tradition to hang wish ribbons on a tree, a tradition which must be as old as mankind itself, considering the same ritual is performed at roughly the same time of year in China and Japan, during Tanabata feast.
The culmination of the festival was the march of heroes: characters from the Ulster Cycle marched before us, including a particularly feisty Cú Chulainn, a terrifying three-in-one Morrigan, and King Conor with his warriors, all accompanied by tattooed fire dancers; but the eyes of all gathered were drawn to the special guests of the evening: the Wolfhounds.
The size of a foal, beautifully proportioned, a gentle and friendly giant, but fierce in a fight when roused, the Irish Wolfhound is without a shadow of doubt the most magnificent of all races, ancient and even mentioned in legends and sagas – and it’s always a treat to see one up-close; but this day there was half a dozen of them, brought by Irish Wolfhound Society of Ireland to play the part of the Hounds of Ulster (which is what the name Cú Chulainn really means), and their majestic presence was definitely the highlight of the day.
With the straw Wicker Man burnt to the cinders at the end of the festival, we drove past Armagh towards the campsite.
The day of surprises continued; it turned out that not all campsites in NI are miserable commercial touring parks. Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry runs a few camping sites in its forests, and they are some of the best sites we’ve stayed at during our entire trip. Beautifully situated, with facilities better than most commercial camps, fairly cheap (£15-£18), big and spacious, the forest parks are highly recommended. The Gosford Forest Park, set in a deep wood just to the south of Armagh is no exception.