Northerly and raw, a land of big lore

By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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GLENARM, Northern Ireland — I attained enlightenment in County Antrim. Not the lights-flashing, God-appearing, hallelujah kind, but a subtle, restorative, all’s-right-with-the-world kind. It hit me not while clambering over the Giant’s Causeway, or swigging a dram of whiskey at Bushmills, or white-knuckling my way across the tightrope known as the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. I found it in forested glens, along cascading waterfalls, on windswept headlands and a remote island.

Not that I came here looking for renewal. I came, with my husband and father, to tool along the highways and byways of this country in the United Kingdom, to explore the castles and ruins, and soak up the Irish “craic,’’ or good times, along with a pint of Smitty’s or Guinness. Sure, I had a list of must-sees, but as soon as I arrived in the Glens of Antrim, I tossed it aside to let serendipity rule.

Legend and lore permeate the Glens, glacier-sculpted valleys of woodlands and grasslands, peat bogs and beaches, cliff-edged mountains and rock-bound headlands that stretch along 50 miles of the county’s coastline. Wee fairy folk are said to reside in woodland caves and coastal crags. Rural byways are peppered with ancient ruins and historic sites. Listen closely, and it’s almost possible to imagine hearing long-ago battles amid the bleating of sheep and bellowing of cows.

Tea drew me to Glenarm Castle, one of Northern Ireland’s oldest estates. It’s been home to the McDonnell family, earls of Antrim, since the 17th century. The castle isn’t open to the public, but the tearoom and the walled garden are. We detoured off the main road for tea and scones but could not resist exploring the garden, which dates to the 18th century. The bright colors of blossoming spring bulbs and fruit trees appeared as if fairy folk had engaged in a paintball match.

Continuing north, the scenic Antrim Coast Road squeezes through the Red Arch, a landmark tunnel through a headland cut in 1817, before arriving in Glenariff, queen of the Glens. It would be hard to imagine a finer place to absorb the surrounding beauty than Dieskirt Farm Bed-and-Breakfast, James and Ann McHenry’s working sheep farm. It sits high in the glen, with glimpses of the distant sea over sheep-manicured lawns dotted with spring lambs and a corralled horse and donkey.

Out the B&B’s back door, Glenariff Forest Park beckoned. The Glenariff and Inver rivers tumble through dense, century-old oak, ash, willow, and hazel trees in this waterfall-rich woodland. Light filtered through the canopy, dancing off the rushing waters and illuminating pools as I moseyed along. Trails edge the flows, crossing bridges over gurgling stepped falls and passing though mossy-walled gorges, where plunging cascades mist the air with the damp, strangely life-affirming scent of winter decay blended with spring renewal.

In the nearby glens, byways loop through tranquil farmlands, occasionally revealing dramatic sights such as the Glendun Viaduct, a 19th-century engineering masterpiece over the River Dun, and historic ones, such as Ossian’s tomb, a megalithic court cairn reputed to be the final resting place of the Celtic warrior poet.

While the glens whisper their appeal, the coast shouts, with sights that demand attention, such as the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Originally used by salmon fishermen to get to their nets, the rope-and-slat bridge spans a 66-foot-wide, 75-foot-deep chasm separating Carrick Island from the mainland. Crossing the bridge is not for the faint of heart or those fearful of heights, but even so, there is nearly always a line, in part because almost everyone stops midway across for photos. Since no one regulates the one-way flow, you can wait a while before the tide of human foot traffic reverses. Touristy, yes, but still worthwhile, even if one does not cross it but merely takes time to view it from afar.

I wish I could be equally enthusiastic about the Giant’s Causeway. Every guidebook, brochure, and magazine highlighting the region says you must see it. The name is appropriate, given that this causeway of polygonal basalt columns truly appears as if placed for a giant to happen along and climb up and out of the frigid blue seas that lap aggressively at columns bases. Legend has it that Irish giant Finn McCool built it so he could walk across the sea to battle Scottish giant Benandonnier.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site maintained by the National Trust, the Giant’s Causeway is being loved to death. Maybe years ago, before the hype and the tour buses, before the visitors center and the endless parking lots, this was a marvel to stumble upon. We found it extremely crowded, and the only thing that broke through the commercial chatter was spying a lone bagpiper playing out on a point. I suspect that had we visited first thing in the morning or had the time to hike the two-mile Runkerry Head trail, we might have had a better experience.

We could have drowned the experience in Bushmills, which has been distilling whiskey for more than 400 years. Instead, we opted to drink in the views from Dunluce Castle, a spectacularly romantic ruin topping a cliff just west of town. Although there is evidence that the castle dates to the 14th century, the existing drawbridge-accessed ruins are late medieval and 17th-century constructions. No matter, this castle is a stunner that becomes all the more impressive when walking around inside and realizing its immensity.

My penchant for going off the beaten track meant we had to visit Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland’s most northerly outpost. Rathlin is best known as the site of the country’s biggest seabird colony, with a center maintained by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Getting to it requires ferrying six miles across the Sea of Moyle from the market town of Ballycastle. The Puffin Bus meets the ferry, carrying those who don’t have the time or inclination to walk the four miles to the center, based at an upside-down lighthouse on the island’s western tip. The one-lane road snakes over the nearly barren island, soaring to heights with head-swiveling views, descending to valleys, and eventually arriving at a lofty headland, from which a marked path zigzagged down toward the lighthouse, before giving way to 89 steps to the viewing deck.

Bird cries fill the air, as tens of thousands of seabirds — fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins, and razorbill — flit, fish, and nest around the cliffs and stacks. As we departed, I promised myself I would return, book a room at the Manor House, an 18th-century Georgian-style inn on the harbor, and spend a few days hiking the trails. I wanted to immerse myself in this wild and remote paradise that had given me a lightened sense of renewal as clear and pure as the ocean-cleansed air.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at

If You Go

Northern Ireland (with England, Scotland, and Wales, part of the United Kingdom) uses British sterling (GBP) as its currency.
General information at www.dis
Where to stay
Dieskirt Farm
A small bed-and-breakfast on a working sheep farm. About $45-$57 per person, with full Irish breakfast.
The Manor House
The inn overlooks the Sea of Moyle from the ferry landing on Rathlin Island. Rooms $57-$106.
The Bushmills Inn
A cozy historic inn dating to 1608; $258-$339.
What to do
Glenarm Castle Walled Garden
Admission $9. A tearoom serves lunch and light fare.
Glenariff Forest Park
Known for its waterfalls. $7 per car.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Admission $9.
Giant’s Causeway
Admission $10.
Dunluce Castle
Admission $3.
Rathlin Island
Free but donations encouraged; a must for birders.
Rathlin-Ballycastle ferry
Adult round trip $18.