Northern Ireland: Travelling on poetic licence

By Peter Calder

A superb coastal drive is even finer with a scribe aboard, says Peter Calder.

The Giant's Causeway in County Antrim - the result of an ancient volcanic eruption - sets a magical tone for its wild and wind-lashed coast. Photo / britainonview/Martin Brent
The Giant's Causeway in County Antrim - the result of an ancient volcanic eruption - sets a magical tone for its wild and wind-lashed coast. Photo / britainonview/Martin Brent

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but the long and winding road is always better. So when I drove from Belfast to Londonderry - a destination to the north-west - I pointed the rental car northeast.

The wild and wind-lashed coast road around the top of the island is one of the great pleasures of Northern Ireland, not least because it takes you through the fabled nine Glens of Antrim that radiate like the lines on a scallop shell from the uplands to the sea.

It's a road tailor-made for the likes of Ken McElroy, my companion on the drive, because it's a landscape that has inspired so many poets and writers - and he is something of a writer himself.

A play he wrote about a putative meeting between poet Patrick Kavanagh and the famously thirsty playwright Brendan Behan turned into a small but enduring hit. The Rare Oul' Times, in which he plays Kavanagh, has been performed everywhere in the north and south and, when we meet, Ken's just back from a successful season at Munich's Oktoberfest.

So it's no surprise that, when working as a guide, he's given to bursting into verse. We'd enjoyed a pint the evening before in the Crown Liquor Saloon, in Great Victoria St in Belfast, which claims to be the most beautiful bar in the world and certainly does a lot to back up the boast. The handsome surroundings had made a great setting for Ken's anecdotes of Belfast's literary life, but I was soon to discover that the landscape was even better than the liquor at uncorking his mellifluous tones.

We'd barely left Belfast, entering Carrickfergus on the northern side of the narrow bay that Irish like calling a lough, when it started: "Ah, to be back in Carrickfergus on that long road down to the sea," he intoned, before adding that the Irish words of that song are a lot bawdier than the English translation.

A bit later, just after we passed Larne - where the ferry leaves for Stranraer in Scotland - the first of the glens, Glenarm, stretched out to our left and Ken had just the quatrain for the moment from the song The Green Glens of Antrim: "Sure if only you knew how the lamp of the moon / Turns a blue Irish bay to a silver lagoon / You'd imagine the picture of heaven 'twould be / Where the green glens of Antrim are calling to me."

Before long we came to Cushendall, where three glens meet the sea and the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, barely 25km away, loomed through the mist across the Northern Channel. This is a big town for hurling - a hockey-like game in which a hard leather ball is swatted with fearsome power through the air - and a large mural on a house-end celebrates the fact.

They say the sport's 3000 years old, but I suspect it's more modern, designed by orthodontists and maxillo-facial surgeons to drum up business. Certainly it's hard to watch a game without flinching.

But Ken has milder things on his mind. Telling me that Liam Neeson has a holiday home here, he is off again: "'Tis soon I'll return to my own Cushendall / It's the one place for me, that can outshine them all."

Just past Ballycastle, he gets me to pull over and we stare down at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which connects the tiny island of Carrick to the mainland. The weather is closing in and I don't much fancy the long walk down - and, more important, back up - to what is now more than anything a test of one's resistance to vertigo.

The 20m bridge 30m above the water was used by salmon fishermen because the fish, returning to spawn in nearby rivers, would obligingly stream through the gap and into their nets. Perhaps the fish got smarter or they all got caught, but salmon - which appears in smoked form on every Irish menu - is almost all farmed now.

The road ducks and dives past hillsides sparsely sprinkled with white cottages. Progress seems not to have touched much of this coast, so that somehow the ruins of Dunluce Castle near Bushmills seem almost unremarkable.

It has to be one of the world's finest drives - easily the equivalent of the Great Ocean Road, west of Melbourne. And that Guinness beats Australian beer any day.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific.

Further information: For more about visiting Antrim see here.

Peter Calder explored the Antrim Coast courtesy of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and with assistance from Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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