The Land of Castles, Legends &
ow lucky can one travel writer be? I'll tell you how lucky. I was the
only American journalist invited on a recent press trip to Northern
Ireland. The select group of writers flew in from all over the world
including, India, South Africa, Sweden, Holland,
and Germany. This opportunity was especially exciting since I
had already been to the Republic
of Ireland on three previous press trips, covering most of the
southeast and southwest. Exploring Belfast, and the surrounding
towns, was a new experience that I was very much looking forward to.
As a result of the people, places, and historic sites
we visited, there is vast amount of material to be shared, so much so,
that my coverage will be divided into three parts, and will include
fascinating visits with royals living both in Northern Ireland
and in the Republic of Ireland.
Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and part
of the United Kingdom. Its currency is British Pound Sterling, unlike
the southern Republic of Ireland whose currency is the Euro. Courtesy
My lovely Irish experience actually began at
the Belfast Airport. I didn't have the proper amount of British
Pound Sterling for a luggage cart. This kind Irish woman,
who kindly guided me in the right direction to fetch my luggage, reached
into her purse and put a coin in the slot, releasing a baggage cart.
Her friendly gesture is typical of the wonderful warmth of the Irish
Carrickfergus Castle is an ancient fortress that
served as an air raid shelter during World War II. Courtesy
The theme of this particular press trip was "Houses,
Castles & Ruins," so the first visit on our packed itinerary
was to the 800-year old Carrickfergus Castle. It is a Norman
fortress located north of Belfast, in the town of Carrickfergus
in County Antrim. Its position, overlooking Belfast Lough,*
made it easy to defend itself from invading armies from Scotland,
England, Ireland, and France. The castle played
an important military role during World War I. Although the stronghold
was finally decommissioned in 1928, it served as an air raid
shelter during World War II, and remains one of the best-preserved
medieval structures in Ireland.
During medieval times, many banquets were held in the
castle's Viking Hall. The etiquette customs were somewhat different
from the etiquette customs of today. For example, you were expected
to bring your own cutlery, which would be an eating knife and a spoon.
However, most of the food was eaten using hands. It was considered polite
to cut each other's food, which was served in long trenchers, which
was scooped out by hand, with bread used to absorb any liquids. If your
host offered you a knife, it was a mark of great respect. At one point,
everyone shared a goblet, so it was considered good manners to wipe
your mouth before drinking from the communal goblet. I have not been
able to verify this, but our guide told us that if you needed to wipe
food off your mouth, you simply leaned over to the person sitting next
to you and used his sleeve. Banquet guests were seated in order of their
rank, with the lowest at the far end of the table.
Remember, according to medieval
tradition, Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot probably bathed once
year, whether they needed it or not. Courtesy photo.
For those of us who sighed at the relationship between
Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, I hate to dispel that
romantic image, but please bear in mind that both the church and the
king frowned upon bathing. It was believed that a bath was dangerous
and immoral, leading to sin and debauchery. One royal, Lady Anne,
defied that tradition and actually bathed four times a year each
at the start of a new season. Life expectancy? Age 40.
Bathroom habits were not much more civilized than the
dining habits. A hole was cut into the concrete for the king to sit
upon. The excrement simply slid down the side of the castle eventually
creating, well, a lot of brown streaks. It is thought that Queen
Victoria actually introduced the idea of chamber pots, known as
piss pots, which certainly beat sitting on a cement hole. Well, enough
said on that subject.
The Malmaison Hotel, a four-star boutique luxury
hotel centrally located in Belfast. Courtesy photo.
Our lodgings for the next few nights would be at the
Malmaison Hotel, a four-star boutique luxury hotel centrally
located in Belfast on Victoria Street. Formerly a Victorian
warehouse, the hotel is a short walk to the Victoria Square Shopping
Mall, as well as restaurants and coffee shops. The staff was cordial,
the rooms were small, but clean, and the bathroom had a few essential
toiletries. My only criticism is the low lighting. It was so dark that
I needed to use my cell phone flashlight to find things in the closet.
Putting on makeup was nearly impossible as there was not enough light
anywhere in the room or the bathroom to actually see what you were doing.
It would be helpful if management could "shine a light" on
After a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed, we
were off and running to explore the Causeway Coastal Route, one
of the world's top five road trips. Passing charming little coastal
villages, including the stunning Nine Glens of Antrim, the Causeway
is a 120-mile scenic route beginning in Belfast Lough
and ending at Lough Foyle. As we drove along to our next destination,
which was to be a visit to Glenarm Castle and its Walled Garden,
our eyes feasted upon on a profusion of beautiful daffodils and yellow
and orange wildflowers that dotted the roadside.
Glenarm Castle is the home of Viscount and Viscountess
Dunluce and their children (the McDonnells.) Courtesy
A dramatic entrance to the beautifully landscaped
Glenarm Castle gardens.
Photo: Beverly Cohn.
One of the oldest castles in Ireland, and only
40 minutes from Belfast, and a mere 18 miles from
Scotland, the Jacobean-style mansion is quite imposing.
It was home to the Earls of Antrim for over 400 years.
Glenarm Castle is the home of Viscount and Viscountess
Dunluce (the McDonnells) and their children. Prior to living
in Glenarm, their ancestors lived at Dunluce Castle, which
was set afire so that a robbery could take place. The current castle
is filled with Irish furniture and the walls are covered with
portraits of family members going back to the 17th century. Its
major business is the Glenarm Organic Salmon Ltd., the only Atlantic
salmon farm in the Irish Sea, and a major source of the world's
finest organic salmon. Cattle and ewes are also raised organically.
They are fed clover and grass resulting in organic Beef Shorthorn,
said to be superior to the famous Kobe beef. The farm's beef
and lamb have won several prestigious awards and is served in outstanding
restaurants throughout Ireland, including the Merchant Hotel's,
The Great Room, which I'll tell you about a bit later.
|A most delightful head gardener, Andrew
Morrow, with a glint in his eye, and the subtle Irish
humor, shared his wonderful story, very similar to the story of
Sabrina Fair. Like Sabrina, his dad worked
as a chauffeur for 50 years, so he, too, grew up on the estate.
When the head gardener passed away, Lady Antrim asked him
to take over his duties. He was quite surprised and said: "I
can't even take care of myself." But he was trained and is
now in total charge of the sprawling gardens. He took us on a guided
tour of the magnificent grounds, explaining that the walled garden
supplied the castle with fresh fruits and vegetables throughout
the year. It's kind of a non sequitur but somewhere along our walk,
he mentioned that the first shoes worn in Ireland were on
the feet of Spanish soldiers. His love and passion for gardening
was quite apparent. At the end of our horticultural experience,
Andrew said, "Gardening is in the DNA of the Irish."
Like "Sabrina Fair," head gardener,
is the son of a chauffeur and grew up on the estate.
Photo: Beverly Cohn.
Andrew Morrow guided us through the exquisitely
furnished rooms, pointing out a particular painting that has been in
the family for generations. Photo: Beverly Cohn.
Following the garden adventure, Andrew then took
us on an exclusive tour of the house, which is only open occasionally
to the public. He told an interesting story about a "weigh chair."
It seems that guests were weighed before they entered the dining room,
their poundage measured in stones. The very same guests were weighed
on their way out to make sure they didn't steal any of the silverware.
I suppose there was no accounting for the amount of food consumed at
dinner, which may have inched up the weight a stone or two.
Straight out of Downton Abbey, George
the butler regaled us with stories about the family that he faithfully
serves. Photo: Beverly Cohn.
Footwear of the Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce
and their children who stay in the castle three months a year. Photo:
Next, we were treated to tea, which was served by a
cheerful, very efficient George the butler, who shared stories
about the family. It seems that the family stays only three months a
year, as it revolves around the school year for their two children
Alex nine and Helena seven. The children love gardening
and every morning get fresh eggs from the chickens. Not an egg carton
A delicious Gourmet Grocer Platter was served at
the beautiful French Rooms restaurant located in Bushmills, once a thriving
Photo: Beverly Cohn.
Fortified with tea and treats, we were off to have lunch
in the beautiful French Rooms located in the iconic Bushmills,
once a thriving linen-producing center. It should be noted that by the
end of the 19th century, Belfast was the linen capital
of the world. Its dominance ended during the "troubles" that
started in the 60s and has never recovered.
And now back to our lunch. We were treated to a Gourmet
Grocer Platter with food from local Irish artisans and specialty
French produce. The exquisitely presented platter consisted of
a cup of Joycelyn soup, tomato-based French onion soup
topped with a cheesy crouton; oak smoked Donegal salmon with
lemon and caper berries; Cooleeney hand-made Irish cream
cheese; cured meat selection from Aveyron, France; Love
Olive, an exotic mix from Glenavy; Kookycook pesto
from Portrush; and sourdough baguette slices with unsalted Ballyrashane
butter. Let's just say a delicious time was had by all, and then we
were off again, this time to experience the Giant's Causeway.
It is estimated that this extraordinary natural
wonder was formed 60 million years ago. Photo:
Thousands and thousands of rocks cover the ground
as far as the eye can see, some of them settling in the water. Photo:
As a result of volcanic eruptions about 60 million
years ago, 40,000 interlocking columns were formed. Courtesy
The Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland's
iconic World Heritage Site, is a fascinating geological phenomenon.
It is estimated to have formed about 60 million years ago as
a result of volcanic eruptions, followed by lava cooling to form a hard
rock called basalt. 40,000 interlocking columns were created,
some of which appear to have certain shapes such as a giant boot, a
harp, or a camel. Locals believe there is magic in these rocks and that
if you stand on them, you will definitely feel something. Try it and
see if you feel a tingle in your feet.
The Giant's Causeway is also steeped in legend
linked to Irish giant Finn MacCool, who it is said
wanted to do battle with Benandonner, a rival giant in Scotland.
The story tells of Finn building huge stepping stones across
the sea so that the Scottish giant could cross to Ireland
and do battle with him. However, when Finn saw the enormous size
of the giant, he ran home to his wife and asked her to disguise him
as her baby. When Benandonner saw this huge "baby,"
he feared that the father would be too big to defeat and went on his
merry way back to Scotland. So, using deception, Finn MacCool
emerged victorious, and the legend lives on to this day.
We wandered through the ruins; our imaginations
painting pictures of what must have been the former splendor of Dunluce
Castle. Photo: Beverly Cohn.
After this awesome experience, we were off to take a
quick look at the remains of Dunluce Castle, some of which are
thought to date back to the 1200s AD. Perched on a steep cliff
overlooking the sea, this medieval castle is on the Antrim coast,
quite close to the Giant's Causeway and like almost all of the
castles, saw its share of battles. It is believed that the castle got
the attention of the Vikings who invaded Ireland, as well
as other settlements across Europe and Asia from the 8th
to 11th centuries. We wandered through the ruins; our imaginations
painting pictures of what might have been the castle's former splendor.
Thus ended another fabulous day of visiting Northern
Ireland's ancient sites. The "dessert" was a scrumptious
dinner at Deanes Meat Locker Brassierie, where we enjoyed delicious,
exquisitely prepared food and excellent wine. Incidentally, contrary
to popular belief, corned beef and cabbage is not the national Irish
dish and is only eaten occasionally, with very few Irish people
eating it on St. Patrick's Day. So, the polite thing to do is
to order something off the menu and have corned beef and cabbage on
St. Patrick's Day in America.
A peek at some of the royals youll read about
in Part 2 of my Ireland adventure. Courtesy photo.
Stay tuned for Part 2, which will take you
to two more unique castles, one of which is the official residence of
Queen Elizabeth II in Northern Ireland, and a historic
gathering place for heads of states from all over the world.
*National Trust: The National Trust
is a UK conservation charity that protects historic places, such
as castles, houses, gardens, mills, farmland, islands, nature preserves,
etc. They hold leases on about 5,000 properties with they rent
out at a reduced price with the understanding that the tenant makes
the property available to the public on a regular basis.
*Irish for lake.
34-38 Victoria Street
Belfast BT1 3H
Northern Ireland, BT44 0AL
The French Rooms,
45 Main Street
County Antrim, Northern Ireland, BT57 8QA
+44 28 2073 0033
60 Causeway Road
Co. Antrim, BT57 8SU
Tel: 028 2073 1855
Meat Locker Brassiere
28-40 Howard Street,
Belfast BT1 6PF,
Mystical, Delightful, Enchanting Part 1/Part
to the Emerald Isle; Faces
of Ireland; Aran
of Smiling Irish Eyes; County
Cork, Ireland: Remembering the Famine