Northern Ireland is a fascinating mix of the pastoral and the streetwise. From Belfast’s streets one can see beckoning mountains: the rocky landscape that nurtured Ireland’s great legends: Finn MacCool, Cuchulain, Saint Patrick. Then you look around and there are those 1960s terraces you’ve seen on the news, with territory-marking flags hanging from lampposts.
I was in Belfast on the first leg of a musical journey to Donegal and, of course, had to see around the ‘sweet little town’, as Belfast is quaintly called in pub classic ‘The Black Velvet Band’. Here was the National Trust-owned Crown; there was the Rebels Rest in the Falls Road, where prototypic traditional music band the McPeakes sang ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, not a ballad from prehistory but written by Francis McPeake in 1957.
At the Museum of Ulster, I looked at old Le Tene decorative art, the Celtic knot work beloved of hippy tattoos. Then I stepped into a new room dedicated to the Troubles, with themed terrace-end silhouettes, gritty half-tone snaps and agonisingly balanced texts. Indeed, many tourists actively want to see sectarian murals, an industry happily catered for by the city’s cabbies.
My music tour, assisted by local DJ Stuart Bailie, went to Van Morrison’s terraced birthplace, the best lambeg drum-maker in Belfast and the site of the Maritime Hotel, where Them banged out ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ while a gopher turned the lights on and off. Next year, Belfast is opening the £90 million Titanic museum centre, and although some might question a campaign based around a disaster, it is part of the city’s muscular fascination.
The next day, I drove from Belfast’s stews to the northern Antrim coast and passed by those rocks, hills and coves where giants and saints gambolled, enhanced by a steady stream of traditional fiddle music on the CD player and some extremely pretty pit-stops. We passed by the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a vertiginous beauty spot, and that outburst of hexagonal basalt, the Giant’s Causeway. Then I crossed the Foyle estuary on a tramp ferry to the Republic, enjoying the fantastic cradle-to-grave marketing for the Doagh Famine Village: “Specialises in funerals, wakes and matchmaking. In November, is redesigned to become Ireland’s Lapland.”
On the other side of the Foyle, the landscape grew wilder, the roads emptier, with no traffic-calming devices bar the odd sheep and tractor, and one lone female German cyclist who, Zelig-like, seemed to magically crop up everywhere. I drove into the Inishowen peninsula and arrived in Culdaff, a pretty, sleepy town close to a pure, yellow beach. On the strand I watched breakers rushing in, facing a fierce but refreshing north Atlantic wind.
The big attraction in Culdaff is McGrory’s, a venue lined with photographs of luminaries who have played there, including Richie Havens and Arlo Guthrie. Later this year, Tom Paxton joins them.
Neil McGrory, scion of the pub family, was an excellent guide to the wild peninsula and drove me to some of the astonishing array of historic sites: standing stones, high crosses replete with knot work, and early Christian churches, often standing alone in cowpat-strewn meadows. Even the Cloncha monastery was empty – at least until that German cyclist turned up. Mystical contemplation: it’s yours in Donegal. Just pack your cagoule.
I drove north into a misty landscape of peat bogs and mountain ranges, then climbed into the glowering Mamore Gap, a scree-covered mountain pass. Here, at a spring near the summit, a few shrines had been established. St Eigne was flanked by pillars and garlanded with beads and empty cans of lager, and Mary had broken dolls at her feet. As I drank in the scene’s voodoo intensity, the sun burst on the beaches beyond, and I headed to Malin Head, northern-most point of Ireland and famed through the BBC’s soporific shipping forecast. I had cappuccino from the fantastic coffee van and looked around the wild headland, where the legend EIRE remained in huge white letters, so that the Luftwaffe in WWII would know where not to bomb.
At McGrory’s, local chanteuse Kate O’Callaghan sang exquisitely in the front bar. I listened awhile, then went to the pub’s rollicking barn-dance before emerging late the next morning to look at Culdaff’s other sight: a triangular stone in the river called St Boden’s Boat, believed to have magical properties. “There are still some older people in the village who won’t touch it,” said McGrory.
Then I drove back over the (barely present) border to Derry/Londonderry, to meet tour guide Michael Cooper. The double-name is eternally vexed, but the town is on an upwards trajectory, approaching its 2013 accolade as UK City of Culture, tarting up its historic port area and sporting a new Peace Bridge: a handsome span with two interlocking piers that offer a little light symbolism. The bridge runs from the mostly Catholic Cityside area to the Protestant Waterside area, where it culminates in the Ebrington Barracks, for decades a military zone but now pegged for a new era of leisure, bringing people together over art, coffee and cake.
I walked around the 17th-century walls with Michael, viewing the Bogside from one side, with its Republican murals and infamous ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ sign. We walked up the walls to a Protestant area, where another wall bears the sign ‘Londonderry West Bank Loyalists Still Under Seige. No Surrender’.
At the same time, looking from the walls into town revealed a pleasant townscape with the refurbished Playhouse Theatre, coffee shops, pubs and handsome buildings, many under scaffolding as they prepare for Culture year. With art, music and old ships, nothing can stop Northern Ireland’s tourism renaissance.
McKinlay Kidd runs a seven-night Irish Music Trail from £545 per person, including a Belfast music tour and a live concert in Donegal. Call 0844 804 0020 or visit SeeIrelandDifferently