Sudha Mahalingam journeys to Northern Ireland and finds a bygone era still alive.
Travelling in Northern Ireland can have a strange effect on your mind. Else why would this Victorian country-house in an isolated, wind-swept, rain-lashed corner of the Atlantic coast sport an Indian flag atop its roof? I examine the flag closely. Surely it represents some unimaginative sporting club that has copied our national colours and design. But it is indeed our very own tricolour, resplendent and proudly aflutter. A closer scrutiny of the building that hosts it reveals that it is Bush Mills Inn, a quaint hotel-cum-restaurant in an even quainter corner of Northern Ireland. You could knock me over with a feather. And then I spy them, a bus-load of Indian tourists. They have brought the most business to this tucked away inn this day and the flag is in their honour. Knock me over again, with the same feather. Haven’t we Indians arrived, well and truly?
So has Northern Ireland, into a period of peace and prosperity after years of conflict and turmoil. Having remained inaccessible, and hence concealed, from prying tourist eyes all these decades, the country with its stunning countryside and lively towns has emerged to bedazzle and bewitch. That enterprising Indians have made a beeline for this beautiful country is not surprising. Relatively inexpensive compared to other continental destinations, eminently accessible, yet exotic enough to excite and enthuse, Northern Ireland can hold its own alongside the very best that Europe has to offer.
Ulster, the once-beleaguered province of Northern Ireland is at the epicentre of all attractions. I am on my way to Belfast from Londonderry, a historic town on the river Foyle. I ditch the straight and short macadam to indulge in a leisurely cruise along the seductive coastal route that meanders over cliffs and canyons on one side and emerald slopes speckled with sheep and cattle on the other. Londonderry which used to be the stronghold of the provisional IRA-led liberation movement and has seen many a bombing, today wears a completely different look. It has donned its best festive robes to welcome an impressive line-up of 14 Clipper ferries that have been racing around the world. Its high street is abuzz with designer labels and trendy cafes, its marina lined with luxury yachts and florists, its concert halls and parks ring out with crooners and guitarists.
Tale of long ago
The Causeway Coastal Route winding along the Antrim coast begins at the Ulster American Folk Park which recounts the traumatic tale of emigration of Irish from their rustic but notoriously fickle agrarian countryside to the promised prosperity of the American shores, a journey that took several weeks in those days, in exclusive emigrant ships that matched the horror of slave-ships from Africa.
The Irish have been emigrating all through their recorded history: when potato famine struck in 1845, when Protestant persecution heckled and harassed the part-Pagan, part-Catholic native Celts, and recently, when a seemingly ferocious Celtic economic tiger suddenly turned into a whimpering cat. The Folk Park literally walks you through Ireland’s past. Its shop windows sport merchandise of a bygone era, its markets are a throwback to nostalgic pre-war Britain, its cottages thatched with reed and rattan, reminiscent of an innocent pre-chrome era. No doubt some recent exhibits will be added to it soon, in the wake of the recent wave of emigration.
By the time I am through with the Folk Park, the drizzle has let up and shafts of sunlight have managed to pierce the dark clouds to light up the countryside in alluring special effects. To my left is the Atlantic, playing hide and seek through scree and rock with occasional sandy beaches flashing brilliantly through the foliage. The ocean is no longer sullen, but reluctantly reveals its magical hues and eventually allows a brilliant rainbow to erupt. You will be forgiven for going in search of that pot of gold, as leprechauns flutter around. After all, it is Ireland. The landscape is as magical as the legend and anything is possible.
In fact, in Northern Ireland, it is difficult to separate facts from fantasy. Do fairies roam the glens of Antrim coast and congregate in a procession every year? Does the tree at Dungiven Priory bandaged with a zillion prayer rags actually heal warts? Will woe betide anyone who dares to cut down a Hawthorne tree? Is there a vanishing lake en route to Ballycastle? In this land, myth and magic combine to create a miraculous miasma that is quintessentially Irish, yet not unfamiliar to us Indians.
The Mourne Mountains through which the drive takes me is full of trekkers exploring the Granite trail in search of Neolithic remains this region abounds in. Their colourful backpacks and tents offer a fetching contrast to the severe grey of the rocks.
The architectural splendour of London and Liverpool owe not a little to the granite hewn out of these mountains. The peat in the boglands gives that unique flavour to Irish Whiskey, especially the single malt variety. In fact, Bush Mills brewery boasts that whiskey went from Ireland to Scotland, and that the latter are actually usurpers of the Geographical Indications tag, a privilege that should rightfully belong to the Irish.
The showpiece of the coastal drive of course, is the Giant’s Causeway. If you think that like all causeways, this one also connects to another land, perish the thought. Sculpted by the elements and polished by the sea, a huge pile of massive and gigantic cylindrical, hexagonal and octagonal columns rise several meters into the sky — in some places in clusters, in others, stacked in a row like giant pipes of an organ. Thrown up by volcanic explosion millennia ago, the sea has polished the rocks to a sheen. Naturally many legends abound, all with a giant as the protagonist and hence the name. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Giant’s Causeway is a natural wonder and Northern Ireland’s pride.
Next I make my way to Carrick-a-Rede, a ropeway bridge slung across two vertical cliffs. The bridge has been fortified and made secure for tourist benefit, but in a bygone era, it was an improvised contraption, jugaad, Irish style, if you will, to access a fishing island. The cliffs are home to colonies of colourful puffins and noisy sea gulls. As you walk across, the bridge sways ever so gently, and I am reminded of a much more dangerous rope bridge slung across the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh, crossed daily by hundreds of villagers for whom it is the sole access to markets in the nearby town.
The starkness of the coastal drive in Northern Ireland is its star attraction. Completely devoid of tourist traps, dotted with idyllic villages bearing tongue-twister names, and peopled by a hearty and genuinely friendly race that destiny forgot from time to time, Northern Ireland’s coast is truly clear — literally and metaphorically. It remains an unspoilt corner of our planet, the hordes of Indian tourists descending on it notwithstanding.
HOW TO GET THERE
One can fly to Belfast via London (British Airways + Aer Lingus). It is an hour’s drive to Londonderry. The coastal drive begins an hour away from Derry and takes about five hours to reach Belfast along the coast if you don’t stop anywhere. But one might want to do a leisurely all-day drive.