Portrush, the Antrim Coast and Belfast
01.11.2007 - 14.11.2007 48 °F
We drove into the resort town of Portrush on the Antrim Coast the 8th of November, arriving from the south out of Coleraine. It’s not a big town, taking up a small peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic, but somehow I had managed to confuse myself while navigating the streets in search of our lodgings for the night. The Beulah Guest House is in a great location with off street parking, sitting right across the street from the Springhill Pub and Don Giovanni’s Italian restaurant – of which both we tried (Keep in mind that, while in North Ireland, the currency changes from the Euro to the Sterling – British pounds – and no attractions are covered by the Heritage Card). The Italian was a little sub-par from what I’m used to, to which I just chalked up to British cooking – meaning it was a bit bland (no offense). The pub, however, was pretty fun. When we got there it was a little dead, but before too long the place was hopping with college students from near-by Coleraine. Trad music was on the bill for that night too as a fife, harp and two fiddles commandeered a table and played for a few hours.
The following morning after breakfast, we were in the car and headed out for yet another day of sight seeing. Heading east on the A2 for a few short miles we stopped off at Dunluce Castle. This beautiful ruin sits on a rocky perch overlooking the North Atlantic and is accessed by an arch bridge that spans a 30-foot gap separating the castle from the mainland. Dunluce was originally built sometime in the 1200s with extensive additions coming in the 14th and 15th centuries – the most notable of which were funded by the salvaging of treasures from a Spanish warship that sank just off the coast in 1588. But the most dramatic change to the castle came in 1639 when the cliff under the kitchen gave way and it crumbled into the ocean, taking the cooks and servants with it.
Admission to the castle was only L2 (U.K.), about $4U.S. and includes entrance into a museum type room that showcases a scale model of Dunluce in it’s hey-day. As precariously as this thing sits on the rocks, virtually every square foot of the castle was accessible – even the towers – with safety railings put up to prevent anyone from taking an accidental plunge. We spent a good hour or so here before taking off further up the coast, just as three bus loads of students were arriving.
A couple of miles up road, east of Dunluce, is the little town of Bushmills, home to the World’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery. We didn’t stop here mainly because it would be too tempting to partake in a tasting, and since I was driving… well, that just wouldn’t be a good idea, so on we kept until we came to Giant’s Causeway.
Giant’s Causeway is a must see. It’s a geological wonder caused by volcanic eruptions and then the abrupt cooling of the rock, but the best reason for its formation is the legend of the Ulster Warrior, Finn MacCool. It’ll cost you 5lbs to park but beyond that, access is free and it’s about a half-mile hike from the visitor’s center down to the causeway. If you don’t feel like walking, there is a shuttle that’ll take you down and back for 90p.
If you’re not renting a car, Portrush is served well by trains out of Belfast with a connection in Coleraine. Out of Portrush, if you’re going to the sights mentioned here, you can travel by Ulsterbus. The Translink website is a little confusing at first. Just scroll down to where it says JourneyPlanner on the left side of the Ulsterbus page and click on Journey Maps. You’ll have to zoom in to get the bus # and then click on that to get Schedule info. One fun way to get to the Causeway from Portrush in the summer is to take the bus to Bushmills and from there, ride the narrow-gauge train for about 6lbs a round trip.
From Giant’s Causeway we continued on to Ballycastle for a late lunch, pulling off on the side of the road on the way to view Dunseverick Castle… or what was left of it. It really only consisted of two freestanding walls on a bluff a few hundred feet off the road. There was a fence with some wooden steps over it and then a well-worn path that led up to the bluff, but I didn’t chance it. I mean there was no sign prohibiting me from going over the fence, but with the gale-force winds coming of the Atlantic I figured it wouldn’t be too wise.
After lunch, we meandered back to Portrush by an alternative route that brought us back through Bushmills. Before we left that morning we booked another night at the Beulah Guesthouse with our hostess. We had been on the go ever since we left Carlow, staying for one night in every town we stopped at, so we were a little road-weary and a nice, relaxing night in was just what Amy and I needed before heading to Belfast.
Once in Belfast we booked ourselves into the Malone Guesthouse and immediately hit the streets since we’re only going to be here for the night. I originally wanted to hang out here for a few days, but that extra night in Portrush put us back a day and we had to have the rental back in Dublin the next day.
It wasn’t a bad town. It’s a working class metropolis much along the lines of Philadelphia mixed with the industrialism of a Rust belt city like Cleveland or Detroit… with grime and attitude to match. I loved it. The downtown area around City Hall was busy with tourists picking up Black Taxi tours and shoppers going about their Saturday business. Black Taxi tours are a great way to get insight to the goings on of Belfast and hearing what things were like during the Troubles from the drivers/guides, who are basically locals and have great knowledge of the turbulent history because they have lived it. I’ve known a person or two who have taken the Black Taxi tour with a driver who actually served time in Long Kesh (the infamous Maze Prison). There are some who would rather tour Falls Road (the Republican side) and Shankhill Road (the Unionist side) via Black Taxi, and I don’t blame them. If you’re a stranger in a strange land, there’s nothing wrong with safety first. I’m a bit of an intrepid idiot sometimes so, after a lunch that consisted of a few pints, Amy and I headed towards The Falls. Catching a bus that dropped us off right at the City Cemetery (which was closed for the day), we started walking our way back, stopping here and there to admire and photograph many of the murals painted on the sides of buildings, many of which were boarded up row-houses that reminded me a bit of the more dilapidated parts of Baltimore.
The pints we had for lunch were working especially fast on me, so the minute after we got off the bus I started looking for a pub, settling on a hole-in-the-wall called the Rock Bar. It was a bit sketchy, I won’t lie, but I figured if we just mind our own business and kept to ourselves with an air of confidence – but not arrogance, we’d be fine. I made a B-line to the gents and relieved myself while Amy ordered a couple of pints and sat at a booth where I joined her. There were a steady stream of drinkers – mostly men – and before too long, this fellow that was standing at the bar with his friends abruptly turned around and walked right up to our booth and, rather ominously, said: “What made you come in here?” “Well, it looked like an OK place to stop in for a pint, was I wrong?” I replied rather diplomatically, preparing to down my pint quickly in case he asked us to leave. As imposing as he was, he turned out to be an OK guy. I offered him to join us and buy him a pint but he politely refused, saying that he and his friends were just getting started and were heading to the next pub. He then invited us on their little drinking sojourn, finishing his invitation with: “We’re not gonna rob youse, we’re not gonna kill youse…” to which I nodded approvingly and responded with an enthusiastic “Good to know”. Yet we couldn’t help but find his proclamation disconcerting, causing us to take a deep breath and our time in finishing our pints after they left for the next pub.
Once our pints were finished, we set our empties on the bar, thanking the bar tender and walked out just in time to catch a bus back towards downtown and getting off across from Sinn Fein Headquarters, which was closed. There were a few pubs in the area though and the first one we went into, a place called O’ Connors, was a spacious, brightly lit establishment that was thumping out some house music. Not quite my style, but we were in the door and pass the threshold, so there was no turning back now.
The place wasn’t very busy; a few kids were playing pool. We enjoyed a couple of pints and looked about the place. The walls were adorned with framed portraits of people who fell victim to the Troubles along with a brief description of who they were and how they died. Some died as political prisoners in Long Kesh, others died in street violence but most, it seemed, were killed inadvertently while mixing explosives for their cause. No matter how they died, I couldn’t help but notice that almost all of them were in their twenties.
Wanting a place where I could talk to some locals, we finished our pints and went looking for another pub. We didn’t have to walk that far either, just to the other side of Sinn Fein HQ to a place called Davitt’s. This place had a pretty steady crowd in it, again mostly with middle-aged men. Up to the bar we strode for a couple of pints and then set about looking for a place to sit. Rounded corner booths flanked the entrance. The one to the right was full but in the one on the left, sitting alone, was a rather imposing figure who gave us an “eye” of intrigue as we walked by. Sitting in a relaxed position, he wore a grey sweatshirt with a scarf wrapped around his neck, he was bald with a handlebar mustache and had a couple of empty pint glasses to his right, a full glass of lager to his left and was working on the one in his hand. I felt his curious stare, turned to engage and nodded. He nodded back and abruptly waved us over and said in an imposing voice “C’mon. Sit down here!” He turned out to be the coolest cat in the joint. His name was Tobias, a play write who had spent a total of 17 years on and off in Long Kesh for his political views; and he made them known to us, giving a rundown on Irish history and voicing his disdain for the joint power of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. He surely was a man who wanted a unified Ireland.
We were definitely a curiosity in the pub and were soon joined by a gentleman named Paddy and his wife, whose name escapes me. They were a lovely couple and provided good conversation through out the night. Paddy’s wife was in an especially good mood because their daughter had just made Barrister and while talking about it, wondered aloud about a photograph she had of the occasion. Without saying a word, she grabbed her coat and disappeared for about 15 minutes to return with a nice studio portrait of both her daughters – one wearing a Barrister’s robe and wig.
We were having a great time with these guys. We bought each other rounds and just shot the shit, talking about our lives as we knew them and getting to know one another. After a bit Tobias just got up and left without saying a word, I thought he was going for a smoke but he never returned, leaving two full pints on the table. Shortly after, this older fellow asked to join us, before Paddy could say no, I said “Cool by me”. Paddy knew him and didn’t think too much of him and I found out why. Every time I’d try to talk to him, he’d bust out singing some sort of pro Republic song. I think it was “Fields Of Athenry”. What ever it was, it was too much for the Bartender who, after two prior warnings, came over pounded his fists on the table and, hunching over the man yelled: “That’s enough of that shit! We don’t need it; we’re through with it! I hear it again from you, you’re outta here. Got it?”
I stayed out of it. Which is a wise choice whether you’re in a pub on a different continent or in your own local. I wasn’t here to take sides on anything, just to drink, have a good time and make friends. Things quelled and went back to normal as quick as they began, and our conversations with Paddy and his wife continued uninterrupted from then on. Before too long, things started to wind down and it was time to head back to our room.
All in all, it had been a fun day. We drove into Belfast with the hopes that a friend of my friend James, who lives here would be able to show us around. James informed us that this fellow was a bit flakey, could have sold his phone for Magic Beans and therefore might be hard to get a hold of, if at all. This pretty much proved to be the case so we were on our own to ad-lib the City. Given its turbulent history, I got to admit, I was a bit intimidated. But it’s amazing what you can accomplish with a firm handshake, a hearty laugh and a few pints of beer.