- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland — No checkpoints delay us as my companions and I cross Northern Ireland’s southern border, but three tricolor Irish National flags line up to assert the locals’ sentiments. Soon thereafter, we’re greeted by a high-flying Union Jack on the right and three Ulster flags on the left. Utility poles are painted red, white and blue, and so are the tops of stone farm fences lining the road. Uh-oh.

Even the sheep are marked with patches of red, blue or green. How partisan can you get? Oh, wait, our van driver, Barry Hogan, informs us that the colors have nothing to do with politics. The paint patches are like brands, to distinguish one farmer’s grazing sheep from another’s.

Come to think of it, the paint on the stone fences and utility poles is looking a bit weathered.

In fact, this is one of the few places in Northern Ireland where I experience any signs of partisan feelings. Derry (Londonderry), near the western border, is another, but the graffiti we see there also seems to be left over from years earlier.

Our first stop is in Newcastle, on the edge of the Irish Sea, where we meet Martin McGuigan, owner-founder of a company he calls Walk on the Wild Side. Marty leads us on a short hike in the famed Mountains of Mourne, where we follow a rocky path through heather, ferns and prickly, yellow-flowering gorse beside a mountain stream that gurgles over more rocks, dropping into pools and then continuing downhill.

The view is gorgeous when the intermittent showers that have been with us all day lift long enough for us to see it, and the hot tea and homemade soda bread Marty has brought with him, compliments of his wife, are welcome.

We see that the Mountains of Mourne do, indeed, “sweep down to the sea,” as the song says — and that we should have paid attention when Tourism Ireland advised us to bring good walking shoes, preferably waterproof, with a better grip than our standard athletic shoes provide. The ground is soggy, and wet rocks can be slippery.

Marty says he has been hiking and climbing more than 20 years but just started his business three years ago “because nobody was doing it, and I love it. There’s definitely a market there.”

Soon we are one our way north again, driving through Belfast on the way to Ballycastle on the northern seacoast. The earlier showers have turned into a downpour with fierce winds, and we pull jackets over our heads as we run into the foyer at Colliers Hall, a working farm since 1734 that offers a charming guest cottage and old stone barn converted into a B&B.; It’s September; hurricanes are pummeling the East Coast at home, and Ireland is feeling their effects, too.

The water pressure in my bathroom is low, so my shower is more of a dribble, but the bed is comfortable, and my French toast the next morning is perfect. A rough stone cross with rounded arms like a shamrock catches my eye as I look out the dining room window to check the weather.

The skies are gray and the road still wet as Ian McKay (pronounced McKee) of Irish Cycle Tours pulls his van loaded with bicycles into the driveway and begins fitting us with helmets. I feel a thrill when he tells me that the stone, known as the Broughanlea Cross, is “from St. Brendan’s time,” the fifth century, and is all that is left from the earliest Christian church in the area, which was about a mile away. Maureen McGarry, our hostess at Colliers Hall, is its “unofficial guardian,” he adds.

Soon we are pedaling off on sturdy hybrid bikes, but I’m so taken by the scenery that I stop twice in less than a mile to photograph the ruins of a stone abbey and, after rounding a corner that has me looking back toward my starting point, the coastline. I feel as if I’ve biked into the pages of an Irish calendar, with each vista more enchanting than the one before.

Hills and strong headwinds — 65 mph and higher, we learn later — take their toll, however, and two of us decide after just a few miles to ride with Barry, who has been driving the route to keep track of our progress. Having four wheels under us gives us a time advantage, and we follow a sign to an “old famine graveyard,” where we find nothing but stone entry pillars holding up a heavy, open metal gate into a field of thigh-high grass growing in ground too wet to walk without boots. Without tombstones to give names to the victims, it’s sadder even than I imagined.

We catch up to the rest of our group at the first planned rest stop, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a 66-foot suspension bridge strung from May through September across a 98-foot-deep chasm between the headland and a rock island where fishermen catch salmon.

The bridge is also a popular tourist attraction, but the National Trust, which maintains it, has closed it for the day because of the high winds. Waves are rolling in one on top of the other as we walk the mile-or-so trail along the headland to the bridge to get a better look, and foam is blowing off them like suds from a comedy in which someone has put too much soap in the dishwasher and then turned on a fan.

Six miles offshore, we see L-shaped Rathlin Island, famous for its cliffside seabird colony, seals and views of both Scotland and Ireland, but the bikers, birders and walkers who enjoy the island are out of luck today; the ferry there isn’t running, again because of the weather.

Brian O’Neill, the warden on duty at the bridge, says most days the churning, opaque water below is so clear “you can see whatever fish or sea life is there. It’s hard to imagine today.” Then he unlocks the gate to the bridge, walks to the middle of the swinging span, takes his last wind-velocity reading of the day, returns, locks the gate and says with a smile that he’s going home for a cup of tea (pronounced tay).

Ian, our cycling provider, suggests that we bow to Mother Nature and finish the route by van. No one objects, and after tea and scones in the teahouse next to the car park (parking lot), we’re on our way to the Giant’s Causeway, a vast pyramidal collection of seemingly uniform basalt columns that descend toward and finally into the sea.

Scientists know that the mostly hexagonal columns were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago when molten lava rose through fissures in the rock, forming the columns as it cooled. I prefer the folkloric version: that the Causeway was assembled from bits of stone torn off the headland by the giant Finn mac Cumhail (Finn MacCool) as a walkway from Scotland.

One version of the tale is that Finn fell in love with a giantess who lived on an island in the Hebrides and built the Causeway so he could bring her to Ireland. Another is that he challenged a Scottish giant to a contest and provided him a walkway across the sea. Of course, being a clever giant, Finn had other tricks in mind, as well: He dressed as a baby and pretended to sleep. The Scottish giant took one look and fled home.

Surely after his labors, Finn would have appreciated a wee drop or three, and with the same thought in mind, we repair to Bushmills Distillery after lunch for a tour and tasting. Bushmills says it is the oldest licensed distillery in the world, having been granted a license by England’s King James I in 1608, but there is evidence of distilling on the site as early as 1276. Our tasting proves that practice does, indeed, make perfect.

The following day, heading west toward County Donegal, Barry takes us on a brief detour to pass, twice, through a gate in the walled city of Derry. The walls, built between 1613 and 1618 to keep out the native Irish after settlement by the English and Scots (known as the Plantation of Ulster), are the only complete city walls remaining in Ireland.

We see some sectarian graffiti, but the picture I carry in my mind is of a charmingly narrow downhill street lined with colorful buildings just begging to be explored. Maybe another trip; we’re about to cross back into the republic, to discover County Donegal.

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