I’ve hiked and driven these quiet lanes so many times over the years that I sometimes take it for granted how much this part of Northern Ireland is soaked in history and mythology.Â Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of theÂ Ring of Gullion, which is itself a topographical curiosity only recently understood: an ancient ring dyke. (With the collapse of an active volcano’s caldera, a concentric ring of fault lines radiate outwards. Magma is extruded through these fractures to create mountains which are a geologically helter-skelter composite atÂ their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’sÂ the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin BayÂ andÂ Wicklow.Â At the top of the mountain are twoÂ cairnsÂ on either side of a small lake. The southern one is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland – radiocarbon dating suggests it was built circa 3000 BC – and itsÂ entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice.Â According to legend, however,Â Slieve GullionÂ is named afterÂ Culann, theÂ metalsmith. And it is here that the legendaryÂ warrior SÃ©tanta spent his childhoodÂ and received the name CÃºchulainn. Culann invitedÂ Conchobhar mac Neasa, King of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the hurlingÂ field and was so impressed by SÃ©tanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about SÃ©tanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When SÃ©tanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving aÂ hurling ball down its throat with hisÂ hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so SÃ©tanta promised to rear him a replacement, and until it was old enough to do the job, he would guard Culann’s house. Henceforth he was known as CÃºchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young CÃºchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading ConnachtÂ armies of Queen Medh atÂ the nearby Gap of the North and take his place as Irish literature’s greatest mythic hero. All in a day’s hike, as they say.
Unassuming at first glance, Creggan Parish Churchyard is one of the more important and historic properties in Northern Ireland.Â The church was likely founded as far back as 1450 by the Oâ€™Neills, who built a castle at Glassdrummond, nearÂ the Irish Sea. While all traces of the pre-Reformation church have disappeared, it’s thought that the Oâ€™Neill family vault was situated underneath the original church. (Remains of a subterranean doorway were recently found during repairs to the existing modern structure.) The adjoining graveyard is also the burial-place of three eighteenth century Gaelic poets, who give this picturesque area of trails andÂ sculpted gardens its evocative name:Â Art Mac Cooey, PÃ¡draig Mac Aliondain and SÃ©amus MÃ³r Mac Murphy – poet, outlaw, and self-described handsomest man in Ireland.
It’s officially now ten years running that I have missed the annual running of the donkeys in Cornamucklagh. And while it’s not exactly Pamplona,Â I say this without a shred of irony: I’m unusually fascinated by this rural Irish tradition. Maybe some summer my holidays will time to coincide. Until then my white whale smells surprising like manure.
There’sÂ somethingÂ thrilling aboutÂ watchingÂ a great artist dangle on theÂ precipice of a cliff, walking the razor’s edge between sublime and ridiculous. Fiona Shaw is such an artist. An actress of fierce conviction and commanding presence, I expect it would be mesmerizing to watch her read from the phone book, such is the power of her craft in plumbing the depths of truth out of even the most banal material.Â Fear notÂ Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, mind you, where there is no need to worry about the quality of the writing being strained. Playwright Colm Toibin, whose elegiac novels revolving on themesÂ of personal identity rank among some of my favorite, has fashioned a demanding, intelligent play out of the twinned myths of religion and fantasy.Â The Last Testament of MaryÂ is no gnostic gospel, but it does imagine the later life of the Blessed Virgin as a woman in self-imposed exile. MaryÂ does not believe that her son was the son of God and furthermore she refuses to co-operate with those simpletons – the writers of the gospels – who insist on visiting her. Mary is a mother, first and foremost, who had the misfortune to have a son who let things go to his head. It is the mother’s paradox for her to simultaneously grieve his death yet curse his megalomania, which turned the unforgiving spotlight of iconography on herself. This Mary wants none of it. And if she were left alone on a bare stage to tell us her story, we would sit enrapt. Yet director Deborah Warner, whose often visionary collaborations with Ms. Shaw stretch for more than a quarter century, will have none of that. For ninety minutes this Mary is a ceaselessly fidgety fuss bucket: moving a chair here, an amphora there, forever arranging then rearranging props and tables with an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth. If the action is meant to underscore some greater emotional reality it’s not entirely convincing. In fact, Mary’s vulnerability is at its most ferocious when words become too much and the inability to communicate vents itself through the painful stomping of her feet, like a child caught in a tantrum. Designer Tom Pye is complicit with Ms. Warner, littering the stage with enough detritus – not to mention symbolism – to keep an actor busy for two plays, let alone the single act which makes up this evening. It’s too on the nose: the barbed wire, the ladder, the tree which dangles from the sky, its roots not touching the earth. We can’t help but be riveted by Ms. Shaw, who commits to her character so completely that even an act of gratuitous nudity does not take us out of the world of the play. Yet it’s the viewer’s paradox to both applaud the fearless conviction of an artist and wish someone had the good sense to leave her well enough alone.
Titanic Belfast is the city’s new “must see” attraction – and it’s aÂ wonder how it took the city leaders so long to exploit the worldwide fascination with the most famous maritime disaster of all time. Rising on the slipways where both RMS Olympic and Titanic were built,Â theÂ distinctive building takes obvious inspiration from both a ship’s prow andÂ theÂ refracted gleam of ice. Drawing together special effects, full-scale reconstructions, and innovative interactive features across nine galleries, the Titanic story is explored in a fresh and insightful way; from herÂ conception in Belfast in the early 1900s, through herÂ constructionÂ andÂ launch, to her infamousÂ maiden voyageÂ and catastrophic demise. The journey goes beyond theÂ aftermath of the sinking, too, to theÂ discovery of the wreckÂ and continues into the present day with aÂ live undersea exploration centre. We all think we know theÂ TitanicÂ story but to a largeÂ extentÂ we are wellÂ acquaintedÂ with onlyÂ a very small sliver: the ill-fated maidenÂ voyage. What I found most interesting at Titanic Belfast was context so often missing from any modern retellings: inÂ the early 20th Century Belfast was enjoying the greatest boom in its history. The city was a global leader in engineering, ship-building and linen manufacturing, and Belfastâ€™s Harland and Wolff had become the largest shipyard in the world. It was this thriving local industry along withÂ innovations inÂ design that led to the creation of RMS Titanic and it’s sister ship, Olympic. Special effects, animations and full-scale reconstructions bring to life the reality of shipbuilding in the early 1900’s: a superhuman undertaking of skilled labor, brute force, and engineering prowess. Â Beyond that it delves into the ship’s launch -Â a large window overlooking the actual slipways is fitted with state-of-the-art glass containing electrodes that switch from the normal view to a superimposed image of the Titanic on the slipways for a unique perspective of how the ship would have appeared – custom fit-out, the sinking and the aftermath. It even finds time to explore the multitude of myths and legends surrounding Titanic’s story before depositing visitors in a gift shop burdened by extraordinarily bad taste. But no bother, Titanic Belfast isn’t so much a story of tragedy but one of triumph: after all, once upon a timeÂ Boomtown Belfast built the largest and most luxurious ship in the world.
Opened by Niall and Joanne McKenna in an old linen mill close to ten years ago, James Street SouthÂ RestaurantÂ was at the forefront of marrying the best of IrishÂ ingredientsÂ with classical French cooking methodsÂ andÂ seasonal menus. My return found smartly renovated interiors and a menu which reminded me of just how far ahead of the curve the McKennas really were. Local smoked eel? Pork cheeks? Razor clams? It’s good to discover the city has caught up – and that a restaurant like this can not only thrive, but set the agenda, too.
Stop me if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I can’t get over how things have changed. Today it’s St. George’s in central Belfast, whereÂ a Friday market has stood in one guise or another since 1604.Â I last wandered the late 19th-century red-brick structure maybe seven or eight years ago and was underwhelmed. The farm-to-table movement had yet to take firm root in Northern Ireland, so while theÂ steel and glassÂ interiors stood out as a well-preserved reminder of the great Age of Empire, the handful of sorry vegetable stalls and assorted tat sellers inside seemed remarkably out of time and place. What aÂ differenceÂ a decade makes. Following a Â£4.5m refurbishment the market has become one of the most vibrant and colorful destinations this city has to offer.Â A raft of local producers trade inÂ everythingÂ from ArmaghÂ beef, award-winning farmhouse cheeses, free range eggs from Limavady, venison, pheasant in season and organic vegetables from Culdrum and Millbrook Farms.Â The fish section alone contains 23 stalls and holds the reputation for being the leading retail fish market in Ireland. Plus, there’s live jazz and dozens of lunch options from freshly filled baps – the Belfast Bap is a floury sandwich roll and a sourceÂ of local pride – and traditional French crepes to vegan Chana Masala and classic panini-style Cubans of roast pork, ham, and gherkins – dripping with swiss cheese. Dare I say this famouslyÂ hermeticÂ city seems to currentlyÂ enjoyÂ being just a bit worldly-wise?
Another revitalized area of Belfast’s city center city is Victoria Square, the site of a tasteful multi-story shopping mall. Parallel to the downtown shopping area it hasn’t so much supplanted Royal Avenue as the main drag as provided a high-end complement to the High Street. The structure is semi-enclosed, like a giant breezeway with levels of restaurants and movie theaters sandwiched between the retail raison d’etre. Crowned by a centralÂ geodesic dome the public spaces are flooded with the rarest of Irish commodities: natural light. That alone would be enough to warrant a round of applause yet the designers didÂ somethingÂ really clever with what couldÂ have easily been wasted negative space:Â utilizingÂ theÂ practicalÂ aestheticsÂ of the dome toward a civic end. From the top-level of theÂ shopping center the public can ascend a circular staircase to a shelteredÂ viewing platform. And while Belfast doesn’t come close to having a skyline that warrants a Top of the Rock, the Stare on the Square – public monuments inÂ IrelandÂ requiresÂ aÂ mellifluousÂ moniker if you hadn’t heard; the sculpture at the entrance might officially be known as The Spirit of Belfast but to locals it will always be Onion Rings – is an ideal height forÂ views out toÂ theÂ Harland & Wolf shipyards, where Titanic was built, and Napoleon’s Nose, theÂ inspirationÂ for Swift’s tales of Lilliput. Shopping, it seems, really can qualify as a cultural pursuit. Double-click theÂ panoramicÂ image at the bottom for greater detail.