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.
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?
Stimulated byÂ theÂ revitalizing efforts of enterprises like the Merchant Hotel, Belfast’sÂ CathedralÂ QuarterÂ has shaken off its cobwebs to become the city’s up and coming cultural hotspot. The magnificentÂ St. Anne’s CathedralÂ is a focal point but the cobbled streets are dotted with gems of all kinds: galleries like theÂ Belfast Print Workshop, Catalyst Arts, andÂ Belfast Exposed, which focuses on contemporary photography; music ranges from traditional sessions at the Duke of York to local emerging bands at the Front Page; plus there are pubs aplenty, including the smart Northern Whig, and The John Hewitt, knownÂ for its lunch, as well as for impromptu readings. Each May the Quarter hosts aÂ cutting edgeÂ festival, too, with an emphasis on bringing arts to unorthodox places.Â If Belfast is slowly gaining a reputation as a smart destination for the cosmopolitan and culturally aware, much of the credit can be found in the Quarter. Then there’s the food, which in my humbleÂ opinion is as much a reflection ofÂ theÂ change happening across the city as anything else: from pub grub with a locally sourced twist at The Morning StarÂ in Pottinger’s Entry, one of the city’s oldest pubs; to the shabby chic global eclecticism ofÂ Made in Belfast, where you’re just as likely to find falafel with harissa as sinfully good beef fat chips;Â you can feast affordablyÂ insideÂ Mourne Seafood Bar, whereÂ the fish and shellfish are impeccably fresh or splurge on the plush ritual of a proper afternoon tea in the Merchant’s Great Room. All the more impressive is how this hive of activity is evolving within the space of just a few square blocks. Another of the dining highlights isÂ The Potted Hen,Â whichÂ remains one of the most talked about restaurants in the Quarter, though it opened almost 18 months ago. A bistro-styleÂ establishmentÂ on St. Anne’s Square, it’s modern and welcoming, chic yetÂ comfortable. The menu is imaginative and wholly unpretentious, which goes a long wayÂ towardsÂ explaining its continued local popularity. Chicken liver is not an uncommon starter in Northern Ireland but at the Hen the house parfait melts in your mouth, like velvet, encased in a ribbon of buttery fat. (That it comes with a steak knife must be someone’s idea of a joke.) Piquant onion marmalade is made in-house and in place of the customary toast points, a freshly baked brioche loaf in miniature. Paired with a jammy glass of Malbec, it’s hedonistic heaven.Â Black puddingÂ andÂ celeriac puree accompany my entrÃ©e, a slow-cooked rondel of pork belly topped with a cool coupe of apple sorbet. Savory, sweet, hot and cold, the multiple textures and flavors coalesce in a delicious forkful, quickly subverting what could’ve easily turned into an overworked porkÂ clichÃ©. Another welcome surprise came in aÂ featherweight version of sticky toffee pudding. (My fondness for the classicÂ dessert is almost as well-known as my lack of self-control.) Dusted with crushed honeycomb it felt closer to a souffle than a pudding, which was more than fine by me. It allowed me to exit the boisterous dining room sated but not stuffed – and glad for a leisurely evening stroll through the Quarter, silently ruminating on how none of this could have been imagined – let aloneÂ laudedÂ – less than a decade ago.
I’m back at theÂ sumptuousÂ Merchant HotelÂ in Belfast’sÂ CathedralÂ Quarter,Â site of a rather infamous party I threw almost three years ago. (let’s just say people are still talking about it, thank you very much.) It’s posh, for lack of a better word – meaning attentive, attractive, and very well-proportioned – with an Italianate sandstone facade of columns and capitals backed by carefully restored High Victorian interiors. In fact, the former Ulster BankÂ headquartersÂ wouldn’t look out-of-place in London or Paris. For a city which ten years ago had but a single boutique hotel, theÂ MerchantÂ is a perfect example of how much in this city has changed. Even atÂ the height of the property bust two years ago the hotel was able to build an Art Deco extension and more than double in size, adding rooms, a spa, and the city’s only authentic jazz bar. To call it a success would be an understatement. From the soaring grandeur of the Great Room Restaurant (where even the profiteroles are swan-necked),Â to theÂ perfectly judged and beautifully friendly staff,Â to the overstuffed beds and ample marble bathrooms, the Merchant is an all-out triumph.
For a hiking trip there’s been aÂ suspiciousÂ lack of physical activity noted on this site over the past two weeks, wouldn’t you say? Time to fix that today with a straight climbÂ upÂ highest hill on Mull. AllÂ mountainsÂ have a certain magnetic attraction for those who enjoying a good harrumph, but Ben More has more than you’d suspect. At 3,172 feet, the peak is a true beauty because every inch of it is climbedÂ fromÂ sea level and that’s a rarity. Plus, the views fromÂ theÂ top are spectacular. Beneath the summit are the glens and table-lands carved by retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago. Eastwards across the sea are the serriedÂ mainlandÂ mountains; to the north, the sawtooth peaks of Rum and Skye; southwards, the Paps of Jura; and if you lookÂ westwardÂ on a clear day, you can almost seeÂ as far as Ireland. Bound by lochs on either side – and Iona and Staffa seemingly close enough to touch – theÂ panoramaÂ is superb. (Double click each image for a greater sense of scale.) Many hikers mistakenly assume Ben More is a volcano. It is not,Â despiteÂ the picturesque “smoking” that often appears near the summit. In fact, it is a much rarerÂ phenomenon: a highly magnetic mountain. Extruded 55 million years ago, the iron-rich basalt is so strongly magnetic thatÂ chippingsÂ will jump on to a proffered magnet. MoreÂ importantly, compass readings can’t be trusted, particularly at the summit, whichÂ has been struck by lightning and remagnetized so often that readings vary enormously even within a few feet. AnotherÂ surpriseÂ is the lack of a well-marked trail, which led to more than a few heated discussions on the extended hike up – all of which evaporated into thin air once we had summited and, more to the point, returned back to ground level unscathed.
Now an ecumenical church, Iona Abbey, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors. For one, itâ€™s the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in Western Scotland. Though modest in scale compared to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods: in front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin’s Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in Britain; the ancient burial ground, called the RÃ¨ilig Odhrain, contains the 12th century chapel of St. OdhrÃ¡n and a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard holds the final resting place of kings from Ireland, Norway and France, as well as a number of early Scottish Kings, including Malcolm, Duncan, and Mac Bethad mac FindlaÃch, better known as MacBeth.
If you think of Mull as being shaped like a boot – or more appropriately, an Ugg – Fionnphort would be the big toe. It’s here that you catch a quick ferry to the small island of Iona, where almost 1500 years ago St. Columba was sent into exile following a dispute with St. Finnian over a book. (At least it didn’t involve a woman) Columba went on to become one of the leading figures in the renewal of monasticism and it’s not hard to see why: he was deported from Ireland with just a few mates and sent to an uninhabited spit of rock three miles long by one mile wide. What else was there for a holy man to do except look inward? It seems an especially appropriate place to explore today as I publish my 1,000th blog post.