last looks: carlingford lough

Quick and dirty this weekend pit stop in Ireland has been. Oh well, I takes what I can get.lough panorama

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slieve gullion

slieve gullionI’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. Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of the 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 at their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’s the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin Bay and Wicklow. At the top of the mountain are two cairns 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 its entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. According to legend, however, Slieve Gullion is named after Culann, the metalsmith. And it is here that the legendary warrior Sétanta spent his childhood and received the name Cúchulainn. Culann invited 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 hurling field and was so impressed by Sétanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When Sétanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving a hurling ball down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so Sétanta 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 Cúchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young Cúchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading Connacht armies of Queen Medh at 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.

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poet’s glen, creggan church

poets glen creggan churchUnassuming at first glance, Creggan Parish Churchyard is one of the more important and historic properties in Northern Ireland. The church was likely founded as far back as 1450 by the O’Neills, who built a castle at Glassdrummond, near the Irish Sea. While all traces of the pre-Reformation church have disappeared, it’s thought that the O’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 and sculpted gardens its evocative name: Art Mac Cooey, Pádraig Mac Aliondain and Séamus Mór Mac Murphy – poet, outlaw, and self-described handsomest man in Ireland.

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a holy trinity

IMG_2651A proper pint of Guinness, thick slices of brown bread, and half a dozen Carlingford oysters at PJ O’Hare’s. This is what I think of when I hear the phrase ‘holy trinity.’

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pitstop: ireland

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oops, i missed it again

Donkey DerbyIt’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, 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.

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james street south

Opened by Niall and Joanne McKenna in an old linen mill close to ten years ago, James Street South Restaurant was at the forefront of marrying the best of Irish ingredients with classical French cooking methods and 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.

 

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st. george’s market

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, where a Friday market has stood in one guise or another since 1604. 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 the steel and glass 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 a difference a decade makes. Following a £4.5m refurbishment the market has become one of the most vibrant and colorful destinations this city has to offer. A raft of local producers trade in everything from Armagh beef, award-winning farmhouse cheeses, free range eggs from Limavady, venison, pheasant in season and organic vegetables from Culdrum and Millbrook Farms. 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 source 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 famously hermetic city seems to currently enjoy being just a bit worldly-wise?

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quarter potted and besotted

Stimulated by the revitalizing efforts of enterprises like the Merchant Hotel, Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter has shaken off its cobwebs to become the city’s up and coming cultural hotspot. The magnificent St. Anne’s Cathedral is a focal point but the cobbled streets are dotted with gems of all kinds: galleries like the Belfast Print Workshop, Catalyst Arts, and 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, known for its lunch, as well as for impromptu readings. Each May the Quarter hosts a cutting edge festival, too, with an emphasis on bringing arts to unorthodox places. 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 humble opinion is as much a reflection of the change happening across the city as anything else: from pub grub with a locally sourced twist at The Morning Star in Pottinger’s Entry, one of the city’s oldest pubs; to the shabby chic global eclecticism of Made in Belfast, where you’re just as likely to find falafel with harissa as sinfully good beef fat chips; you can feast affordably inside Mourne Seafood Bar, where 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 is The Potted Hen, which remains one of the most talked about restaurants in the Quarter, though it opened almost 18 months ago. A bistro-style establishment on St. Anne’s Square, it’s modern and welcoming, chic yet comfortable. The menu is imaginative and wholly unpretentious, which goes a long way towards 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. Black pudding and celeriac puree accompany my entrée, 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 pork cliché. Another welcome surprise came in a featherweight version of sticky toffee pudding. (My fondness for the classic 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 alone lauded – less than a decade ago.

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pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag

I’m back at the sumptuous Merchant Hotel in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, 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 Bank headquarters wouldn’t look out-of-place in London or Paris. For a city which ten years ago had but a single boutique hotel, the Merchant is a perfect example of how much in this city has changed. Even at 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), to the perfectly judged and beautifully friendly staff, to the overstuffed beds and ample marble bathrooms, the Merchant is an all-out triumph.

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more than meets the eye

For a hiking trip there’s been a suspicious 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 climb up highest hill on Mull. All mountains 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 climbed from sea level and that’s a rarity. Plus, the views from the 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 serried mainland mountains; to the north, the sawtooth peaks of Rum and Skye; southwards, the Paps of Jura; and if you look westward on a clear day, you can almost see as far as Ireland. Bound by lochs on either side – and Iona and Staffa seemingly close enough to touch – the panorama is superb. (Double click each image for a greater sense of scale.) Many hikers mistakenly assume Ben More is a volcano. It is not, despite the picturesque “smoking” that often appears near the summit. In fact, it is a much rarer phenomenon: a highly magnetic mountain. Extruded 55 million years ago, the iron-rich basalt is so strongly magnetic that chippings will jump on to a proffered magnet. More importantly, compass readings can’t be trusted, particularly at the summit, which has been struck by lightning and remagnetized so often that readings vary enormously even within a few feet. Another surprise 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.

 

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full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Now an ecumenical church, Iona Abbey, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors. For one, it’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 Rèilig Odhrain, contains the 12th century chapel of St. Odhrán 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 Findlaích, better known as MacBeth.

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howdy, pilgrim

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.

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live blog: sunrise, sunset

On my final night into day at The Lodge at Doonbeg I had the dubious whiskey-fueled distinction of witnessing both the sunset and sunrise from the 18th green of the Greg Norman-designed links course. The sky was a sight, each time in its own breathtaking way.

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live blog: doonbeg panorama

To say The Lodge at Doonbeg is dramatically situated is a bit of an understatement. You’re going to want to click the image  – then click it again – to get the full effect of the Clare coastline.

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