Danahey on the Loose: A Visit to Northern Ireland

My late summer vacation to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland gave me an idea for an app.

There might even be one like it already, but I’m too lazy to rifle through the online stores, so here goes the simple version: Somebody should set up a system where you can find people where you want to travel who would be willing to give you an insider’s view of their part of the world.

My inspiration was the grand experience best-fest-and-travel-buddy Tom and I had up North by getting such a tour from Gregg McKeen his wife, Sharon, and meeting some folks they know.

Tom and I  actually met McKeen a couple years ago at the Milwaukee Irish Fest. Gregg is an alderman for the Larne Lough District Electoral Area on the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. He’s been coming to Milwaukee to promote tourism to that area in general and to an attraction called The Gobbins in particular.

Carrickfergus Castle
Carrickfergus Castle

“We have given similar tours to family visiting from England and visitors from our Sister City Clover, South Carolina,” McKeen said of showing us around. “We really enjoy traveling and getting out and about, even if it is in our own backyard. Sharon and myself love meeting people and entertaining them. Our part of the whole has a lot to offer, and we love showing it off.”

In our case, that involved McKeen driving our big suburban Chicago butts around for two days, including meeting us on an early September Saturday in Carrickfergus at the  Norman castle built in 1180.

A parade and some good food

Past that, our first stop was the Broadisland Gathering in Ballycarry. There’s an old church ruins and weaver’s trail in Ballycarry.

“This is where the first Presbyterian minister in Ireland is buried, and the village is an Ulster-Scots (Scotch-Irish) heritage village,” David Hume said. “The poet James Orr, regarded as Northern Ireland’s Robert Burns, has an imposing memorial and the wartime general (Sir James Steele) who signed the UK mobilization order in 1939 was born there. There is a bronze and mourne granite memorial to him on the village green.”

Pipes and drums at the Ulster Scots parade in Ballycarry
Pipes and drums at the Ulster Scots parade in Ballycarry

Hume is a local historian and consultant whom we first met at the festival.

A puffin in the Ulster Scots parade in Ballycarry
A puffin in the Ulster Scots parade in Ballycarry

After our visit to Ballycarry, McKeen showed us the signs put up to warn people away at the entrance of a quarry that’s been turned into an area for shooting “Game of Thrones,” which uses Northern Ireland as a base of operations and for a good deal of its scenery.

“I think people didn’t realize the impact that this TV series would have, and the visitors and recognition of the area that would come out of it,” McKeen said.

Hey, as but one example, Tom and I were staying at the Fullerton Arms in part because of its connection to the show. More on that later.

Game of Thrones films here in Northern Ireland
Game of Thrones films here in Northern Ireland

But back to our Saturday.

McKeen next took us to lunch at his favorite restaurant, Billy Andy’s, near Glenoe.

“We have been going to Billy Andy’s for about 15 years now, especially for special occasions like birthdays and family get-togethers,” McKeen said. “We have a night just before Christmas when Sharon and her siblings, their partners and kids and I will go for a night out there.”

McKeen said his favorite dishes are the Wild Game Picnic, which includes rabbit sausage rolls and duck and the Platter of Rare Bread Pork.

“But the whole menu is amazing and full of local delights,” McKeen said.

Our big bellies full, we headed back to Ballycarry to catch the parade at the fest’s end. I especially enjoyed seeing the guy in the puffin suit amidst the pipe bands and re-enactors.

Billy Andy's
Billy Andy’s

Tom and I had driven up from Dublin that morning, so McKeen sent us along a stretch of the Antrim Coast Road/Causeway Coastal Route to get to the Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy.

So much scenery, so little time. It seems everywhere you drive along the ocean in any part of either Ireland there’s a place to stop to take a picture.

I took more than 1,000 photos on my trip that I still have on my phone. I look at them when I need to find my happy place.

The Fullerton Arms and Game of Thrones

Anyway, we we tired by the time we arrived at The Fullerton Arms. The inn reminded Tom a bit of Fawlty Towers, the English comedy from the 70s starring John Cleese as a hotel manager.

It’s pretty much what I thought I bed and breakfast would be, with rooms above a dining room and a pub.

I even had to learn a trick to get the toilet to flush right, a quick, double-flick of the wrist action taught to me by one of the friendly staff.

What drew us to the Arms was a buddy told me it held “Game of Thrones” lore.

Game of Thrones doors at Fullerton Arms
Game of Thrones doors at Fullerton Arms

Tourism Ireland has worked with 10 innkeepers across Northern Ireland which now have doors carved to have “Game of Thrones” themes. The wood used comes from two trees that fell during a bad storm that hit the Dark Hedges. The Dark Hedges have been used in the show as Kingsroad.

“To get the door, we contacted the company who was in charge of deciding which businesses were to get them and sent off pictures of where the door could be, why we thought we should get one and how close we were to the filming locations, such as Ballintoy Harbour which is on the outskirts of the village,” Julie-Ann at the Arms said.  “We were fortunate enough to be picked alongside the nine other bars that have been selected across the province.”

Julie-Ann said the Arms put up a Game of Thrones room in early 2014 under a prior owner, and the current ownership have added to it since taking over the business in February 2016.

“There are also plans to get more costumes for guests to dress up in and to install the bottom half of the Iron Throne for even better photos,” she said. “The Game of Thrones door was installed in June 2016 following the airing of Season 6 Episode 6 at the end of May, which our door is based on.”

That’s to say, the door represents House Targaryen, which means it has a dragon on it.

“While it is difficult for us to measure exactly how big a difference the door has made compared to when we didn’t have it, I can say that it definitely attracts fans,” Julie-Ann said. “We’d have people stop by just for photos with the door, or others who maybe call in for food or a drink who don’t realize we have a door but are delighted when they do. It;s very exciting to be part of it all and bring more people not just to the Fullerton Arms but the village itself.”

The pub at Fullerton Arms
The pub at Fullerton Arms

While no cast members have stopped in at the Arms, Julie-Ann said the place has had members of the backstage/film crew staying there when  they’re filming in the area.

“We’re hoping that with filming commencing again a few cast members will stop by, and if you keep an eye on our Facebook page you’ll be able to see if they do,” she said.

In the past few years, thanks to the work of the Tourist Board and Game of Thrones there definitely has been a notable rise in the number of tourists in the area, Julie-Ann said.

“The locals are delighted by it all and there are a few regulars who would stop by for a pint,  and the usual question is ‘Are we getting many buses today?’ then sit and watch them come and go, chatting away to anyone who passes them. Its great that they are keen to share their love for the area with everyone else who stops by,” she said.

The Gobbins from a boat

Early Sunday morning, the McKeens picked us up early so we would have time to make an arranged charter boat ride with North Irish Diver Ltd. to see The Gobbins from the sea.

The Gobbins Cliff Path is a 2-mile long attraction along Islandmagee that first opened in 1902. It fell into disrepair in the 1950s and closed that decade.

Efforts to rehab the attraction cost about 7.5 million pounds. It reopened in 2016, but it has been closed for walkers since this June due to concerns about possible falling rocks and won’t open again until sometime in 2017.

“The word gobbins is probably derived from the Irish word gob, which means a snout. The word bin is probably derived from Scots Gaelic and means a headland or mountain – Ben Nevis is a good example,” Hume explained. “The word really denotes the headlands that jut into the sea on the Islandmagee coast.”

McKeen said, ”The Gobbins is a key signature attraction for us here in Mid and East Antrim and also in Northern Ireland as a whole. It is another offering, along with the Causeway Coastal Route, which we need to market a sell to the whole world, as I think we have a unique attraction to bring people to this part of Ireland.”img_1095

The view from the water is spectacular and a bit daunting for a landlocked Midwesterner.

“The waters are treacherous because of submerged rocks. Skernaghan Point at Islandmagee, which we passed on the boat trip, is derived from the Norse word for reefs, so even the Vikings were aware of the dangers of this coast,” Hume said. “There were a lot of wrecks before there were the lighthouses at the Maidens (established in 1828) and Blackhead (1902). The lighthouses were built to try and make the coast safer. Also there are strong currents in this area which can be hazardous.”

The waters off The Gobbins have ties other ties to Irish history.

“The gunrunning of 1914 was carried out by Carson’s Ulster Volunteers who were opposed to Home Rule for Ireland,” Hume said. “The ship which was being used to transport the rifles was called the Clydevalley, and she sailed past the Islandmagee coast to Larne Habour on April 24, 1914. There were rumours that some of the rifles were stored in the Gobbins Cliffs afterward, but I have never found any evidence.”

The area in which we boated also was the nautical test area for the Titanic.

“She and other large vessels built in Belfast would have tested their anchors and carried out other maneuvers,” Hume said. I was once privileged to interview an old gentleman from Whitehead who saw the Titanic go out the mouth of Belfast Lough for her trials when he was a young boy.”

While we were in a boat, Hume noted that the view from the Gobbins is fantastic from the clifftop viewing point.

“You can see across the mouth of Belfast Lough to the County Down Coast, the Copeland Islands which are named after a 12th century Norman family, and then the Scottish coast, which is 23 miles away. There are occasional views of the ferries crossing from Belfast to Scotland,” Hume said.

The Gobbins Cliff Path
The Gobbins Cliff Path

As for the path itself, Hume said his personal favourite in terms of the engineering is the Tubular Bridge, “which is an amazing structure and so impressive to see when you come around the path and it is in the distance.”

“On every tour I have taken down to the path the visitors want to stop and have their photos taken there. Usually I take photos for them on the bridge and I get a sense of how important those photos are to them as a memento of their visit,” Hume said. “In general terms, however, the whole path is an awesome example of engineering, and I am impressed by it all. The bit I love most is where the engineers did not have to do anything at all – there is a stretch of rock which is flat and we walk along and it reminds me of how Mother Nature created the Gobbins and Berkeley Deane Wise, the engineer, worked his path on the edge of what was an awesome location.”

Past the tour and lunch at The Gobbins visitor center for lunch, we hit a place Gregg liked for ice cream – an old fashioned sort of ice cream parlor that you could imagine being somewhere in the Chicago area.

“I’ve been going to The Rinka for as long as I can remember,” McKeen said. “even as children it was always something we did. My favourite flavour is Raspberry Ruffle.”

The Rinkha = delicious
The Rinkha = delicious
Tom getting decorating tips at Old Bushmills Distillery
Tom getting decorating tips at Old Bushmills Distillery
Sharon and Gregg McKeen at Old Bushmills Distillery
Sharon and Gregg McKeen at Old Bushmills Distillery

Bushmills, Dark Hedges and Ballintoy Harbour

Next on our McKeen-guided day, Sharon drove us up to the Old Bushmills Distillery for a tour led by a bright college kid who barely seemed old enough to drink.

Then it was on to the Dark Hedges, the aforementioned mysterious grove of intertwined beech trees used in “Game of Thrones.”

McKeen said it was his first visit to the free attraction, which took a bit of GPS navigation to find.

The Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges

Like most of us, there are site not far from our our own doorsteps that we only see when visitors are here, McKeen said.

“I’ve  been all over the USA, but never visited places in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. The Dark Hedges were something else to visit in person. I’d seen them in pictures and on calendars, but to see them up close and walk the road was great,” he said.

Ballintoy Harbour at dusk
Ballintoy Harbour at dusk

While the McKeens made their first trip to the trees, they took us to dine at another stop they like, the Bushmills Inn, for a nice dinner.

And if that weren’t enough for one day, before dropping us back at the Fullerton Arms our gracious hosts took us to Ballintoy Harbour just before dusk. This site also was used in “Thrones,” which come to think of it, should be the secondary reason, at best, for visiting them.

The best reason is – they are freaking gorgeous places. So thank you “Game of Thrones,” I guess, for leading mopes like me to search out places this beautiful we might not otherwise have. And thanks to the McKeens for being such nice tour guides.

Giant’s Causeway

Tom and I had one more stop to make before heading back to Dublin – at the Giant’s Causeway, or, as I like to call it, the place with a lot of cool rock formations.

This World Heritage site was bustling with busloads of tourists, including some Australian women dangerously dangling a selfie stick above themselves as they took photos on the slippery stones. It was yet another piece of evidence that the smartphone is one of the best and one of the scariest pieces of technology ever devised.

Tom resting on his Giant's Causeway throne.
Tom resting on his Giant’s Causeway throne.

Disasters averted, we made our way back to Dublin, knowing how short vacations really are.

For future reference, I asked those we visited in Northern Ireland for other spots to check out on another journey.

Hume suggested Kilcoan Gardens in Islandmagee which has five acres of walks among flower gardens.

“Carrickfergus is also location for the Andrew Jackson Centre and US Rangers Museum. Jackson was the seventh US President,  and his parents were from Boneybefore, location for the cottage which has exhibitions on Jackson and the Presidency as well as the US Darby Rangers, which were founded by American units during the 2nd World War,” Hume said.

Hume’s dining recommendations included Whitehead Golf Club and Bentra restaurants in Whitehead, the Wind Rose in Carrickfergus, and the Curran Court Hotel in Larne.

Hope this helps you,

“A bit further along the coast you’ll find Mussenden Temple and Downhill House near Castlerock which has beautiful views and old buildings to admire, or out Ballycastle direction there is the remains of Kinbane castle, the caves at Cushendun or Glenariff Park,” Julie-Ann from the Fullerton said.

Along with my photos, doing an Internet search for the above should help me make it through the next few months.
As they say all too often on “Game of Thrones,” winter is coming. In my mind it will be late summer in all of Ireland.

Australian selfie-takers at Giant's Causeway
Australian selfie-takers at Giant’s Causeway