Adventures: Which way to Northern Ireland?

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis finds epic charm and scenery galore in the land of poets.

The 400-year-old Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Prior to departure, my friend, Lois Doell, warned emphatically, “Be sure you have comprehensive coverage!” Losing a mirror, she assured me, was a primary tourist hazard when driving around Northern Ireland.

As a large van mirror parked on the left connected with my left passenger mirror in Ballycastle, I thought of her.

With what I found to be characteristically Irish cool courtesy and concern, the van owner, interrupted from whitewashing an old pub, sauntered over. “I wondered about the sound,” he said. “You’re not to worry. We’ll sort it.”

Calling Dan Dooley Car Rentals he patiently explained we were both minus mirrors, and their client was falling apart.

Ballycastle, reminiscent of a KCTS 9 film set, sadly got no more of my attention. Now ‘sorted’, I retreated back to the narrow, scenic, almost deserted (maybe word travels fast in Ireland) Causeway Coast route.

Wild. Blustery. Imposing. The ancient 60,000-year-old rocks and cliffs brought me down to earth. Parking, I walked. Cold sea air filled my lungs. Reassured by the mystical terrain, I was reminded that one shattered mirror does not an earth-shattering disaster make.

By dinnertime at Bushmills Inn, Michael from Dan Dooley in Belfast (an hour and a half away) arrived to exchange the blue Toyota Corolla for a red Ford Focus (with two mirrors). “It’s smaller,” he said, handing me a GPS.

The Game of Thrones cast, who were staying at the Inn for night filming at nearby historic Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, glanced over in amusement.

County Antrim is home to Bushmills, Ireland’s oldest working distillery. Now seemed like the perfect time to relax before the fire and see if the brand lived up to its 400-year-old reputation.

It did.

Reluctantly vacating the four-poster bed in room 108, and with a grateful glance at the deep claw-footed tub, I checked out the following morning.

“You can’t get lost in Northern Ireland,” Matthew assured me at reception. “It’s all the scenic route.”

Fortunately, Northern Ireland is small, and – in spite of me – actually easy to traverse. Red car, Miss. Recalculating (the GPS), and I covered many miles, which eventually led us to Seamus Heaney country.

Magherafelt, in County Londonderry, is about an hour from anywhere in Northern Ireland (unless you’re driving with me).

I’m a big fan of B&Bs, so Laurel Villa in this quaint village was right up my alley.

[Eugene Kielt, right, reads poetry by Seamus Heaney. Photo: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis]

Owned by Eugene and Geraldine Kielt, Laurel Villa was bought by Eugene’s widowed mother as a revenue property when he was 11. Gradually ensuites were added to the five bedrooms, upgrades implemented, and Eugene’s passion for poetry grew.

My room, The Patrick Kavanagh Room, reminds me of my childhood. Familiar dark wood furniture, copies of Kavanagh’s poetry, and a glimpse of the back garden. Downstairs a sitting room, study, and dining room comfortably invite exploration of books, poets’ pictures, and memorabilia.

Poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, grew up in the area. Well versed in history and genealogy, Eugene has crafted Heaney tours of the poet’s local haunts.

Armed with Heaney poems, Eugene reads Heaney works to me at locations described in verse – the river, the sports field next to the old cemetery, and a stop at the smithy to meet 95-year-old retired blacksmith Barney Devlin, Heaney’s inspiration for The Forge.

Of Heaney, Eugene’s admiration and affection is clear. “He was a very kind man. I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Two American couples also staying at Laurel Villa tell me this is their second Laurel Villa Boutique Guest House “roots” visit.  In addition to the warm Magherafelt welcome, they remarked that Northern Ireland was more affordable than the south, and equally worth exploring.

As I leave, Geraldine and I discover we are both Conways. Are we related? I’ll have to return for one of Eugene’s genealogy research tours to find out.

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a British Columbia-based travel writer and photographer. and is the founding editor/publisher of the Cloverdale Reporter News.


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