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The tranquil roadside scene of gentle sheep quietly grazing in a county Antrim seaside meadow belies the turbulent history of Ulster. One of Ireland's four ancient kingdoms, Ulster covered the six counties of Northern Ireland (along with three counties now in the Republic of Ireland). Today, references to Ulster refer to Northern Ireland.
Ulster was the last region of Ireland to fall to English control. The O'Neil and O'Donnell chieftains fled Ulster under English pressure, in what is known as "the flight of the earls," leaving Gaelic Ireland leaderless. King James I decided the best way to keep Ulster in subordination was through colonization by loyal subjects. English and Scottish Protestant migrants were granted the vacant estates. This time period is known as the plantation era.
Northern Ireland was formed in 1921, when those of Protestant English and Scottish decent were a far greater percentage of the population than today. These did not want to be part of the Irish Republic but sought to remain tied to England.
The Londonderry area represents one of the longest continuously inhabited areas of Ireland. The first recorded inhabitation came with St. Columb's monastery founded in an oak grove around 546 AD, as he fled the plague Donegal. He called the area "Daire," Gaelic for "oak grove." The name was anglicized to "Derry."
In 1613 Derry was selected as a major plantation-era project. Since most of the builders and the money to rebuild the medieval city came from London, the name was changed to Londonderry. Londonderry was the last walled-city in Ireland, and the city walls remain in tact today. In 1689 they withstood a 105-day siege by the forces of Catholic King James II. The city's loyalty was with the newly-crowned Protestant King William. Some of the cannons used to defend the city during the siege may be seen along the city walls today. The city walls, eighteen feet thick, are about a mile around. The walls, popular with local joggers and walkers, allow the visitor to get an overview of the city, surrounding area, and the River Foyle below.
Derry was an important embarkation point for many emigrants leaving for North America, reflected by such place names as Derry, New Hampshire. The Seventeenth Century-layout of the town has four main streets radiating outward from the Diamond to four gateways: Bishop's Gate, Ferryquay Gate, Shipquay Gate, and Butcher's Gate. St. Columb's Cathedral, which dates from 1633 was Western Europe's first post-Reformation cathedral. At the heart of the old city is the Craft Village, representing the traditional crafts of Derry. The village opened in 1992 as part of the city's work at revitalization.
The industrial city of Belfast, located in a river valley, ringed by hills, and pressed against the Belfast Lough, has one third of Northern Ireland's population. The river front and town center areas welcome exploration by foot, and the numerous benches offer a place to take a break and people-watch. Many Victorian and Edwardian buildings (of which City Hall is a fine example) are sprinkled throughout the city. The huge shipyard cranes dominate the port skyline. The city was an Industrial Revolution boom town, doubling its size every ten years during the period.
Northern Ireland is more country than city. Outside Belfast, the scenery soon turns to rolling farmland and small, quiet villages. Hedgerows and stacked-stone fences mark property boundaries set forth hundreds of years ago, creating patchwork patterns on the verdant hillsides. Agriculture remains the top industry in Northern Ireland.
"Sheep outnumber people in Ulster two to one," one resident proclaimed.
The "Ulster Way" is a 560-mile circular hiking trail around Northern Ireland. One may pick up the trail and hike a few miles most anywhere along the trail. I chose a portion of the trail where it advances through the Sperrin Mountains, through true pastoral serenity: stone-enclosed, jade-green fields dotted with fat white sheep. Every now and then a passing farmer offered a friendly wave or "hello."
The Sperrin Mountains cover an area 35 miles wide running northwest to southeast. Within the mountains is a wealth of natural and archaeological resources. Popular activities include: hiking, biking, horseback riding, golf, and fishing.
Mullaghcarn Mountain lies on the outer fringes of the Sperrin Mountain Range. On the western side of Mullaghcarn Mountain lies Gortin Glen Forest Park. The park features trails wending through thick forests of Sitka spruce, thickly-draped in green moss, along gurgling streams, and through fields of heather.
In the foothills of the Sperrins, midway between Omagh and Cookstown, is Creggan. The sparse population of the region (about 800) has banded together to promote the area. The An Creagan Visitor Centre has become a model for rural development. The center offers many cultural events to the community throughout the year, and serves as an information center for the traveler. The An Creagan community welcomes the prospect of sharing their region with cultural-travelers.
The center is built to mirror the many archaeological sites of the region. It tells the region's story in three parts: culture & tradition; natural environment; and the archaeological landscape. The area's Black Bog is one of the largest intact raised bogs in Ireland. Among the archaeological sites (some of which date from the Stone Age) are: Court Tombs, Standing Stones, and Stone Circles.
The name Creggan comes from the Gaelic "An Creagan," and means "barren or stony place." The area has a long history of Irish Catholic habitation. It was the last area in Northern Ireland to speak the native Irish. During the plantation era, the area's many bogs and rocky ground made it of no value to the English, so the Irish in the area were allowed to remain. More Irish, pushed from other areas, also settled in the area. The stony ground, higher elevation, and bogs meant that life would be difficult, but those that remained were able to eke a living from the land.
A stay in an area B & B allows one to interact with a local family and gain a greater appreciation for the region. Several "self-catering cottages" in the area are available for rent. Many of these are cozy Irish homes with "turf" fireplaces. "Turf" is dried peat cut from the local bogs that is used as fuel. The intensity of the heat produced by a turf fire is hotter than a wood fire but less intense than coal.
Genealogical pursuits bring many to Northern Ireland. There is a strong Irish-American connection; at least a dozen US Presidents have descended from Ulster bloodlines. A place to explore those bloodlines is the Ulster-American Folk Park, which traces the history of 200 years of Irish emigration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The outdoor living history museum tells the historical story through 23 numbered sites. Exhibits include the birthplace home of Thomas Mellon, around which the park is built, on the original site. Mellon, with his family, emigrated to the US at the age of five. He went on to found Mellon Bank, his family becoming one of the richest in America.
A nineteenth century Ulster street exhibit and the ship & dockside gallery exhibits display give visitors a view of circumstances encountered by those emigrating to North America. Other period structures on display have been relocated from other areas in Ulster. The Centre for Emigration Studies contains reference resources including: maps, journals, audio visual material, books, microfilms, and the emigration database. Enjoy the exhibits, then research family roots--your own or those of others.
County Down will be forever associated with Saint Patrick, it was the starting point for Saint Patrick's evangelization of Ireland--but that wasn't the plan. He had intended to sail to county Antrim, where he had shepherded flocks as a slave on Slemish Mountain. Strong sea currents propelled his boat through "the narrows" into Strangford Lough, landing him at the mouth of the Slaney River. Undeterred, Saint Patrick began his missionary work there, establishing his first church in Saul. He worked the rest of his life to bring Christianity to the Irish, at the end of which he was buried in Downpatrick in 461 AD.
Strangford Lough is a lovely fifteen-mile-long body of water dotted with islands, lying between the Ards Peninsula and the main body of county Down. "The narrows," with Portaferry on one side and Strangford on the other, serves as tidal change conduit between the lough and the Irish Sea. Every half-hour, an auto ferry crosses between the two villages. The quiet village of Portaferry is home of Exploris, Northern Ireland's only aquarium.
Old castles and the crumbling stone structures of ancient friaries dot the land, but it is some of the world's most beautiful coastline scenery of which county Antrim boasts. The primary attraction is the Giant's Causeway, a geological oddity that has prompted many legends. Hexagonally-shaped basalt columns, formed volcanically, are said to be part of the giant Finn MacCool's path he built to reach his lady love on the island of Staffa in Scotland. Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's only World Heritage Site.
The town of Bushmills, on the Bush River, takes its name from the corn and timber mills that were once in the area. Bushmills is also home to the Old Bushmills Distillery, the world's oldest licensed whiskey distillery. King James I issued the license in 1608, but whiskey had been produced in the area since the late 1200's. Distillery tours enlighten one on the whiskey-making process, and the three-distillation process that gives Irish whiskey its reputed smoothness (Scotch uses a two-distillation process, US bourbon uses one).
While in Northern Ireland I experienced surprisingly peaceful land with friendly people. I enjoyed the company of both Protestant and Catholic families while there. The sharp divisions I expected, I did not find. Though many mention "the troubles," residents are optimistic about the future of the peace process, which seems to be taking hold. Northern Ireland is culturally and historically rich, offering much to the intrepid traveler.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher