Ireland: Sligo, Antrim Coast & Giant’s Causeway

Tuesday, Nov 26, 2002

Behold the guardian of Sligo, Ben Bulben.
Nov. 26, 2002

In the morning when we woke up, we opened the window only to finally see how good of a view of Ben Bulben our B&B had: it was right in front of us, looming large and serene, a crown of clouds on its head. It is said that you cannot go anywhere in Sligo without seeing Ben Bulben, and I believe it. It is a cyclopean sentinel watching over its kingdom, and over its beloved poet.

At breakfast we met another couple from Boston and dined on “little soldiers”, hard-boiled eggs served with a strip of toasted bread for a rifle, and some home-made orange marmalade. It was absolutely delicious. After packing all our stuff, we headed just some few hundred feet up the road to Drumcliff Churchyard, the site of Yeats’ grave.

Amid ancient relics–a Norman round tower across the street, and St. Columbkille’s (or St. Columba) Cross–and overlooked by Ben Bulben, Drumcliff is a solemn place. In winter, the trees reach skeletal branches to the sky, and the clouds descend quite low, shrouding the area in mist. In the middle of this otherworldly setting, we sat to pay our respects to a man who was as much a patriot of Ireland as any of the martyrs of the Easter Rebellion (more in Dublin), a man who sought to better his country by his words, a man who gave us a legacy in writing that will live for centuries to come. His true monument, however, is not in Drumcliff, but rather in our bookshelves, all the bookshelves of the world that still hold Yeats’ words and hope of a new Ireland, a new world.

Yeats himself put it best in his poem, “Under Ben Bulben”:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.

No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman pass by!

The grave of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
Nov. 26, 2002

From Drumcliff we decided to check out another Yeatsian location, so we set back into Sligo in search of Lough Gill and the Lake Isle of Innisfree. By now it had kind-of become a private joke between us: you see, Yeats had a very particular way of reading poetry, where rhythm was heavily marked, and Lake Isle was the poem Danny had heard a recording of Yeats reading in one of his classes. So whenever we spoke of Yeats, we would recite Lake Isle in a mock rendition of Yeats’ accent. Yes, we realize its one of those things you had to be there, but if you can ever hear a recording of Yeats reading poetry, do so and you’ll understand us perfectly.

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Yvette & Danny in front of the Lake Isle of Innisfree (back and left).
Nov. 26, 2002

We made our way back to the main road, and with Ben Bulben watching over our departure, we headed north, way north, headed towards our next destination: Northern Ireland.

Our drive north took us through County Donegal, and we could see first-hand the difference in the landscape of this side of Ireland. The mountains are not quite as lush as the southwestern part had been; in fact, it had more in common with Connemara in its starkness than with Dingle and its verdant scapes. Eventually we took a roundabout that took us into Northern Ireland. We were expecting to have to show our passports, but the only way we knew we had crossed was because the signs changed and there was barbwire around various buildings, including a school. This was our introduction to Derry/Londonderry (depending on which side of the issue, and river, you stood).

Our destination was still far away: we were heading towards the northern coast of Ireland, to the Giant’s Causeway. It took a few hours but we finally made it, stopping first at Dunluce Castle. Not a huge tourist attraction, we nonetheless decided to stop and take a look, mainly because it was empty and we had the ruins pretty much to ourselves. Dunluce’s claim to fame is rather bizarre: in 1639, on a stormy night the Count of Antrim was hosting a party at his castle when all of a sudden half the kitchen just fell off into the sea. The guide told us that one could still see the ruins down in the water, though we could not reach the area since it was roped off.

“None shall pass!” Danny at Dunluce Castle.
Nov. 26, 2002

Our quick stop at Dunluce done, we headed towards the main course of Antrim, the Giant’s Causeway.

Formed by the Celtic warrior Finn McCool in order to reach his lover in the Scottish island of Staffa, the causeway is a natural wonder. Geologists say that it was actually created by cooling basalt lava some 60 million years ago, but we all know that scientists must have their own silly explanations. Finn was actually quite thorough, making his causeway all the way to Staffa (off the coast of Scotland), though only the foundations can be seen in Ireland and Staffa today, since the rest lies underwater, after Finn’s lover’s brother tore it up escaping from Finn’s wrath as he fled back to Scotland.

We decided to take the scenic path: it was 4:00 pm when we began our walk (remember that). The view of the coast is amazing, though we glossed it over as we wanted to reach the causeway before dark. The scenic path was longer than we expected and then involved going down the side of the mountain via a very narrow path. Remember we mentioned it had been raining a lot in Ireland before we arrived? The path was okay, though it could have been better at parts. Suffice it to say that we were very, very foolish to have taken this path and we made it down alive thanks to the grace of God.

Via this approach, we had to pass by The Organ first, so we stopped to take a few pictures. The basalt pillars that make up the causeway are actually all over the mountains in the area, and in this particular place, the top layer of the mountain had fallen, revealing the infrastructure of hexagonal pillars, making it look like a bunch of organ pipes, hence the name. It was quite impressive, especially when you stood at the bottom and looked straight up (major case of vertigo), but time was running short and we wanted to see the causeway.

Yvette in front of “The Organ”, one of the basalt formations at the causeway.
Nov. 26, 2002

By the time we reached the actual causeway the sun had set but there was still plenty of light to see the formations. Immediately we regretted having stopped at Dunluce, but we had made our choice and now we had to make the most of it. The formations at the causeway are incredible; no photograph can ever do them justice. The photographs make it seem darker than it really was, though not by much.

It is simply amazing to witness these strange shapes conjured by nature, so many perfectly fitted steps trailing off to the sea. Finn surely did a great job.

The hexagonal stones of the Giant’s Causeway,
another proof of how whimsical and fickle nature can be.
Nov. 26, 2002

Yvette wanders as close as possible to the edge of the
causeway. The marker shows where the tide normally comes up to.
Nov. 26, 2002

With the light fading very fast, we had to make our way off from the rocks and onto the road. We realized we were alone–completely alone–and no one knew we were down here. To make things more interesting, a big storm was rolling in from the north, and its windy herald was already upon us. With only the hint of moonlight to guide us, we set out against the wind and up the steep road. As we rounded a small corner, the wind buffeted us, throwing Danny three steps back. The climb up was a feat of endurance, with only a far-away light from the visitor’s center providing us a destination. Eventually we made it all the way up; the place was deserted, night had completely fallen and the storm had arrived. We got into our car and sat there for a few moments catching our breath, giving thanks that we had made it out of what could have been a really bad spot. It was then we looked at our watch: it was 5:00 pm on the dot. Our whole odyssey, worthy of its own epic poem, had taken only one hour.

We went back to Portrush and found a room at the Belvedere Town House, a place recommended by our Rick Steves’ guide. After getting some food we hit the town to check out the Portrush nightlife, meaning the arcades. Portrush is a holiday spot, and that’s exactly what it caters to; it’s full of bars, restaurants, amusement centers and arcades. The arcades are actually very cool, a mixture of oldand new games: video games stand next to 2p-slot machines and air hockey tables. We had a blast for a couple of hours, eventually heading back to the Belvedere to a very well-deserved night of sleep.