When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Is there a place where you can find vast richness in history, lush, scenic countryside and friendly, heart-warming people? Of all the locales on the planet which offer the above, Northern Ireland is definitely one of my favourites. The beautiful city of Belfast, the Giant’s Causeway, Donegal - home of fine wool sweaters - and of course, Bushmills, the oldest distillery in the world.

Flying to Ireland is relatively simple. For me it was a quick six hours to Shannon, another 40 minutes to Dublin and a two hour drive to Belfast. You can fly direct to the capital of Ulster, but I wanted to combine the north with the south, so I took a few detours.

Belfast has been a city of turmoil for many decades. Religious differences have always been issues in Ireland, but nowhere is this more prevalent than in Belfast. Basically, most of the city is as safe as any other, but typically, as in any global skirmishes; the media treats the most minor incident as major, life threatening, war zones.

When visiting Belfast allow a few days and make sure one of your stops is a meal at the famous Crown pub, complete with it's yellow, red and gold ceiling, a floor laid in mosaic tiles, detailed wood carvings throughout and a variety of ornate mirrors all over.

Everywhere you look you will see etched and stained glass, originally designed to keep passers-by from peeking inside. Built in 1826 the Crown has become a landmark in Belfast. It was built as a railway stop and has always been popular, but in 1981 the owners poured £400,000 into restoration bringing it back to its full Victorian splendour.

The second 'must see' sight in Belfast is the city hall. In 1888, when Queen Victoria granted city status to Belfast, plans for a new city hall were drawn up. The beautiful, baroque style building dominates the city centre skyline with its shiny dome that separates the commercial district from the business sector.

Damaged extensively in World War Two, slow restoration is still taking place today. Tours are available and well worth it. For those who prefer to relax the grounds are well maintained with benches everywhere. The site of the building is in the centre of the city's old linen district.

From Belfast head north to the Giant's causeway, an area of land on the northern coast, made up of strange, six-sided columns, which rise from the earth at various heights. Some 40,000 interlocking, basalt pillars are the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. The area was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and was named the fourth greatest natural wonder in the United Kingdom. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that disappear under the sea. Across the Irish Sea, in Scotland, similar columns appear, setting the foundation for the famous Fionn McCool legend.

The Irish warrior Fionn McCool, built the causeway to walk to Scotland and fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner. One version of the legend tells that Fionn fell asleep before he got to Scotland. When he did not arrive, the much larger Benandonner crossed the bridge looking for him. To protect Fionn, his wife Oonagh laid a blanket over him so he could pretend that he was actually their baby son. When Benandonner saw the size of the 'infant', he assumed the alleged father of Fionn must be gigantic indeed. Therefore, Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway in case he was followed by. Whatever the fact behind the history a visit is a must.

A few kilometers from the Giant's Causeway is the famous Bushmills distillery, the oldest in existence anywhere in the world, dating back to 1608. My visit was fascinating and I remember chuckling when I learned that workers in the fermentation room have to bicycle to work, because inhaling the fumes puts them over the legal limit to drive.

Get there early, as tours are given on a first come first serve basis. Reservations are not available (unless you are with a large group), but make sure you have a designated driver with you, as a sample of the 'product' is a memorable experience.

Continue west from Bushmills to the county of Donegal, one of Northern Ireland's most picturesque locations and home of some of the finest wool in the world. Its history lies in the rich kings of old and it is still predominately Gaelic, although English is used everywhere. Fantastic scenery, argumentatively the best in Ireland, is found along the rugged sea coast, but the famous Donegal roll neck sweaters are still the big draw.

To spend a week in Northern Ireland will treat you to some of the most hospitable customs you will find anywhere. Scrumptious food, excellent beverages and breathtaking scenery will make any visit to the province of Ulster very memorable and yes, your eyes will be smiling.

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