The Ulster Museum: From Irish Elk to Spanish Treasure

I love visiting local museums and the Ulster Museum in Belfast is a great example of the genre. I mean no disparagement by calling it ‘local’; because, what it does, brilliantly, is give visitors an excellent overview of Northern Ireland’s history, together with many fascinating objects which illuminate that.

And it starts with a terrific exhibit – that of the long extinct Irish elk.

An Irish elk excavated from a bog – just look at those magnificent huge antlers

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The Magical Mount Stewart Gardens

Today is Valentine’s Day and I want to celebrate it by taking you to what has been voted one of the world’s top ten gardens: Mount Stewart Gardens in Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It was created by Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry from 1921 on as a place to ‘be lived in and enjoyed’.

A garden needs a lot of upkeep as represented here by the full wheelbarrow. Lady Londonderry loved splashes of colour – the more brilliant the better.

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Ireland: A Walk on the Wild Side

In June last year, I was at Streedagh strand in Co Sligo, on Ireland’s west coast, on one of Auriel Robinson’s wonderful SeaTrails walks. The walk covered a huge amount: local geology dating back 350 million years; prehistory, we examined an interesting Bronze Age Wedge tomb; 16th century history, hearing the story of the shipwrecks of three ships from the Spanish Armada which sank here in 1588; botany, walking over the machair grassland with its profusion of wild flowers; marine geology: marvelling at the fossilized corals, sea lilies and other creatures strewn in profusion along the shore; and 20th century history, seeing Mullaghmore harbour where the tragic murder of Lord Mountbatten, and three other people, two of them children, took place in 1979.

Murraghmore: looking towards Benbulben

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In the Footsteps of St Patrick

March 17th is St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland and, this week, I’m looking at a couple of places in Northern Ireland which he visited. St Patrick, whose family was Romano-British, was born in about AD 370, somewhere in Western England between the Severn and the Clyde. His father, a Christian, was a man of some standing in his community and owned a small estate. When he was about sixteen, Patrick was captured by pirates, taken to Ireland, sold as a slave and became a shepherd. Six years later, he escaped and, eventually, found a ship to take him home.

St Patrick’s Protestant Cathedral, Downpatrick. The poet John Betjeman declared it Britain’s loveliest small cathedral.

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The Gallows of Downpatrick Gaol

What must it have been like to be held in a prison where the gallows was always visible? Suppose that you had been condemned to hang and would soon be climbing those wooden stairs and feel the hangman put the noose around your neck. The very stones of the place must have smelled of misery and hopelessness – the thoughts jostled through my mind when I visited Downpatrick Gaol, now a museum, in County Down, Northern Ireland.

  1. The gallows in Downpatrick Gaol

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In the Footsteps of W. B. Yeats

I’ve just returned from visiting ‘Yeats Country’, namely, Co. Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, following in the poet William Butler Yeats’ footsteps. Yeats had a very varied life; he was: a poet and a playwright; interested in theosophy and the occult; a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; appointed Senator in the first Irish Senate in 1922; a lover of Irish myth and folklore; and passionately involved with a number of women. Any of these would make an interesting post. However, today, I’m looking at places which stirred his imagination as a child.

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) by George Charles Beresford

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Dunluce Castle

Only a few miles east of the Giant’s Causeway, perched on Northern Ireland’s basalt cliffs, the spectacularly-sited Dunluce Castle plunges straight into the Irish Sea. (Game of Thrones fans will recognize it as Pyke Castle, stronghold of the House of Greyjoy.)

Dunluce Castle has inspired many books and films. from C. S. Lewis’s Cair Paravel, the capital of Narnia, to ‘Game of Thrones’

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Glenarm Castle’s Walled Gardens

The story of Glenarm Castle begins with a murder. In 1242, John Bisset, a hot-headed young Scot of Norman origin, was implicated in the murder of Padraig, Earl of Atholl, after a tournament in Haddington, where John’s uncle Walter was beaten by the earl. In revenge, John murdered the earl, set fire to his house to conceal the crime, and fled to Ireland.

It was John Bisset who built the first castle at Glenarm on the Antrim coast, facing his old homeland. Bisset then fades from the castle’s history. But every castle worthy of the name needs a good murder in its founding story.

Glenarm Castle

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Strangford: a Charming Small Port

Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland is Britain’s largest sea lough, covering 58 square miles. It runs north to south with the long, narrow Ards peninsula running down its eastern side between the lough and the Irish Sea. At the lough’s south-eastern edge a narrow channel leads to the sea; with the picturesque little port of Strangford on the west side linked to Portaferry on the Ards peninsula by a car ferry.

View across the straits from Strangford to Portferry: the yellow rape field is on the far side

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The Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is something I’ve long wanted to visit and last week my wish was granted. Geologically, it comprises over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns of different sizes created over 60 million years ago as a result of intense volcanic activity (the temperature needed to create them is between 840ºC and 890ºC). As the molten basalt cool, pseudo-crystals form creating the mainly hexagonal columns we see today. It was granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 1986.

The Giant’s Causeway from the east side

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