When you are travelling long term or living overseas, it is always nice to have a few little reminders of home and the best kind comes in the form of friends who will make the effort to visit you.
We knew it was going to be a long day when we booked our flight to Ireland from Malaga. The plane was due to go at 7:45am and the only shuttle we could get was at 5:00am, so we were up and about at 4:00am. It wasn’t until we were at the airport that RyanAir pulled its now common trick of announcing a delay, the upshot of which was that we only left after 9:00am, meaning we could have slept in for another two hours!
We slept on the trip and awoke to find ourselves arriving over Ireland. There it was, still green as ever and as a special surprise the rain had stopped temporarily. We collected our hire car from the friendly girls at Europcar and were on our way into Belfast, where we met up with our friends and stopped by the UNESCO listed Crown Liquor Saloon to take a few photos. Where else in the world would you find a UNESCO world heritage listed PUB? Next step was popping in to Fibber Magee’s for a pint of the best, Guinness and a steak and Guinness pie to boot. With lunch successfully downed, it was decided to take the scenic route to Sligo, where we had booked accommodation for what promised to be a Craicing week.
We covered some lovely scenic spots on the way, Lough Erne, Belleek (home of the eponymous pottery) and the shores of Lough Melvin, before passing under the brooding hills that mark the entrance to Sligo. Our home for the next week was an apartment in the centre of the city overlooking the river, which runs from Lough Gill to the sea. The river is a fairly shallow affair which has been altered by weirs and races to accommodate waterwheels last used long ago. Nowadays it is home to fly fishermen, ducks and a family of swans, two parents and five cygnets, whose antics never failed to amuse us from the balcony overlooking the river.
Sligo is a town that constantly surprises and where the Craic is never more than a couple of steps away. The town centre retains many of the historic buildings, particularly pubs, of which there are numerous examples. It seems that every pub has either one or more musicians playing and the quality of musicianship was amazing, considering this is a town with a population of around 20,000. We elected to eat dinner at Hargadon Brothers, reputed to be amongst the best pubs in town for food. The pub retains much of it’s old world charm, with timber booths, bentwood chairs, an ancient bar in front of a collection of some of the most ancient Guinness bottles we have seen and of course a wide selection of beers and ales. Whilst Cath’s duck was a hit, our other meals were fairly pedestrian. Perhaps the “Chef Wanted” sign out the front should have alerted us.
After dinner we wandered along the streets listening to the sounds of various bands before stopping off at Tricky McGarrigles, where The Teleboyz were playing an eclectic mix of country and rockabilly. Ian was highly impressed with the quality of the musicianship and we all spent an enjoyable evening, with a pint or two, before calling stumps at midnight.
Our first full day in Sligo was spent wandering around the town, admiring the cathedral and other churches. It is quite noticeable that Irish churches are not given to overt displays of wealth and grandeur, so evident in many European countries. Nevertheless they are charming in their own way and clearly still in constant use. We drove out to Rosses Point and strolled along the beach, an adventurous activity in chilly Ireland, before returning to Sligo, eager for some more music. This time we chose a pub by the name of The Swagman which had capitalised on an Australian theme. There were footballs, thongs, footy club photos and all sorts of Australiana, which kept us well amused and when we caught up with the owner later in the evening, it became apparent what was behind the idea. His name was Dale and he was an Aussie from Albury who had married a Sligo girl and settled there. We had a good laugh and a yak with him. The band “The Craic Addicts” were top notch, playing a variety of traditional and cover music, giving Cath the opportunity to talk a couple of young Irish dancers into giving her a lesson in the finer arts of Gaelic dancing, perhaps she should have had that pint taken away earlier. Another late night and many pints of Guinness! And if you happen to be in Sligo, the pub grub at the Swagman is pretty good too.
On Wednesday we took a long drive down to Peterswell, south of Galway to hunt down a distant relative of one of our friends. It is such an Aussie thing to do, go looking for an Irish relative, mainly because we all seem to have one or two in the family tree. Whilst we didn’t have any success with Peterswell, a sign led us to the nearby Kilthomas Cemetery and there she was delighted to find said relatives grave. Much excitement and taking of photos followed before we backtracked to Galway for a well earned pint of the brown stuff. We have previously visited and written about Galway, so we won’t go into detail. Suffice to say Galway is one of our favourite Irish towns, with a thriving pub scene and a gorgeous canal system. Well worth a couple of days visit. It was a long drive back to Sligo with the rain setting in, so we settled for a quiet evening on the balcony, a home cooked meal and drinks, of course.
We took another rather lengthy drive on Thursday, on the N15 up past Donegal and Derry, to Portrush on the north coast, with the intention of seeing the nearby Giant’s Causeway. We opted for a meal at an unusual little restaurant by the name of The Spinnaker, which turned out to be a fairly tired nautical themed affair, as were the offerings, before moving on.
We had been given a tip about avoiding the car parking fees (£10), at the Giant’s Causeway which proved to be quite effective, if also tiring. Parking the car at the Beach Road in Portbalintrae (HINT:check the sign in the carpark, it gives you directions to the Causeway), which is just a little further along the coast from Portrush, we were able to walk along a track that crossed over the Bush River before following the old Bushmills railway track. Which also leads to the distillery should you be interested in a quick tasting. After this we struck out along the beach, passing in front of an imposing old brownstone manor house, which remains mysteriously untitled, before walking along the cliff top track which eventually led us all the way to the back of the visitor’s Centre. From there it was a simple matter of joining the throng, (and we do mean throng) and walking down to see the causeway. It was a long hike, about 10 miles round trip and it has to be said it is difficult to appreciate this natural wonder, covered as it is, by hundreds of tourists all intent on getting as many selfies as possible. Might we suggest also that if you are interested in seeing the causeway, you ascertain which times are less crowded. Oh and follow the train track if you don’t have a great head for heights……but if you do, you will miss some of the most incredible views along the coast.
On the way back, we decided to try and fit in a couple of other popular sites. Firstly we tried the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a famous rope bridge near Ballintoy, used in the filming of Game of Thrones. Sadly it was closed due to the windy weather, not such a great disappoint to at least one of our party (we are all looking at you Cath). So we struck out for the Dark Hedges, a section of roadway near Ballymoney, famous for the romantic intertwined beech trees planted there in the eighteenth century.(Another HINT: don’t pay for the car park here either, just park on the side of the road, like everyone else). Light was fading fast and the rain had ice in it, so we didn’t have long to get a photo opportunity before it was time to turn for home.
The Lanterns of Hope Festival, for suicide prevention was on Friday night, in the town square, so we put in an appearance before catching a little traditional music at Hargadons. After that it was back to the Swagman for burgers and pizza and another night of the famous craic.
We had observed a sign pointing to a Glen Carr waterfall on our earlier travels, so on Saturday we went exploring Co. Sligo. The waterfall is quite pretty and only a short walk from the carpark at the base but not quite as spectacular as we had thought. So we were after more exploring, and took off to follow the tourist drive around Benbulben. Benbulben looms over the city of Sligo and we were keen to try and find out if we could get to the top. We managed to find several small and quiet country lanes, which afforded us some remarkable views of the hill, but also we were able to see Eagles Rock, a huge rock cleaved from the main mountain by glacial forces millennia ago. As we had a little time up our sleeve, we also checked out Mullaghmore and Classiebawn Castle, but sadly it is privately owned and can’t be approached very closely at all. Nevertheless, Cath felt it was worthwhile to climb up on the fence for a quick snap. Naughty girl…. who holds no truck with English landowners shutting us out of our Irish heritage!!
Continuing the Irish heritage episode we headed off to the local Gaelic Football game to support our new home town in Ireland, Sligo. Gaelic football is one of the games that Australian Rules Football was founded on and as good little Aussies we were keen to experience it. We were a bit surprised that there was no Guinness to be had at the game. We were considering a quick exit at half time, to the local pub of course, and the score line was an inducement to do so, poor old Sligo were not going so well. Bloody lucky we didn’t because whatever the Sligo coach said at half time, it worked. There was a huge come back, we joined the crowd in encouraging our boys on (our boys, we have been here 5 minutes) and Sligo won.
We arose early Sunday morning and left our party animal mates who had popped out for a couple of wee drinks the night before and took off to investigate the Queen Maeve Trail at Knocknarea, a local hill with several cairns, including the largest, 12 metres tall, which is reputed to be the burial site of Queen Maeve. The walk is 2.9 km and took us about an hour, it is a lovely little jaunt for about half the distance and then one needs to call on one’s inner mountain goat! The view from the top is stunning, enabling one to take in a large slice of the countryside, but also the bay and islands and would no doubt have been a perfect lookout for the ancient Celts. On our return, we spent a pleasant hour in The Mill, a hotel situated over the river, while we enjoyed our lunch, richly deserved after the climb up and scramble down.
And then of course there was more Craic to be had, so it was back to McGarrigles for another excellent traditional music session. Which only warmed us up for a good old Sunday session at The Snug Bar, Sligo’s smallest pub and possibly friendliest pub. Our quiet afternoon turning into a rather raucous night until the barman signalled stumps and it was off to bed.
Does it sound like our livers may need a rest?
Our final day in Ireland was spent on a hurried trip back to Belfast, where we admired several murals in Falls Rd, before saying au revoir and heading to the airport.
What a week! We certainly packed in 6 months of partying that we had missed out on at home.