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Trip to Northern Ireland

  • Submitted by: Michael Bates
  • Submission Date: 11th Feb 2005

This is a companion article to one I posted a couple of weeks ago to and That article covered Scotland, this one covers Ireland. My wife and I visited Scotland and Northern Ireland in early June 1994. We rented a car in each place and more or less let the itinerary evolve with the weather and our mood. As in the Scotland posting, I'll be listing some favorite places and some useful information.

I'm also posting this to soc.culture.celtic and soc.roots because I think it will be of interest in those places, since family history and Irish history were the main reasons for our visit. Followups are directed to; please edit the newsgroups line if your followup has more to do with genealogy or Irish history.

The focus of our visit to Ireland was to gather some additional information on an ancestor of mine, the Rev. Joseph Reagh (Rhea), who was a Presbyterian minister at Fahan, Inishowen, Co. Donegal. The hunt for information shaped our itinerary to a great degree. Consequently, we spent less time at major tourist sites; the benefit of that was that we saw places not often visited by overseas tourists. We spent all of our time in Ulster: specifically Cos. Antrim, Derry, Donegal, and Tyrone. We moved around a lot less, spending three nights at a B&B near Belfast, four nights at a farmhouse near Lifford, Co. Donegal and our last night at another B&B not far from the Belfast Airport.

NOTE: Phone numbers below are prefixed with IR (for Irish Republic) or NI (for Northern Ireland). From the US, substitute IR with 011-353, and NI with 011-44 (same as rest of UK). Don't forget to drop the leading zero in the city code when dialing from overseas.


Giant's Causeway: Worth seeing and, pace Dr. Johnson, worth the going to see. You've probably seen pictures of it: hexagonal basaltic columns of varying heights, packed together and extending out into the sea. You can spend a short time here or all day. The visitor's center at Giant's Causeway is well-done, with an exhibit on the geologic history of the formation, on the history of the causeway as a tourist attraction, on local flora and fauna, and on local folk culture. (The song about the Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, from a video in the exhibit, still runs through my mind now and then.) They've got a good gift shop/bookstore with plenty of information on tourist destinations in Northern Ireland. You can walk to the various formations or take a minibus to and from the causeway for 50p each way. The visitor's centre is open 10am to 7pm in July and August, shorter hours the rest of the year.

Dunluce Castle: A short distance west of Giant's Causeway. This is an interesting ruin sitting on the edge of a seacliff, abandoned in the late 1600s. It was abandoned partly because part of the cliff fell into the sea, taking the kitchen, several servants, and that night's dinner with it. This upset the lady of the house enough to persuade her husband to build a new place inland. Some reconstruction has been done to give the visitor a better idea of the castle's original appearance. There is a brief slide show on the history of the castle and Giant's Causeway. Open 10-7 M-Sat, 2-7 Sun April - September; closes at 4 the rest of the year. 70p adults, 35p kids.

Presbyterian Historical Society, Belfast: In the Presbyterian Church House, at the corner of Great Victoria Street/College Square East and Howard Street/Grosvenor Road. (The entrance to the Presbyterian Church offices is in the alleyway on the north side of the building.) Open 10:00am to 12:30pm most days. I spent two mornings here looking for information on the career of my ancestor, Rev. Reagh. This is _not_ the place to come for geneological data. The Public Records Office is a better bet for that. Mr Bonar, the curator, was a bit cool toward us until he understood that we were interested not only in my ancestor but in the historical context as well. He gets frustrated with letters from America that say, 'I think my ancestor was Presbyterian and he came from Ireland, somewhere.' There's not much he can do with that sort of information. He was able to bring out transcripts of the minutes of the Synod of Ulster and the Sub-Synod of Derry from Rev. Reagh's time, and we located a few brief references to him. Just as interesting was to read some of the disciplinary cases which came before the synods -- I came to realize that the fact that my ancestor was rarely mentioned was probably an indication that he kept his nose clean! Mr Bonar also helped with locating parishes and townlands no longer on the map, and he provided me with phone numbers of pastors and elders of a couple of churches I wanted to visit. The Historical Society is a small operation with a limited budget and short hours. Mr Bonar will make photocopies from books as he has time -- the cost is 10p a page. (By the way, the PHS does not have presbytery minutes. I found out late in the week that minutes for Laggan and Derry Presbyteries for the 17th and 18th centuries are at Union Theological College in Belfast. The library is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays.)

The ground floor of Church House is an indoor shopping arcade called 'Spires'. There's a small cafe, and Family Books, Ltd., the publishing arm of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, has a shop there (phone NI (0232) 321323). This is not to be confused with Familia, a genealogical bookshop a block north of Church House, on College Square East at 64 Wellington Place (phone NI (0232) 235292, fax 239885), with a good collection of books and published genealogies mainly pertaining to Cos Antrim and Down.

Inishowen Peninsula: We spent most of one day and part of another exploring this beautiful part of Co Donegal, just north of Derry. After visiting Fahan Church (below), we drove part of the Inishowen 100, a 100 mile route which circumnavigates the peninsula. We walked around Buncrana, one of the principal market towns, drove through the breathtaking Gap of Mamore, walked along Tullagh Strand, a sandy beach with sparkling blue water, then drove all the way to Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland. The weather was fine most of the day, but was quite blustery at Malin Head (which seemed fitting). On another day, we located the 7th century Fahan cross slab, in an overgrown graveyard near the Anglican church at Fahan, and visited Grianan na Aileach (below).

Fahan Presbyterian Church: Co Donegal, midway between Burnfoot and Fahan. My ancestor was minister here in the mid-1700s. It's a very simple, grey building, part of which survives from the early 1700s. The clerk of session, Mr Jack Lamberton, was kind enough to meet us there, show us around, tell us about the current state of the church, and then invite us to his home for lunch with his wife. Mr Lamberton is a spry 82 years old and has been an elder in the church for 50 years. This place isn't a tourist attraction -- I mention it only as a testimony to the hospitality of the Irish people and as an encouragement to get out of your tourist shell and get to know them. It takes quite a bit of nerve for me to ask a stranger for a favor; I hate to be a bother. It was going out on a limb and making contact, even in small ways, that made this trip as much fun as it was.

Grianan na Aileach: This ancient stone fort stands on a hill 240m above sea level, with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. The fort was the seat of the powerful O'Neills from the 5th to the 12th century. It was reconstructed in the 1870s by an amateur archaeologist. There are no interpretive signs up here, so have your guidebook handy. Worth the drive for the view.

Ulster-American Folk Park, Omagh, Co Tyrone: This is an outdoor museum built around the boyhood home of American banker Thomas Mellon. His descendants purchased the land, then brought in or constructed buildings typical of early 19th century Ulster. They also built a replica western Pennsylvania village, complete with a smokehouse and hogs. To get from the Old World to the New World you walk down a reconstructed port town street and into a building with a reconstructed sailing ship and dockside buildings. There are transcripts of diary accounts of sea voyages available for reading, and a guide will welcome you aboard ship and tell you about the conditions you'll endure on your six-week voyage to America.

The folk park has a new permanent exhibit, 'Emigrants', which covers 200 years of Ulster emigration: who left, why, how they traveled, and how they fared in the New World. Very well done and worth a couple of hours alone. There is also a genealogy center on the grounds, open business hours during the week. The park itself is open 11am to 6:30pm during the summer, admission #3 for adults.

Lurgyvale Thatched Cottage, Kilmacrenan, Co Donegal: Each Thursday night they have traditional music and dance sessions, starting at about 9:30pm and going until midnight. (Phone IR (074) 39216/21160.) Admission is #1.50. It was not a performance but a hoe-down. The night we were there (early June) most of the people were locals, who got everyone, even the tourists, onto the dance floor. They had a fiddler and a banjo player, and a few people sang old ballads. About 11pm, they brought out refreshments -- tea and some sort of bread with jam and cream. It was a fun evening for us.

Donegal Town: We spent the afternoon here, shopping and walking around. Magee's is a good place for clothes, particularly those made of Donegal Tweed. They also have fabric for sale. The Four Masters Bookshop has a wide variety of gifts as well as a good selection of books and maps. Both stores are in the center, on 'The Diamond'. At the TIC, you can buy a booklet with a walking tour, which will take you past a Napoleonic anchor, a ruined abbey, the castle (being restored), and most of the churches. The book mentions a pleasant walk along the northwest side of the River Eske; it's a broad path under a green canopy of trees with views to the abbey across the river.

The Finn Valley: We took a roundabout way home from Donegal Town to Lifford. We drove west to Killybegs, had dinner there and wlked around the docks, then drove north to Ardara, then east to Glenties on the N56. We took the R250 to Fintown, then the R252 along the River Finn to Balleybofey. This stretch from Glenties to Balleybofey was breathtakingly beautiful. At first the road is in a broad valley, with piles of cut turf set up to dry here and there. As the road reaches Fintown it's now above the valley floor and there are good views of the river below and the Blue Stack mountains to the south.

Derry: We were here on a Saturday afternoon and spent most of our limited time dashing about the walled city and the nearby Waterloo Square looking for _the_ set of cork-backed placemats which would match our decor and have scenes of places we'd visited. After our shopping frenzy ended we took the time to walk along part of the wall (overlooking Bogside and the 'Free Derry' monument), stopped at the monument commemorating the Siege of Derry (1688), browsed in the Bookworm bookshop, and walked past the Guildhall. There is a genealogy center on Bishop Street Within, but it's only open during the week; I believe their area of concern is Co Derry and the Laggan and Inishowen areas of Co Donegal. In Waterloo Square, there is a group of bronze statues depicting emigrants. The statues are laid out so that at first you don't realize they are connected: There's the young family heading off to the docks, separated by several yards from parents who are staying behind. Very effective.


In Scotland we used 'Book-a-bed-ahead'. Here we relied on guidebooks and booked the rooms ourselves.

Belfast area: Mrs A V Hamilton, Holestone House, 23 Deer Park, Doagh, Ballyclare, Co Antrim, BT39 0RH. NI (0960) 352306. Recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. #30 for en-suite double. Our room had a big bathtub, but no shower, a small B/W TV, and an extra twin bed. The room was _huge_ with a nice view of rolling farmland. The house is at most a 20 minute drive from the int'l airport. It's a Georgian country house, somewhat plain on the outside but beautifully decorated inside. Good breakfasts, friendly people. (Kilbride Presbyterian Church is nearby. We went to Sunday morning service there (11:30am). Mrs Hamilton teaches a children's Sunday School class there. The pastor, Rev McClintock, was kind enough to give us a brief tour and history of the building after the service. The next day we ran into him at the Presbyterian Church House -- he took us to the reception desk to show us the Princess of Wales' signature in the guest book and introduced us to someone who gave us a brief tour.)

Belfast area: Mrs J Thompson, Tildarg House, 50 Collin Road, Ballyclare, Co Antrim, BT39 9JS. NI (0960) 322367. #35 for en-suite twin room. Our room had a radio, two twin beds, and some humorous books on Ulster dialect and manners by a local newspaper columnist. Ours was the only en-suite room in the house. We stayed here our last night in Ireland, on the Hamiltons' recommendation because Holestone House was booked up. Another gorgeous country house, a few miles northwest of Ballyclare, about a 30 minute drive to the airport. Mrs Thompson visited with us and gave us tea and scones when we arrived. Good basic breakfast in the morning.

Lifford: Mervyn and Jean McKean, The Hall Greene Farm, Porthall, Lifford, Co Donegal, Irish Republic. IR (074) 41318. This was our favorite place. IE#28 for en-suite double. They take Visa and MasterCard, which saved us having to convert more money into punts. Our room had two extra twin beds, some comfortable reading chairs, a hairdryer, and some good books. This is a working beef farm. The farmhouse dates to 1611, more homey than fancy. Mervyn and Jean are wonderful people. Each evening when we came in, one of them would make some tea and bring out some of Jean's excellent baked goods, and we'd have a nice chat in their living room. The McKeans shared our interest in Irish Presbyterian history. Mervyn lent me a book on Presbyterianism in the Laggan (the part of Co Donegal just southwest of Derry). Jean made some phone calls and put us in touch with a retired farmer (Mr Bertie Roulston) who had compiled a history of Monreagh Presbyterian Church, where in all likelihood my ancestors worshipped. It happened (providentially) that that weekend was the 350th anniversary of that church, so we were able to be a part of some of the festivities, including a flower show.

Breakfasts are huge and good -- cold cereal or porridge, scones, grapefruit or prunes, bacon, eggs, sausage, and tomato, toast, and soda farls. Kippers are also an option. They also offer dinner if requested that morning; we always came in too late in the evening, taking advantage of the long days in June, so we ate out instead.


We had a lot of fish and chips and sandwiches, but we did have a couple of nice sit down dinners.

Taste of India, 8 Campsie Road, Omagh. Nice subdued atmosphere, tasty food, and a very considerate waitress. Our bill came to about #14.00 for two entrees, an order of bread and an order of rice, and water to drink. They will adjust the spice level to your specifications.

Ellie May's, Dunadry, Co. Antrim. Beside the road between Templepatrick and Antrim. A popular pub and restaurant. We had quite a rather long wait when we went there on a Saturday night. Once we were seated the service was fast enough. The food was good and the portions surprisingly large. When we asked what the entrees came with, the waitress said 'nothing' so we ordered a side order of boiled potatoes, which the waitress characterized as 'a few small ones.' When the meal came, the entrees had mixed vegetables (cauliflower and broccoli) with it. The potatoes were larger than the baked potatoes they serve at steakhouses in the US. With tea, the bill was about #16 for two.

The Carrick-a-Rede restaurant, Ballintoy, Co. Antrim. We stopped there because they had signs all along the road from Giant's Causeway advertising their Sunday carvery (buffet). By the time we got there (about 7 pm), they had shut down the carvery, so we ordered from the menu. The service was extremely slow, but (again to my surprise) the portions were enormous and reasonably good. The vegetable salad I had covered a large dinner plate and was maybe #5; my wife had a lamb chop and could only manage half of it. Chips came (unexpectedly) with the meal. While listening to the meal, we were 'treated' to the music of Abba (apparently a 'Greatest Hits' album) followed by some other '70s pop (Melissa Manchester perhaps?).


We relied heavily on the Lonely Planet guide for Ireland, which was excellent in every respect, except that it didn't mention the Hall Greene. _Bed and Breakfast Ireland_, by Elsie Dillard and Susan Causin, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991), led us (along with a recommendation by Mrs Hamilton) to the Hall Greene Farmhouse.


We rented a car at the Belfast Airport from Cosmo Eurodollar, a local affiliate of Dollar Rent-A-Car. Their prices were well below those of Hertz and Avis: #140/wk for a midsize automatic (the smallest size automatic they carry), which worked out to $253 once VAT was added in. We had a Vauxhall Astra, a very comfortable car with a sunroof, plenty of room, and a radio/cassette player with RDS. Cosmo's office is just off the airport, visible from the terminal building. NOTE: I had to book with Dollar myself. My travel agent couldn't find them using her reservation system (Worldspan), but I found them easily using EasySabre on Compuserve. Her lowest price was $100 more a week.

Roads in NI are generally quite good, and in particular, the A6 is a pleasure to drive -- a wide, straight two-lane that bypasses most towns on its way from Derry to near Antrim, where it meets the M22 motorway. The roads in the Republic (at least in Co Donegal) were generally awful. The problem wasn't potholes so much as unevenness, so that driving 45mph over a relatively straight stretch would still feel like being on a small rollercoaster. (I'm told this is especially a problem where the roads were built over boglands.) No effort has been made to flatten roads or buy the small amount of right-of-way required to straighten the roads. There are almost no dual carriageways in Co Donegal, and only a few wide two-lane roads up to American state highway standards. Plan on taking your time.


In NI, ATMs accepting Plus or Cirrus cards are plentiful, as are those on the AMEX Express Cash network. This is not at all the case in Co Donegal, although ATMs there did take Visa cards for cash advances. We had lots of Scottish currency with us and had no problem spending it in NI. (I'd be surprised if the reverse is true however.) Bank of England notes are also good everywhere in NI. Many stores on either side of the border advertised that they would accept the Irish Punt for the British Pound Sterling at par and vice versa. Although the UK# is worth slightly more than the IE#, you're better off spending at par than exchanging money at a bank. By the time commissions are paid, you only get 0.97 IE# for one UK#.


No worries. We were a bit unnerved by the presence of RUC soldiers and armored personnel carriers in Strabane, Derry, and Belfast, but when we saw that all the locals were paying no attention, we decided to relax as well.

As with my Scotland post, I'll be happy to answer any questions and provide additional details. We enjoyed our time in Ulster thoroughly and our only regret is we did not have enough time to see the rest of Ireland.

Mike Bates, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA


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