The rustic and rugged seacoasts of County Antrim in Northern Ireland are picturesque and dramatic; the foothills and jagged coastline bear witness to the long, tumultuous and brutal history of invasion from the north and ever-continuous infighting between clans and numerous rebellions against the British Crown.
But much of the northern seacoast has relics dotting the landscape from a more recent conflict, World War II. The town of Bangor in County Down was the beach training ground for American troops’ amphibious landing exercises. A mosaic depicts General Eisenhower with gunboats and a large destroyer. Prior to Operation Overlord, the future president inspected 30,000 military personnel in Bangor.
In addition to war history ancient and modern, County Antrim offers prehistoric geological wonders, glens and castles, some of the British Isles’ best surfing and idyllic, verdant pastureland.
The coastal route, the A2 connects castles, beaches and picturesque seaside villages. The Carrick-a–Rede rope bridge (pronounced “Carrick a Reddy” and roughly translated to “A rock in the road”) connects the mainland to the small island of Carrickarede. When Atlantic salmon flourished here in the early 1700s, fishermen could catch up to 300 salmon per day. The original rope bridge was erected in 1755 to reduce the need for fishing vessels. Fishing off of Carrick-a-Rede is now a distant memory; the last fishermen retired in 2002 as salmon became scarce.
Today it’s a bracing walk for the bold. The waves lap against the craggy coastline rhythmically, and occasionally ocean spray hits your face. The wild Atlantic swells 100 feet beneath your feet while the wooden planks creak and moan as you traverse the ever-swaying rope bridge.
A bridge crossing is also required to visit Dunluce, the iconic ruin of a medieval castle sitting on the edge of jagged sea cliffs. When storms rage off of the coast, gusts of wind periodically make the small footbridge a little dangerous to navigate.
Originally built by Richard De Baguley, the second Earl of Ulster, in the early 13th century, the castle has seen many landlords. In 1513, the MacQuillan clan usurped the territory of Antrim from the British crown. According to legend, warrior chieftain Sorley Boy MacDonnell violently took the castle from the MacQuillans.
Then there’s the story of Dunluce’s screaming banshee. It originates from the early 16th century when Lord MacQuillan’s only daughter, Maeve Roe, defied his wishes to marry Richard Oge. In true, macabre fairy tale fashion, MacQuillan locked his only daughter in the castle’s northeastern turret. However on a dark and especially stormy night, Reginald O’Cahan – Maeve’s true love – rescued her from the tower.
The story goes that the two lovers sailed their tiny boat into the choppy seas in the dead of night and set their gaze towards Portrush. The small boat was tossed around in the sea mercilessly and eventually crashed against the jagged rocks.
Visitors say that on dark and stormy nights they can hear a woman wailing from the northeast tower.
As the morning dawns, the rays of sun begin to slowly permeate through the dense fog that drapes the surrounding meadows. The Dark Hedges is an ominous tunnel formed by a row of 150 beech trees planted in 1775; due to storms, time and heavy road traffic, about 40 trees have fallen. But the remaining, towering beech trees are stunning; even during midday, the canopy is so thick that hardly any light passes through. The path itself is pedestrian-only; visitors in cars can park at the nearby restaurant and golf course, The Belltower.
The original Gracehill House, a Georgian manor house built just down the road by the Stuart family, is home to a more modern landmark, a Game of Thrones-inspired door. A large beech tree fell in 2016 during a major storm and a local artisan carved the door out of it. This extremely ornate door has intertwining fleur de lis motifs throughout the background, a large “direwolf” sigil carved near the top of door and directly below, a cross-hatched crow with an hourglass.
The Game of Thrones franchise reinvigorated tourism in Northern Ireland, where the show was mostly filmed; hundreds of thousands of people flock to see the real life “Westeros.” In fact there are ten Game of Thrones-themed doors hidden throughout Northern Ireland.
The Old Bushmills Distillery is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. It’s located in the town of Bushmills and is a great way to spend an afternoon – if someone else is driving.
Bushmills celebrated its 400-year anniversary in 2008; like much in Irish history, it includes some tumult. In the 1850s, British taxation on barley impeded Irish whiskey distillers and farmers. This when many Irish distilleries began making what today is thought of as Irish whiskey, changing their recipe from barley to corn or rye. However Bushmills continued to make “pure malt” whiskey.
It’s a good beverage to enjoy while contemplating an eerily alluring locale that clings to the enigmatic landscapes offering harsh beauty. It’s no wonder that the Northern Irish coast offered a backdrop for a modern day fantastical drama with magic and dragons. But its own history and culture are worth more than anything you’ll find on HBO.