Mystical light, ruby skies and shades of green that dazzle the eye; rambling roads, rocky ups and rolling downs … This is Northern Ireland, a striking, beautiful place that flies in the face of expectation to reveal visual joy, drama and delight.
To my generation certainly, the northern part of this Emerald isle seemed once to offer only stories of a people torn in two, of Troubles that could not define the dignity of its landscape nor convey its grace or majesty. A number of extended visits over the last year or few have revealed the unexpected delights of Northern Ireland; coming to the end of my New Year visit now and facing with not little regret a return to the Big Smoke, it is time to share some of them.
Let’s begin with the winding road that I anticipate with alternate dread and delight and which takes us from the home of Mother-Out-Law to Second Sister-Out-Law; from one rambling restored Georgian rectory at the foot of The Sperrins to another in Fermanagh. This road engenders butterflies always, as it flings the car across a fairground ride of tips and turns, slowing only to give us panoramic views across swathes of vivid jade, olive, fern and (of course), shamrock green. On one such trip we stopped at County Tyrone’s beautiful Beaghmore, a magical circle of ancient rocks that carry in their midst stories and myths as fascinating as the stones themselves.
An earlier excursion took us on a coastal tour to the Giant’s Causeway, a spectacular rocky formation of cooled, tightly packed hexagonal molten lava columns. A human body will just about fit here and there between the solid structures, as we discovered rambling up and about these casts of remarkable beauty, which conjoin into a legendary pathway created by the great Celtic warrior Finn MacCool, designed to take him to Scotland and battle with rival giant Benandonner.
Landscapes and magical geology are not the only of Northern Ireland’s jewels; the architect Sir Charles Lanyon designed among his twenty or more buildings and bridges a handful of Italianate Palazzi.
Ballyscullion Park is the hardworking home of an equally hardworking First Sister-Out-Law and husband. The proportions of this house, its straight lines and tall windows are a tummy-tingling joy to anyone with a love of symmetry and balance.
A regular stopover for BB and me, Ballyscullion has in recent years become a wedding location of stature with walled garden, sweeping lawns and a strawberry grotto for the sweetest ceremonies. The views from this dreamy and dignified house show Northern Ireland in a nutshell; landscapes that roll to a languorous Lough Beg which, with low or no tide invites one to stroll to Church Island. Here, the “spire without a church” sits atop sparse but glorious ruins that hint at a monastic past, St Patrick and his ambitions of an early Christian settlement. I recommend that you lie beneath its crumbling walls or between the broken teeth of its tombstones and close your eyes, for rare dreams can be had here and rumour has it, rare orchids grow too.
Another of Sir Charles’ creations sits upon Northern Ireland’s east coast. Despite being some five years younger, this huge house is the Daddy of Ballyscullion. The palatial Ballywalter Park is working home to a branch of the same family; during our festive visit, BB and I found ourselves party to much fun with clever and interesting people … and enjoyed a thrilling tour around the Estate’s substantial dairy farm.
The joys of practical, fruitful Farmworld Magic escaped the many strands of my otherwise varied upbringing and this was my first encounter with real farming. As I entered an enchanting traditional courtyard of low, white buildings I could not resist the temptation to take a snap or two, for this charming scene was identical to the wooden toy farm that my brother and I played with as children.
Beyond the courtyard we were introduced to the pedigree Holstein dairy herd, happily housed for winter. We caught some in the milk parlour whilst others munched on silage of sweet-smelling grass, maize, nuts and molasses.
I texted the courtyard image to my brother who replied: “How extraordinary! I don’t see a large plastic cow though – black and white if memory serves me?” A picture of our prettily monochrome Holsteins elicited tender, nostalgic delight; Farmworld Magic at work.
Whilst all of this beauty and charm contributes handsomely to my newfound love of Northern Ireland, the single thing after which I hanker is the calm, for my guaranteed doing of very little is down to the insistence of BB’s family that I rest. Whilst Mother-Out-Law welcomes her prodigal third son with open arms, his relaxation is expressed by fixing, chopping, mowing and more. BB loves this work and as he extracts as much pleasure as possible from his tasks, so it is with mine: I relax.
Occasionally I don waterproofs and Wellingtons to stroll across the garden at stately pace, inhaling the crystal country air. Otherwise I read, write and from time to time stake my place in the kitchen to knock up a garlic mayonnaise accompaniment to the wondrous and fluffy potatoes that appear with every generous and frequent meal.
Indeed, I will never forget my first sitting a few years ago, when I asked The MoL where her lamb had come from? Her reply, the field over there accompanied by a slight nod of the head pointed to an enviable, economical supply chain. Our gatherings around the table are filled with chat and banter, a-brim with succulent garden-grown produce, fruit and heavenly home-bakery.
Indeed, I am rather more generously upholstered than on arrival one week ago; but London beckons with Forte Medical, keeping fit, keeping home … and letting off steam Barside. Happily my hard work and urban vices can be indulged without fear for their antidote lies here, within these Emerald shores where I may temper the good, the bad and the ugly of London life.
For your joys and jewels Northern Ireland, I thank you.
© Giovanna Forte