Northern Ireland

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Belfast has a bright new star in writer Laurence Donaghy, whose Folk’d trilogy (Folk’d, Folk’d Up, and Completely Folk’d) is creative, gloriously weird, and irreverently funny.

Folk'd by Laurence Donaghy

Book 1: Folk’d

Laurence Donaghy’s Folk’d trilogy riffs off the old myths of the Tuatha dé Danann and transports us to modern Belfast, where Danny Morrigan has got his girlfriend Ellie pregnant, and together they are struggling to keep mind and body together as they deal with being new parents before they even took one step on the career track.

If you have any notion of the legends of the Tuatha dé, you know the Morrigan is the goddess of war, and you assume Danny’s name will turn out to be more than mere coincidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Ballymena author Jan Carson’s debut novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears is a quirky tale of a young boy whose family are slowly abandoning him.

Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)

Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)

First off, I should flag that Malcolm Orange Disappears is an incredibly creative and unusual novel. Call it magic-realist, call it quirky (to use the author’s word), or call it off-beat, it’s a very original book!

I’ll call it an episodic novel, because most chapters tell the story of a new character. Thus, we meet Malcolm and the inhabitants of a Baptist Retirement Village in Portland, Oregon, in which he finds himself marooned along with his baby brother and his silent mother, after his father abandons the family. It appears to be the first time Malcolm’s found himself stationary in his young life (he’s 11), as his restless parents have hurried the family along the highways of America for as long as Malcolm can remember.

Jan Carson is a similarly restless writer, painting minor characters with so much detail and verve that it’s easy to forget about the central plot — Malcolm’s strange titular malady: he is vanishing, piece by piece, new holes appearing in his body every day — in the face of each new chapter and its quirky characters and their gothic mis-adventures. Of course, that appears to be the point: Malcolm is disappearing, his body full of strange absences, and into these holes Carson pours stories, rich and vibrant. 
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If you want to go off the beaten path in Ireland and wow your friends with spectacular photographs, you need to find the Dark Hedges.

dark hedges lighterOne of the most-photographed, yet least-visited, places in Ireland is an avenue of beech trees along the Bregagh Road near Ballymoney in Co. Antrim, known fancifully as the Dark Hedges. Planted over 200 years ago, the trees were originally intended to enhance the avenue leading to the Georgian splendor of Gracehill House, owned by the Stuart family. Whoever had the original idea was a true visionary, as the full glory of a beech avenue would not be visible in their lifetime because the trees take so long to grow. Read the rest of this entry »

The Giro d’Italia came to Ireland this summer, and you can still trace its path through various parts of the country by the way everything was painted pink.

McCollam's Restaurant and Pub went completely pink for the Giro d'Italia, and hung a lot of bicycle wheels on the building for good measure.

McCollam’s Restaurant and Pub went completely pink for the Giro d’Italia, and hung a lot of bicycle wheels on the building for good measure.

The village of Cushendall in Co. Antrim, was every excited about the Giro, and appears to have gone out of their way to get in the appropriate spirit. While other communities made do with a few posters and the odd splash of pink, Cushendall went all out, painting buildings, cars, and bicycles, and hanging pink bunting everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

One shouldn’t look to fiction for lessons from history, but reading the collected stories of one author across his whole career inevitably exposes the reader to the changing tides of the culture he writes about. Bernard MacLaverty’s Collected Stories displays both his genius with words, and the complexity of life in Belfast. 

Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape)

Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape)

MacLaverty is a meticulous craftsman, but not a showy writer. He avoids elaborate phrases that draw attention to themselves, and instead displays a sharp ear for natural dialogue. I sometimes feel schitzophrenic that I can thrill to the jagged offbeat stories of Colin Barrett one day, and be held in thrall by MacLaverty’s restrained elegance the next. Surely they’re worlds apart in focus and execution? But, while I enjoy a young whipper-snapper like Kevin Barry pushing the dialogue in his stories to heightened extremes, I know that — although I might wish they would — few people really talk like that. Barry entertains by stretching Ireland’s musical and inventive language to its limits, but reading MacLaverty, we recognize the truth of his dialogue; he catches the regional inflections, the distinctive vocal tics, and unconscious phrases that fill the Belfast air, filling his characters with immediacy and life. Read the rest of this entry »

On an unassuming road between Ballymoney and Ballycastle in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, you’ll come upon the tiny community of Armoy, which contains a slightly unusual round tower.

Armoy Round Tower. (L) the step below the door. (R) view from the inside looking out. (Photos:

Armoy Round Tower. (L) the step below the door. (R) view from the inside looking out. (Photos:

At first glance, the only unusual thing about the meticulously kept graveyard of St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Armoy is the fish decorating its weather vane, but as you come around the bend in the road that wraps around the church you’ll see the tiny round tower that stands beside the church’s more-modern (1869) bell tower. Read the rest of this entry »

Ireland has an active rail network between major cities, and taking the train can be a very enjoyable and comfortable way to see the country.  However, if you do your homework, you can also take a journey into the past on a vintage stream locomotive, in company of many people who share a passion for Irish history and rail travel.

#171 "Slieve Gullion." This star of the film Michael Collins is currently being restored. (Credit: E Friel/

#171 “Slieve Gullion.” This star of the film Michael Collins is currently being restored. (Credit: E Friel/

The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland restores and maintains steam-powered locomotives from the golden age of Irish railways. Some are fully operational and used for mainline excursions throughout the year, a couple are used for shunting and short journeys, and many others are actively being repaired and restored to their former glory. Their museum in Whitehead (near Carrickfergus) is an old train depot, where all the engines and vintage rolling stock are stored and restoration work is carried out — open by appointment only apart from “summer steam” open days in the summer months.  Read the rest of this entry »

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has become the most-famous astronaut of his generation through a bunch of quirky videos from the International Space Station and now his bestselling memoir. One of his retirement projects has been a newly released series of videos highlighting parts of Ireland.

Ireland from space

Inishowen peninsula from the ISS on St. Patrick’s Day 2013. (Photo credit: Chris Hadfield/Twitter)

An Astronaut’s Guide to Hurling

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Michèle Forbes’ debut novel Ghost Moth contrasts a Belfast newly emerging from WWII, a city of possibility, with the same city twenty years later, fast succumbing to the start of “the troubles.”

Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes

Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes (US cover)

Ghost Moth, the first novel by Irish actress Michèle Forbes, is just magnificent. Focusing on one family and the secrets they keep, the novel jumps back and forth in time between 1949, when Katherine Fallon is about to get engaged to George Bedford, and 1969, when they are long-married with four children and living in a Belfast exploding with violence and hatred.

Katherine is pushed into a remembrance of things past when she almost drowns while swimming at the beach with her family. This causes her to withdrawn from her husband — with whom she has a companionable, if not emotionally intimate, relationship — and retreat into her memories of an affair she had with another man while being courted by George. Read the rest of this entry »

During my recent research into the Northern Ireland locations used for Game of Thrones, I came across the story of Shane’s Castle, near Randlestown, Co. Antrim, which is said to be haunted by the O’Neill banshee.

Irish HIstory Expert

A traditional depiction of a banshee.
Image source: Wikipedia Commons

A banshee is similar to the Morrigan, the crone aspect of the Celtic triple goddess, the representative of death. Sometimes encountered in the guise of an old woman washing clothes by a warrior on his way to death, the banshee is more often seen as a spirit (bean-woman, sidhe–fairy) keening a death in the night. Like the washerwoman, the banshee’s appearance precedes death.

Set on the northeastern shore of Lough Neagh, Shane’s Castle was a commanding presence for many centuries.  Originally know as Eden-duff-carrick, the castle was reinstated to the O’Neill clan by King James in 1607. After this it became known as Shane’s Castle. Mary Lowry, in her 1913 book The Story of Belfast and it’s Surroundings, cites Shane McBrien O’Neill as the owner who changed the name, and gives 1722 as the exact date. The O’Neills then in possession of the castle were descended from the great Shane O’Neill, who become The O’Neill Mór around 1562 and ruled or controlled most of Ulster. After his death, his many sons were known as the Mac Shane, the sons of Shane, and predictably the christian name Shane was popular among his descendants. So, the name Shane’s Castle has many resonances and potential origins.

Although the O’Neills held many castles, Eden-duff-carrick contains a stone carving of a head inset into one of the tower walls, known as the black head of the O’Neills, or the black brow on the rock.  It’s thought that this stone carving pre-dates the castle by some centuries.  It is said the line of the O’Neill’s will come to an end if the head ever falls from its position on the castle wall. Luckily for the O’Neills, the tower containing the head survived when their banshee burned the castle.

Game of Thrones fan gear - Shop HBOTraditionally, only the oldest Irish families are said to have banshees, spirits that forewarn of death. The O’Neills, being descended from the first Ard Rí, the High King of Ireland, Naill Nolligach, also known as Niall of the Nine Hostages, are one of the very oldest. (Niall died around 405, Shane O’Neill rose to O’Neill Mór about 1562, and the O’Neill family were hugely influential in Irish political life during this span.) A room in Shane’s Castle was traditionally laid aside for the use of Maeveen, the White Lady of Sorrow, the banshee of the O’Neills. Perhaps, implying she was originally a family member? I don’t know of any other banshee’s who were/are on first-name terms with their families. Visitors, it is said, could see the impression of the woman on her bed. However, in 1816, a large house party meant that this room was called into service. Perhaps the banshee was enraged at this snub after centuries of respect? A fire began in this room, and burned down the main block of the castle. They say a jackdaw’s nest which had been built in the long-unused chimney caught fire, and the fire spread, but who knows the true story?

One source suggests that the origin of the O’Neill banshee lies in an affront the fairies. One of the early O’Neills was returning from a raid when he found a cow with its horns tangled in a hawthorn tree. Single hawthorns are sacred to the sidhe [see wishing trees] and so the fairies now regarded the cow as their property. Foolishly, he freed the animal, and incurred the anger of the fey. When he arrived at his home (which presumably was not Eden-Duff-Carrick, as that was built much later, but may have been where the black head of the O’Neills originally stood), he found that the fairies had taken his daughter to the bottom of the lough (which lough is not specified, but the waters of Lough Neagh were said to have healing properties associated with the little folk). The girl was allowed to return to let her father know that she was safe in the fairy kingdom, but she could only return from then on in order to warn of impending death in the family by keening. This source names her as Kathleen, which is of Anglo-Norman origin and so would seem to be of much more-recent provenance than the ancient legend. Maeve is a very old Irish name, found in the oldest sagas, and appears more in keeping with the apparent antiquity of the banshee myth. The ending -een is a common diminutive in Irish, an affectionate twist on a name that would seem to reinforce the story that the banshee was originally a daughter of the house.

Irish History is even more fascinating than fantasy fiction

Ruins of Shane’s Castle. The intact conservatory is to the left.
(Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

The ruins of the castle today are unusual, as the castle was in the process of being rebuilt in a grander style by Richard Nash, architect of Buckingham Palace, among other famous buildings, when the fire broke out. The conservatory was already completed, and it survived the blaze while the main block of the castle was destroyed. Visitors can get a glimpse of the sumptuousness of the plans for the restored castle from the completed conservatory, while touring the ruined remains of the main block, towers and curtain wall. A fortified esplanade, studded with cannon salvaged from an English man-o-war, stands guard over the shoreline, and an interesting family tomb and statues can be seen in the grounds.

The castle boasted an impressive series of vaults and basement chambers, connected to a long underground passage, reputedly used as the servants entrance, but possibly originally intended as a refuge or escape route. To my knowledge, these vaults are now closed to the public.

The banshee was said to be heard in Coile Ultagh, the “Great Wood of Ulster” which grew by the castle on the shores of Lough Neagh, and through which Shane O’Neill had marched his army in 1565 on his way to defeating the MacDonald’s at the battle of Glentaisie, which cemented his authority over Ulster. There’s still some of the great wood left in the grounds of Shane’s Castle, although much of it has gone to farmland and housing developments.

After the Flight of the Earls, in 1607, when the leaders of several Irish clans fled to the continent, thus ending the last vestiges of the Brehon laws and traditional governance in Ireland, some say that the Banshee of the O’Neill’s followed the family into exile. However, the family line of the O’Neills is often unclear, and Hugh O’Neill, the last Earl of Tryone, was the offspring of an illegitimate son of the first Earl of Tyrone, and his father’s claim had been successfully contested by the great Shane O’Neill. So, perhaps Maeveen, the White lady of Sorrow, the banshee of the O’Neills remained at Shane’s Castle, and the legitimate descendants of Shane O’Neill. After all, the black head of the O’Neills still stands on the tower wall at Shane’s Castle.


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If you enjoy Irish mythology, you might be interested in the festival of Lúnasa or the Irish roots of Halloween: the feis of Samhain

If you enjoy Game of Thrones, you should check out the History Channel’s great show Vikings, which is also filmed in Ireland!

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