Ireland part 2 – Co Antrim, Co Derry and Co Donegal: 2nd – 7th June 2019   Leave a comment

The previous post covered our journey from Wexford to Belfast. This time our journey continues along the coasts of Co Antrim, Co Derry and Co Donegal.


Up to now the weather on the trip had been a bit indifferent, often overcast and dull but as we headed north out of Belfast the sun shone and we had wonderful views.


Along the coast we saw a few birds typical of rocky shoreline such as this Rock Pipit.


We paused at the village of Glenarm …


… where we were so close to Scotland that the Kintyre peninsula dominated the view.


Some cloud rolling in at times but mostly it was blue skies.


It was just a whim that took us on the scenic Torr coast road but we were very glad we did. The single track road was steep, narrow and winding but the views were superb.


As we turned the corner and drove westwards rather than northwards the Kintyre peninsula fell behind us and Rathlin Island appeared on the horizon. Further in the distance we could see the Scottish island of Islay and the Paps of Jura.


We stayed in the pleasant town of Ballycastle. The following day we took the ferry to Rathlin Island (above).


On arrival we joined a tour bus which climbed out of the village and took us to the far west of the island …


… where in an area of rugged coastline …


where an RSPB reserve protects a major seabird colony.


Kittiwakes built their nests on the precipitous cliffs …


… these delicate gulls have declined drastically due to global warming and over fishing (for fertiliser) affecting their sand eel food supply.


Fulmars, which are relatives of albatrosses and shearwaters rather than gulls, were present in good numbers.


The less steep slopes held good numbers of Razorbills …


… joined by Puffins, which nest in burrows that they dig wherever there is exposed soil.


The turbulent waters far below held enormous numbers of auks and many, like this Guillemot, were seen flying back and forth to the colony.


Around 100,000 seabirds nest on the reserve and Guillemots are by far the most numerous. We also had views of of Northern Ireland’s rarest breeding seabirds, the Great Skua (or Bonxie to give it the name used by most birders) with just one rather distant pair present.


Back at harbour we went for a walk along the shore, seeing good numbers of Grey Seals …


… and Common Eiders. Male Eiders loose their breeding finery in the later spring so we were fortunate to find one in breeding plumage this late in the season.


Under increasingly grey skies we returned to the mainland were it rained for the rest of the day.


The next day the weather had improved but the forecast wasn’t good so we left early and headed to Carrick-a-Rede. Situated on the coast with the western end of Rathlin Island visible in the background, one of the small offshore stacks is connected to the mainland by a narrow rope bridge.


Actually we got there too early, the ticket office was closed and when it did open we found an entire bus of school kids had pre-booked tickets and would be ahead of us. As only four people are allowed on the bridge at once we realised that this would cause us a huge delay.


I had visited the site before in 1991 and Margaret wouldn’t dare cross a chasm like this so we decided to just admire and photograph the bridge from the nearby coast path.


From here we carried on to the Antrim’s coast’s prime attraction, Giant’s Causeway – a World Heritage Site …


… formed by the slow cooling of a underground dome of magna that was extruded at the time when the Atlantic opened up some 60-70 million years ago, the basaltic columns and hexagonal ‘tiles’ are truly a wonder of the world.


The site is of course the same as it was in 1991, but the access is very different. Whereas before you just parked and walked down now there are high charges, big carparks, busses to take you the half mile or so to the site and of course the inevitable enormous visitor centre complete with gift shops, cafés etc.


Our third site of the morning was the so called ‘Dark Hedges’, an avenue of twisted beech trees that line the access road to a private estate. The sight would be worth seeing in its own right, but now of course, has become part of the Games of Thrones locations trail. The spot (which was used as the point on the King’s Road where Arya Stark met the Brotherhood Without Banners) has been closed to traffic but that didn’t stop loads of cars and even coaches stopping by the entrance and causing traffic chaos rather than using the dedicated car park at the nearby hotel.


We headed west towards Londonderry, or just Derry depending on your political and religious convictions and almost immediately the forecasted rain arrived. We arrived mid-afternoon and soon found a hotel (with dedicated underground parking) that overlooked the infamous Bogside. In past times the predominately Protestant inhabitants of the City of Londonderry prevented Catholics from living within the city walls (shown above). As a result they had to live next to marshy ground by the River Foyle. This became known as the Bogside.


Barricaded against the police and military at the start of the Troubles and the scene of the infamous and inexcusable Bloody Sunday massacre, this area was considered a no-go area for tourists during much of the thirty year period of sectarian violence. In 1991 Janet and I parked nearby and walked down to this huge sign however we felt that going any further as risky.


Now 28 years later we strolled through the streets (in heavy rain) looking at the Bloody Sunday memorial, the massive murals on the end of the terraced rows We also tried to visit the Free Derry Museum but it was closing as we arrived.


… and even had a pint in the Bogside Inn, something that wouldn’t have been advisable on our last visit..


Although I cannot condone violence from any organisation, be it Republican or Unionist,  I have always felt that the Catholics of Northern Ireland were made to be second class citizens in their own country. Perhaps the most shocking event of the ‘Troubles’ was the Bloody Sunday massacre on 30th January 1972 when British troops opened fire on protesters killing 14 and wounding a similar number. There were various inquiries into the tragedy but the last in 1998, which took 12 years to report, concluded that that ‘the killings were both “unjustified” and “unjustifiable”. It found that all of those shot were unarmed, that none were posing a serious threat, that no bombs were thrown, and that soldiers “knowingly put forward false accounts” to justify their firing’. It was certainly the case that this event served to stoke the flames and probably escalated the sectarian violence more than any other.


Since the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 peace has returned to Northern Ireland and the Peace Bridge across the River Foyle has been erected to commemorate that.


The following morning we returned to visit the Free Derry museum. Later we crossed back into the Republic and (perhaps surprisingly) headed north. We drove to Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland, which in fact is not in Northern Ireland but in ‘Southern’ Ireland (or Eire if you prefer.)


There was hardly anybody about, in spite of it being June it was cold and wet and the roads and glorious beaches were deserted …


… and the coastal path almost so.


Donegal is bisected by a number of long sea loughs …


… some can be crossed at their headwaters by bridges, others require a long detour.


The area is almost entirely Gaelic speaking and in spite of modern navigation aids we had difficulty finding our B&B. However once there the view from our room was wonderful and we were serenaded by a reeling Grasshopper Warbler each evening.


Nearby was the spectacular Glenveagh National Park.


A wild area of mountains, moorland and abandoned villages.


I was interested in seeing the reintroduced Golden Eagles but I found out at the visitor centre that this would involve travelling quite a long way into the park and we really didn’t have the time.


West Donegal is comprised of quiet beaches …


… and quaint villages with tongue twister names …


… with the mountains of Glenveagh National Park as an ever present backdrop.


This impressive peak was photographed from near the village of Magheraorty, the location of the ferry to Tory Island. Today was the day we had allocated for Tory Island but we so nearly missed out. The day before we had checked the departure time and found it to be 1000. We left the B&B about 0815 but stopped a few times on route to take photos. We arrived just on 0900 when Margaret had the good sense to phone the ferry office to check that the boat was going. We found out to our shock that it was departing at 0900 and whilst she was still the phone, the boat cast off and pulled out. I was ready, so I ran down the pier  and to my surprise the boat reversed and pulled back in. Margaret who still had to put her boots on was a little later but they waited for her. Fishermen on the pier made disparaging comments ‘like don’t hurry love, you’ve got plenty of time’ or ‘I’ll take you over there for half price’.


Tory Island is further than Rathlin from the mainland and the crossing took about an hour. You may wonder why the island shares its name with our current ineffectual government and the answer is stranger than you might think. Tory is derived from the Gaelic toraidhe meaning outlaw, robber or brigand. Tory Island must have been home to such in the past. In 1685 during the reign of James II the Conservative Party opposed the ‘exclusion’ of Charles II as his successor (he was to be excluded on the grounds that he had converted to Catholicism). The Whigs who had proposed the ‘exclusion’ nicknamed them Tories and the name stuck. I like the idea of Boris, Rees-Mogg and Gove being named after outlaws.


When we landed on Tory Island it was like a ghost town, there was no-one to be seen. We later found that they all had gone to mass, which would explain the presence of a priest on board the ferry and why the ferry had departed an hour earlier than expected.


Around the harbour were a reasonable number of Common Gulls. These rather cute medium-sized gulls aren’t common at all and probably derive their name from their plain appearance rather than their numerical situation.


A bird I really wanted to see was the Corncrake. Quite a few exist on Tory Island (although they are scarce on the mainland). I heard about half a dozen calling but I totally failed to see anything, not even a twitch in the nettle beds from where they were calling. I took this photo in the Outer Hebrides in 2012 where I had rather more luck.


However if you want to hear what these wonderful creatures sound like then click on this link to the bird sound library of xeno-canto. Recording by Stanislas Wroza from Maine-et-Loire, France


We set off for a walk to the west end of the island. Much of the area was marshy with many ponds and was full of breeding waders.


As well as breeding Redshanks (above) we saw Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Lapwing and even a ‘drumming’ Snipe, ie one in display flight, something I haven’t heard/seen for years.


After some lunch in the local pub we returned to the harbour of the boat back to Magheraorty. From here we drove south to Sligo where we stayed overnight.


I’ll conclude this post with a photo of some female Eiders and ducklings in the harbour of Tory Island.


The next post will cover Co Sligo, Co Mayo, Co Galway and the Aran Islands, the return to Dublin and the Isle of Man.


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