The nine Glens of Antrim, at the very northern tip of Northern Ireland, have been acclaimed, as only the Irish can, in song and verse for centuries.
Glenarm, the ancient and still present home of the McDonnell clan; Glencloy, with its lattice of stone dykes; Glenariff, with its ladder farms and waterfalls, described by William Makepeace Thackeray as “Switzerland in miniature”; bare Glenballyeamon, with its fragments of ancient forts; Glenaan, famous for the grave of the warrior poet, Ossian; Glencorp and Glentaisie, with their tidy hill farms; Glendun, with its bridges and fords and Glenshesk, wild and unspoiled.
Each glen and village has its own character and, remarkably, sometimes even its own accent of speech, dating from the times before a coastal road existed and all contact was via boat.
The Antrim Coast is sometimes known as the Causeway Coast after the world famous Giant’s Causeway, located between the towns of Bushmills– home of the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery – and Ballycastle, the commercial hub of the whole area.
The Giant’s Causeway consists of thousands of strangely symmetrical basalt columns forming a promontory that wave action has eroded into three distinct sections: the Grand, Middle and Little Causeways. The Causeway is clearly of volcanic origin, but legend has it that it was built by Irish giant, Finn MacCool, in order to step across the Irish sea to do battle with a rival Scottish giant. Similar geological formations can be seen across the water in Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa.
Another interesting geological phenomenon in County Antrim is Loughareema, the famous vanishing lake. One day the lake can be brimming with water and full of fish. The next day it can be totally drained, as if an aquatic leprechaun had pulled a giant plug. Loughareema floods after heavy rain, but the bed of the lake consists of chalk overlaid with mud so the water quickly drains away. The fish have to retreat into the mud to survive.
The coastline of Antrim is like a ribbon of history. Farmers still regularly unearth arrowheads from Ireland’s first settlers who arrived on this coast over 9,000 years ago, probably from what is now Spain.
There are many ruined medieval castles on rugged cliff tops. Dunluce Castle, three kilometers west of Bushmills, is
particularly awesome. The site was perfect for defense in medieval times. As one early historian put it: “an insular perpendicular rock of 100 feet high, standing proudly among the boiling waves which foam around and wash its sides, and separated from the mainland by a precipitous chasm of about 20 feet wide, and nearly a 100 feet deep”.
There are several wrecks from the Spanish Armada along this coast, many of them a mere hundred meters or so offshore. Rathlin Island, accessible by ferry from Ballycastle, has a scuba diving center that offers wreck diving trips for those sufficiently adventurous.
For hikers, the Ulster Way, the path that meanders around the province, taking in some of the most beautiful scenery in Northern Ireland, passes through the glens. It is joined by the newer Moyle Way to offer a dramatic circuit of North Antrim.
Those with a good head for heights can try the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge over a 25 meter chasm or tackle the rocky North Coast and walk the Grey Man’s Path around Fair Head with its eagles, falcons and feral goats.
Finally, don’t miss the tiny, and typical, harbor hamlet of Portbraddon, at one end of the flawless strand of white beach known as Whitepark Bay, just east of the Giant’s Causeway. In Portbraddon you’ll find St. Gobban’s, the smallest church in Ireland.