South Antrim suffers somewhat from having spectacular neighbours that can boast gems such as the Glens of Antrim, the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills Distillery. That’s a seriously heavy-duty tourism trio. Yet South Antrim has many charms, including the historical site of St Patrick’s apprenticeship in the pig industry – it’s said he tended livestock on the slopes of Mount Slemish just north of Carnalbanagh.
Notwithstanding its saintly connections, the one reason this area is a desired destination – even through the darkest days of the Troubles – is the fishing. Because the south of Antrim borders Lough Neagh, one of the great angling centres of Europe.
Due to the marshy foreshore, few roads follow the shoreline, and because few peaks adorn the surrounding countryside it can be difficult to get a complete view of the lake’s immense size. But this is a huge expanse of water, and is packed with fish.
A number of islands are scattered mostly close to the shore. None are inhabited, although Oxford Island (the largest) has an interpretive and discovery centre.
Here you’ll find out not only which fish (and birds) to expect in and around the lough, you’ll also hear about the great horse-god Eochu, Lord of the Underworld, who lives below the waters. It’s unlikely you’ll spot him -no recorded sightings have been recorded for a few years now – but you could hum one of Thomas Moore’s famous melodies on the legend:“On Lough Neagh’s banks where the fisherman strays When the clear cold eve’s declining, He sees the Round Towers of other days In the waves beneath him shining.”
The legendary Finn MacCool, of course, makes an appearance here. The North’s resident giant is reckoned to be responsible for the similarity in shape of Lough Neagh and the Isle of Man. During handbags with a rival giant, Finn scooped out a handful of earth (thus making Lough Neagh) and threw it into the Irish Sea – the Isle of Man was the result.
Helping the legends and myths along is a certifiably, scientifically, odd phenomenon, which unlike the giants and the horse-gods, you may very well experience. ‘Waterguns’ – as the locals call them – are booming noises heard along the surface of the lough, and are associated with whirlwinds which occur during sultry weather. It’s a very odd sound when it does occur – and you might just stroke your chin and think, hmmm, maybe it is a horse god.
Lough Neagh is Europe’s greatest source of eels – the fish are exported to restaurants throughout the continent. It’s an odd thing that visitors sometimes have difficulty in finding this huge expanse of water. Yet millions of tiny eels, the size of a fingernail, born in the Saragosso Sea, swim across the Atlantic, turn right up the Lower Bann River, and apparently have no difficulty in locating the lough. They do this unerringly every year.
Other species which can be fished for in Lough Neagh include pollan (a freshwater herring), and salmon-trout, the latter which commonly reached 14lb in weight.
The bird and plant life around Lough Neagh is exceptionally rich. The great crested grebe nests everywhere along the banks, while the south shore is the focus for vast numbers of winter diving ducks, including rare ferruginous and ring-necked ducks, red-crested pochard, smew. Watchful herons can be spotted fishing everywhere along the banks, and all three native swans are on show – mute swans giding effortlessly across the lough, whooper and Bewick’s swans grazing just beyond the foreshore.
From nature to history, and on to the town of Carrickfergus. A town made famous throughout the world because of the lines:“I wish I was in Carrickfergus Only for nights in Ballygrand…”
Despite its flagrant non-use of the subjunctive, those are the opening lines of one of the most evocative songs in the Irish folksong canon.
The reality, alas, falls somewhat short of the beauty of the song. Little except the massive Anglo-Norman castle and the Elizabethan parish church remain to suggest the long, 900 year history of the town.
Nearby is Kilroot, famous because it holds the remains of the church where Jonathan Swift earned his first living (1694-696) as a vicar. It’s believed Swift worked up his lifelong dislike of Presbyterians because of the smallness of the congregation in his Church of Ireland parish. Either that, or he didn’t like the fact that Presbyterian is an anagram of Britney Spears – although that’ possibly unlikely.
On the plus side, it seems Swift got his idea for Gulliver in Lilliput from the shape of Cave Hill above Belfast which looks like a resting giant. The vicar-cum-writer would have regularly passed this en route from Kilroot to his home in Dublin.
Literary connections continue with the poet Louis McNeice, who although born in Belfast ‘between the mountain and the gantries’, spent his boyhood in Carrickfergus.
William Congreve (“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast …”) lived in Carrickfergus Castle where his father was a soldier. Congreve took to Ireland and spent the rest of his life there.
The castle itself sits on the harbour front, controlling the seashore. Once the centre of Anglo-Norman power in Ulster, Carrickfergus is a remarkably complete and well-preserved early medieval castle that has survived intact despite 750 years of continuous military occupation – it was seized in 1689 for King William of Orange who stepped ashore here in 1690. A plaque on the pier marks the spot, a revered site by one section of the community. At the time Carrickfergus was the only part of the North where English was spoken.
St Nicholas’s parish church – where Louis McNiece’s father was vicar – is contemporaneous with the Castle. Just off the market place, some 12th century features remain, including pillars in the nave. A statue to Sir Arthur Chichester, landlord of Belfast (quite a title, really) stands in the north transept. A small effigy of his brother Sir John Chichester, who had his head chopped off at Glynn near Larne in a McDonnell ambush in 1597, is part of the same monument.
Glynn was the location for the North of Ireland’s first talking picture The Luck of the Irish, something that Sir John John Chichester would surely have had something to say about, had he survived his beheading.
Slemish Mountian stands in the centre of Co Antrim, and it was on its slopes that the captive Patrick herded sheep and pigs for Milchu, a local chieftain. In his Confessio, Patrick describes his early days in the Rev Ian Paisley’s constituency: “Now after I came to Ireland daily I herded flocks and often during the day I prayed. Love of God and his fear increased more and more, and my faith grew and my spirit was stirred up so that in a single day I said as many as a hundred prayers, and at night likewise, though I abode in the woods and then in the mountain.”
Slemish, standing some 1437 ft, is near the town of Broughshane and visible for miles around being the only peak in the rather flat landscape. A well-marked path leads to the top.
The North of Ireland writer Sam Hanna Bell once wrote of Ulster: “Where every hill has is hero and every bog has its bones.” And Mount Slemish has the biggest hero of all.
Where to stay in Antrim
The Dunadry Hotel & Country Club
2 Islandreagh Drive, Dunadry, BT41 2HA
028 9443 4343
The four star Dunadry is set in ten acres of beautiful grounds. It boasts two first class restaurants the Mill Race Bistro and the Linen Mill Restaurant.Double rooms from £80, singles from £65
Dobbin’s Inn Hotel
6-8 High Street, Carrickfergus, BT38 7AF
028 9335 1905
An atmospheric, informal old hostelry in the heart of Carrickfergus which has been on the go for four centuries and comes complete with priest’s hole (for hiding in) and an original 16th century fireplace.
Double rooms from £65 per room, singles £50
Bushmills Inn Hotel
9 Dunluce Road, Bushmills, Co. Antrim BT57 8QG
028 2073 3000
A way station on the Causeway Coastal Road, so a little to the north. But the welcome here makes the extra mileage well worth the effort, as does the atmosphere: the flickering open peat fires warm the 400-year-old stonework of this coaching inn and mill house, while gaslights illuminate the Victorian bar. You can also . Search for secret library. (Spoiler alert: push on false bookcase.) Double rooms from £95
Where to eat and drink
Hilden Brewery Visitor Centre and Tap Room Restaurant
Hilden House, Hilden, Lisburn, BT27 4TY,
028 9266 3863; www.hildenbrewery.co.uk
You can buy Hilden Ales throughout the North; even better you can visit the Brewery and Tap Room in the village of Hilden, Ireland’s oldest independent brewery. At the visitor centre you can see how the ales are made. Now, to be honest, there’s not a lot to see in a brewery (or indeed a winery or distillery). The real interest is in sampling the stuff, which they’re very generous about at Hilden. Even better, there’s an award winning pub and restaurant there as well.
29 Ballyrobert Road, Ballyclare, BT39 9RY,
028 9084 0099, www.oreganorestaurant.com
An award-winning restaurant which has become a landmark for gastronauts in south Antrim. Signature dishes include a starter of roast wood pigeon and puy lentils, or main dishes of chargrilled rump of Finnebrogue venison.
822 Antrim Road
028 9443 2984
An elegant restaurant in the three star Templeton Hotel, Raffles has established itself as one of the finest tables of modern cuisine in the North. An award-winning eating place, it has a wide range of vegetarian options as well as the pick of freshwater fish from nearby Lough Neagh.