The northern-most province of Ulster contains a diverse array of cultures and sites, which, combined, tell the tale of modern Ireland, a place of history, pluralism and an evolving culture. Ulster is divided into nine counties including the six that comprise Northern Ireland: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, as well as Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan of the Republic. In Ulster lies the largest freshwater basin in Ireland, Lough Neagh, which shares its borders with five of the nine Ulster counties. Just east of the massive lake is the contrast of youthful, urban Belfast, the second largest city in Ireland. With a jagged coast that travels from the Atlantic up to the Northern Channel and ends in County Down at the Irish Sea, Ulster has no end of historical sites and vibrant communities all in a landmass little more than one-sixth the size of New York State.
Among the most stunning of Ireland’s geological wonders is the Giant’s Causeway, located in County Antrim, which houses Ulster’s northeast coast. The Causeway, a series of over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, mostly hexagonal though some have as many as eight sides, are a natural phenomenon resulting from volcanic eruptions. A simultaneously awe-inspiring and eerie locale, at its feet beneath the surfaces of the Northern Channel lie infamous shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada. The site is perhaps the greatest tourist draw in Ulster, and its endless contributions to folklore and myth inspire the imaginations of its stream of yearly visitors. The luxurious Bushmills Inn Hotel offers an ultimate experience in the heart of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast.
Further inland in Antrim is the birthplace of the Irish linen industry in the city of Lisburn. Rich with historical tales including one of negotiations between Ben Franklin and Lord Hillsborough before the American War of Independence, Lisburn is now a growing city with extensive shopping centers and leisure activities as well as museums which detail the growth of linen into what would become an essential form of Irish industry.
A new buzz has been surrounding Belfast in the last decade as the city attracts tourism with its famed shopping centers, multiple tourist attractions and places to stay. The Titanic’s Dock has certainly had a hand in drawing tourists. Here visitors explore the city’s history with the ill-fated ship. The Samson and Goliath cranes, the Hospital Tower Block, The King’s Hall and the Stormont Parliament Buildings are all within the Belfast traveler’s grasp, along with all the perks of metropolitan entertainment. There are many wonderful places to stay in the city including Merchant Hotel, an incredible historic five star property within Belfast City Center.
Celebrating the extensive reaches of the great Lough Neagh and its richly forested adjacent lands, on the southern edges of the lake in County Armagh is the Oxford Island Discovery Centre. Its picturesque location makes the Centre’s cafes and meeting rooms an idyllic scene for visitors. Among its several attractions is the Kinnego Marina, the largest marina on Lough Neagh, where skippered boat trips and expert instruction in sailing and powerboating are offered by fully qualified staff. Accommodation on-site includes a 30-bed hostel and a camping and caravan park which offers tours to Coney Island, the only inhabited island on Lough Neagh, believed to have its first human settlers as far back as 8000 B.C. The Nature Reserve cannot be missed by environmentalist and wildlife-lovers. The Centre has year-round festivals and exhibits about subjects ranging from the local insect life to the legends of Finn McCool.
Just on the edges of the city of Armagh, atop the hill Ard Macha, is the Cathedral of St. Patrick. It is on this site in the year 445 that it is believed St. Patrick built his church. The original structure suffered a series of destructive events at the hands of Vikings, lightning strikes, and fires, but what stands today is a stunning architectural work begun in 1834. Its many restorations have not detracted from the rich, ancient spiritualism that many flock to experience atop the hill.
Originally part of the Connacht province, County Cavan became recognized as a piece of Ulster in 1584. While the boggy terrain of Cavan has resulted in a rather rural setting, the numerous lakes are a fisherman’s delight. The Dun Na Rí Forest Park is not only a canvas of unusual natural sites, but the paths through its forests and monuments are lined with legends of battles and myths of giants. Cromwell’s Bridge is just one such structure nestled in the forested landscape that calls to the ghosts of Cavan’s rich history.
Milltown is a small town located in Cavan which serves as a unique anchor for tourists as they travel to the outskirts of this homely village to explore the ruins that surround it. The Monastery, Abbey, Church and Round Tower of the Drumlane are situated just beside Milltown. The massive stone structures date back as far as 555 AD. A number of saints are believed to have roamed Drumlane, and imprints in stones nearby a well are said to be the knees of St. Mogue.