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Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace

Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace

To write about Seamus Heaney feels somewhat of an empty feat, he of so many words and I of so few but sure, here I am trying. In our family Seamus is spoken of like another family remember, his quips and musings repeated at gatherings like a shared memory that we never tire of hearing. ‘Digging’ is a firm favourite of ours as it is amongst most families in Ireland who identify with the audible descriptions of our ancestors who toiled the land before us while we, the fortunate ones, escaped the fields,

“By God, the old man could handle a spade”

While I struggle to resurrect the words to describe the impact Heaney’s work has had on me, I’ll settle for telling you all about the wonderful museum, HomePlace, that is dedicated to his life’s work and his legacy. My Granny and Aunties had been to HomePlace earlier in the year and had raved about it for months afterward. The extensiveness of it is what impressed them most, so much so they didn’t even have time to visit the upper floor as they had scheduled tickets for a talk given by Jennifer Johnston not long after arriving.

After hearing so much about the museum from my family I knew I had to darken its doors eventually and when Ireland’s Blue Book invited me to go the morning after our stay at Ardtara, well of course I leapt at the chance. To be amongst his work on the very bit of land that spawned him and the words that inspired him felt important so off we went to drive the 15 minutes up the road to Bellaghy.

When walking through the doors of HomePlace you are greeted by a portrait of Seamus himself in his later years with another old photo from his youth placed just behind close to the words:

“I rhyme to see myself/to set the darkness echoing”

To read Heaney’s words is one thing but to hear his own poetry spoken from his own mouth, forming the words he himself had written, is another thing entirely. And yet, before even knowing what his voice sounded like it was as if I was already reading his poems with that same deep gruff voice that hadn’t lost it’s Derry drawl; it was warm and familiar. As we walked around HomePlace we were prompted to listen to many of his poems read by Seamus at various parts of the exhibition like Midterm Break when we revisited his childhood, Route 101 which he wrote for his daughter and In The Attic, one of his final poems.

There was so much of his work that I hadn’t read before and what struck me most as I listened and watched the videos of fans who have been influenced by him (ranging from famous figures to schoolchildren) was just how accessible Heaney’s work is. It has no airs or graces but rather it’s its very earthiness that enables any reader from across the board to feel the weight of the words. The ordinary is celebrated and the truth pours out in torrents making it impossible not to see yourself or others you know in them.

 “Walk on air against your better judgement”

What perhaps isn’t as well known is how harsh a critic he was of his own work. On the upper floor of the museum you can stand in a room that mirrors the attic where Seamus spent his time writing at home, skylight and all. In the replicate you can see copies of work Seamus corrected and re-corrected even after it was published. He never stopped editing and even criticised previous work in later poems.

“But when the slates came off, extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open”

Seamus’ use of language has the capacity to transport so many of us back to memories we maybe thought were lost forever and HomePlace provides the most beautiful journey to take us there. However I wasn’t just left lamenting for my own youth after pouring myself over his poems; what I also felt was a real surge of gratitude to this man who provided us with so much. From watching old footage of him filmed in the days after he won the Nobel Prize in 1995 to reading the last words he texted to his wife right before he unexpectedly passed (Noli timere, Latin for “Don’t be afraid”), I was so moved by the gift he has given so many and also the man who was behind the iconic words.

You might not know a lot of Heaney’s work save for a line or two but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting HomePlace. For any of us that were reared in Ireland it should be a national necessity to walk the grounds that inspired poems that have dominated Irish literature and the most important poet and wordsmith of our own lifetime.

As I left HomePlace I was thinking of my Granny who has encouraged my love for poetry and reading throughout my adulthood and who has been struggling with illness the last few months. One poem stuck out the most that reminded me of her and how lucky I am to have had all those small moments with her by the stove in her kitchen, especially those moments shared in silence as I watched her finish the Irish Times crossword by the window and the light falling around her,

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

Happy Sunday friends! I hope you’re feeling restful and indulging yourself in some final weekend treats. I’m currently parked on the couch in a onesie cramming as much chocolate as possible in to my gob, a real sight for the eyes I assure you. Only a mere 48 hours ago I was arriving at Ardtara House Hotel, ready for a night of food and wine amidst Victorian luxury – oh, how the mighty have fallen!

I have to confess that when Ireland’s Blue Book invited us to stay at Ardtara I had to do a quick google search because I hadn’t a notion where it was. I’m guilty of being a lover of the coast so I’m fairly unfamiliar with the countryside of Co. Derry but one look at the pictures convinced me that this was a retreat worth leaving the coast for! Open fireplaces in every bedroom, an award-winning restaurant, a huge bath to soak in – I practically Flinstoned my way there!

After a week of feeling pretty miserable I was craving a bit of pampering and when we pulled in to the drive of Ardtara I was giddy to know how much of a treat we were in for. The hotel is small with only 9 rooms so there’s a real intimacy as soon as you walk through the door with the staff treating us as if, much like the vintage furniture, we’d always been there.

We were shown to our room by Valerie, a local who was full of knowledge about the manor which had been built by the Clark family in 1895 and had made their fortune in the linen industry. The room itself was huge with beautiful big windows overlooking the gardens at the front, a fireplace I couldn’t wait to light and a bathroom that was about the size of our wee house in Belfast. We hadn’t too long to enjoy the room though as we were starving and dinner was about to be served downstairs – an event I had been looking forward to all week.

The patron chef of Ardtara is the same chef of the infamous Brown’s in Derry and all the hotel reviews I had read were outpourings of love for the food. Expectations were high and thankfully completely exceeded as we dined on some of the best food I have ever eaten – no lie my friends. We began our feast in one of the drawing rooms (fancy, I know) nibbling on homemade pork crisps with apple & pear sauce along with crispy cod and kimchi (divine!) on a cosy couch by the fireplace. We were then brought in to the dining room with our wine glasses politely topped up and the next dish promptly placed before our eyes – carrot & fennel soup accompanied by homemade breads which lasted about 0.2 seconds before being polished off.

What followed after was a gastronomic whirlwind of delight – lamb samosas, breaded roast chicken bites and a fillet steak that I am still thinking about and no doubt will forever. Needless to say my belly was fighting for space in my skirt but the real shame was that I had zero room for dessert – the first time this has happened to me in me entire life. I have never not had room for a wee slither of cake but I couldn’t swallow another bite without inducing the rest of the food to return back with it. The desserts looked incredible though as I spied other guests receiving theirs with barely contained envy.

After all that food I barely made it to the room but when I did I had just enough energy to finish my wine in front of the fire in my dressing gown. As much as I have loved the summer, it was a joy to be sitting next to a fire again to keep my toes warm and I can only imagine how lovely the hotel would be as an escape during the colder months (the hotel was recently voted as the most romantic hotel in Ireland too!)

The next morning I woke after sleeping for 9 hours, the most I had slept in weeks and surprisingly with a real hunger despite the feast we had the night before. As always we just about made breakfast and luckily for us we were spoiled again with another delicious menu full of local dishes. Andrew opted for Eggs Benedict while I being the forever sugar fiend opted for French toast and maple syrup – yum!

We were sad to pack our things after only arriving what felt like a few hours before but I made sure to get a quick morning soak in the bath before we said our goodbyes to the room and the staff at Ardtara (who were busy preparing for a wedding party with arms full of roses). We could have easily have stayed on but we had tickets for the Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace, a museum dedicated to the most loved poet of Ireland that’s only 15 minutes away in Bellaghy.

Ardtara is a small but completely charming retreat that many return to again and again (Bill Murray being one of them and that guys knows what’s what) and I could understand why. You may come for the food at Ardtara but you’ll stay for the warmth of the staff and the welcoming grandeur of its rooms. It’s a perfect base for either exploring the area or for just curling up by the fire in your room with a wee glass of wine and a full belly to comfort you.

 

 

Local Favourites: Dunluce Castle & Mussenden Temple

Local Favourites: Dunluce Castle & Mussenden Temple

I think there are a few things that come to mind when foreigners think of Ireland (according to Hollywood anyway):

  1. Rain. Lots of rain.
  2. Green fields as far as the eye can see.
  3. Old men drinking Guinness
  4. A random person playing the fiddle in the pub
  5. Castle ruins dotted everywhere

We Irish might roll our eyes at this glamourisation of our wee isle especially when a plastic poncho-covered American tourist insists on defining themselves as Irish or asks where the best pint of Guinness is (I usually direct them to the Harp Bar or The Duke of York). But the fact is that most of the expectations of Ireland are usually about right. It does rain here. A lot. And most aul fellas in a pub probably will be propped up by a pint of the black stuff. And we really are lucky enough to have hundreds of castle ruins scattered across our hills and rugged coastlines.

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But having so much history close to home can be a hindrance here because we can overlook these beautiful castles on our doorstep just because they are familiar. I grew up in Armagh, the ancient capital of Ireland and my childhood home was about a mile or two away from a burial ground that dates back thousands of years. I only just visited this site again for the first time since primary school and felt so ashamed that I’d forgotten about such an important piece of my history.

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I lived abroad for about 6 years and I think coming back to live in Ireland awoke me to just how many fascinating sites there are here that I haven’t even been to. I have been determined to rectify this since and so on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago I set off with a begrudging boyfriend to explore the ruins of Dunluce Castle and Mussenden Temple.

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You might not know the names of these coastal monuments but you will recognise them especially if you’re a Game of Thrones fan. It’s difficult to find a place along this part of the Irish coastline that hasn’t been filmed for the series yet which is evident by the throngs of tour buses that descend on these shores in the summer hoping to catch a glimpse of a set now famous around the world.

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Our first stop was Dunluce Castle, probably one of the most famous ruins in the North. The castle hangs precariously off the cliffs of Antrim as if carved out of the cliffs themselves but even in its decay it still casts a foreboding figure on the jagged coastline. The castle was first built just over 500 years ago by the McQuillan clan but was seized by the MacDonnell’s from Scotland in the 1550’s who later swore loyalty to Elizabeth I and became the Earls of Antrim. Today its ruins bear a reminder of a time when every piece of land was a prize to be won with consequences more violent than any Game of Thrones episode (GOT fans might recognise the castle as the home of the Greyjoy’s). But who needs TV eh?

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When we arrived at the castle the sun was uncharacteristically beaming down which meant there were even more tourists than usual. To avoid competing for a good shot of the ruins amongst the crowds, I wandered down the road to a nearby field and clambered over the gate. I might have been trespassing (I looked for signs, I swear) but the field was empty of animals and I was able to get uninterrupted views of the castle with the waves crashing against the cliffs beneath.

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After the castle we drove a few miles along the coast to Whitepark Bay to Bothy, a wee timber gem that looks like a homestead plucked from the American Midwest. I had heard a few things about this joint before but I had no idea just how charmed I would be by the food and the people there. There is a real warm welcome upon entering mixed in with a laid-back atmosphere that feels border-line Californian. We were there on a summer’s day so the doors were thrown open to allow the sea breeze to cool the place down while the back was opened up for the sun worshipper’s to eat outside.

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Andrew and I both ordered chicken melts with tobacco onions which we devoured within a few minutes and we spent the next half hour bathing in the afternoon heat not wanting to move at all. We noticed a pizza oven outside too so I would imagine this would be a great spot for a summer’s evening and a few drinks if you didn’t have far to travel. As well as that there’s also a wee stove inside too so it would be super cosy for a winter’s day – they’ve got it all covered here!!

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After being suitably fed and feeling super relaxed we hopped back in the car and headed towards Mussenden Temple which was about a half hour away. The temple forms part of the Downhill Demesne and although it has aged much better than the manor, it is perhaps built at an even more precipitous position than Dunluce – we Irish love our dramatics don’t we?! It was built in 1785 and was to be used as a summer library in memory of the Earl’s cousin Frideswide Mussenden. Imagine cosying up to a book with almost 360 views of the ferocious Atlantic – you wouldn’t leave! These days you can actually hire the temple out as a wedding venue which would be an absolute dream location for anyone – booklover or not.

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On our way to the temple we actually picked up a hitchhiker – Robin from Toulouse – who was hitchhiking his way along the Irish coast with a tent and not much else. We brought him as far as Limavady but took him along to Mussenden which he wasn’t aware even existed. It was so lovely to discover the temple alongside a foreigner because I felt like I was experiencing it as a tourist on holiday. With the sun warming my back and standing on the cliff edge admiring the views out towards Scotland, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. How lucky we are to have all of this on our doorstep.

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