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Northern Ireland, Where It's Easy Being Green

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Peering out of my van window, I was happy the rain had stopped. Looking over the meadow, the fog was slowly lifting, and out of this moody, misty atmosphere I saw several large, lumbering images walking the fields. Our van slowed to a stop and as the mist receded, I recognized this ghostly vision to be nothing more exotic than some gorgeous Galloway Belted cows, quite common here in County Down.

Here is a land of intense loveliness -- blue mountains, deep forests, misty lakes, and just as it should be -- the moors are windswept, the cliffs are craggy and the sea is wild and roiling. Welcome to Northern Ireland (aka Ulster). It has six counties, 1.8 million people, and tourism, technology, and agriculture are the mainstays of its economy. Weather here can be fickle. Oh, let's just tell it like it is: it rains 270 to 290 days a year. In this wee country, about the size of Connecticut and just 100 miles by 100 miles, it's damp and chill and green all over! Naturally, it is this very climate that keeps the "Emerald" in "Emerald Isle," and we wouldn't have it any other way.

The van was taking us to Londonderry (aka Derry), rich in cultural and architectural heritage. Our walking tour encompassed the 17th century Derry City Walls and St. Columb's Cathedral built between 1614 and 1619. The walls stand 26 feet high and 30 feet wide, and throughout the walk we saw 24 medieval cannons still seeming to stand sentinel, protecting the city from attack by marauding Irish clans. Never breached, the walls remain completely intact and almost perfectly preserved, making Londonderry one of the finest examples of a walled European city.

The next day on to County Antrim to visit the Giant's Causeway, recognized as one of the natural wonders of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jutting into the sea are 40,000 hexagon-shaped basalt columns formed 60 million years ago from volcanic lava. I stood among the towering tubes of stone musing over a popular legend: an Irish giant named Finn McCool had an altercation with Fingal, a Scottish giant who lived across the water. McCool began flinging huge clods of earth at him which landed in the sea, forming a causeway so they could meet and have a face-off. The story goes on and on but, suffice it to say, it has a happy ending for dear Finn McCool.

The Glens of Antrim are steeped in myth and legend, especially in fairy lore. On a walk-about, we came to a stand of hawthorn trees. Our guide Brendan explained that this area is rife with fairies that are fond of hawthorn trees and of their own particular hang-out, Fairy Hill. He went on to say: "Woe betide anyone who would dare to cut a Hawthorn down!" Just then a brisk breeze stirred the forest's leaves, and I believe I saw in the distance a procession of teeny, green-clad souls climbing up Fairy Hill and disappearing down the other side. Imagination? Maybe. Or maybe just Ireland, charming and beguiling as ever. It was a sweet, cherishable moment that was quickly broken by Brendan saying, "I'm told they taste just like chicken."

Our journey ended in , a city of 500,000, replete with history, heritage and tradition. Once the linen capital of the world, the city pulses with energy: quaint cobbled streets, historic pubs, music and murals -- a city of murals, really. They are some of Northern Ireland's most unique expressions of public art, some reflecting political and social views while others pay tribute to local heroes. One that I will long remember read: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, leaves everyone blind and unable to eat."

Belfast once had the biggest shipyard in the world and it was here in 1912 that the Titanic, the world's most famous ship since Noah's Ark, was built. Now, Belfast has commenced a mammoth $150 million project to open in the centenary year of its sailing. There will be a museum comprised of nine galleries which will take the visitor through time, telling of Belfast's shipbuilding boomtown, of those who built the Titanic and those on board her tragic maiden voyage up to present day where visitors will see video footage of where she lies at rest. The aim of this ambitious project is, in a sense, to bring the Titanic home.

Northern Ireland is a place where myth, magic and mystery live side by side with everyday life. Our senses were besotted with visions of sheep-strewn meadows, stately horses standing beneath milky skies, and hedgerows of green, gold and copper emerging like ghostly blobs as we traversed narrow lanes. Ireland's native son, Oscar Wilde, once irreverently said, "The only thing I can't resist is temptation." For me, the temptation to return to Ulster will always be there.

Summer Festivals in Londonderry
The Celtronic Festival, June; The Northern Ireland Comics' Festival, June; the Walled City Music Festival, August

Summer Festivals in Belfast
Festival of Champions Band Concert, Summer Music in the Parks, May; Uptown Hoedown Country and Western Festival, June; Rose Week, Rose Gardens of Belfast, July

If You Go:
discovernorthernireland.com
discoverireland.com