It seems impossible that such a tiny island can have so much to offer the traveller and tourist, but everyone heading for Ireland must understand that you can never go just once.
If this is your first trip to the Eire, or your sixth, you should make your way north to County Antrim and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is one of the most beautiful parts of the island and hiking or driving the Causeway Coast is a splendid way to travel back in time and see Ireland for what it was and always will be, a magical island the color of emeralds, in which every little valley hides a village of fairy creatures.
The Giant’s Causeway was formed by volcanic activity 50 million years ago or by a lovestruck Finn McCool in the Time of Legends, depending in which pub you’re sitting. Either way, the basalt hexagons that march from the towering cliffs down into the sea form a wondrous staircase that has boggled the minds of poets and has been awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO.
There are dozens of hikes and pathways around the coast for people to enjoy and several villages that provide bed and breakfast services, tourism information and naturally, a place to plop down and throw ‘em back all night.
Hiking the entire coast is a trip unto itself. Depending on where you start, it can take from one week to three. Many people begin in Londonderry and work their way through Limavady and up to Castlerock. The actual formations begin around Castlerock and continue all the way to Ballycastle, where they begin to taper off a bit. Although the distinctive basalt columns will still be visible, from Ballycastle down to Larne, the real attractions will be the cliffs facing Scotland and the Nine Glens of Antrim inland from the coast.
Hitchhiking was and might still be a good option along the coast. You might consider hitchhiking from Londonderry as far up the coast as you can, to Portrush for example, then hiking the coast from there to Bushmills. This is a fine hike because you will most likely be alone for a lot of it and you will end up near the oldest (legal) whiskey distillery in the UK.
Along the coast are several old castles built by the Irish to keep out various invaders and by those invaders to keep out the Irish. Vikings landed on this coast more than 1500 years ago and stormed a few castles, some successfully and some not; the remnants of these ancient stone structures are scattered along the entire coast. Inland from the coast is the heart of Ireland’s “Irishness.” Northern Ireland was not always a part of the UK. Way back before the English decided to wrest this island away from the Celts, Ulster was the seat of the Irish kings and the wellspring for many of the Irish legends, especially Finn McCool, also known as Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster.
Cuchulain’s legend begins just as the Tuatha Danaan, the last fairy people of the West, left the world and gave to the iron-bearing men that would rule until today. The transition between the magical world of legend and the modern world of technology enabled men like Finn McCool to do amazing things. The grandeur of the coast and the inland glens stems almost entirely from the feeling that the transition never really ended in this part of the world.
If you go:
There are several helpful sites for tourists and travelers, the most helpful being perhaps the Causeway Coast and Glens site, which also has a great map with history and itinerary ideas.
The Unesco site has some interesting information as well, though not necessarily for tourists.
And for those wishing to learn more about the legends of Ulster and Finn McCool, no website can do the man justice. Either read Finn McCool by Morgan Llewllyn, or better yet, head to Ulster and hike the coast in search of giants and fairies.