Thursday, September 12, 2013

Culture Share: Northern Ireland - Ach sure the craic's great!

 This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Karen Rees discusses Northern Ireland.

Ach sure the craic’s great!

According to Dorothy from Wizard of Oz ‘There’s no place like home’ and I have to say, I couldn’t agree with her more! Unfortunately though, over the years my beautiful little homeland of Northern Ireland has probably received more bad press than anywhere in Western Europe. For those eager enough to brave the harsh media reports they find themselves  pleasantly surprised and unexpectedly in love with a such a little country that most certainly has been the centre of controversy, bearing scars of a turbulent political past that can still make many a traveller feel wary about what to expect. However, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this charming little land here’s a snippet of what to expect…

Food: If you’re a lover of tiny little portions neatly sculpted in the centre of a vast plate you may be a tad disappointed with our traditional cuisine. We are a nation of potato & bread lovers. Hearty bowls of steaming hot Irish stew, thick fresh farls of soda and potato bread (generally found centre stage in an Ulster fry - accompanied with sausages, bacon, fried egg, mushrooms, tomato) A huge plate of champ which is merely mashed & creamed potato mixed with spring onions (or scallions, as locally referred to) with a little well of butter in the middle of the potato mound is absolutely scrumptious and often ate a delicious traditional Sunday dinner. A generous slice of wheaten bread, smothered in butter & jam with a mug of tea is another delicacy not to be sniffed at – my mouth waters at the thought! Oh, and of course Tayto crisps – the legendary cheese & onion potato crisps that are indigenous to northern Ireland. It’s not unusual for boxes to be shipped far & wide to aid loved ones living abroad and craving the taste of home. You can even visit the Tayto factory in Tandragee where you’re most welcome to sample their range of flavours & meet Mr Tayto himself!

A bowl of tasty champ

There really is so much to do and see. For those who love to explore, one of the most spectacular trips is that of the North Coast. A beautiful coastal drive with impressive views of dramatic sea battered cliffs and quaint little fishing towns. You quickly become surrounded by countless shades of green within the lush natural landscape, confirming the truth in that old Johnny Cash song ’40 Shades of Green’. Any thirsty explorers will be happy to know there’s a multitude of cosy little traditional pubs dotted along the way – all of which will only be too happy to help quench your thirst with a pint of the black stuff, otherwise known as Guinness. Alternatively, if there’s a chill to the air, a measure of the famous Bushmills Irish whiskey won’t be too long in warming you up.

A welcoming traditional Irish pub

A sight not to be missed is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which connects the mainland to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede, proudly situated in an area of special scientific interest for the unique geology, flora & fauna surrounding it. It’s a hearty dander but well worth a hike – the view alone is honey for the soul! Only a few more miles up the road is the impressive volcanic rock features known as the Giants Causeway, a natural wonder perched on the tip of the north coast attracting thousands of visitors each year. Recently the visitor centre has undergone a substantial renovation and now boasts a state of the art interactive experience on the formation of these incredible rock features - not to mention an insight to the legend of Finn McCool, a mythical giant supposedly responsible for it all during battle with Scottish giant Benandonner!
Alternatively you can travel south & take in the breathtaking scenery of the Mountains of Mourne; a small but highly impressive little mountain range situated on the shores of the county down coastline. If visiting be sure to stop by Silent Valley reservoir, the eerily quiet valley sits nestled amongst the Mournes and is always an impressive experience - perfect for those seeking a few hours of solitude. If you fancy a wood-land wander, check out Tollymore Forest Park. Take a trail through the vast tree covered expanse near the foot of the mountains, to explore the wilderness and wildlife of this outstanding area - check out Foley’s Bridge along the way, a hidden gem!

Foley’s Bridge, Tollymore

If you’d prefer something a little more unique (and somewhat challenging) check out the Marble Arch caves located in the Cladagh glen, set within the beautiful lake district of Fermanagh. Host to what is considered as ‘Europe’s finest show cave’ you can take a boat trip through the deep limestone caverns, spectacularly lit to showcase the ancient stalactites that hang majestically from its ceiling. Quick note – not recommended for high heel wearers nor tourists assuming it’s a glamorous cocktail style boat cruise (unlike two young ladies that were bitterly shocked at their own expectations in our tour group!)
Should you crave a bit of city life, Belfast is the place to be. As our little nations capital there is a multitude of things to do & see and with a huge boost in investment it’s now host to a wealth of fantastic attractions malls, hotels, restaurants, theatres, concert venues, pubs, clubs & visitor attractions. Buses tours run daily around the many major sights of this welcoming city which you will find is steeped in history. No place will tell the story of our engineering history better than that of the Titanic Belfast exhibition, step back in time to experience life from the hard toiling ship builders to first class passengers of this infamous liner that made sombre headlines worldwide.

Belfast Skyline

As for us locals, you’ll quickly come to find that we’re a highly welcoming bunch. My hubby happens to be Welsh and has not just travelled but lived all over the globe. With great truth he admits wholeheartedly that the northern Irish are certainly the most hearty and friendly folk he has encountered. I must admit that no matter where I have travelled, coming home has never been a disappointment - even after a week of relaxing on some far flung beach, the grey skies of home have been overruled by the feeling of such receptive warmth.
Our everyday lingo however can be little confusing, particularly for those who aren’t quite accustomed to the bizarre and somewhat comical sayings that can appear a tad nonsensical to those observing a conversation between locals. A few examples of such whimsical words are…

Away on with ya = I don’t believe you.
Bout ye? = How are you?
Banter = good fun
Catch yourself on = wise up
Craic = fun/goodtime
Dead on = Good/alright
Eejit = idiot
Grand = good
Hoop = bum/bottom
Keep dick = keep a look out
Lamps = eyes
Norn Iron = Northern Ireland
Oul doll = old woman
Oul lad = old man
Peelers = police
Poke = ice cream
Scundered = embarrassed
Wee = small
Yarn = chat

Hence a conversation using an example of the above expressions may translate to:

 “What about ye? You’re not grand? Ach, away on with ya.  Aye, it was good craic last night, did you see that eejit land on his hoop? I was scundered for him. The peelers were round looking for the oul lad, but some oul doll from across the road said ‘catch yourself on, he’s at the pub every Friday night. I’ll keep dick for him’. Anyway, great wee yarn, I’m away to get myself a poke from the poke-man.”

I’m sure you can grasp at why many (whom aren’t accustomed to our ‘wee’ sayings) could be ultimately left scratching their head in wonderment as to what exactly was communicated or even if indeed any of it was English to begin with. For the rest of us however – it makes perfect sense.

My advice to anyone considering a trip with a difference would be to book a visit to good oul Norn Iron. Regardless of media hype and the hostility of minorities we really are a friendly bunch of good honest folk who will most certainly show you how to enjoy yourself. I’m personally bursting with pride at my beautiful little country and am delighted to be back residing in it. There’s so much to see, do, experience, touch, taste and wholeheartedly enjoy – all within a relatively short distance. So dust off your passport and prepare for some banter… you’ll not be disappointed!

Karen Rees lives in Northern Ireland.
"My home is just a stones throw outside the quaint little boating town of Portaferry, set within the Ards peninsula, Co. Down.  I live with my husband Steve, our 7 year old daughter Emma, Toby the beagle & four cats Peppa/Peanut/Gomez & Hector. Yes there are more animals than humans!
"Originally born in Belfast, my parents moved to the peninsula when I was seven years old. I've been blessed to live in this beautiful part of Northern Ireland for a large portion of my life, so I consider myself a born city girl with a beating country heart. There's no better feeling than getting up in the morning and eating my cornflakes overlooking emerald green fields, sunshine sparkling on gentle waves of the bright blue Irish sea and bonny Scotland in the not too distant backdrop. It's a sleepy little peninsula, with plenty of working antique tractors (and owners) - it's the kind of place where a traffic jam consists of 2 cars and 22 cows, where neighbours grow their own veg and sell it in the local store. Its steeped in history and the people are always so friendly. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but I love it and I think you would too! Thanks for reading :)"


  1. Of course you'd tell me all this after I've plum run out of vacation time ;) I've always wanted to visit Norn Iron because my ancestors hail from Antrim. Now if I ever get the chance (and if my wife can drag me out of a good ol yarn at the pub) we'll know what sights to see.

  2. Aww, such a shame! Maybe next year? You'll definitely have to visit your ancestral homeland & sight-see around Antrim (particularly the coastal areas) it's beautiful. Plenty of pubs for a rest & a yarn along the way - just might see you there! lol Hope you's both make it over & thanks for reading!