The Palm House, Botanic Gardens, Belfast.

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She’s not bad looking for a 174 year old! The palm house in Belfast is one of the oldest in the world.

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Templecorran Churchyard

Just yards away from James Orr‘s grave is the ruined church of Templecorran.

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If you were here in the late seventeenth century, you might have heard the voice of Jonathan Swift drifting out of the building.

If you were here in the early 1600s, you might have heard Edward Brice, the first Presbyterian minister in Ireland. (Although a Presbyterian, he held a position in the established Anglican church – things weren’t quite so cut-and-dried at that point in time.)

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Of course, it wasn’t necessarily all prayer, hymn and sermon. At certain points around the building, you can still see loopholes in the wall, used by the musket men inside.

If you went back even earlier still, perhaps a thousand years ago, you’d find yourself in the middle of a massive Christian settlement. It was only in the 1980s that people realised how big the site originally was – aerial photographs clearly revealed the original boundaries. Early Christian graves have also been found far outside the modern churchyard. (The early Christian site may have been abandoned due to Vikings, but who knows. Some historians just have Vikings on the brain…)

The graveyard’s still in use. While we were there, we met a few people leaving Christmas wreaths on the family grave.

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A thousand years of burials, all in this one little spot. There must just be something about burying your dead up a hill that appeals to the human mind.

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Templecorran – Remember Orr!

On a soggy December Antrim day, we found ourselves trudging around near Larne, up a soggy hill, with a biting wind gnawing our knuckles. We were at the grave of James Orr. Not by design, it has to be said – that’s just where the wind blew us.

James Orr was one of the Ulster “Weaver Poets”. He wrote about local themes, local landscapes, and local folk in local lingo. Which isn’t in any way a slight – as another great Ulster poet once remarked, “all great civilisations are founded upon the parish”.

He took part in the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798, and fought in the Battle of Antrim. After that defeat, he went into hiding in the Antrim hills, before escaping to America. His commander, Henry Joy McCracken, was captured and executed before he got that far. A lot of his poems draw on his experience of the rebellion and flight to America.

After he died his grave was unmarked for fifteen years, until this monument was erected by the Masonic lodge Orr had belonged to.

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The grave is in Templecorran churchyard, which is also the site of an interesting old ruined church. But we’re up a hill being pelted by wind and rain, so that’s a story for another day.

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St Malachy’s Christian Brothers’ School, Oxford Street, Belfast

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The Christian Brothers and the Order Of The Phoenix

St Malachy’s school opened on the banks of the Lagan in 1874. When a well-to-do lady called Margaret Magill died, she left a sum of £2,400 to the Christian Brothers, on the instruction that they would set up a school to teach the children of the barge-men who worked on the Lagan. It was designed by Alexander MacAllister, a leading architect in Victorian Belfast.

I can’t find out a lot about Mrs Magill, other than that she may have been from Bangor, wasn’t short of a penny, and seems to have been a bit of a philanthropist.

The school closed in the 1960s, by which time the population was much too big for its two classrooms to accommodate. It was recently a solicitor’s office, and now it is vacant.

It’s Oxford Street’s answer to Harry Potter’s Order of the Phoenix HQ. It has the feeling of having erupted up magically between its neighbours.

I’m always attracted by it when I pass. Maybe if Mrs McGill’s great-great-great-great granddaughter reads this, she’ll buy it for me. It would be a handy spot to live in!

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European Herring Gull

Familiarity breeds contempt. Herring gulls are probably no strangers to anyone who lives in northern Europe, and maybe that’s why we think of them as nothing more than a damn nuisance. But they are pretty fascinating when you learn a bit about them.

Herring gulls are such a common sight that a lot of people find it hard to believe they’re actually a species in decline. Their numbers have dropped by 50% in the past 25 years, putting them on the conservation red list. This decline is hidden a bit, because as their numbers have dropped they have also moved into towns and cities, where there are plenty of feeding and nesting opportunities. So we still see as much of them as ever we did.

There’s nothing a gull likes as much as a good feed. They often swoop people for food – they’ve stolen crab baps out of my hand before now, the cheeky buggers – they tear open bin bags, and they have even been reported using pieces of bread as bait to catch fish!

This one regularly visits the same kebab shop on the Isle of Man:

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(Incidentally, the header picture at the top of this blog also shows Isle of Man Herring Gulls, swooping over Douglas Bay.)

If you look at the photo, you’ll notice a little red spot on the beak. The young birds knock this red spot when hungry, which then makes the adult regurgitate food for them. (Not haute cuisine, but it’s a living!)

The young have a particular call and flick of the head they do when begging for food from their parents, which they stop doing as adults. But interestingly, adult birds in urban areas, who have been fed by humans, revert to this behaviour to beg for food from people!

Come on. You can’t tell me they aren’t fascinating birds, even if their call could lift the tiles off your roof, and they have a tendency to dive-bomb you!

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Wainwright Exquisitely Lovely Golden Ale

Wellllll, maybe I did just buy it for the name. Or rather, that’s what made it jump out from an excellent selection of brews in Sainsbury’s this evening, anyway.

A beer named in honour of grumpy hikers? The patron saint of grumpy hikers, even? That’ll do me!

No regrets upon pouring. Bit of honey on the nose, but not too sweet. I’d try it again!

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Charleville Castle, Tullamore, County Offaly

The day after Castle Ward, we set off for Offaly to meet Timothy. The weather was still holding: it was about 24°C, with barely a cloud in sight.

The route is pretty straightforward; you just keep on the same road all the way from Dundalk. While you can go via Dublin, it involves a lot of soulless, boring motorway. So we took the route straight through lots of little country towns instead.

The road signs are, to be blunt, mental. All along the way, there isn’t a single minor curve in the road which isn’t preceded by a legion of warning signs. All this superfluous signage must be a sore temptation for scrap metal thieves…

We didn’t leave Belfast until mid-afternoon, due to altercations involving a taxi, a washing machine and a pair of glasses (long story!). So it was quite late by the time we got to Tullamore. It’s a nice enough little town. Local businesses seem to be riding out the storm well, unlike in many towns in the north. There are so many boarded-up shops there that they had to paint fake shop-fronts when the G8 came to the north, just to take the bad look off things.

We hit a kebab place for a good hearty feed, and after dinner took a walk in Charleville demesne. Conveniently, it’s just across the road from Timothy’s house.

The woods around Charleville castle are among the last remnants of ancient broadleaved woodland that once covered the island from coast to coast.

In these woods is the Tullamore King Oak – a majestic, spreading, pendunculate oak, which came third in this year’s “European Tree of the Year” contest. According to myth, every time a limb falls off the tree, one of the Earls of Charleville dies. The last time this was put to the test was midway through the 20th Century. The tree was struck by lightning, and Colonel Charles Hutton-Bury, the last of the line, obligingly handed in his cards.

As we made our way along the woodland paths, there was a sudden scuffle across the track in front of us.

“I think that was a badger!” said Mal, “At least, it was something like a big grey aubergine…”

It was getting twilight under the tree cover, and we were a bit unsure of what we’d just seen. But just as we were talking about it another one shot out in front of us. I don’t think I’ve seen a badger before, and I was surprised by the speed they can move at!

After about twenty minutes, we came to the castle itself.

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Charleville Castle is considered one of the finest pieces of Gothic revival architecture in Ireland. And it’s certainly an imposing building. But I have to be honest; for my taste, it seems almost sickeningly ostentatious, and seems slightly fake in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in Disneyworld.

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The building was never really a happy family home. The family seem to have lurched from crisis to crisis precipitated by excessive drinking, gambling and living beyond their means. One of the ceilings in the castle was designed by William Morris, and Lord Byron was a regular visitor whenever he came to Ireland.

It’s reputed to be haunted. I don’t know about that, but there’s certainly a very gloomy atmosphere looming over the place.

The adjoining stable block, by contrast, really is impressive, but it’s falling badly into disrepair. You can still walk in an see the old stalls where the horses used to be kept, but there are no windows left, and the ceilings are falling through. In the overgrown courtyard are two large iron cages, now almost engulfed by vegetation, where it’s said that two bears where once kept.

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The castle and its grounds are now in the care of two separate charitable trusts, and there seems to be a bit of disagreement about who’s responsible for the stable block. I hope it’s sorted out before the building falls entirely to ruin.

It was close on half past ten by the time
we got there and had a poke around the building, so we didn’t hang about for too long.

We had an early appointment with the Wicklow Hills to keep the next morning.

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