Off the Beaten Path in Ireland: The Road to Torr Head and Carrick-a-Rede

March 19 – 24
Northern Ireland

If there was a way to somehow distill the essence of Ireland such as to contain it in a bottle so that it could be taken as an elixir at the end of a particularly long and difficult day; a sort of tonic that could lift the senses and revitalize a weary heart; perhaps that could be achieved if one set forth on a sunny day from the small town of Cushendun on the Torr Road towards Ballycastle.

Now, folks savvy with their geography might already have spouted off that the town of Cushendun lies smack in County Antrim, which puts it firmly into the territory of one Northern Ireland that lies under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, per the treaty that ended the Irish War of Independence in 1921.  This arrangement is an undeniable fact, though there have been many folks (particularly those from West Belfast) who have sacrificed their lives and the lives of others in defense of Irish sovereignty.  Nationalists and Unionists aside, for our purposes the land I am about to describe belongs to the ancient kings of Ulster and the Red Branch Knights.  So, with nary a Union Jack in sight, this part of the country seemed to me, as they say, just as Irish as all the grass in Kerry.

Completely by accident, we found this road along the cliffs, and having done so, we might just have discovered the finest stretch of roadway in all the isles.  Coastlines have a way of drawing us to them like a magnet, so it was no wonder that we dimmed down the volume on our GPS, which, ever since we turned out of the driveway of the inn we crashed at the night before, had bleated at us to take the next turn onto the A2. Rather than opting for that faster, better-maintained roadway that linked the two towns, we passed right through the signage alerting us of the single-track road prone to sudden closures ahead, ignored the notices urging trailers and caravans to turn back, and began to climb up the road to Torr Head.

This road appeared to have been hand-chiseled out of the side of a grassy cliff that plunged several hundred meters down to a glassy mineral-blue Irish Sea.  Sheep and gnarled gorse shrubs jostled for a bit of purchase here and there, the later a riot of yellow that jeered in response to the sunlight that morning. I imagined that gorse all over Ireland asked the same question of the sun, as it did that very morning: “who are you that disappears from time to time and leaves behind nothing but gray skies, day after day?  We are always bright for this land; we can carry the light of day when you are nowhere to be found!”

To the despair of farmers across the county, scarcely a month had passed since unseasonal snowdrifts had swallowed the first of the year’s lambs.  When we arrived in Dublin in late March, the snows followed our heels clear all the way County Kildare as we fled west toward the coast.  But on a day like this one, even as far north as we were, there was indeed no sorrow in the countryside and winter’s bite had since released its hold.  Spring was bounding forth everywhere we turned our eyes; it erupted in streams from the mouths of roadside daffodils.

Kendley napped as was her custom in the late morning as we snaked along a rollercoaster of green, blue and limestone.  Oliver shuffled a deck of Angry Bird playing cards and lifted his gaze here and there when Ryan or I ‘oohed’ or ‘ahhhed’ at the more dramatic turns in the road.

The horizon was brindled with high, passing clouds and the Mull of Kintyre off Scotland’s southwest coast, clear in the distance, seemed close enough to skip a stone all the way to Cambeltown.  We had read that emigrated Scottish clansmen relied on the strategic position of the headland as a base to send signals to their allies back on Argyllshire.  An abandoned 19th century coastguard signal station built over the remains of a 2,000 year-old ring fort stood quietly at the farthest tip of Torr Head and evoked two different eras in the span of a moment.

Jewel tones abounded.  Pasturelands were hemmed into wobbly parcels that vanished vertically into the horizon where it met the sea. It ended as quickly as it had begun. The road made a swan’s neck turn inland toward Ballycastle and the sea retreated to the west behind us.

Not long after leaving the Torr Road, we had returned to the coast and were easing along a lane that brought us to Carrick-a-Rede and its famous rope bridge.  While most travelers along the Causeway Coastal route continue straight on through to Giant’s Causeway, we knew to give this particular place a stop, if only to elevate our heart rates for the afternoon.

For 350 years, local fishermen with a penchant for adrenalin kicks had strung a rope bridge 98 feet above a 66-foot chasm to connect the mainland to the offshore islet of Carrickarede (literally, “rock in the road”) in a clever attempt to reach the sheltered waters that harbored salmon as they migrated around Ireland’s northern coast.  Today, the bridge is owned and expertly maintained by the UK’s National Trust, and for five euros fifty, brave travellers can make the crossing themselves.

At our approach, the wind kicked up and the bridge began to sway.  Nesting kittiwakes and guillemots wheeled in the updrafts below us, and when I looked down between the slats in the bridge, the tiny hairs along both of my arms stood straight us against the wind.  I do believe if it weren’t for Oliver and Kendley hauling me like a team of draft horses, I would have remained there forever, clutching the handrail and whimpering like a fool.

To be fair, it was FAR from the worst swing bridge we had ever crossed.  In Nepal and Laos, several rickety things slung a hundred feet above dry riverbeds come to mind.  I was fortunate that Carrick-a-rede, with its steel cables and 10-ton load capacity, was well equipped to convey heavy Western bodies.

Safely deposited on the other side, the kids squared themselves away among tall grasses to pluck at pioneering dandelions, leaving Ryan and I to skirt the edge of the little islet where it dropped down into the sea.  A microburst was curling around the northern headland and making a direct line for us. An angled path of rain sheeted down, and the approaching clouds were gunmetal against the sea.  These micro-storms in Ireland are not unlike those that track over Bali or more tropical zones; they tear down a coastline with all the ferocity nature can muster, only to retreat in a moment’s time back out over the Atlantic.  The rains come, and then they are gone.

Despite knowing this, we were without shelter on Carrick-a-rede, and our escape back to the mainland was entirely dependent on re-crossing the rope bridge.  Thanks to lack of foresight and the illusion of a deceptively beautiful day, we were all jacketless and to make matters worse, Kendley had the early makings of her second Irish head cold in a series of three (the first acquired on the Beara Peninsula, the last in County Kilkenny). Jousting for a place in line among the healthy barrage of Chinese tourists who had descended on the islet shortly after our arrival, we shuffled across the bridge just as the first gale of the storm enveloped us. The bridge keeled left and right and the constant footfall across its rails set it bucking from front to end.  I clutched Kendley with all my might (she led the way), and moaned softly for the entire two minutes it took to cross the chasm.

And just like that, it was sunny again; the islands off the coast visible where the clouds had been swept away.  Next stop, Giant’s Causeway, where I would endeavor to keep my feet on firm ground.

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