From a 6th Century kingdom via the causeway coast and Van Morrison, we arrive at a unique summer of music. It’s festival season, but not as we know it
Portmuck Harbour on Antrim’s northeasterly tip is about as wee as a harbour can get. But that doesn’t mean it’s not special.
Pick a clear day, pick a quiet spot and Scotland’s coast edges itself shyly into your view. Yep, it’s that close. It’s the kind of stretch David Walliams would breaststroke across if you gave him half the chance.
And he wouldn’t be the first person to think it a manageable distance. Back in the 6th Century, an entire kingdom treated it as no more than a hop, skip and a jump.
Allow us to introduce the Dal Riada (Dál Riata or Dalriata). Now, depending on whom you ask, the folks who began this Gaelic kingdom that called swathes of west Scotland their own could have been Scottish OR Irish. Common agreement is leans towards the argument that they consisted of 6th Century Irish colonists who spread themselves along Scotland's west coast armed with religious fervor and writing skills.
And while opinion still differs, one thing’s for sure – these guys were ambitious. Not content with ruling massive tracts of Scotland, the Dal Riada eventually wrapped Antrim into their area of influence. Some even say that the Book of Kells (now found in Dublin City) was begun within their borders.
But what, we hear you say, has that got to do with a summer of music?
The Dal Riada’s time in the sun may have been about 14 centuries ago, but in this case out of sight does not mean out of mind. “The Dalriada Festival”, the organisers tell us, “reflects our shared heritage which extends back in time to the ancient kingdom of Dal Riada and beyond”. Lovely, but what does that mean in terms of events?
Highland Games to Gothic Dames
Well, it means Highland Games (this year the McDonnells are taking on the Campbells so expect the hammer throw to get competitive). It means bagpipes at dawn, 1,400 years of seafood expertise on your plate and it definitely means kilts. Watch out for gusts of Antrim wind, chaps.
In 2013 it also means soulful country singing sensation Nathan Carter and special guests The Wildflowers (tipped to be the next Corrs) singing their hearts out in the shadow of the exceptionally beautiful Glenarm Castle.
But the sandy-coloured Gothic-cum-Palladian Glenarm isn’t just about looks – this place is living history. Its current proprietor is the Earl of Antrim (an Earl of Antrim has resided here for 500 years now) with Lord and Lady Dunluce also calling it home.
Is Dunluce ringing a bell? It should be.
An Antrim evening
There are two things that cast impressive shadows over the Antrim coast. One is an edgy icon, textured with age and the definition of an old romantic. The other is Van Morrison. For two nights this June the two will combine when Van the Man and Dunluce Castle come together in perfect harmony for the intriguingly named Solstice at Dunluce.
A solstice is a period of the year when the sun reaches its highest (the Summer Solstice and best experienced at Newgrange, County Meath) and the lowest (Winter Solstice) points from the earth. In Ireland, thanks to our pagan forebears, it’s celebrated as Midsummer where folks gather round bonfires, sip hot whiskeys and enjoy all the daylight that the sun has to offer.
And if there’s a better way to celebrate summer than hearing Moondance live and watching Dunluce Castle bathed in a multi-coloured light show, we’ve yet to hear about it.
Those summer nights
And as Van struts off stage, the drums are disassembled and the stage taken down you could be forgiven for feeling that summer is ending just when it began. Take heart – the Causeway Coast wouldn’t dream of stopping the party so soon.
Stick around until July, and you can hit the seaside treat that is Portstewart for Red Sails, a festival of intimate gigs, late-night fireworks, Elvis impersonators and, pro wrestling? Yep, this is one to tell the grandkids about. If you need a laugh after seeing grown men in tights, may we suggest the Big Tickle Comedy Festival in Derry-Londonderry?
Laughing yourself silly can take it out of you, so you’ll need fresh air. We prescribe the Heart of the Glens Festival. Antrim’s Glens, dappled with waterfalls and nestled in a huge sweep of fields that looks from the air like the perfect skateboarding rink, are outdoors with style. If any ‘Glens’ warranted a festival to celebrate them, these do. Storytelling (Antrim is the capital of the oral tradition in Ireland), a driven treasure hunt, a food festival and, for the adults, ‘tossing the sheaf’ single this 8-day fest out as one for the eccentrics.
How’s that for a summer of love?