In Northern Ireland terms, this has always been 'a place apart' - indeed the building of the picturesque Coast Road from Glenarm to Ballycastle in the last century was a final attempt to bring the region under effective Government control. In many ways they look towards Scotland as much as the rest of Ireland. The Scottish connection is emphasised in local surnames such as McAlister, McKay, McNeill and common forenames like Alasdair, Randal and Archie. One of the finest ballads in Irish Gaelic, Airde Cuan, written about these Glens, by Sean Mac Ambrois in the middle of the last century. Mac Ambrois' song tells how he left his native Glendun, perhaps to escape the potato famine, and settled in Ayrshire where he ultimately died pining for the hills of home, which he could still see on the western horizon. His song tells of his love for the 'cuckoo glen'; (Glendun) and of playing hurling at Christmas on the 'white strand' (the beach at Cushendun).
Is iomai Nollaig bhi me fein
Go to the Airde Cuan Page
Traditional culture survived well in the Glens of Antrim because of their remoteness and the Irish language was in daily use around Cushendall until early this century. Feis na nGleann was founded in Glenariff in 1904 under the inspiration of the celebrated Belfast folklorist and historian F J Bigger There were competitions in language, traditional music and dancing as well as athletics and hurling. The Feis was maintained by the Gaelic League (Connradh na Gaeilge) which fostered the 20th century revival of national culture throughout Ireland. This enthusiasm for traditional culture has survived into modern times, and there are many notable singers and musicians associated with this area.
At the Northern end of the Northern Glens, around the large resort town of Ballycastle, there is a thriving clutch of musicians and singers who congregate every Thursday night in McCarroll's Bar under the auspices of the local branch of Comhaltas. In June, Ballycastle hosts the annual Fleadh Amhrán agus Rinnce, which is Ireland's national festival of traditional singing and dancing. It is also the venue for the Northern Lights Festal in May, which brings together some of the best of Ulster and Scottish folk music and dance exponents.
Another great spot for music is the Skerry Inn in the mountain village of Newtown Crommelin, between Ballycastle and the inland market town of Ballymena. Under the encouraging eye of landlord Barney McKeown, many fine musicians and singers from a wide area of County Antrim come here for an informal session on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year.
The Skerry Inn is really on the western edge of the Glens, but the Heart of the Glens is undoubtedly Cushendall and it is here that some of the best traditional entertainment is to be found. The locality has always been rich in musical talent, particularly singers like the late Archie McKeegan who released his first tape of traditional songs to wide acclaim at the age of 85. There are informal sessions in McCollam's Bar (Johnny Joe's) most Fridays and Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year, plus most other nights during the height of the tourist season in July and August. For a full list of traditional music sessions in Northern Ireland, click HERE
Cushendall is frequently the venue for the Antrim county Fleadh Cheoil, held annually in June, which event has been particularly successful in this town. It is also the base for a new local initiative, established to promote traditional music, singing and dancing in the area. The Antrim Glens Traditions Group was founded in 1991 and promotes traditional singing, set-dancing and the teaching of various instruments. The Traditional Singers' Club (no guitars!) meets on the last Friday of each month during the winter in Cushendall (McCollam's Bar). Traditional Instrument classes in fiddle, accordion and tin whistle are held in St. Aloysius' Secondary School every Friday evening, September to May, and these are very well supported, especially by the younger generation. Regular Set Dance evenings are run by the Group in Cushendall as well as classes in Set Dancing. These activities are managed by a working committee of nine and are funded mainly by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
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For traditional/folk music lovers outside N Ireland, this should have whetted your appetite and you may wish to visit this (officially designated) 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty', see the nearby Giant's Causeway and sample some of the musical delights described here. The local Council - Moyle - maintains a Tourist Office in Ballycastle (Tel: +44(0)12657- 62024) which should have up-to-date information on traditional events supplied by Comhaltas and Glens Traditions as does the office maintained by the Glens Historical Society in Cushendall (Tel: +44(0)12667-71180).
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