To most of us, St. Patrick’s Day means green beer, funny hats and a chance to let loose as winter gives way to spring. But Ireland’s patron saint has been celebrated with a feast for almost 300 years and still, few know his story. John Kernaghan and Pam Martin went looking for it, paddling in his wake on standup paddleboards and travelling his paths in a hulking camper van. What we found, too, was a remarkable mix of land, sea, sky and welcoming people. Here’s the fourth instalment of our seven-part paddling pilgrimage.
It was a short run from Derry to Portrush on Northern Ireland’s compelling Causeway Coast It’s named after the Giants Causeway, a broad swath of about 40,000 basalt columns forming a path into the sea. The plan was to paddle the blustery coastline, where winds bedevil even the best paddlers. We pulled Maury into the huge and pin-neat Carrick Dhu Caravan Park for a two-night stay.
The cliffs and bays of the Causeway Coast lead to the seaside town of Portrush. Photo by Pam Martin.
But wild conditions ruled that out initially, a disappointment as it’s possible St. Patrick was held in one of the caves we would encounter after he was swept up in an Irish pirate raid on Britain, then a Roman territory.
He was the son of Calpurnias, a rector, and one take on history suggests he found his faith in the hills which swept down to these seas in what is now County Antrim. St. Patrick wrote late in his life that the stirrings of his faith began while tending flocks and enduring the raw, wet conditions of a shepherd’s life.
The Causeway Coast is flush with wide beach areas to explore. Photo by Pam Martin
So we had to settle for our first Game of Thrones’ sites, Ballintoy Harbour, which was well protected and offered a mini-archipelago of rocky islets to play around. It was the setting for several scenes portraying the Iron Islands, including Theron’s return and where he first met sister Yara.
Ricky and Hanno of Alive Surf School checked out conditions and decided a paddle in Ballintoy Harbour, where St. Patrick may first have set foot in Ireland. It’s a working harbour with fishing gear ready to go. Photo by Pam Martin
We were led by Ricky Martin and Hanno Windisch, owner and instructor at Alive Surf School, two standup paddleboard comedians who kept up a lively patter as we eased out of the harbour and skirted the skerries, as the small rocky islands are called, playing in the ocean swell as it rose between them.
John negotiates around one of the skerries, a series of rocky islets in Ballintoy Harbour. The site was used for Game of Thrones’ episodes. Photo by Pam Martin
Ricky, left, kept us entertained as we checked out Ballintoy. Hanno played in the surf surging between the skerries.
The real challenge would come the next day when the weather shifted and a window opened for the planned seven-kilometre run from Portballinatrae to Whiterocks.
There are no escape routes on this paddle as it is entirely along cliffs, including those brooding with the ruins of Dunluce Castle, another Game of Thrones’ backdrop as Pyke Castle, home of the House of Greyjoy, ruler of the Iron Islands.
This was a day for pro paddlers, so Pam tackled it while John clambered on the cliffs above with a camera.
Portballintrae, a quaint seaside fishing village filled with holiday homes, was a cautious launch but thanks to Ricky and Hanno’s meticulous planning and forecasting, Pam was in for the paddle of a lifetime
Surfers here call it the “cold paradise”, a seemingly endless stretch of crenelated coastline eroded deeply into caves, rocky arches and curious sea stacks composed of the skeletal remains of microscopic marine organisms.
Pam, Ricky and Hanno curl around a small headland into a bay on the Causeway Coast. Photo by John Kernaghan
Hanno, paddling with an elegance that revealed a man finely in tune with the sea, danced close to the rocks and led Pam into darkened caves echoing with the crash of waves. The thought of St. Patrick spirited into such a cave en route to forced labour hung over these scenes. Entry and exit had to be timed with the undulations of the ocean swell.
Hanno and Ricky battle through turbulent water close to shore. Photo by John Kernaghan
Rising dramatically above us, 14th century Dunluce Castle, once the stronghold of the MacDonnell chiefs of Antrim, provoked images of sea goers, smugglers, and the adventurous who had explored these caves, some searching for treasures from a downed Spanish Galleon not far offshore.
Ricky, who’s humble humour belied his obvious swimming and surfing expertise, entertained with stories of wild escapades coasteering and free diving (whilst roped to boulders) with the seemingly fearless Hanno. He was the first to jump in and cool off in the icy waters of a vast cathedral cave, sunlight beaming through an opening in the ceiling.
Could a young Patrick have been held here with other captives taken in those Irish pirate raids? St. Patrick offers little detail on that or his escape some six years later, perhaps through another cave facing the Irish Sea.
Paddling westward, once around Giant’s Head and through the soaring volcanic formation of the Wishing Arch or the Elephant Rock, the chalk cliffs gloriously give way to the ancient sand dunes and soft white beach of Whiterocks.
Ricky is framed by Elephant Rock with Dunluce Castle in the background. Photo by Pam Martin
It is not a sight one expects to find on the coast of Northern Ireland, but surfers and now standup paddleboarders appreciate the soft white sand, beach breaks and magnificence of the stunning vistas all the way east to the Giants Causeway, west to Donegal and on a clear day, far across the North Channel to Scotland.
Pam paddle surfs at Whiterock Beach, the end of the seven-kilometre coastal trip. Photo by John Kernaghan
Having reached the final destination, Ricky led the charge to a wee bit of play in the surf, before everyone reluctantly gave in and dragged their boards to shore. The entire experience rendered one breathless in wonder and begging for more.
Cover photo: Pam paddles near Dunluce Castle, the long-ago home of Irish kings and the backdrop for Game of Thrones’ episodes. Photo by Ricky Martin