Join the diddly-eye party (fiddle optional)

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A new music trail uncovers the lyricism of Northern Ireland's sights. Oliver Bennett takes a tour with its own soundtrack

The sign for "Cyprus Avenue" in Belfast is always being stolen.

Shaded by the trees in this suburban street, Van Morrison fans regularly wrench it off the railings in tribute to his 1968 song. But of course. The gravelly old curmudgeon is the bard of County Down: indeed, he and C S Lewis should be honoured for services to the Northern Irish countryside.

I was in Belfast on a musical tour of Northern Ireland and Donegal, organised by specialist operator McKinlay Kidd, and Cyprus Avenue was one of our first points of pilgrimage. The tour, recently devised by the young company, is a way to see the sights and listen to music en route: your own musical travelogue, if you will. And after all, Ireland is about music – from middle-of-the-road and rock to "diddly-eye" as they call pipe and fiddle trad. And as I met up with Robert Kidd at George Best Belfast City Airport, I noticed that he had the riff from "Baby Please Don't Go" as his ringtone. "Music is the perfect backdrop for Ireland," said Kidd.

Belfast won't win any beauty contests, but there's something about the way its Coronation Street-like terraces give on to craggy fells that feeds the imagination and has inspired lyrics from Stiff Little Fingers to, er, Boney M. I checked in at the Tara Lodge, then toured in and out of the great landmarks such as the Crown Tavern and the Duke of York, before ending up in Bertie's bar at the Merchant Hotel where four colleens banged out barbershop style songs as I necked caesar salad. Nice.

The next day, I met music journalist Stuart Bailie, who has started the Belfast Music Bus Tour at Belfast's great live venue, the Limelight. We took in Van Morrison's house, a mural to Ruby Murray, the Rebel's Rest pub, where the McPeakes first diddly-eye'd "Wild Mountain Thyme", and the site of the Maritime Hotel, where Them banged out 15-minute versions of "Turn on My Lovelight".

But the countryside called, and off I drove along the Antrim coast, stopping at Giant's Causeway before crossing the Foyle estuary on a tramp ferry and enjoying the fantastic cradle-to-grave marketing for the Dough Famine Village: "Specialises in funerals, wakes & matchmaking. In November, is redesigned to become Ireland's Lapland." That's the spirit that'll steer Ireland from the slump.

On the other side of the Foyle, the landscape grew wilder, the roads emptier. Although June, traffic was light bar the odd sheep, tractor, or lone female German cyclist. After this drive into the Inishowen peninsula, the most northerly in Ireland, I came to Clundaff, a lovely little town with a peaty river leading to a yellow beach. Here, I watched breakers rush in and faced an Atlantic wind that rearranged brain cells and hairdo alike.

The big attraction in Clundaff is McGrory's: its walls lined with photographs of the luminaries who have played there: Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton. Neil McGrory, scion of the pub family, turned out to be the best possible guide to the wild peninsula. There are dozens of standing stones here, with early Christian archaeology, surrounded by cowpat-strewn meadows. Even the must-see, Cloncha Monastery, near Culdaff, was empty – at least, until that German cyclist turned up.

We drove on, past peat bogs and mountain ranges, over the Mamore Gap, a scree-covered mountain pass, all the while listening to Inishowen fiddle-playing. As I enjoyed the scene's voodoo intensity, the sun burst on the beaches beyond. Then on to Malin Head, northernmost point of Ireland, and a stop in the shipping forecast. After a cappuccino from the fantastic coffee and cake van – all beauty spots should have one – I headed back to Clundaff, windswept and happy.

Back at McGrory's, local singer Kate O'Callaghan performed exquisitely in the front bar. I listened awhile, then went to the rollicking barn dance in the pub's venue which, judging by the crowd, was the hottest ticket in the area. And where was Neil? On stage with a guitar, as it happens.

After a late breakfast I walked into Clundaff to de-fur my brain, then drove off to Derry-Londonderry. What can we do about the name? "Not a lot," said Michael Cooper, a tour guide, on the city's famous walls. "Too many objections on either side."

"I wish I was back home in Derry," as the song goes. In fact, now's quite a good time to be around. There's an air of uplift pending the City of Culture honorific in 2013 and the new Peace Bridge runs from the Cityside to the Waterside, arriving in the Ebrington Barracks, for decades an Army-only zone. There's a lot of hope residing in L-Derry, as I reckon the city should be renamed. Like P Diddy.

We walked around the walls with the inexhaustible Michael. This was the town of Seamus Heaney, David Hume and, yes, Phil Coulter: the musical genius who wrote for Dana as well as such classics as "The Town I Loved So Well". I looked from the 17th-century walls to the Bogside and Creggan, both mentioned in Coulter's classic, then walked the short distance to the loyalist area by the Bishop's Gate. With a smouldering fire, it was like some Don McCullin photograph from the 1970s.

L-Derry's urgent task is not to shy from the sectarian past but neutralise its fascination. Indeed, as I walked down towards the Peace Bridge and the Foyle, I looked over the city to endless green hills. The arcadian and the urban seem to co-exist in Northern Ireland, giving a certain poignancy to Dana's Coulter-penned Eurovision hit: "All kinds of everything remind me of you."

Compact Facts

How to get there

McKinlay Kidd ( seeirelanddifferently.co.uk; 0844 804 0020) can organise a seven-night Irish Music Trail from £545 per person. The price is based on two adults sharing on B&B basis, including a Belfast music tour and live concert in Donegal.

Further information

discovernorthernireland.com

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower