I Went to Northern Ireland and Did the Most Irish Things Ever: Drank Whiskey and Listened to Folk Music

At the Bushmills Live Music Festival, there is a lot of Bushmills to drink.

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Jul 7 2014, 8:03pm

Spires of gray rock jut out in cylinders from cliffs. Ungainly formations litter the ground. The countryside mixes with Ireland’s signature green and patches of red, bleached earth. Hordes of tourists clamber up and over the outcroppings, selfie-ing, and chattering in so many languages that it all becomes one dull roar. Further out, the water breaks into splotches of lagoon blue and darker, choppier navy before breaking out into wide-open sea.

This is an ancient island and I am standing at the foot of its finest natural monument, the Giant's Causeway.

In a thick, Irish brogue, one of the local distillery workers is relaying the legend that surrounds the Causeway: the rakish giant Finn McCool had gotten into a spitting match with a rival Scottish giant. The chaotic disarray of enormous, perfect boulders is supposed to be the remnants of a bridge the two built to battle it out once for all—and that the Scottish giant destroyed when running home in fear after McCool cleverly outsmarts him. Our guide swears he puts more faith in this myth than the scientific explanation of tectonic plates colliding.

Then, we each raise our glass of whiskey even though it's only about 2 PM to his toast. “To a long life, and a happy one / To a quick death, and an easy one / To a pretty wife, and an honest one / To a Bushmills—and another one!”

It's technically 9 AM in New York, but I still shoot mine back—it's always five o'clock in Ireland.

Why am I shooting whiskey in a daze at an Irish national monument? Because Bushmills is throwing their annual Bushmills Live private music festival and I received a last minute invite. The festival’s lineup is decidedly European too, a super group called Tired Pony that includes Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol and Peter Buck of REM—weird, but awesome, like something out of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. London's Matthew and the Atlas and Luke Sital-Singh provide more soft folk rock—my admitted soft spot— and Dublin's own sad boy James Vincent McMorrow has transcended folk to achieve a Bon Iver like status in Ireland and Europe. There's also Belfast's own local boy David C. Clements—who recently opened for Ed Sheeran so you know he's on the make.

We arrive on Monday morning but the festival isn't until Thursday, which means there’s plenty of time to take in the richness of Belfast. This city has an incredible dense history that's shrouded by deep internal unrest, something we pick up on during a whirlwind black taxi drive through the violence-torn neighborhoods. Even walking on the quaintest cobblestoned streets and in the midst of what looks like normal piece of suburbia our local tour guide, the amenable Billy Scott, regales of with shootouts and bar bombings. Next we drive past a mural of a gun whose barrel follows you like Mona Lisa's enigmatic eyes, and down countless cul-de-sacs that hold stories of destruction and death.

In a different part of town, a larger-than-life mural of Van Morrison and a much-needed Guinness cut the tension. Van Morrison was born in Belfast—at 125 Hyndford Street to be exact—but I didn't drag the rest of the group there. Our guide Billy says that Van, now 68, still sometimes plays in little pubs in Belfast. The Irish are a people beleaguered by violence, famine and war, and a large portion of their population now live abroad. But it's the ones who come back that are truly revered by their homeland—Van is one of these. But so is Gary Lightbody, the crooning frontman of another band that Belfast claim a stake in.

At a bar across from the Van mural called The Duke, a man who appears to be the owner is talking excitedly about Snow Patrol and Gary Lightbody. He tells me that Snow Patrol played their first gig on a raised platform in his back room. I couldn't even call it a stage because that'd be giving it too much credit, but it did look big enough to jam a band onto. Is it true? In Ireland it seems that truth is all relative, and legends are more trusted anyway, so I decide to believe it.

The weight with which the Irish hold onto their myths becomes even more apparent during the Game of Thrones location tour that we embark on the next day. Somewhere in between two of four castles and an ancient grove of trees known as the Dark Hedges that our tour guide, Phillip McCormick, calls Ireland a medieval country. That idea sticks with me throughout the trip more than any of his Season 5 spoilers, or even local tidbits. He discusses the way that the show's filming has increased revenue to the relatively poor economy in Belfast and deftly compares the plotlines of Game of Thrones with Irish legend. He also has plenty more to say about the legend of Finn McCool, fleshing it out to include his wife's help and adding some peripheral stories to the main tale. It may be 2014 in the rest of the world, but in Ireland, one is still more apt to know the country's myths and legends by heart, or at least well enough to tell visiting tourists.

And the farther out we go though, the more the past and the present seem to blur together. In the tiny town of Bushmills, which is about an hour away from Belfast's city center, they're still making whiskey the same way they did 400 years earlier. We get the privilege of touring the entire facility under the tutelage of the affable Master Distiller Colum Egan. They can trace the earliest license to distill liquor back to 1608, and Colum tells me there's mention of whiskey-making around those parts as early as the 11th and 12th century.

Everyone in attendance of the festival is a guest of Bushmills, but their reverence for Gary Lightbody as he fronts his supergroup of sorts Tired Pony is not something I've seen stateside. I'm reminded of the owner at The Duke, boasting not of his kegs, his collection of ancient Guinness signs, or rare whiskeys, but that Lightbody and his band first performed in his bar. Snow Patrol might be over in the States but in Ireland they're still considered to be fire—even if Lightbody is moonlighting with a new band here. People still really like to chase cars, apparently.

I grab an interview with James Vincent McMorrow, and get ready for his performance. As I'm crying through "Gold" off his new record Post Tropical, I assure myself that my tears are not just because I've been drinking gallons of whiskey. I wander around the distillery grounds, trying to take in my final day in Ireland with relish. By the time indie rock's boy band the 1975 hit the stage, I'm sober again. The distillery has actually shut down their bar with about an hour left in the performance. The 1975 are not a very good band (in fact, one might argue that they’re terrible). Their songs are the consistency of warmed-up leftovers pilfered from all the Maroon 5s of the past. But at least Adam Levine knows how to get an addicting chorus in there. Watching them live takes immense strength—watching them sober would be impossible.

Thankfully, two fellow Americans share my displeasure with the situation, and coax me to sneak out into the town of Bushmills. They want to watch the World Cup. If there's any place to dip out of a concert in order to chug a Guinness, well, it's in Ireland. As we walk down the street and into the closest bar I look up at the joint's name: Finn McCool's. The giant from the causeway is a perfect patron for the last bar I'll have a drink at in this country. Grinning, I go inside. It's always five o'clock in Ireland.

Caitlin White loves Game of Thrones. She's on Twitter@harmonicait

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