The Die Has Been Cast

In the first of a series of writing exercises, I’m challenging myself to use Rory’s Story Cubes to help me pen some short stories. I have cast the die and the gods have spoken – my story shall feature the items pictured below. Think you can come up with a story based on these pictures? Why not join in and give it a go? I’ll be back later this week with my story. *scratches head.*

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Keys to the Castle

Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything – life has gotten in the way of writing. However, a rather special weekend break has inspired me to try my hand at some travel writing, after a long break. Perhaps it might even inspire a fairytale at some point, who knows…

A sleepy salmon fishing village in County Antrim holds the key to a romantic getaway fit for a Queen, writes Sinead Doyle…

The Barbican, Glenarm - view of bridge

The Barbican, Glenarm

Across the stone bridge, the forest green gates at the base of The Barbican sprung open with a jolt, inching backwards to reveal a seldom seen view of Glenarm Castle Estate; its lush manicured lawns inviting us inwards.

As we drove through the underbelly of the imposing building, tucked away off the main street of the quaint County Antrim village of Glenarm, we knew we were about to experience something special.

“The gate is electric and fully automated. The code is on your keying, you just punch it in here,” explained smiling house manager, Penny, pointing to a keypad discreetly concealed within the basalt wall – a singular James Bond-esque addition to a thoughtful restoration.

We had been given the keys to the castle – ours for one night only.

Ok, it’s not actually a castle. If you want to get technical about it, it’s a miniature medieval castle styled gate lodge.

Modest in comparison to Glenarm Castle proper [a private residence and the ancestral home of the Earls of Antrim], The Barbican offers holidaymakers the chance to experience a taste of fairytale escapism nonetheless.

A ‘Barbican,’ by literal definition, is ‘a defensive outpost.’ Built in 1825, this charming Gothic styled building acted as a strong part of the Castle’s defences; a live-in gatekeeper manning the gate and turning away undesirables in a fashion not dissimilar to the doormen of our modern city nightspots.

Today, The Barbican’s gatekeeper and protector is the delightful Penny. Employed by the Irish Landmark Trust – the charity that restored and transformed this property into a quirky self-catering holiday home – she takes great pride in welcoming guests and giving them a rare glimpse of life on the other side of these guarded gates.

A truly romantic retreat just for two – as you travel the stone spiral staircase of this three-storey one-bedroom fortress, you leave the trappings of modern life behind.

The Barbican - bedroom

The Barbican – bedroom

On the first floor you discover the bedroom chamber – a cosy and inviting room peppered with interesting antiques; an ornate iron framed bed, a beautiful dressing table and a full collection of leather bound Daily Express Encyclopedias amongst the gems.  Travel down a set of wooden steps from this room and you’ll find a large bathroom [formerly the gatekeeper’s sleeping quarters] with an 8ft cast iron bath, seemingly made for long candlelit soaks and giants like me. Bliss.

The second floor is home to a cute country kitchen with a wood fired stove and comfy antique high-backed armchairs making it the perfect place to lounge, whilst enjoying stunning views through its gothic windows over Glenarm village to the front and the Castle Estate to the rear.

As with all Irish Landmark holiday homes, there’s no TV and no Wi-Fi, so you might as well leave the Smartphone at home. There is a radio, however, should you want some background noise to quell the silence.

You’ll also find shelves upon shelves of old books. The makeshift library, with its mismatched bookshelves scattered around the room was a pure delight to this inquisitive writer; less so to my other half, who opted for his football magazine over ancient works. They do say opposites attract.

Lady Antrim

An illustration in Lady Antrim’s book, ‘The Antrim McDonnells’

The literary treasures hiding within The Barbican’s walls range from 19th century travel fiction to prose by Yeats, books on architecture, local landscapes, Irish ghosts and a humorous history of the Earls of Antrim, ‘The Antrim McDonnells’ written and illustrated by the late Angela Antrim in 1977 – a recommended read for her accomplished cartoons alone.

Dusty old English dictionaries can be utilised alongside a Scrabble board [stowed beneath a bookcase] for some extra entertainment. There’s a Chess board too, if you fancy taking the King and Queen metaphor a little further. We settled for Scrabble. I still can’t talk about the score; ‘beginner’s luck’ is as much as I’ll say.

Me playing Rapunzel on the turret tower

Playing Rapunzel on the turret tower

Further up the spiral staircase still, comes the pièce de résistance – a flat rooftop terrace, complete with picnic table and its own fairytale turret tower. By day, you can enjoy sensational panoramic views with the varied vistas of Glenarm village, Glenarm Castle Estate, the North Antrim coast and plush forest competing for attention. And by night, if you’re lucky and there’s a cloudless sky, you’ll feel closer to the stars than you ever dreamt possible.

I challenge even the most determined city slicker not to love this place. The Barbican quickly forces you to into surrender; removing everyday distractions and noise, relaxation comes quickly here.

Unsurprisingly there’s not much nightlife in the small coastal village of Glenarm. There are three pubs if you fancy a quiet tipple, including ‘The Barbican,’ at the end of the street. None of these establishments serve food though, so it’s best to plan ahead. We could have cooked a banquet or travelled to one of the North Coast’s finer restaurants; instead we chose to dine like paupers before sleeping like kings, grabbing fish ‘n’ chips from The Galley – a nautical themed chippie in nearby Carnlough.

Peruse The Barbican’s visitors’ book and the words ‘magical’ and ‘enchanting’ almost lose meaning from the sheer frequency of their use. If you’re lucky enough to call this home, even for one night, you too will understand the beguiling nature of this place.

Before we left, we were joined by my boyfriend’s parents for breakfast. Good County Antrim folk, they’d seen The Barbican but had never travelled beyond its green gate. After just an hour inside its walls, they too were spellbound; drawn into the fantasy of life in your own little castle – the ultimate escape.

The Walled Garden at Glenarm Castle

The Walled Garden at Glenarm Castle

In an effort to acclimatise to the everyday after our regal getaway, we made a trip to the nearby Walled Garden at Glenarm Castle before we hit the road back to Belfast. The castle itself and the surrounding estate are closed to the public, aside from a few designated open days, but the Walled Garden is there for all to see (for a £5 entrance fee).

Open from May to late September, the stunning garden is well worth a visit.  With two keen gardeners in tow, we received quite the education in horticulture but even for those not au fait with their flora and fauna, it’s a beautiful setting for a sunny afternoon. The adjoining Tea Room serves up the most delicious Afternoon Tea, with their freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam, homemade pastries and tray bakes providing a sweet treat to round off a wonderful weekend.

The Barbican is one of over 20 holiday homes owned and managed by the Irish Landmark Trust. North, South, East and West, you’ll find quirky alternative accommodations for unique Irish breaks. From a lighthouse in Wicklow to a Co. Down country house with its own spa; a castle for 10 or a tower for two, there’s something to suit all.  To find out more, visit www.IrishLandmark.com

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A summer poem

I’ve been a little pre-occupied lately, between a busy few weeks at work, a trip home to catch up with the family and trying to squeeze in as much sunshine as possible, so my own writing has taken a backseat.

To force myself back into it, here’s a little poem I’ve penned, inspired by this beautiful wave of summer weather we’re currently experiencing in Belfast.

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Summer

Woken by birdsong,
lullabied by sunstroke and cider fuelled squeals of neighbours meandering home.
Summer makes its presence known.

Everything’s bigger, brighter, better.
A kaleidoscope of colour
travels in the BBQ scented air,
changing the hue of our city from solemn grey to an optimistic azure blue.

Belfast’s old rain-drenched streets are renewed.
They glisten in the sunshine.

Strangers smile involuntarily.
We are happier, sappier, chattier
in the sun.

The occasional hothead,
trapped in a car with no air con,
tries to ruin it all with road rage.
The anger is short lived.
Summer wins.

We are invincible
in this, the most sanguine of seasons.

Women with Extraordinary Stories

ocob2013_bookcover_finalI’ve been spending a little time dabbling with fiction recently, though none of it is polished enough to be published here just yet.  Tonight, I’m hoping to draw some inspiration from other writers at a special ‘Women with Extraordinary Stories’ event.

The event is being hosted by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland as part of this month’s One City, One Book initiative. Throughout May, events have been held across Belfast to celebrate the latest novel by local author, Lucy Caldwell All the Beggars Riding. The initiative is essentially a community reading programme, which has, over the last month, encouraged everyone to read and discuss Lucy’s latest novel.

I’ll hold my hands up at this point and admit that I haven’t read the book, but I do intend to. Regrettably, I’ve also missed a lot of the One City, One Book events this month but I’m glad to be getting along to this one.

Tonight’s event will feature the stories of two incredible women:

Journalist Letitia Fitzpatrick will join Lucy Caldwell to discuss her experience of living with loss, following the death of her husband from cancer.

Melanie Grimsley, who survived a horrific car fire as a child and endured hundreds of operations, will tell her story to journalist, Ivan Little. The Fermanagh mum of two is now training to be a lawyer and recently published her autobiography.

I have the greatest admiration for these women and hope that hearing their stories tonight will give me a renewed enthusiasm to get back to my own writing.  For anyone that’s interested in coming along, the event takes place tonight (Monday 27th May) at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Malone Road, Belfast at 6pm. The event is free to attend.

Grammar Watch #1 #WhenISeeAObamaSticker I Cringe

In case you’ve missed it, #WhenISeeAObamaSticker is now trending on twitter. This angers me, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a bad hashtag – onerous and far too long. Secondly, the use of ‘a’ instead of ‘an’ before Obama is a terrible grammatical mistake that greatly devalues the weight of the anti-Obama arguments attached to the tweets. Thirdly, millions of morons across the world have used and retweeted the offending hashtag, spreading bad grammar even further through cyberspace.

It hurts my eyes. If you’re going to create a hashtag, get it right, please.

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Stars in My Eyes

A retrospective look at some of my journalistic work…

I always wanted to write for a living. When I told my secondary school English teacher this towards the end of my A-Levels, she pointed me towards a degree in journalism. Soon after, I followed her suggested career route, joining the Journalism class of 2001 at Dublin City University. I’ve never really looked back. Until now.

Post-graduation in 2005, I spent a hectic year living in Dublin juggling three jobs; something had to pay the bills while I searched for that much-lauded and increasingly elusive paid writing job. My search eventually ended in spring 2006, when I was offered a job with a large independent magazine publishing company in Belfast. I upped sticks and moved to a city I’d only visited once – a risky move at the time. Seven years on, I’m still here.

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GO April 2011 – one of the later issues I wrote for and edited

I was taken on for the launch of the company’s new launch title, GO Belfast (now GO Magazine) – a lifestyle and entertainment magazine for men and women. The title’s launch was a reaction to a new Belfast that was emerging at that time; a thriving, contemporary city with a blossoming social and creative scene.

I quickly rose up the ranks from an editorial assistant to reporter, deputy editor and then editor. All in all I spent five and a half years with the title, prior to moving into PR in July 2011.

My writing for GO was varied; I wrote on everything from fashion and food to music, arts, culture, film, current affairs and more. I also had the pleasure [and displeasure at times] of interviewing countless celebrities and stars; getting a relished glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous.

As a retrospective exercise, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back through the archives and revisit a small selection of my old articles and interviews, published during my time at GO, particularly those that are still viewable online. So, here goes:

Blondie’s Back – interview with Blondie’s Debbie Harry & Clem Burke

GO Belfast magazine, May 2010

Blondie's BackUndoubtedly one of my biggest musical crushes, Debbie Harry is a living legend. I am a massive Blondie fan, so when I heard they were coming to Belfast for a show, I made it my mission to secure an interview with Ms Harry. It was a slightly strange interview, to say the least. My questions were relayed first by email to her publicist, who then read them to Debbie via video link before transcribing them and sending them back to me. It was a strange set-up, however, I’m still glad to say that I was able to interview a true music icon. Read the full story here.

Arthur’s Day article, GO Belfast, November 2010

Arthur's Day 2010One of the perks of the job was getting to go to great events and one such event was Arthur’s Day in 2010. A very clever marketing construct by drinks company, Diageo for its flagship brand, Guinness, this was the second annual Arthur’s Day celebration and I got to spend it in the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. I joined media from across Ireland and further afield to interview stars including Snow Patrol, Manic Street Preachers, The Script, Kelis, Westlife, Tim Robbins & Eliza Doolittle on the red carpet. Some Guinness was also consumed. Read the full story here.

Keith Lemon interview, GO Belfast, November 2010

Keith Lemon interview As a seemingly simple Q&A, this isn’t exactly a work of art writing wise. I’ve included it here however, as it was possibly one of the most bizarre interviews of my career. Fictitious TV personality and Celebrity Juice star, Keith Lemon (brainchild of comedian/actor, Leigh Francis) stayed in character for the entire interview; serenading me over the phone at the beginning and proving impossible to keep on track throughout the rest of it. I’ve kept the recording of the interview for safe keeping too – when you listen to it, the interview is peppered with uncontrollable spurts of involuntary laughter on my part. I’ll save you that particular horror. You can however, read the full interview here.

Neil Hannon interviewNeil Hannon (Divine Comedy) interview

GO Magazine, April 2011

An interview with one of my musical heroes – The Divine Comedy frontman, Neil Hannon. A true lyricist, I’ve always admired his beautiful and distinct way with words. Perhaps one of the most captivating interviewees, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to, his love and passion for his work was inspiring. Read the full story here.

On the Front Line

On The Front Line, GO Magazine, June 2011

A profile piece on two of Northern Ireland’s leading war correspondents, Bill Neely and John Irvine, featuring interviews with both journalists – two men I greatly admired.

Read the full story here.

Grammar Watch

Eats-shoots-and-leaves-book-coverNo one’s perfect. I say that as a disclaimer – there’s no doubt that within this blog and in past examples of my writing, you will find mistakes – we’re all human. However, there is no excuse for flagrant misuse of grammar and punctuation, particularly if you’re a business.

When I was studying Journalism at Dublin City University, one of our lecturers insisted that we all read Eat, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss at the beginning of our first year. It was sound advice.

The book’s very title is a lesson in the importance of punctuation – how the placement of punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Is the Panda a hungry, gun-wielding psychopath, or simply a vegetarian with a penchant for shoots and leaves? Depending on where you place the comma, it’s entirely up to you.

To this day, when I see a stray apostrophe, comma or semicolon, I feel like taking one of the trusty Panda Says No stickers from the back of the book and slapping it over the glaring mistake in front of me.

the-panda-says-noInstead of doing that, I am adding this Grammar Watch feature to this blog. The Panda Says No and so does this writer. It’s time to name and shame.

Please feel free to comment and share your own examples – it’s the only way they’ll learn.