Meet Ann from Xhale Mindfulness

For me, the spirituality of Slieve Gullion Mountain mirrors the giant spirit of Northern Ireland in terms of its breath-taking beauty, people and culture.  

I have travelled all around the world and the authentic open heartedness of the people of Northern Ireland is in a class of its own. The Ring of Gullion is like a big hug in the landscape which reflects the unique warmth of the people here. 

My mother was born on Slieve Gullion amongst the sacred sites of Killeavy. I feel very blessed to have inherited her giant spirit - a deep love of nature and an appreciation for the simple things in life.  

After practising meditation for over 20 years, six years ago I decided I wanted to share the wonderful benefits of the practice and so I became an accredited Meditation Teacher with the British School of Meditation.  

It was perfect synergy as I trained as an Ambassador & Tour-guide for the Ring of Gullion around the same time.  I founded Xhale and began my journey developing courses and immersive experiences using the gifts of meditation and nature.   

I was fascinated by Shinrin Yoku/forest bathing and the amazing benefits of forest medicine. Forest bathing is an evidence-based wellness practice which originated in Japan in the 1980s as a stress prevention intervention. Two hours in the forest boosts your immunity for up to 10 days.  

I have since trained as a Forest Therapy Practitioner with the Forest Therapy Institute.  My Granda (mum’s father) was a fiddler, farmer and forester, and I just recently made this connection, a great  family endorsement of my work in forest therapy. 

I host events that revolve around the Celtic calendar where I support people to connect to the present moment, the seasons and the cycle of life.  

I love to say ‘the forest is for rest’ and during my experience ‘Awakening your Senses’ you will rest, reconnect and re-energize during a forest bathing immersion, where you will be held in the arms of the mythological sleeping giant of Slieve Gullion Mountain.  

This is a real opportunity to slow down and switch off. It is followed by a nurturing, local, seasonal, sensory three course lunch in my cosy cabin.  We gently end the day with a guided meditation and advice on how you can integrate the practise of mindfulness into your everyday life. 

This experience is a real opportunity for a digital detox, a chance to Xhale, taking the gift of mindfulness and recipes home with you. 

I look forward to seeing you in my ‘neck of the woods’ soon! 

Learn more about the experience here.

Meet Barney from 'If Buildings Could Talk' tour

I have worked for most of my life in construction as a bricklayer and when I would go on holiday I always enjoyed taking the local walking tour in whichever city I was in. 

Last year I reduced my working week to four days and decided I was going to offer a tour myself in Belfast.  

For my research I turned to people who have lived or worked in the city for a long time including barmen who are always a great source of stories. I spoke to the comedian John Lenaghan, who was generous with his time, and from what other people were telling me I began to build a picture of the stories I wanted to share. 

I launched last January and for two months I hosted tours with friends and family so I could perfect things. Then of course in March we went into lockdown and everything changed. 

It gave me time to do some further research and speak to more people – we are all natural story tellers in Northern Ireland. 

Although not connected to my tour, my uncle tells a great story of how he sat beside the great Seamus Heaney at Anahorish Primary School in Co Antrim where my grandfather, Bernard Murphy was the Master. 

Most would think it was great to be a classmate of Seamus’ but my uncle didn’t like it. He said: “Here was I, maybe not the smartest child, sat beside one of the greatest minds in Ireland. 

“I remember one day the Master, just before he left the classroom, asked us to write a story about an owl. 

“I turned to Seamus and asked him to write mine and he agreed. He began writing but only got one sentence finished before the Master came back. I only managed another sentence before we had to read our stories. 

“My story began: “The owl is an indigenous bird.” It continued: “It has a big round head.” Well, you can tell which sentence I wrote, and which sentence Seamus Heaney wrote.” 

This is a great story and it’s a lovely example of the stories I want to tell. Belfast is full of great yarns.  

The city has so much going for it, visitors really enjoy our restaurants and our bars and there is so much for them to see.  I can’t wait to be able to once again say: “Let’s go and enjoy Belfast.” 

Learn more about the experience here.

Meet Jim and Brian from Wild Atlantic Distillery

When life gives you Amalfi lemons…make Irish vodka. 

My brother-in-law, Brian Ash and I opened Wild Atlantic Distillery on February 1, 2020. For the opening we hosted around 200 people from the community. It was a chance for local people to visit the distillery and sample some of the products – it was a fantastic day, and we were very excited about the future. 

But in March we found ourselves in lockdown and everything changed for us. The goal became to simply keep the lights on and navigate a way through that period. 

Brian and I are both very community-minded and in those early days of the pandemic there were real issues with people getting access to hand sanitiser. I spoke to one shop keeper who said she had bought 15 litres for €550. 

We decided we should produce hand sanitiser but not to profit from a worrying situation. Instead, we wanted to help our community and we sold it for as little as £32 for five litres, this helped people while at the same time we were able to keep going. We were also proud to provide the hand sanitiser to health centres free of charge. 

We are still making the sanitiser, but I am glad to say we are back producing gin and making vodka infused with Amalfi lemons from Italy. And just a couple of weeks ago we took delivery of our new whiskey still. We are looking forward with confidence again. 

I’ve been passionate about food and drink my whole life. I have worked in hospitality for over 20 years throughout Ireland and the UK. I have tended bars in New York and LA and in the early 2000s I opened a bar in Florida. But it was always the intention to return to Northern Ireland.  

Brian’s background is in engineering and one night the two of us were chatting at the kitchen table and soon after we had started to develop a business. We bought a 25-litre copper pot still and over the next year we experimented with 40-50 different gin recipes until we thought we had something special. 

The distillery was part-financed with the pre-sales of casks to friends and families. We both used our wide range of contacts to the fullest and we were proud to be able to open the first gin and whiskey distillery in Co Tyrone. 

We look forward to welcoming visitors back to the distillery so we can share our story, show them how our products are made and enjoy a drink together in the bar. It’s that authenticity that visitors love and that warm welcome is in abundance here and across Northern Ireland. 

Under the guidance of one of our distillers, visitors learn about the art of distillation and what it makes to produce a well-balanced and harmonious Gin. They also get the chance to distil their very own bottle of gin using a beautiful mini copper pot still. 

There is a real interest in artisan distilleries and there is a real network of them across Northern Ireland with everyone supporting each other. 

We all have world class products and I think we are beginning to realise now is the time to really sell ourselves around the world and to go forward with confidence.  

Learn more about the experience here.

Meet Mark from Enniskillen Taste Experience

The warmth of the welcome visitors get in Enniskillen never ceases to amaze those people who are taking part in my food tours.  

I remember taking a tour through the centre of the town and every other person stopped to say hello – just as people do here. The visitors were stunned by how friendly everyone was and, for me, it’s this sincere warmth that sums up the giant spirit of Northern Ireland. 

The modern traveller will have Googled the places they are visiting and while pictures will never do justice to the beautiful landscapes of Northern Ireland, by and large people will know what to expect. However, it is our genuine warmth that really takes visitors by surprise. 

I am the General Manager of Victorian bar, Blakes of the Hollow and I could see the organic growth of tourism across Fermanagh. We are blessed with such beautiful scenery and amazing local produce and I felt there was a real opportunity to develop the Enniskillen Taste Experience. 

Before Covid struck there was real momentum, the tours were booked out for three months in advance, as so many businesses signed up to be involved. 

But when it is safe to open again, I know there will be the same level of enthusiasm which is great. I have a real drive for showcasing Enniskillen to visitors, I am proud to come from this town and my heart really is in showing what a beautiful and diverse place it is. 

There is such a great sense of community spirit throughout the town and visitors can sense that when they come. The streets are lined with traditional family businesses, many of which have been here for generations. 

There are new generations coming through too. Just look at what Joe McGirr is doing at the Boatyard Distillery. His products are on shelves throughout 30 countries and he is a great ambassador for Enniskillen. 

We have a new food hall called Between the Bridges, the name of which strikes a chord with local people. Older generations insist you can’t claim to be a proper ‘townie’ unless you were born between the bridges. 

The uniqueness of the tour comes from Enniskillen’s geography as Ireland’s only island town. The tours start off at the castle before making our way along the lough shore and up into the town centre.  

We meet amazing producers and suppliers and get the chance to sample local delights such as Joe the Baker’s sourdough, Pat O’Doherty’s black bacon, Tickety Moo ice-cream, Sharon’s mouth-watering scones and Innishmacsaint beer among others.

We also visit 28 at The Hollow where head chef Glen Wheeler produces some amazing food. 

Local people find out some foodie facts that they may not have been aware of which is great, and visitors get a real insight into the area and the food we produce. 

Learn more about the experience here.

Meet Adrian from Glenarm Castle

Lady Dunluce once told me she arrived home to Glenarm Castle one evening only to discover she had forgotten the passcode for the security gate. At the same time a child from the village, who could have been no more than six, stopped at her car and enquired who she was and what she was doing. When the boy was satisfied everything was in order, he casually stepped forward and keyed the correct code into the system allowing Lady Dunluce entry to the grounds. 

I just love this story, and, for me, it sums up perfectly what Northern Ireland’s giant spirit is all about. 

This lad wasn’t going to let just anyone onto the grounds of the historic estate, he took great pride in Glenarm but likewise he wanted to help a stranger in need. In Northern Ireland we are very welcoming of visitors and I see first-hand just how proud we are of our built heritage. 

My first visit to Glenarm came as a four year-old boy when my father, who worked on the estate as a chauffeur, took me along to help him prepare a car. Well, for me, it like was stepping into my very own, Secret Garden, and I wanted to go back at every opportunity. 

I remember hiding in the back of my dad’s car instead of going to school one day. I jumped out halfway down the road and immediately got in trouble as my dad turned the car around and took me home. 

But I was clever, and the next time I didn’t jump up until we got to Glenarm and it was too late for my dad to turn around. 

I began work as a Farm Hand and during that time there was no public access to the estate. It was tough to keep everything afloat and we knew we had to adapt to survive. 

I was married in 1990 but married life didn’t begin as expected. I came home from honeymoon in Austria on a stretcher after developing a heart condition. I was unable to work for a year and when I did get back to work it was in the office. 

I can remember leafing through some old documents and coming across details of a small agricultural show which took place in 1904. 

It was from there that we began working towards opening the estate and grounds to the public and for visitors. There was a four-acre walled garden which had been used to graze livestock and a Victorian glasshouse. We received some European funding to reinstate these facilities and in 1996 we hosted our first open day. 

We charged £2 for entry and by the end of the day my dad had a biscuit tin with £2,500 in it. 

Now in 2021 we are excited to launch a number of new visitor attractions following a £500,000 investment, which was part-funded by Tourism Northern Ireland. 

The new additions include a heritage centre, museum, woodland walk, e-bike hire, a castle shop and a mini Land Rover experience, while the number of holiday pods has increased to nine from six. 

For those with a sweet tooth, we also have milk parlour featuring ice cream using milk from Northern Ireland’s only remaining shorthorn dairy herd. 

The folk who work and live here understand we our custodians and we want to do everything we can to ensure the place survives for generations to come.

 Learn more about the experience here.

Meet Anne-Marie from Lough Neagh Stories

Lough Neagh is also synonymous with Seamus Heaney, a giant of the literary world, and let’s not forget the giant himself, Finn McCool, who formed the lough with his own hand! 

Gary and I were both born and reared on ‘the Loughshore’. Gary is a seventh generation (at least) practising commercial Lough Neagh fisherman and there is fishing in my family on my mother’s side. We both feel a real sense of connection to these waters and this place, and we both share a love of local history and heritage. 

Increasingly, as we have got older, we have become ever more conscious that there are not many Lough Neagh fishermen left. ...It’s sad to think, but perhaps this may even be the last generation, at least as we have known them.  

So, a few years ago, Gary and I both became voluntary Lough Neagh Ambassadors. We feel a deep responsibility to share with locals and visitors alike, our knowledge of the fishing industry which historically sustained many families along the shores of Lough Neagh, including our own.   

It is not overstating things to say that we feel like we are custodians of something much bigger than ourselves. It feels like a duty and a privilege to share our knowledge of the rich heritage, traditions and culture associated with Lough Neagh fishing.  

It would be entirely wrong for these stories and this rich heritage to disappear into the mists of time. 

Stories of how men would take to the water in sailing boats, with only their own inherited ability to read the skies and the waters, and a few rounds of dry bread in their pockets. And if the wind changed, these same men could have found themselves stranded on the opposite shore for days, dependent on the good will of neighbours from ‘the far side’.  

We point out to our visitors early on, that the stories they will hear are factual, that the non-fiction of Lough Neagh is even more impressive than its dramatic legends! But it also wouldn’t be this part of the world if we didn’t have a yarn or two to share along the way. 

Funnily enough, Gary and I are both quite reserved. We don’t naturally seek out the limelight. Sometimes we laugh and wonder how we ended up doing this job ... but it is more than a job; there is a sense of duty and it is not really like work in that we thoroughly enjoy it. 

We are just ourselves in our dealings with guests. It really matters to us that our experience is genuine and authentic. Visitors really appreciate that, along with friendliness and warmth. 

The door to our place has been opening more and more. So, we just need to push that door ajar, and make sure visitors come see for themselves! 

Learn more about the experience here.

Discover even more giant adventures here.