An insider’s look at memorable travel experiences that await in Ireland

Take off to Ireland with Derry Girls in search of sheepdogs, giants, Westeros and more!

Story: Ann Ruppenstein
Images and video: Tourism Northern Ireland 

Belfast-born Derry Girls star Tara Lynne O’Neill — known on screen as Erin Quinn’s mom Mary on the hit series — knows there’s no place like home.

“I think if we’ve learned one thing about life in these strange times it’s to appreciate what we have more. Not just our friends and our family, but what we have just on our doorstep,” O’Neill says. “Most of us have rediscovered our local parks or found beauty in our local areas that we never knew existed. You’re only a hop, skip and a jump away from another adventure.”

Witnessing Sheepdogs at Work

In Discover Northern Ireland’s latest campaign video, O’Neill can be found quite literally “going to see a man about a dog” heading to meet fourth-generation shepherd Jamese McCloy of Glenshane Country Farm, located roughly an hour from Belfast in the Sperrin Mountains.

Sheepdogs at Work is one of the 60 authentic and immersive experiences that await travellers as part of Tourism Northern Ireland’s new brand, Embrace a Giant Spirit. These unique brand experiences can be booked by tour operators and travel advisors who are planning trips for clients to Ireland.

McCloy, who used to trail after his granddad and father on the property, tells Travel Courier that the idea to show people all about sheep farming and the sheepdogs at work grew organically after launching a self-catering home as a means to make the business more sustainable in 2018. One of the first groups to stay onsite was a family from Pennsylvania who marvelled at the scenery and the sheep.

“I just happened to say to them do you want to see the sheep up close? And they looked at me like how could you do that and I said Moss the sheepdog could round them up. I think for a few seconds they thought I was messing with them. I whistled to Moss and Moss came running up around the corner… Me being me, I said ‘Moss look, we’ve got some visitors here from America, they want to see the sheep. I need you to help me out, will you get them for me?’ And I looked at them and they looked at me like I was crazy. Then the disbelief because what I told him to do, he was doing,” he recalls. “And from that point on I think there was something like a lightbulb that went off. It was a moment that is sort of embedded in my memory bank and each time after that a group came to stay I purposely would have been there to do something with the dogs.”

Later that year while in the process of setting up a shelter on the premises to facilitate visitors, McCloy got word about the Embrace a Giant Spirit campaign, applied and went on to take part in its launch at WTM London in 2019. There he connected with someone on the Contiki team in hopes of securing his first coach visit.

“She contacted me a week later and said I’ve got a coach arranged to come in December, if it goes well, we will definitely have something arranged with you. So they sent over the coach in December and everything went really, really well. Thank god,” he says. “She called me back the next day and said look, we have approximately 70 dates for you from April 2020 to the following year.”

With the initial feedback continuing to be positive, Contiki then reached out to him again to add an additional 10 to 14 visits with coaches before his contract even started, starting as early as the very next week.

“I said fantastic — and that was all the work we got because of COVID, so thank god we got that pre-contract work from her,” he says.

From those limited coach visits, Sheepdogs at Work was selected as one of Contiki’s top new attractions in Europe in August 2020.

For tour operators, in addition to seeing the highly trained border collies — Moss, Jess and Tess — in action in the field with the sheep, McCloy also offers a shearing demonstration and the chance for visitors to hold a baby lamb.

“Being able to share that with two people, fifty people, whatever size the group is, it’s just special,” he says. “I always think they may forget what you said, they may have forgotten what they’ve seen but they generally never forget how you make them feel and that’s why I really try to make them feel welcome and have a bit of craic.”

This is also what sticks with O’Neill, who jokingly absconded with Moss the sheepdog in the backseat of her car at the end of the visit.

“My favourite thing today was meeting my first and only shepherd, Jamese, and I think that’s what’s also so important about this experience, is meeting people and I feel like I’ve met a friend,” she adds. “And I think in the year that we’ve had, that’s what we’re looking for, we’re looking to embrace that giant spirit that is Northern Ireland.”

Follow in the footsteps of Game of Thrones

As Niall Gibbons, Chief Executive for Tourism Ireland puts it, Embrace a Giant Spirit is more than just a brand.

“It’s about all the great stories and people you’ll encounter in your journey to Northern Ireland when the time is right,” he says.

In addition to Sheepdogs at Work, experiences range from exploring Belfast with musicians as guides to sleeping under the stars in glamping pods with glass ceilings in the Davagh Forest.

For Game of Thrones fans, there’s not only the chance to step inside the world of Westeros by visiting famous filming locations around the country like the dark hedges, but also to see original artifacts and set pieces.

“Northern Ireland is really the home of Game of Thrones — much of the series was shot extensively throughout Northern Ireland,” says Economy Minister Diane Dodds. “This year for the very first time you will be able to come to the Linen Mill Studios studios in Banbridge where many of scenes were created, with many of the original artifacts. You will be able to have an interactive experience looking at everything in Game of Thrones.”

And while visitors may come to follow in the footsteps of the hugely popular show, Dodds says they will also get a sense of the beautiful scenery, wonderful people and magnificent coastlines along the way.

“It talks about the scenery, the places, the coastline, it talks about the people, the food, it’s just that giant spirit that you find,” she notes.

Embracing a Giant Spirit

For storyteller Mark Rodgers, his experience is all about taking travellers on a journey behind the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge — suspended 100 feet above sea level — to “discover what’s beyond the iconic rope bridge.”

The aptly named Beyond the Bridge offering that’s part of Embrace a Giant Spirit gives visitors the chance to warm their hands by a turf fire in an 18th century fisherman’s hut while hearing tales of the men who once earned a living on the deserted island.

“I want them to get the history of the bridge, enjoy that experience, obviously, but if they’re coming here, to discover the history of the people who fished on this island. I’m the third generation of this family to do this job, I love it dearly, the history and the heritage that is attached to it,” he says. “People have done this for generations before me so I want people to connect and to have that journey with me.”

From following in the footsteps of Jon Snow to connecting with locals in an authentic setting, there are plenty of the memorable experiences that are possible for clients when the time comes.

“When the time is right, we are looking forward to welcoming visitors back to our shores, to enjoy a fantastic vacation and the renowned warm Irish welcome,” says Sandra Moffatt, Manager, Canada, for Tourism Ireland. “With experiences ranging from truly unique, indulgent and adventurous – we are confident that Northern Ireland has something in store for all travellers!”

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