Carrickfergus is blessed with one of the most impressive Norman defences left standing in the world. It is as compelling and as magnetic as any thousand-year-old castle that you will find in France or Spain from the age of the Crusaders.
I still imagine the French-speaking Normans led by John de Courcy coming up Belfast Lough 200 years after they’d conquered the rest of Ireland, building the castle and putting their feet up in the knowledge that the island was, at last, theirs.
The castle is a magical place and the little pier at its foot where King Billy landed in 1689 remains intact and throbs with atmosphere and echoes of our past.
The unfortunate thing is, however, that the castle and pier are cut adrift from Carrickfergus town by the Marine Highway, the A2.
As a result of this deep rift, the town feels like something’s missing. I could never quite put my finger on it, but what appeared to be a handsome town centre always seemed to have a hangdog expression, as if it had been castrated.
But very recently I met a friend in a bar bistro I’d only heard of once before, Ownies. A beautifully maintained, low-ceilinged bar and bistro, Ownies does the historic small town inn act beautifully. It’s warm, compelling and welcoming. And there’s a real fire roaring away merrily this bitterly cold lunchtime. The staff are alert, friendly and on the ball — you know they’re geared up for office workers who don’t have much time for lunch and need to be fed in a hurry. Yet there’s nothing rushed or panicky about the server who tells us about specials of the day, which include a salmon with champ dish and chicken with sweet chilli.
While we wait for the food to arrive, the crackle of the fire and the occasional opening and closing of the door as somebody scuttles in from the freezing sea breeze and rain combine to create a timelessness; a sense of quiet well-being. Even though we don’t have much time and this is supposed to be a business meeting at which we will discuss energy, the future of 600,000 tons of annual household waste generated by the same number of homes across Northern Ireland, and other profoundly tedious subjects, I am happy to be here, reminded that while the real world spins and continues to present challenges, places like Ownies provide sanctuary and a temporary break from the daily grind.
The dishes arrive and seem to match the mood. A big steaming plate of mash on top of which perches a large salmon steak with green beans and a buttery white sauce is all about comfort and reassurance.
The salmon is well cooked, moist, firm and giving way easily. The champ beneath tastes of fresh boiled potatoes, earthy and creamy and the beans are how they should be, soft and yielding.
I’m content with this. It may not be memorable, but it isn’t ordinary either. It’s honest and wholesome. The plate of chilli chicken and potato wedges — I’m glad it’s not for me; even if I hadn’t eaten for three days, I could never work up an appetite for chicken and wedges — is well received. Friend Jackie who is very passionate about energy and waste management, picks at it kind of absent-mindedly and then notices it. She declares it’s actually quite good.
Ownies is the kind of place that will not pull any surprises because it does what you expect it to do — provide warmth, comfort and packing. It’s a proper pub. In fact, it’s a very attractive pub and an asset to Carrickfergus. The staff are pleasant and forthcoming and they know what they’re doing.
I met the owner, Jack Creighton, in a bar before Christmas and he explained how he’d owned it for ten years and had invested in it. Formerly known as the Joymount Arms, Creighton transformed the place into the kind of place you’d take your family to. There’s a larger dining room beside the bar and it has the same charm. But what is very clear is the level of passion and interest in making Ownies work as a pub and bistro.
If we’d had more time we would have lingered over coffee and dessert and soaked in the atmosphere a while longer. But energy and waste wait for no man or woman and we had to pull ourselves away.
A visit to Carrickfergus Castle is one thing. After you’ve done that, cross the Marine Highway and go over to Ownies and your day will be complete.
Chicken special £9.95
Salmon special £10.95
Still water £1.60
Sparkling water £1.60
16-18 Joymount, Carrickfergus, BT38 7DN.
Tel: 028 9336 2213.