Northern Ireland

Olympic torch: Thousands cheer as relay tours NI

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Media captionSunday is the first of five days the relay will spend in Northern Ireland

Thousands of people cheered on the Olympic torch relay on its first full day in Northern Ireland.

The flame travelled 126 miles through 21 communities between Belfast and Portrush where an evening celebration took place on the beach.

Sunday is the first of five days the relay will spend in Northern Ireland.

Highlights included visits to Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Carrickfergus Castle while rugby union's Trevor Ringland took a torch.

The route also passed some spectacular scenery on the County Antrim coastline and visited Portrush, home of golfers Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell and the course on which reigning US Open champion Rory McIlroy hit a 61 as a 16-year-old in 2005.

The first torchbearer of the day was Karen Marshall, 31, from Tynan, who started the relay at the Belfast Titanic Centre at 06:06 BST.

Image caption The torch is carried towards Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Executive

She has had Crohn's disease for 14 years and volunteers on the events committee at St Vindic's Parish Church, Tynan and with charity REACT (Reconciliation Education and Community Training).

Among the 132 torchbearers on the day were army medic Kylie Watson. The 25-year-old from Ballymena, who completed a leg in Portrush, won the Military Cross for twice risking her life under heavy fire to treat two soldiers in Afghanistan.

She is only the fourth woman to receive the honour which is awarded in recognition of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.

Padraic Farrell, 15, also carried the flame through Newtownabbey. He has spina bifida but is a keen sportsman and plays wheelchair basketball in the GBWBA .

The torch was also taken by John Condie, 58, from Antrim who carried the flame in Larne. When he was 18 years old he had a motorbike accident which severed the nerves at his neck and he had to have one arm amputated.

Sophie Lynn, 14, was a torchbearer in Glenariff. She has the neurological disorder, ataxia-telangiectasia and uses a wheelchair but continues to raise money for the A-T Society.

The last torchbearer of the day was Louise Lyons, 17, who coaches at a local soccer school and lit the cauldron at the evening event in East Strand, Portrush.

The event featured music from General Fiasco, a performance from dance act Twist and Pulse, as well as local acts staged by Coleraine Borough Council.

Thousands of people turned out along the route to cheer on the torchbearers. At Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, the crowd was estimated at 4,000.

Some held up signs saying "Keep 'er lit", a phrase meaning "keep going".

Retired teacher Thomas Campbell carried the torch from the gates along the road to the historic seat of Northern Ireland's government.

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "I think people are exhilarated to be part of an event that's one of the greatest competitions in the world and to be part of a little bit of history."

Culture Minister Caral Ní Chuilín said there had been major preparations for the relay.

"I know even just talking to some of the torchbearers and talking to some of the councils, they've done an awful lot of work.

"They have all got stories behind the reason why they were nominated, that's the real excitement and what I'm really looking forward to."

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Media captionThe last torchbearer on Sunday was soccer coach Louise Lyons aged 17.

Former Ireland and Lions rugby union star Ringland carried his torch in Larne. He played for Ireland in the first rugby World Cup in 1987 and was also chosen for the Lions tour of New Zealand four years earlier.

Among the towns and villages visited after the lunch break were Carnlough, where Paralympic swimming gold medallist Diane McMillan held the flame, Cushendall, where 22-year-old wheelchair basketball player Daniel Black took a torch, Ballycastle, Dervock and Bushmills - home to the world famous whiskey distillery - before the relay arrived in Portrush.

Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters was among a group of dignitaries who welcomed the flame to Belfast on Saturday evening.

Dame Mary said the relay was a wonderful opportunity for Northern Ireland and added: "This is the first time it has ever come across these shores. It's amazing because it will encourage, I hope, another generation to get involved in sport."

A total of 8,000 people will carry the flame on its 8,000 mile, 70-day journey around the UK to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on 27 July.

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