Friday, 8 August 2008

On visions, visitors and violence.

TotS Irish Adventure

August 7th , Day Eight
Finn MacCool was a very busy giant and had a huge impact upon the geography of the northern part of the island of Ireland. As well as being responsible for the construction of the Giant’s Causeway there are many more legends connected to Finn. Perhaps the best of these takes notice of the remarkable similarity in size and shape between Lough Neagh (west of Belfast) and the Isle of Man. There is a bit of conflict concerning the reason why, but the general consensus seems to be that Finn grabbed a large rock (possibly to throw at Benandonner) and tossed it into the Irish Sea, creating both Lough Neagh and the Isle of Man in one instant.

We woke today knowing that we would be leaving the shelter of Moneyrea and our friends Julie, Zoe, and Alyssa which meant we were sad, but there was also the excitement of looking forward to the west coast of Ireland, which everyone we had talked to before we left had said was the most beautiful part of the country. It was a drizzly morning in the north east of Northern Ireland but because we had packed most things the night before it was only really ourselves that got wet. We waved our goodbyes, waited for the windows to de-fog and then set out on the road once more.

There seemed to be a sense that Belfast was also sad about our leaving; we caught every single red light on the 7 mile stretch into the city before we jumped onto the M2 to head first north of the city then out to the west. We saw the value of our previous travels, particularly those of the day before, because all of us were able to recognise places that we had seen and had a good sense of where we were. The M2 is also a lovely stretch of road and before we knew it we were past Antrim and Randalstown and north of Lough Neagh.

Lough Neagh is the biggest Lough in the British Isles and the third biggest lake in Europe measuring over 300 square klm. The name means the Lough of the horse-god Eochu. He was the lord of the underworld, who was supposed to exist beneath its waters. Like so much in this part of the world there was lots of water, it contains over 800 billion gallons, enough to fill 7 million swimming pools. We are sorry for all of those who are living in drought conditions but the level of the Lough has had to be lowered on 4 occasions, the first in 1846 and the last in 1959 and the water levels are now managed by large flood gates at Toome. It was at these gates that we got our main view of the Lough itself but from the top western corner it was hard to get a sense of just how big it was.

It was at this point that we started noticing an interesting fact that Julie had mentioned to us the night before. We were headed to ‘Stroke City’, so called because the politically correct version of its name now has a stroke in it, as London/Derry. According to the city’s Royal Charter the name is Londonderry, the name having been changed from Derry in 1613 during the Plantation of Ulster to reflect the establishment of the city by the London guilds. Because of this association, however, the Catholic population of Northern Ireland and the majority of signs in the Republic refer to it as Derry, while the majority in Northern Ireland and the road signs have the full name. Many of the road signs have been “doctored” by locals with the London scrubbed out (interestingly a couple of signs on the other side of the border had been altered in the other way). It is a fascinating thing to be in a place where you give away your background (and or political and religious beliefs) simply by the name that you call a city.
London/Derry is a beautiful place. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in Ireland having been the site of a monastery founded by Saint Columba in the 6th century. While many might object to the English involvement in the plantation of the city, it was the work that went on at this time, particularly in the construction of the wall and many of the buildings within, that give the city its distinctive look. We crossed the River Foyle on the Foyle Bridge (the longest bridge in Ireland) and found a parking spot on Carlisle Street a few hundred metres outside the walls, before walking up to the walls themselves. We had a dual mission at this stage, wanting to see as much as we could, while also taking the opportunity to buy some supplies for the day before we crossed into the Republic (where we knew from experience that food and other items would be much more expensive).

While Meg and the boys got some supplies from Foyleside Shopping Centre (Northern Ireland’s ‘biggest and best shopping centre’) Wayne put in a phone call to his sister Michelle to wish her a Happy Birthday. Sadly, she wasn’t at home, so he left a message and proceeded to take a look around the local bookstore (Eason’s is fabulous, has a great range of books at reasonable prices, particularly books on the history of Ireland and the local area particularly). Meg had the opportunity to explore one of her favourite discoveries in Ireland, Dunnes (think a cross between Target and Myer). However, we needed to necessarily cut our stay short because we had much more to do.

Crossing the road from Foyleside we found ourselves under the walls with a dilemna. The city walls are the best preserved of any in Britain, having only had three gateways added since they were constructed in 1618. It is possible to walk the entire length of them (with a guide or by yourself) and you get a fabulous view of the city and surrounds. However, we were parked in a spot with a limited time and could only be in London/Derry for a short while. In the end, we decided to take a walk into the centre of the walled city and then drive around the remainder before moving on. If we were travelling from Australia the idea of returning would be much more difficult to achieve, however that we are in the UK means there is a strong possibility to come back and do the things we have had to miss this time.

Many of you might remember the U2 song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. What you might not know is that the events described in that song took place in London/Derry on January 30th, 1972. On that date, during a civil-rights march protesting the internment of 342 civilians on August 9th, 1971 (particularly effecting the Bogside-Creggan district of London/Derry and almost exclusively interring Catholics) 13 unarmed civilians were killed. That British paratroopers were firing on a march from the city walls was bad enough, however the official investigation into the events (the Widgery report, described in ‘The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000’ by Diarmaid Ferriter as “scandalous and ultimately discredited”), which attempted to cover up what had happened, provoked almost as much response as the killings themselves. Nowadays it is acknowledged that what took place was totally counterproductive, prompting many more recruits into the IRA and London/Derry (being so close to the border) was to be a regular site of bombings and violence for the next quarter of a century. Today, happily, there is very little sign of those troubled times and our experience of the city was uniformly positive.
Aside from its historical significance, London/Derry has been the home to a variety of famous people and events. Some of Wayne’s favourite writers, Brian Friel (a playwright) and Seamus Heaney (Nobel Prize winning poet), are two examples. Politicians John Hume (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) and Martin McGuinness also hail from this part of the world. Martin O’Neill (who is currently the manager of Aston Villa) who formerly played for Nottingham Forest (Wayne’s favourite English football team) was born here as well. London/Derry withstood the longest ever siege in British history, an event which is commemorated annually, and the city also hosts Irelands largest (and oldest) Halloween festival and Anime conventions. If we return this will be a place that we will need to spend more time. Hopefully we will also be able to buy something with the coat of arms on, the boys really got a kick out of it.
Leaving Derry we drove down alongside the border on the Northern Ireland side, travelling through New Buildings, Magheramason, Bready, Cloghcor, and Ballymagorry. Even now the concept of a place called New Buildings amuses. What happens when some time has passed? There was a Mexican Restaurant in Sydney once called ‘That New Mexican Place’ which would have had similar trouble once it had been around for any length of time. Eventually we arrived at the twin towns of Lifford and Strabane. Strabane is on the Northern Ireland side of the border while Lifford is geographically on the Republic side (the River Foyle flows between them). We were moved to pull over and admire some statues which had been erected (with Millenium funding) to represent unity between the two towns. It is called ‘Let the Dance Begin’ and features a number of musicians and two dancers. Public sculpture is a big feature of Ireland, and much of it is very impressive.

This stretch of the road takes you well into County Donegal, up into the mountains toward the coast. With what looked like storm clouds gathering we drove up into the Barnesmore Gap where the road passes through before heading down into Donegal itself. It was this last stretch, going down the other side of the mountains, that gave us our first view of the west coast and it is every bit as impressive as people had told us. You look out across Donegal Bay and the islands which form it. Across to the right are the Croaghgorm (or Blue Stack Mountains) which form sheer cliffs which drop down into the bay. If we had had the time to head further north we would have been able to see the enormous number of small (and the odd large) islands on the Atlantic Coast. The number of times which Quinn, Brock, Wayne or Meg said, ‘Oh wow!’ as we came around each successive corner became almost a joke, with each new vista being more impressive than the last.

Bizarrely, Donegal is not the County Town of County Donegal (that honour goes to Lifford) nor is it the largest (Letterkenny) but it is nevertheless a very lovely place. There was considerable need to find a bathroom for the boys, so we drove straight down through the town to the waterfront only to find that the car park was completely full. Meg, Brock and Quinn jumped out to try he tourist information office (the toilets were closed) while Wayne circled the car park which seemed to hold enough vehicles for way more than the 2339 people that officially live in the town. Eventually, he was fortunate enough to be just back from a spot where another vehicle was leaving. As he shut the door after parking and went toward the pay and display point, a woman tapped him on the shoulder. It turned out that she had paid for 3 hours parking but had only used half an hour and wanted to donate the rest of the time on her ticket to us.

Dun na nGall means ‘Fort of the Foreigners’ in Irish and refers to the Vikings, who set up a base here in the 9th Century. On this particular day it could also have referred to the astonishing number of visitors from different parts of the world who had gathered. There were a profusion of number plates and accents just in the carpark. It was also the traditional home of the O’Donnell clan who provided the main opposition of England’s colonisation of Ireland between the 15th and 17th Centuries. Down on the waterfront there is a statue of Red Hugh O’Donnell, Lord of Tyrconnell, which looks very fierce. His activities have been the basis for many books and movies, including the Disney movie ‘The Fighting Prince of Donegal’ which was released in 1966 starring Peter McEnery, Susan Hampshire and Gordon Jackson.

Tours of Donegal Bay are also available from the waterfront and we greeted a boatload of tourists as they disembarked from the ‘Harp of Erne’ at the end of one such tour. Wayne spoke to a lady with a stroller who he assisted over an obstacle near the footpath and she (in German accented English) said that it was ‘very beautiful’. This was unsurprising, as even the first part of the tour took you past the ruins of Donegal Priory and its cemetery, a little further along the waterfront. Even this has played a substantial role in Irish history, as it was here that one of the earliest historical texts, ‘The Annals of the Four Masters’, was compiled between 1632 and 1636. This book now lies in the Irish National Library, but as well as the ruins there is a large memorial to the Four Masters in the centre of town (called the Diamond).

While eating our lunch we walked up through the town past the memorial and to Donegal Castle which had been built by an O’Donnell chieftain in 1505. Although it was open to visitors, and was covered by our reciprocal English Heritage membership (being part of Heritage Ireland) we all felt a little ‘castled-out’ and decided to skip this one. However as we walked past the main tower and the manor house we were able to admire the fine restoration job which they had done and the efforts to which people had gone to preserve this part of their history. Even the lovely Olde Castle Bar and the Tyrconnell Bridge have been well looked after.

We got some more astounding views of Donegal Bay as we drove down the N15 to Ballyshannon and on to Drumcliffe. This is W.B. Yeats country where the famous Irish poet (and promoter of Irish writing in a multitude of forms) gained much of his inspiration for his poetry. His brother Jack was a famous painter following in the footsteps of their father John and likewise claimed that the area around Sligo (just down the road from Drumcliffe) was the ‘school’ for his painting. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 and spent much of his later life living between Paris and London. However, when he died in 1939 his body was returned to Drumcliffe cemetery, at the church where his grandfather had once been rector. Nearby is a fine carved high cross from the monastery established by St Columba in the 6th Century and a well preserved Round Tower stands across the road from the current church.

Sligo itself is not just associated with Yeats although there is a marvellous statue of him in the centre of town. Spike Milligan (the comedian) lived with his family there at one time and this too is celebrated. The whole area is outstandingly beautiful with lakes, mountains, seascapes and valleys. Perhaps it is because of this that so much of historical interest has also been found in the area. Not far from the city are Carrowmore Megalithic tombs, some of the oldest and most important Stone Age tombs in Europe. On top of Knocknarea, west of the town, is the grave of Queen Maeve, the legendary warrior Queen of Connacht. As we were leaving the town we passed the entrance to the climb and both boys were interested in the story that if you are to climb the hill, you need to collect a stone and add it to the cairn for fear of bringing on the wrath of the fairies.

From Sligo we continued through some towns with names reminiscent of Australia. A number of turnoffs indicated the town of Ballina in County Mayo. Ballina being, of course, also a town on the road between Brisbane and Sydney, near the NSW and Queensland border. A bit further down we encountered Charlestown, which is also the name of a suburb of Newcastle, near where the Symes family used to live. We confused the boys somewhat at this point by not taking the turn on the N5 which would take us to Castlebar (where we would be staying the night). Instead, we determined to visit the community of Knock.

On the 21st of August, 1879 a parishioner of the Catholic Church in Knock was making their way home when they thought they saw some people near the front of the building. It transpired that there was no one there but that 15 people (aged between 5 and 75) witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary, standing with St Joseph and St John the Baptist. There were numerous theories as to what might have caused this, however investigations by the Catholic Church at the time concluded that the witnesses were trustworthy. A second Commission of Enquiry in 1936 endorsed the conclusions of the first enquiry. Consequently, Knock has become a place of pilgrimage and an international Marian Shrine visited by 1.5 million pilgrims annually.

The site where the apparition apparently took place bears no resemblance today to what it must have looked like 130 years ago. It was extensively rebuilt during the latter part of the 20th Century and now includes, among other things; a basilica capable of holding 10 000 people; a brand new chapel, built on the site of the old church, featuring statues of the apparition as it appeared; an enormous area with multiple taps dispensing holy water; a dedicated counselling and confessional area with external seating capable of holding hundreds of people; various gift shops and other outlets dispensing special rosary beads, statues and all sorts of other Marian paraphernalia. In 1979 Pope John Paul II visited the site and in 1985 (with significant questions being raised about the link between the parish priest James Horan and the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland Charles Haughey) the Horan International Airport was opened to the north of Knock.

Knock Shrine is on a truly grand scale. Having spent the years till the end of primary school attending a Catholic school and Church, both Brock and Quinn saw many things that were familiar to them. Even late in the afternoon there were still hundreds of visitors queuing for the Masses that are said regularly throughout the day, filling bottles with Holy Water, and waiting for confession. It was obvious that many different nationalities were represented and many of these people were sick, looking for healing. There were also an enormous number of different religious people; nuns, priests, monks etc. from all around the world. We were all sobered by the experience.

We made our way across to Castlebar which is the County Town of County Mayo. When we arrived at our destination, Lough Lannagh Village, we began to wish that we had organised to stay longer here. Firstly, Castlebar is a very attractive small town, set around a lovely tree-lined Mall, which was once the cricket ground of Lord Lucan. Because we had arrived quite late in the evening (it was already after 7pm by the time we had our bags in our room) it was clear that we weren’t going to get to give the town the time it clearly deserved. Even better, our accommodation was fabulous. As well as the Lodge in which we were staying (which also included a Buffet Breakfast of traditional Irish food) there was a tennis court, gymnasium, sauna, spa, cycle hire and it was in easy walking distance from the centre of town (where we strolled to get some dinner). If you ever have the opportunity to come to Ireland, and particularly Castlebar, we cannot recommend the place, and our hosts who were very welcoming, highly enough.

It had been a very long trip, from the North Eastern corner of the country to the Centre of the West Coast. In all we had been in, or passed through 8 of the countries 32 counties and seen some of the most amazing scenery of the entire trip to this point. Meg and Wayne were quite tired and retired to bed not long after completing their meal. However, we were roused soon after by Brock and Quinn who had been for a walk to check out more of the site. They had run into a gentlemen walking his dog (the dog ‘mauled’ Quinn [his words] and stole his shoe) and they subsequently spent about 45 minutes talking about the situation in Iraq and the political naivety of President George W. Bush, much as you would expect a pair of Australian teenage boys to do when on holiday in Ireland. Much to their (and particularly Brock’s) dismay the man turned out to be a cousin of the President and they were very worried about having possibly offended him. With a little reassurance that the man may have, in fact, been joking, tiredness took over and we were all soon fast asleep.

P.S. Quinn did, in fact, get his shoe back from the dog, only slightly chewed.

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