Only a country like Ireland could have its most northerly point in the south, but as Brian Spencer discovered on a recent visit, that is part of the enjoyment of a visit to this delightful neighbour of ours across the Irish Sea.
An early start from Slack’s Coaches at Matlock brought us to Holyhead’s seaport terminal in good time for the early afternoon Stena ferry to Dublin. As stormy crossings seem par for the course, the journey was not without its excitement, but we arrived off the mouth of the River Liffey on time. Unfortunately the Liffey channel is rather narrow and due to the rough sea we had to wait our turn circling for about an hour with other ships until there was room to dock.
Leaving the ferry soon brought us on to an example of the way Ireland is being helped by European Union money. At one time the journey across Dublin could take hours, but now the way seems to mostly go beneath the city. Joining the outer ring of motorways we were soon at Enfield to the north-west for an overnight stay at the Johnstown Estate Hotel. If as I suspect, the hotel is an example of the way the Celtic Tiger economy is back on its feet, then all is well for our near neighbour. We were treated almost like royalty, an introduction to the superlative standard of hospitality on offer throughout the island of Ireland.
Easy going along the almost empty motorway network took us westwards and north over the border to Enniskillen and back into the United Kingdom. This was our first experience of the so-called invisible border that is giving Prime Minister Theresa May a few headaches. Since the Good Friday Agreement there are no longer border posts such as the one where during the ‘Troubles’ a colleague and I were held at gunpoint while our details were checked – apparently the hire car we were driving was the same model and colour as one used in a bit of bother earlier in the day! Now the only way of telling which country you are in is by the road signs changing from kilometres to miles and vice-versa.
Enniskillen is a small market town on the banks of a short stretch of river between Upper and Lower Lough Erne. An old fashioned sort of place that seems to happily cater for the needs of country-folk, it came as a shock to see the war memorial where thirty years ago fifteen people were killed by a bomb on Remembrance Sunday. There is nothing to commemorate the tragic event, but that is probably the way the Irish are trying to overcome their unhappy past.
The actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales cruised around the nearby lough in one of their TV programmes about canal journeys. Huge almost sea-going cruisers were tied up at the bottom of Enniskillen’s main shopping street. Downstream, but still very much part of the town is the castle. Built in the days when lowland Scots were ‘planted’ in order to keep the native population under control, its garrison supported King James II and withstood siege by the troops of Dutch William of Orange, King ‘Billy’. A museum of the town and local regiment, the Iniskillen Fusiliers’ history occupies the main part of the castle – Iniskillen, spelt with a capital ‘I’ is apparently the old form of Enniskillen.
Moving north and westwards again, but back into southern Ireland we were greeted by the sort of weather the Irish refer to as ‘a gentle sort of day’, in other words rain on and off, the way Ireland keeps its grass green. Making our way to the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’, we followed the coast, past tiny white-cottaged villages and deserted beaches backed by crashing surf. It was here that we took a wrong turning at Maas. It led us along ten miles of twisting single-track road with only one passing place for the whole journey. Fortunately this was the only place we met another vehicle.
After lunch at Dunglow, a typical Irish village where every other shop doubled up as a pub (the others were betting shops), we moved on through Glenveagh National Park. This is an area of wild moorland topped by Erigal Mountain. At its highest point, a perfect cone of quartz-like stones overlooked Lough Nacung.
Donegal town was our headquarters for the next couple of days. This market town is the central point for County Donegal. It sits at the head of a wide bay-like estuary fed by the River Eske, with scenery very similar to Devon’s south coast. Overlooking the sea, what was once a Franciscan monastery is now the town’s tranquil graveyard, and, like Enniskillen, the place has a castle dominating the town centre. Mostly Jacobean on earlier foundations, it was once the home of the O’Donnell’s, good and bad; one of the latter, Red O’Donnell unsuccessfully attacked it on behalf of James II in the seventeenth century. Constantly wary of attack, anyone using the garderobe (lavatory), was kept safe from receiving an arrow in a very delicate place by the exterior drain having a sharp bend to prevent arrows reaching anyone sitting on the ‘throne’.
Donegal was another place where we met friendly people who made us feel at home. The briefest smiles on our part would be turned into a welcome excuse to stop and chat. We looked into a restaurant at lunchtime and although it seemed full, the proprietor immediately cleared a table for us and though he was busy, he managed to chat to us as though we were long-standing customers.
By going south we turned back into Northern Ireland in order to spend a few hours in Derry–Londonderry. With its background as a hotbed of murder and mayhem, we quickly realised that this is now history and the town and its people are simply getting on with their lives. The town centre is surrounded by ancient walls and was busy with shoppers and sightseers enjoying the brief sunshine, or strolling along the river front towards the Peace Bridge. Built to connect the two halves of Derry-Londonderry, pedestrian only, it curves like a sinewy letter ‘S’, supported by cables connected to two curving arms.
In the afternoon we joined the local train as far as Colerain. Running beside sandy beaches with open sea on the left and rolling hills to the right, Michael Palin called it the ‘Most Scenic in Britain’. Admittedly an attractive ride, but even though he comes from Sheffield, one doubts if he has ever ridden on the Derby/Matlock Line.
The last part of the trip was a couple of night’s stay in Belfast. Called the Stormont Hotel, it sits directly opposite a long drive that climbs to the seat of government in Northern Ireland. Amazingly considering Ulster’s disturbed history, it is possible to walk through the miles of richly wooded parkland covering the slopes below Stormont – which we did.
Hillsborough Castle where important recent events such as the Good Friday Agreement were thrashed out, is the Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland. A late Georgian mansion is set amidst forested grounds intermingled with small gardens and ponds, it lies about 25 miles south of Belfast. Originally the home of the Hills family who, falling on hard times, sold it to the British Government for £20,000.
Even though it was only a little way past mid-morning, we had tea and scones with rich Irish butter and cream. This quirkiness so typically Irish, was continued by the odd appearance of formal headgear lying around in unexpected places; for example HRH Prince William’s RAF cap sits quietly in one room, and there is a Governor General’s ostrich feathered hat on the throne at the head of the most formal room in the place: one of HRH Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother’s frothy blue confections sits quietly on a side table, as though waiting for her return.
Hillsborough has been visited by politicians and royalty over the years. We missed Prince Harry by exactly one week; he had been over to receive guests at a reception for young sports people. Politicians of all shades have stayed there to thrash out a safe future for the province. With beautiful gardens outside the French windows, it must have been the perfect place to work. One of the garden features, the mock Doric temple that sits above one of the lakes, was a particular favourite of the late Rt. Hon. Mo Mowlem M.P. when she was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
An early start then the ferry to Cairn Ryan in Galloway followed by a long drive to reach the M6, eventually took us back to Matlock. Many thanks to Malcolm an excellent driver, even though he did manage to open up a new route by following a ten-mile single track road!