A number of years ago, I spent a week on holiday in the west of Ireland.
I arrived at my destination as dusk was falling, enveloping me in a feeling of peace. Travelling here had been the usual fun. The flight had taken off 40 minutes late, in part because a couple of passengers had got “lost” in an airport the size of a postage stamp. I collected the hire car at Dublin Airport and headed west on what was an uneventful journey until I hit football traffic in Carrick-on-Shannon. This hold-up, together with the slightly duff directions I had been given meant that I did not arrive until 7.30pm. The cottage keys had been left at a post office I could not find, and that no-one had heard of. Finally, after a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing and plenty of scuttling about I was making myself comfortable in the cottage I had rented for the week.
The following morning, the tops of the hills across the lake were blanketed in cloud. Queen Maeve was shrouded too, and there was an air of mystery about the place. I had just the sounds of the birds, and the breeze rustling in the trees for company.
The cottage was perched up a hill, and had wonderful views over Glencar Lake, and up and down the valley. It was a lovely secluded spot, which needed only a touch of sunshine to be perfect. The lake was laid out below like a blanket, and although I could not see him, I sensed the sentinel presence of Ben Bulben at my back.
The following day, I decided to drive to the Lough Rynn Estate east of Carrick-on-Shannon. I arrived after almost getting myself killed down one particularly narrow country lane, to find that the estate was closed for the season. I returned to Carrick for a coffee and a Danish, and a visit to a nice little supermarket to stock up.
Instead of driving straight back, I took the bread and butter I had bought to Rosses Point for a picnic. Rosses Point is a pretty little town which boasts wonderful views towards Ben Bulben. The Yeats brothers used to spend much of their summers there.
I took my groceries back to the cottage, and drove to Drumcliffe to see the grave of W.B. Yeats and the High Cross in the Churchyard there. Drumcliffe is a tiny place lying in the protective shadow of Ben Bulben. In the year 574 AD, St Columba founded a monastery there which become one of the most important centres of religion in the northwest of Ireland. The only remains of the original monastery is a round tower across the road from the church. In the church yard, is a fine 11th century high cross.
Drumcliffe is most famous as the final resting place of W.B. Yeats. Although Dublin born, Yeats spent many holidays with his maternal grandparents in Sligo and Ballisdare, and he never lost his love of the area. He died in the South of France in 1939. His body was finally laid to rest in Drumcliffe, where his grandfather had been rector, in 1948. The outbreak of World War II had prevented his remains being moved any earlier.
The cottage was warm, cosy and comfortable. The view was magnificent with Glencar Lake below like a pool of molten pewter, and framed by brooding, wooded mountains. The mist was so dense that I could not see where the land ended and the sky began. As dusk fell, a beautiful red fox trotted past the window and down the lane as though on a mission.
The following day there was still no sign of Queen Maeve. She was hidden in the mists high on Knockarea. I spent the morning in Sligo, pottering about and buying some books. All the while, the warm rain fell softly.
I visited Sligo Abbey, the only surviving medieval building in the city, which was actually a Dominican Friary. The Friary was founded in 1252/3 by Maurice Fizgerald, Chief Justice of Ireland, and has been the burial place of many chieftans of Connaught. In 1642, when Sligo was loyal to Charles I, the city was sacked by Frederick Hamilton and his Puritan soldiers. The Friars were massacred and the Friary left in ruins. A legend persists that the silver bell of the Abbey lies at the bottom of Lough Gill and that only the purest of souls can hear it when it rings.
After a light lunch, I took a drive to Lissadell House, home to the Gore-Booths, although it is no longer in the family. Little of the house was open at the time, but the drive out of the estate towards the shore was fabulous. The Gore-Booths had lived near Drumcliffe since the early 16th Century and the present Lissadell House was built in the 1830′s by Sir Robert Gore-Booth.
I drove from Lissadel House to Streedagh to see the Spanish Armada Memorial. Following defeat, the remains of the Spanish Armada were forced to sail north around Scotland to try to reach the safety of home. Three large ships ran aground and a thousand sailors either drowned of were marched to the gallows in Galway. The remains of the ships were discovered in 1985.
It had been a beautiful sunny day, but in the evening, the clouds started to roll back and the mountains vanished. The following morning, in glorious sunshine, and I drove to Galway, where the clouds hung low and it was dull and overcast.
Galway, is a happy bustling city with a bohemian flavour and winding medieval streets. The Spanish Arch, Galway Cathedral, Kirwans Lane, Norah Barnacle House and the University there is plenty to see. I found the Cafe du Journal for a lunch of tortilla pizza and a cappuccino before heading off to shop. After a wander around Brown Thomas, I bought some chocolates in a little shop to munch on the way back.
Gilligan’s World in Ballysadare was billed as being designed to “create a world which would take us back to our childhood.” Still in its infancy, it was a small theme with faeries and gnomes in various settings, which I am sure children would enjoy. It was not for me, until I reached their pets corner. They had a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, guinea pigs, a duck and rabbits. They had baby, grey rabbits that I was able to cuddle, and they allowed me to go into one of the rabbit pens to see some newborn bunnies. Now, that is my idea of heaven.
On a beautiful sunny morning with clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds, I went to look for the Gleniff Horseshoe, but got distracted by Mullaghmore. The sea looked so beautifully calm and blue that it drew me like a magnet. I drove in the sunshine to the harbour where the small, colourful fishing boats were moored. Then, after a brief walk, I drove to the otherside of the peninsula, to Mullaghmore Head. It was easy to see why Lord Mountbatten and his family so loved this place. The house they owned Classiebawn Castle, dominates the skyline, grey against the blue. The sea, which from a distance had looked like a millpond, was broiling and slapping against the cliffs, foaming waves enveloping the red-fringed coast with white horses.
I carried on down a road which I thought would take me to the Horseshoe, but didn’t. I gave up the hunt and obeyed my grumbling stomach and went to Sligo for lunch, and to buy a carving of Oisin I had seen a couple of days before, in a shop in Wine Street. Then I lost a castle.
Manorhamilton, in County Leitrim, was easy to find, straight along the N16, but when I got there I could not find the castle. In 1607, the Irish Nobles were defeated by the Crown marking the overthrow of the old Gaelic aristocracy and many of the chieftans fled to Europe to avoid capture by the English. The English took the opportunity to excercise control over the land. The area of Manorhamilton was granted to Sir Frederick Hamilton and the castle was constructed.
I certainly would not have been very good at infiltrating enemy strongholds, as I would not have been able to find them, and I gave up castle hunting, and having a touch of Romany (or perhaps something resembling madness) in me, I drove down a road not knowing where it would take me.
Whether I am in the car, or on foot, there is nothing better than turning down a road not knowing where it will lead. The journey into the unknown is a journey of discovery, good and sometimes not so good, but discovery none the less.
I came, after a while, to a lake, and then just as I began to wonder where I was, a drove past a sign which read “Welcome to County Fermanagh.” Somewhere, I had crossed the border from the south to the north, and looking at the map, it appeared to run through the lake, so unless I had been driving a submarine, I would never have found that either.
It did make me think about the question of a united Ireland. I am not sure whether I thought that when the Republic of Ireland gained independance, hundreds of men were sent out with miles of barbed wire and told to separate the two countries and not to miss an inch. I think that the point is, I have not thought about it. I grew up with news of The Troubles on an almost daily basis. It never occured to me that the border was, in places, just a line on a map and not a physical barrier, which is incredibly stupid of me.
I drove back via Belleek, stopping to see the famous pottery. By now, there had been a change in the weather, and grey clouds were appearing, promising more rain. On the way, I noticed a signpost for the Gleniff Horseshoe, so off I went. The valley is protected by three mountains: Tievebaun, Truskmore and Benwisken. Under the shadow of Tievebaun you will find the Magic Hill. Why magic? Well, if you park your car and release the handbrake, it will move uphill! Drive along the single lane road marvelling at the beautiful views of the Dartry Mountains. As you drive and turn left along the bottom of Benwisken you come to a high cliff where you will find the cave in which Dairmuid and Graine spent their last night together. It is impossible to describe what the horseshoe looks like. The mountains tower over you. The size of these sheer rock faces makes you feel tiny and insignificant and lost in a giant landscape.
I stopped again at Drumcliffe for coffee and a muffin. Then I had a look around the lovely gift shop, buying my nephew a book about the legend of Finn McCool. As I left, the heavens opened dropping curtains of heavy rain the like of which I had not seen in a long time.
Parke’s Castle is on the banks of Lough Gill and I went via Deerpark. This is not now as the name might suggest a park of deer, although it was originally a hunting area, but a fine example of a court tomb. The get there I had to walk up the mountain on an often disapperaing cinder path, squelching through soggy ground. The walk through the pine trees, blackberry bushes and rhodedendrons was peaceful and lovely, disturbed by nothing more than birdsong, the barking of a dog and the distant lowing of cattle.
The Tomb dates from 3000BC and has three, two chambered burial galleries leading from an oval, central court and is constructed of rough, limestones slabs The views from the tomb are stunning, and it is well worth stopping to take in the view. Whether or not you are interested in ancient history, this is a beautiful place to visit.
A short drive from Deerpark is Parke’s Castle. Built in 1609, at the eastern end of Lough Gill by Robert Parke, the castle is one of the few Planters Castles in Ireland. It was built on the site of a 16th century tower house which had belonged to the O’Rourkes, a powerful local clan. Brian O’Rourke was executed for treason for giving aid to Captain Francisco de Cuellar of the Spanish Armada, enabling him to return to Spain. The castle has been beautifully restored by local craftsmen using native Irish Oak and 17th century building techniques.
Back to Sligo for petrol and a last wander around. I went to the Winding Stair bookshop for lunch of pasta salad and a coffee, and then to Sligo Museum. It is small and perfectly formed and has a room dedicated to W.B. Yeats and paintings by Jacks Yeats, plus items that belonged to Countess Constance Markievicz and her sister Eva Gore-Booth.
I could not go home without taking a look at the waterfall which Yeats mentioned in his poem “The Stolen Child”. Tumbling 50 feet from the hill above into the river, this is an enchanting waterfall, in a magical setting sending plumes of water into the air
The following morning, was time to go home. I drove back to Dublin Airport, dropped off the car and boarded a ‘plane home. I was relaxed after my week in Ireland, and already plotting my return.