Have Bag, Will Travel
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“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.” – Prince Charles quoting lines by the Sligo poet W B Yeats:
On the final day our plan was to visit Southern Ireland’s most northerly county, Donegal, so far north in fact that at the most northerly point it is further north than Northern Ireland. It is also part of the province of Ulster, which we mistakenly tend to think of as Northern Ireland.
There is a phrase that the Irish frequently use themselves which is “Only in Ireland” which is used to justify the regularly encountered idiosyncrasies of the country without offering any sort of rational explanation.
The partition of Ireland into north and south is a good example…
… The Province of Ulster is nine counties in the north and to make things complicated three of these are in the Republic and the other six make up what we know as Northern Ireland.
Ulster has no political or administrative significance these days and exists only as a historical sub-division of Ireland and one of the four Rugby Union provinces. The others are Connacht, Munster and Leinster. The map above shows the geographical split. The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920 because these were areas where Protestants were in the majority and had campaigned vigorously to remain part of the Union.
Except that they weren’t because in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone they were in the minority but were included anyway. County Donegal was catholic but was separated from the principal border city of Londonderry/Derry and County Londonderry now has a majority catholic population.
How complicated is all that? No wonder that the Irish issue has taken so long to try and resolve.
Anyway, we didn’t concern ourselves today with tangled issues of politics but in the sunshine drove out of Sligo and once again picked up the road which follows the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’.
Although I was uneasy about this (bearing in mind how Kim reacted so badly to a coastal detour just a couple of days previously and just how clear she had been on her thoughts about detours) we chanced a recommended diversion to a small coastal village of Mullaghmore which turned out to be absolutely delightful with a picturesque harbour and a string of bars and cafés so after a stroll we selected one and stopped for drinks.
Mullaghmore is a charming place but it has a grim place in UK/Ireland relations and it has the burden of a horrific legacy. Overlooking the village is Classiebawn Castle which was once the summer residence of Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma, one of the great British heroes of the Second-World-War. On 27th August 1979, Mountbatten took to sea in his boat out of Mullaghmore harbour and was murdered by an IRA bomb that had been previously planted on board.
It was only a small boat and a 50lb (23 kilo) stash of radio controlled nitro-glycerine planted there the night before blew it completely apart.
An IRA statement boasted… “We claim responsibility for the execution of Lord Louis Mountbatten. This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.”
The thoroughly despicable Gerry Adams, Irish politician and Leader of the political wing of the IRA Sinn Féin, justified the killing in this way…
… “The IRA gave clear reasons for the execution… What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation. He knew the danger involved in coming to this country.” Hmmm!
Hopefully that unpleasantness is all in the past now (although I do hope that nasty Gerry Adams has recurring nightmares about the time he will spend in the future in Hell) and on a perfect summer day we left a very peaceful Mullaghmore and continued our journey to the very agreeable town of Donegal.
Donegal was much smaller than I imagined it would be (my research was hopelessly inadequate on this point) and although it was vibrant and busy it didn’t take a great deal of our time to walk around the town centre and pay a visit to the splendidly restored castle, stop for lunch in a hotel bar and then make our way back to the car park to begin the journey back to Sligo for our final night in Ireland – for this year anyway.
After the first day which had been spoiled by rain our Irish good weather fortune had returned and we had three days in glorious sunshine enjoying Ireland’s north-west coast. On the way back we planned another recommended detour into the hills behind Sligo in the shadow of the most famous – Benbulbin, which stands out above the land like an enormous beached liner. We made the drive but the weather was changing again now and the blue skies were being rapidly replaced by ominous grey.
The rain held off for the final evening in Sligo but the following morning was wet and miserable and the drive back to Knock Airport for the midday flight was through a series of squally storms. We arrived and departed in the rain but in the middle we had enjoyed a fourth wonderful visit to magnificent Ireland.
But wait. There was a sting in the tail/tale because on the way out through Knock airport departures there was a development tax of 10 euros each to be paid before we could leave. It seems that the Good Lord doesn’t always provide after all, well not all of it anyway!
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W. B. Yeats
“In a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.” – W.B. Yeats
I confess to being disappointed when we first arrived in Sligo. It appeared rather austere and grey and subdued and dull compared with the colour and vibrancy and the vivaciously energetic Westport that we had left behind. There were no gaily painted houses and no effervescent floral displays, no pavement tables outside the pubs and no evidence of any bubbling street entertainment.
But, I have said before that it is wrong to be too hasty and make a premature judgment about a place and this proved to be the case in Sligo because a walk into the town centre revealed its hidden charms. Now and again you have to scratch the surface a little to find what you are looking for. Sometimes you need a crowbar but in Sligo we only needed a toothpick.
There is a strong association in the town with the poet W. B. Yeats (William Butler) and although he wasn’t born there he lived there for a while as a youth and according to his wishes is buried in a church yard nearby. The town has connections with Goon Show star and writer Spike Milligan whose father was from Sligo and the boy band Westlife was formed there in 1998.
There is a statue of Yeats (not very flattering, in my opinion) but not of Spike Milligan or of Westlife, well, not that I could find anyway. Down by the river quayside there was another famine statue, one of a family comforting each other at a spot where thirty-thousand people emigrated between 1847 and 1851. I am beginning to understand that no Irish city or town is complete with a Famine Memorial. As it happens there are also quite a lot in USA and Canada and one or two in Australia as well.
Although the streets were rather sombre in their appearance there were some interesting places in the town centre and it was nice to see individual traditional shops rather than modern chains. There was a pleasant walk along the banks of the river where people were enjoying the unusually high temperatures by standing in the doorways of the pubs and cafés and at the far end of the town was Sligo Abbey, long ago abandoned and ruined of course but still worth the entrance fee for a poke around inside the walls.
Interestingly it features in two short stories by W. B. Yeats – The Crucifixion of the Outcast, set in the Medieval times and The Curse of the Fires and of the Shadows describing its destruction in 1641. I made a note to look them up when I returned home. Sligo Abbey was sacked and destroyed by the English and this is a recurring story in Ireland. You need a thick skin to visit Ireland if you are English but at least the Irish people seem to have a forgiving nature even if they might not forget.
After the walk around the town we took the advice now of the hotel staff and drove five miles west to the coastal village of Strandhill to a wonderful beach and a raging sea. I liked Strandhill straight away because there was free parking all along the front. I always compare this with my local seaside resort at Cleethorpes where the Council charges exorbitant fees to park up even in the Winter and Cleethorpes doesn’t get anywhere near comparison with Strandhill I can tell you!
When it comes to parking the priciest resort in England is Brighton, which charges £30 a day making it one of Europe’s most expensive destinations for leaving a car on a small strip of tarmac. Next is Bournemouth at £18 – still more than millionaires’ playgrounds Monaco and Sorrento charging £15 and just under £18 respectively.
There was a good walk to be had along the pebble littered sand and we strolled along past the beach people and the brave surfers but there were no swimmers because everywhere there are warning signs saying that swimming is forbidden because although it looks inviting the sea is especially treacherous here. It looked relatively safe and benign to me so I enquired of local people what the problem was. Apparently the way the tides and the currents enter the bay produce savage hidden rip-tides which make this place especially hazardous.
As we looked out over the Ocean and admired its natural beauty it was hard to imagine that it could be so dangerous.
After an hour or so we left and as we drove away I was certain that Strandhill could easily force itself into a list of my top ten favourite Ireland beaches.
We returned to Sligo now because our plan now was to head north towards Donegal, the most northerly of the Southern Irish counties but we found time to stop on the way in the village of Drumcliff, just about five miles out of Sligo because in the cemetery there is the grave of W. B. Yeats with a headstone inscribed with the poet’s famous self-penned epitaph:
“Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman, pass by.”
Westport Quay was busy today in the sunshine so we stopped for a while and walked around the harbour and the souvenir shops but it seemed rather modern and we didn’t find it especially thrilling so we didn’t stop long and carried on to the town instead.
Westport was a different place completely today in the sunshine and the grey clouds of yesterday had been replaced by a canvas of blue. What a lovely place, flower beds in full bloom, drinkers spilling out of pubs onto the pavements, courteous motorists who always stop to let you cross the roads, free parking and friendly people everywhere. We spent an hour or so in the town, found somewhere that we rather liked for evening meal and made a reservation and then had a Guinness in the street before returning to the B&B.
We had a good night, an excellent meal and then an hour or so in a pub with more traditional Irish music and an overdose of Guinness and walked home later under a clear sky that surely meant good weather again for the next day.
In twenty-four hours our situation had improved one hundred percent and we looked forward to another good day ahead.
In the morning it was gloriously sunny, this was going to be a very good day indeed and then encouraged by Richard I made a decision that spoiled it.
Instead of taking the direct route to our next stop in the town of Sligo we thought it might be a good idea to head west for a while and visit Achill Island which everyone seemed to be recommending as an especially scenic experience so after breakfast and settling up our accounts we took the coast road into trouble.
At first things went well enough and we stopped regularly to admire wide sandy beaches, look out over Newport Bay across the water to Croagh Patrick and to examine sites where ships of the Spanish Armarda were wrecked on the rocks in 1588 and it was about at this point that Kim’s mood started to change and as usual I failed to spot the warning signs of rapidly emptying patience reserves.
We carried on now to Achill Island and after about twenty minutes of boring countryside and nothing in particular to see Richard made the fatal mistake of asking Kim if everything was alright? I was beginning to detect simmering discontent in the back seat and thought “oh dear Richard, wrong question”. “Do you want the honest answer?” she said and then the penny dropped straight through – the patience tank was empty and Kim was not enjoying this particular stretch of The Wild Atlantic Way as much as I had thought she might so after a brief debate we turned the car around and looked for a more direct route to Sligo.
This wasn’t very successful at all because we were some distance out of our way and I knew deep down that it was probably going to take a couple of hours or so, maybe even three, to reach our destination and Kim’s temper was rapidly reaching boiled lobster point.
From Achill to Sligo there is no alternative but to take a slow circuitous route around the Nephin Mountains because this is an especially remote part of West Ireland and no roads cross the peat bogs and the conifer forests that are a principle feature of the area. We stopped for a coffee and a visit to a National Park information centre but this didn’t especially help so the only thing to do was to drive as quickly as possible now to see how quickly I could get to Sligo.
I was driving like a rally driver but with stops the journey took almost six hours and Kim was keen to keep reminding me that she had earlier consulted Multimap and the direct route was estimated to take just an hour and a half! It didn’t help when I took another unnecessary coastal detour which proved especially pointless as it wasn’t particularly close to the sea and all of the pubs were closed for the afternoon.
To my relief we eventually arrived in Sligo at about four o’clock and luckily the hotel was a good one with pavement tables in the sun so we bagged an empty one and sat and calmed down (this was a process that took longer for some than for others) and later we made a first visit to the town centre to identify somewhere suitable for evening meal.
It had been a mixed sort of day, good start, bad in the early middle, very bad in the late middle and good again at the end and I was forced to agree with Kim however that on an exceptionally fine weather day it was a shame that we had spent so much of it in the car.
We agreed that on the next day we would do a few less miles!