Earlier this month I walked from Belfast to Dublin, talking to people along the way. I tried as much as possible to avoid main roads, using back roads, green roads, hill paths and beaches. My route took me along the Lagan valley through Lisburn and Dromore; then east and south across Slieve Croob into the Mournes above Hilltown and Rostrevor; over Carlingford lough and through the Cooley mountains; across Slieve Gullion and through South Armagh to Dundalk; and then along the Louth, Meath and north Dublin coasts, via Clogherhead, Drogheda, Laytown, Skerries, Malahide and Howth and into the Irish capital.
Why did I do this? There were three reasons: firstly, I simply love walking through the Irish hills and countryside; secondly, I wanted to raise some money for two charities, BCM and Depaul, working with homeless people in Belfast and Dublin (I raised €5,000); and thirdly, I had the idea that I might write a book about my cross-border journey, which coincidentally began eight days after the UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum, with a 56% vote in Northern Ireland for staying in the EU, placed a new question mark over the border.
This blog can only essay a few first thoughts from what turned, with all the zig zags, into a 200 mile walk lasting more than a fortnight. My overriding impression was of a fortunate country: peaceful (despite the violent recent past of its northern quarter), beautiful in the summer showers and sunshine, with friendly and generous people, and some towns and villages with a strong community and even entrepreneurial spirit.
What was the evidence for these initial conclusions? I was greatly cheered on my first morning at the Cenotaph in Belfast to see a possible future Taoiseach – the gay doctor of Indian parentage, Leo Varadkar – walking alongside the DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast at the centennial commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. This ceremony was very much a meeting of the two cultures: the British flag, anthem and Irish regiments of the British Army led by Irish pipers playing Irish airs and an Irish wolfhound, and veterans in the crowd wearing Irish worsted suits and telling me they were “first and foremost Ulsterman, but then Irishmen.”
The generosity was shown by the £200 I collected in Dromore Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church for my two charities; free boat rides across the Rogerstown and Broadmeadow estuaries courtesy of Rush Sailing Club and Malahide marina; and the insistence by three bed and breakfast owners south of the border that I should pay them nothing but should instead give an equivalent amount to the charities.
As our lives become increasingly privatised – lived in and through cars, alarmed and gated houses, mobile phones and PCs – public friendliness and community spirit are a little rarer. One meets very few fellow-walkers along Irish country roads these days – the absence of footpaths and the quizzical looks of fast-driving passing motorists are witness to the deviance of such ambulatory activity. The proliferation of children’s swings, slides and bouncing castles in people’s gardens – in my childhood they were largely confined to public parks – makes one wonder how these small people are going to learn the skills of meeting strangers that are so essential to successful adulthood. Around Hillsborough, in Belfast’s well-heeled commuter belt, the spread of large, almost plutocratic, gated residences is quite astonishing.
But the traditional Irish friendliness and hospitality are still there. People whom I only vaguely knew gave me a bed in their houses in Lisburn and Dromore. An AirBnB owner in Hilltown invited me to join the extended family’s welcoming dinner for his son, home from Australia. A community leader in Forkhill gave me the use of the local women’s centre to wash and change after I had camped out on the site of the former British Army base there: a small symbolic act on my part to show that South Armagh is now peaceful, beautiful and open for tourism.
Local community spirit and entrepreneurship were more evident in the Republic. The North’s divisions are unfortunately conducive to neither. Once bustling mainly unionist mill and market towns like Dromore and Rathfriland have a neglected air, full of boarded up shopfronts and those strange ‘make believe’ window displays that local authorities (or is it estate agents?) put up in a vain attempt to convince residents that classy new shops and restaurants are only a buyer’s call away. Outside Lisburn I passed the derilect hulk of the Hilden linen thread mill, a century ago the largest of its kind in the world, employing over 2,000 people, which finally closed in 2006. A mile further on I came across the spanking new local council offices-cum-arts centre, part-financed, like so many things in Northern Ireland, by the European Union. Regional dependence, whether on the EU or now on London’s declining resources, is what makes the North tick these days.
The contrast with an equivalent Southern town, such as Dundalk or Drogheda, was striking. Dundalk and its region has multinationals like Xerox and PayPal, but also high-achieving indigenous entrepreneurs such as Martin Naughton, the late Edward Haughey and the McCann family. Just across the border from Forkhill I caught a glimpse of the architectural monstrosity that Haughey was building for one of his sons before he died in a helicopter crash two years ago. The unoriginal thought occurred to me that for all their faults – and Haughey had a few of those – a society without driven, risk-taking entrepreneurs is a society that’s going nowhere. The odd vulgar mansion in a place long beggared by poverty, emigration and sectarian division (Haughey opened his first factory in Newry in 1969 as the North descended into near civil war) is a small price to pay for dynamic business leadership that brings in jobs and prosperity. Northern Ireland could do with some of the entrepreneurial spirit which seems to be in the water in Louth, Ireland’s smallest county.
I also noticed more multiculturalism in the Republic. After spending a long evening in South Armagh discussing the ancient, unresolved quarrel between native and planter, it was something of a relief to turn into Dundalk and meet three strapping, handsome Nigerian teenagers on Castletown bridge. The cafe where I stopped for lunch in the town centre was owned by a man with a Panamanian wife and the waitresses were Romanians and Serbs.
Further south again, in Rush in north county Dublin, I came across a suburban shop converted into a venue for a myriad of community activities: from positive parenting to Pilates; from Capoeira to set dancing; from drug awareness to English conversation; from Gaeilge to physical fitness; from ballet to police liaison to youth work to yoga. A woman instructor in the sailing club said: “I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world except Rush.”
However a relatively contented, middle class society tends to breed smugness and a wilful blindness to continuing deep social problems. This is certainly the case in the Republic. On the last afternoon of my journey, walking along Dublin’s North Strand with community workers Mick Rafferty and Brian Treacy, we came across two young homeless couples living in tents on waste ground within sight of the upmarket offices, apartments and conference centres of the Financial Services Centre and Spencer Dock. In the warm summer sunshine this was just about bearable, but what must it be like in the depths of winter? The gaping social divides of Southern Irish society – and the unwillingness or inability of the Irish state to do much about them – never ceases to surprise and shock.
Despite this, the strongest impression from my midsummer cross-border trek was that most Irish people, north and south, are plain lucky. During my journey 84 people were mown down by a Tunisian madman in a lorry in Nice and a failed military coup in Turkey sparked a wave of repression by that country’s authoritarian government. The civilian death toll from bloody wars in Syria and Iraq rose relentlessly. In marked contrast, this quiet green island has a lot going for it and we, its fortunate inhabitants, have a lot to be grateful for. I hope to explore this and other themes in a short book – the hard work starts here!