The road and railway between Belfast and Dublin have been an important part of my life. Over the past 50 years I must have travelled between Ireland’s two major cities several thousand times. Given the millions of people who make this short journey every year, it is extraordinary how many of the beautiful and interesting places on either side of that main highway are completely unknown. Since it is the beginning of summer, and I am a bit weary of the Northern Irish politics I usually cover in this column (but also see Endnote 1 below for a comment on the amazing Repeal the Eighth referendum result), I am going to write about some of those places. All are within 10 miles of the main Belfast-Dublin road. I will write about five of them this month and five later in the summer.
A few miles south of Belfast, above Shaw’s Bridge on the river Lagan, is the Giant’s Ring, a favourite with the city’s day trippers. This big earthwork circle inside a 13 foot bank, roughly 200 metres in diameter and built over 4,700 years ago, is virtually unknown outside Northern Ireland, but is one of the most beautiful examples of a ‘henge’ monument in these islands (henges feature a ring bank and ditch, but with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside, and therefore are not believed to have been defensive structures). In the middle is a massive tomb made of five upright stones and a large capstone, the bare frame of which was originally a chambered grave, covered with a cairn of stones and earth.
Excavations in the 1990s found charcoal in an enclosure adjoining the Giant’s Ring which was carbon-dated as going back to over 3,000 BC. This is over 200 years earlier than the great pyramids of Egypt, contemporary with the earlier phases of Stonehenge and 200 years later than Newgrange. Archaeologist Barrie Hartwell has concluded that this Bronze Age society was both well organised and socially coherent, with some imposed or inherited authority – and spiritual leadership – that was able to motivate or coerce the population into building these impressive monuments for a religious or ceremonial purpose.
This chimes with the view of the great Welsh geographer and archaeologist E. Estyn Evans, who wrote in the 1980s that at that time “this corner of Ireland was among the most advanced, culturally and technically and commercially, of all the regions not only in Ireland but in the British Isles.” The archaeological evidence shows that this was because “people of different origins and cultures had learned to live together, to mix, to quicken each other. So Ulster, which is best known to the English today as a place of unrest and civil strife, is thought of by British archaeologists as the place where they had that brilliant Bronze Age.”
My second beautiful, unknown place on the road south is the Lackan Bog Walk, near the village of Moneyslane in deepest County Down. If you are seeking half an hour of complete and perfect tranquillity in the most magical sylvan setting, look for Dickson’s Hill Road just south of that village. There, around 600 metres on the right, if you look carefully, you will find a sign posting you across a field and along the tree-covered bog path. This crosses 83 hectares of wetland and raised bog covered with a thin living carpet of Sphagnum mosses, with colours ranging from brilliant green to ochre red. These mosses support a wealth of plants such as bogbean, bog myrtle, marsh cinquefoil and bottle sedge, growing above pools containing aquatic species such as the insect-catching bladderwort and sundew, duckweed and pond asphohel.
Lackan Bog is also one of the most important dragonfly sites in Ireland, with 13 out of a total Irish fauna of 22 resident here. Their names are like something out of a Seamus Heaney or Micheal Longley poem: the Irish damselfly, the ruddy and black darter, the hairy dragonfly, the common and brown hawker, the four-spotted chaser and the azure,blue-tailed, emerald and large red damselfly. You will be extremely unlucky if you meet one other human being on this mile-long path, which on the sunny July evening I walked it was a tiny glimpse into the nature of heaven on earth. But Northern Irish reality is there to greet you at the end of the walk with a sign proclaiming ‘Without Christ, without hope, lost in Hell’.
12 miles further on, south of Hilltown, is a very un-Northern Irish surprise: Santa Claus’s cottage in the Mourne Mountains! The Kilbroney River Glen is as lovely and remote a glaciated valley as you’ll find in any part of Ireland. When I walked this glen in the summer sunshine two years ago with my friends Eoin Magennis and Gerry Campbell, we came across a man with two full-sized reindeer outside a picture postcard whitewashed cottage. Its owner, Laurence Moore, a retired engineer from Warrenpoint, has devoted many years to converting this remote dwelling under Altataggart Mountain into the official Irish residence of Santa Claus.
According to Moore, it has been recognised as such by an organisation called the ‘Greenland Denmark World Congress of Santas.’ It is open for just over a month before Christmas every year and for that month many thousands of people visit it, making a major tourist attraction in the area. I’m not sure I could handle the kitsch of a garishly lit Santa’s Cottage, complete with a pneumatic Santa, elves, grottoes and piped music in the heart of the Mournes in November and December, but in July it is a place of extraordinary beauty and peace. And at Christmas time it must be a fantasy come true for small children.
My fourth beautiful place is just across the border – but only just. On the banks of the Forkhill River, which marks the Armagh-Louth border, is the idyllic spot that is Urney graveyard, where the poet Peadar O Doirnín is buried. This spot, with its ancient graves surrounded by cypress trees and barley fields, is another peaceful haven unknown to the hordes who speed in their metal boxes up and down the M1 motorway a few miles to the east.
Peadar O Doirnín, poet and teacher, was probably born close to here in around 1700 and died in 1769. He was best known for his love poems, notably Úrchnoc Chéin mhic Cáinte (The Green Hill of Cian son of Cáinte) and Uillegán Dubh Ó (Dark Beautiful Maiden O), which were written to be sung. He was also a member of the famous band of Jacobite rapparees (or outlaws) led by Seamus McMurphy (Seamus Mór Mac Murchaidh) in the 1740s. McMurphy was eventually hung in Armagh city after being betrayed to the British authorities by a woman, and is buried in the historic Church of Ireland graveyard in nearby Creggan along with the descendants of the O’Neill chieftains.
Urney graveyard wasn’t always a place of tranquillity. For more than 30 years its border location meant that it was overlooked by a British Army watch tower. As I walked along the Forkill River I had passed a derilect farmhouse, plumb on the border, complete with abandoned crockery, gas canisters and bags of animal feed – it was easy to imagine an IRA active service unit holing up here for an attack on a passing army patrol.
My fifth place of interest is a cafe, one of Dundalk’s best kept secrets. On the town’s northern outskirts is Strandfield, a hidden gem which is by far the best place to stop for lunch, coffee or tea if you are driving between Belfast and Dublin. And I mean hidden. You take the turn-off to Carlingford from the M1, and 50 yards down that road on the right-hand side is an almost invisible sign. You drive down an undistinguished avenue into a farmyard. And there on your left is a garden centre in what looks like a large barn. Inside is Dundalk’s answer to Avoca, a large cafe cum florist cum eclectic goods shop offering tasty vegetarian cuisine, health foods and bakery products, teas and coffees and cakes and gifts of all shapes and sizes, all served by a friendly young staff from half a dozen countries.
I am running out of space so I will leave the final five beautiful and interesting places between Dundalk and Dublin until a column later this summer, starting with the magnificent and unjustly unknown Roche Castle to the west of the town.
ENDNOTE 1: I can’t finish without adding my two ‘ha’pence’ worth of comment on the overwhelming and historic majority in the 25 May referendum which changed the Irish Constitution so that women with difficult and dangerous pregnancies can for the first time obtain a safe and legal abortion in this country (they still can’t in Northern Ireland).
This was an utterly transformative event for contemporary Irish society, for so long stuck in the straitjacket of a profoundly conservative, male-dominated alliance between the Irish state and the Catholic Church. I will limit myself to reporting three comments of people I have great respect for. The first was from the eminent journalist and commentator Olivia O’Leary, who remembered with barely-concealed emotion that at the time of the 1983 referendum, which put the anti-abortion clause into the Constitution, her daughter was four months old. She said when the result came through this time she “suddenly felt that I was a citizen of this country, and so did my daughter. Suddenly women’s lives matter, you don’t have to be at death’s door before they matter. …You have to be a woman to know how that feels – that new sense of the freedom, recognition and visibility of women”.
The second was from my former colleague on the 1992-1993 Opsahl Commission, Paul Burgess, now a university lecturer in Cork. He wrote on the day of the result: “I have lived in the Republic for 25 years now, arriving here with all the uncertainties and pre-conceptions of someone from a Belfast working class, loyalist background . May I say today that I am proud of my Irish citizenship, as the liberalisation and modernisation of this state continues unabated (sadly, shaming my beloved homeland in comparison).”
As someone who, like Burgess, is from a Northern Protestant background, I believe Ireland is now one of the most liberal and open-minded countries in Europe: with a liberal abortion regime and same sex marriage passed by large majorities in referenda; over 90% of people polled saying they want to remain part of the European Union; a gay, half-Indian prime minister; and, despite the huge and recent increase of foreign-born people in the country (11.6% of the population in 2016), not the remotest sign of the emergence of any kind of right wing, anti-immigration party. Irish democracy has showed itself to be a strong, vibrant plant at a time when (in Fintan O’Toole’s words) “a wave of reactionary identity politics is washing over the democratic world.” O’Toole continues: “This is what patriotism really looks like: not flag-waving xenophobia but a real belief in the possibilities of a better Ireland.”¹
When I was young and naive I believed that the liberalisation of Irish society in such ways would bring the political unity of the island closer. The late Garret Fitzgerald once felt the same. In my mature years I am more realistic: my native North is not interested in liberalism, it is paralysed by reaction.
ENDNOTE 2: In early July I will once again be going on my annual cross-border summer walkabout, and trying to raise money for BCM (formerly Belfast Central Mission), who work with homeless and other vulnerable young people in Northern Ireland. This year I will be undertaking a ‘pilgrimage’ from Armagh to Croagh Patrick, walking through Monaghan, Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo across hills and along back lanes and abandoned railway lines. If anybody in the North or Britain would like to sponsor me, please see my funding page on https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andypollak1 . I will be coming to friends in the South with another walking appeal later in the summer!
¹ ‘A campaign won by a generation that had good reason to give up on Ireland’, Irish Times, 28 May