Regular readers of this blog will remember that last month I left you in the excellent Strandfield cafe just north of Dundalk, which was my fifth beautiful and interesting place just off the Belfast to Dublin Road.
This month I am starting six miles north-west of Dundalk at my sixth place of significant interest: the mighty keep of Roche Castle. This is one of the greatest and least-known Norman fortresses of the Pale. It is shamefully neglected: in the words of its main chronicler, local artist, archaeologist and historian Micheál McKeown, “it has been used as a cow byre for the last five and a half centuries.” In any other European country such a magnificent citadel would have been restored and refurbished as a national historic monument. In Ireland it doesn’t even rate a mention on the itineraries for Failte Ireland’s ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ marketing campaign.
I had been intrigued by this huge, well-preserved ruin close to the border for years, ever since I used to take a cross-country short cut on the way home to Dublin from my Armagh workplace to link up with the motorway. This gaunt structure on a rocky promontory was the northernmost limit of the Pale: the armed border which the Normans fortified against the native Irish whose land they had plundered. Barely two miles to the north-west, and across the modern frontier with Northern Ireland, lies Glasdrumman, the stronghold of the O’Neills of the Fews, kinsmen and descendants of the great O’Neill of Tyrone, and, like him, ferocious military leaders and fighters against the English in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Four centuries on some things don’t change. A mile and a half south of Glasdrumman and two miles west of Roche Castle lies Provisional IRA leader Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy’s farm at Ballinaby, neatly divided by the Armagh-Louth border. As the epicentre of IRA operations in South Armagh, this was in its time one of the most watched places in the world (not least from a British Army post on historic Glasdrumman hill). By the 1990s Murphy was judged by MI5 to be the single biggest domestic threat to the United Kingdom and the resources devoted to curtailing his military and smuggling activities were probably greater than those deployed against any single person in recent British and Irish history. For Murphy, a brutal, ruthless man and a brilliant military strategist, was also the inheritor of a centuries-old tradition of anti-British guerrilla warfare in this area.
For all these reasons I was interested in Roche Castle (Caislean Dhún Gall – or Castle of the Foreigners – in Irish). McKeown recounts the story of the castle’s first owner, Rohesia de Verdun, one of the most fascinating and notorious women in Irish history, who, like her castle, as been almost totally erased from its annals. Rois Mhor Ní Ghairbe (‘Big Rough Rose’) was born in Staffordshire around 1200, the grand-daughter of Bertram de Verdun, a powerful and wealthy Norman aristocrat who held high office under both Henry II and Richard I. He had accompanied the former to Ireland as his seneschal (responsible for provisioning the expedition) in 1171 and was given extensive lands in Louth for his trouble.
Rohesia was brought to Ireland at the age of eight. The legend attached to her is that she promised to marry the man who would build her the castle of her dreams. When Roche Castle was completed she took her newly wed husband to a window in the banqueting hall to point out all the land that was now his. As he stood in the window (since called the ‘murder window’), she pushed him to his death. In this way she gained a reputation as a cruel and tyrannical woman. Unfortunately for the legend, it is a drop of a mere 12 feet to the ground from this particular window!
Whatever about the legend, there are several unexplained deaths in Rohesia’s life. Her marriage to her second husband, Nicholas de Bellew, a marriage which did not find favour with the then monarch,’wicked’ King John, ended after he disappeared without trace. In 1225 she married Theobald de Butler, whose first wife had died mysteriously a few months earlier. McKeown thinks there is a distinct possibility that King Henry III, John’s successor, had this marriage annulled or even had de Bellew killed in order to consolidate the vast Irish estates of two great families, the de Bellews and the de Butlers. It is also possible that Rohesia herself had him murdered in order to maintain her standing at court. Whatever about such speculation, it is certain that Rohesia was that very rare example of a Norman woman who was powerful enough in those brutish times to retain her maiden name for herself and her children. At the height of her wealth and power she owned half a million acres in England, Ireland and the Welsh borderlands.
Roche Castle was built in three phases between 1236 and 1270, with a Great Hall measuring 57 by 42 foot protected by an outer barbican and an inner defensive wall (or ‘bawn’). It was as good an example of a finely-furnished and well-fortified Norman castle as one would find anywhere in England, France or Italy. However by 1330 it had been abandoned. McKeown’s view is that it probably succumbed to a small band of Irish guerrillas who caused its demise by sneaking up to its walls at night and lobbing over torches or flaming arrows. It was the “war of the flea” six centuries before that term was invented.
I have written a little too much about this venerable redoubt, so my notes on my final four places of interest off the road to Dublin will have to be brief. Two years ago, when walking from Belfast to Dublin, I followed the Irish Sea coast south of Dundalk, along beaches and back lanes and across fields.
Probably the least known stretch of the whole eastern seaboard is the section between Annagassan and Clogherhead. Yet I doubt if there is a finer view in the country on a clear day than the one from Dunany Point, north of Clogherhead, across Dundalk Bay towards the Cooley and Mourne Mountains. On Dunany Point itself I clambered up into a large meadow and lay under a blue sky of towering cumulus clouds on a carpet of wild flowers: Bird’s Foot Treefoil, Lady’s Bedstraw, Buttercups, Meadowsweet, Willowherb and Vetch (plus a dozen more I couldn’t name). Heavenly peace is lying in a flower-covered field under an Irish summer sky!
14 miles further south, just outside Laytown, I visited Ireland’s national eco-centre, Sonairte. In any other Western European country this would be a ‘state of the art’ facility generously funded by an environmentally conscious state. But not in Ireland. I toured it with a friend, the environmental writer and journalist Paddy Woodworth, and it was clear to both of us that it was suffering badly from under-investment. Yet 30 years ago an idealistic and far-sighted local farmer, Luke van Doorslaer (orginally from Belgium), had, with enormous public spirit, donated his own farm as a place for the public to learn about the vital topic of how best to manage and preserve our precious earth.
As Paddy said: “If we were serious for a minute about Ireland’s green agriculture, it’s to places like this we should be turning, headed by serious ecological farmers like Luke and his gardener colleague Paddy Ryan. I had an interesting conversation with Luke in which he was very honest. Sonairte is open since 1988, yet he is saying ‘We are failing to get people to engage with us, to give us their time to come and help with the work here. Everybody who comes here says it’s wonderful, but that’s where it stops’. I’ve been in eco-centres like this before, where there’s a sense that the place has had a heyday. The bee exhibition was nice but it needs to be refurbished with things like touch-screen technology. There’s a wonderful organic vegetable garden which should be supplying more restaurants in the region.” He hoped that a new generation of younger people, personified by Nicola Winters, a young teacher, ecologist and human rights activist who was also with us at Sonairte, might work to revive this hugely innovative centre.
There are two final, very different stops before my journey’s end. In the grounds of that north Dublin landmark, the sprawling old St Ita’s mental hospital in Portrane, lies possibly the most picturesque soccer ground in the country (I am a lifelong soccer fan, and a travelling supporter with the Republic of Ireland team for much of the past 30 years). Perched above cliffs and ringed by fir trees, with the most spectacular views across to Howth Head, the Sugar Loaf and the Wicklow Mountains, this is the home of St Ita’s AFC. If anybody wants to visit this gorgeous spot, look at the team’s website for a match date, walk along Donabate strand, and tell the tough-looking Eastern European security guards on the hospital’s back gate you are going to watch a bit of soccer – football fans all, they will certainly let you through.
And so, finally, to one of my favourite pubs in Dublin, Cleary’s of Amiens Street (my 10th interesting place on the road from Belfast to Dublin). Appropriately, given that I had done the journey entirely on foot two years ago and was literally gasping for a pint, this is situated under the railway bridge just opposite Connolly Station, once the headquarters of the Great Northern Railway. Apart from the Long Hall in South Great George’s Street (which is far better known), this old railwaymen’s pub is arguably the most handsome Victorian era bar in Dublin, with its cosy, wood-panelled snugs which are perfect for a private conversation. Michael Collins used to come here for very private conversations during the War of Independence (there is a wealth of photos from that period on the walls). If you’re nice to the publican, Des Hanlon, he might even show you the upstairs room – preserved as it was in 1919-1921 – where Collins used to hold secret Irish Volunteer meetings.
So that’s it for now: 10 fascinating glimpses of Irish landscape and history, from the Bronze Age to the War of Independence, spread out along the road between our two major cities. Try a visit to one or two of them this summer.