Earlier this month I spent a week walking along back roads and across hills through a relatively unknown part of the rural north and west of Ireland. I started at the village of Tynan, west of Armagh city; walked across north Monaghan and the Upper Lough Erne lakeland district in Fermanagh; into west Cavan and down through Leitrim to Carrick on Shannon; and then westwards as far as the village of Coolaney under the Ox Mountains in Sligo. I had intended to continue across Mayo to Ballintubber Abbey and Croagh Patrick, but because of an injury (not serious) was forced to stop there. I will return to complete the walk later in the summer.
What struck me again and again during this walk was how lovely so many Irish villages looked in the brilliant summer sunshine. This is not a fashionable or wealthy part of the country; the opposite, in fact. But is it clear from the ‘Pride of Place’ signs (the all-island competition run by Cooperation Ireland), flower bedecked modern houses, manicured gardens, neat streets and squares and ubiquitous public notice-boards explaining the history and natural environments of even the tiniest of places, that their inhabitants are genuinely proud of their small communities. It is a very far cry from the picturesque scruffiness, miserable housing and widespread rural poverty that I first witnessed when cycling around Ireland as a teenager in the mid-1960s. For me, this is a sign of a genuinely successful country: when ordinary people in humble places traditionally neglected by the metropolis are clearly living in comfort and prosperity.
I am going to take four examples from my walk: Tydavnet in north Monaghan, Bawnboy in west Cavan, Leitrim village and Coolaney in west Sligo. Three of these villages are genuinely off the beaten track. Walking along back roads between Glaslough (an outstandingly pretty heritage village just south of the border) and Tydavnet, I immediately noted how smart the farmhouses and bungalows were, with their white-painted walls, perfectly tended gardens, children’s swings and bouncing castles. One may not particularly like the derivative building styles: mock-Georgian, mock-traditional farmhouse, mock-Irish cottage. One may not approve of less than well-planned ribbon development or numerous battery henhouses. But knowing the history of this poor, marginalised, and occasionally violent wedge of the Republic sticking up into Northern Ireland, it gladdened my heart to see it looking so peaceful and prosperous on a gorgeous summer afternoon.
Tydavnet itself is a tiny place, but archaeologically and religiously significant. It was the location of the famous Tydavnet Gold Discs, now in the National Museum, which are the largest and most sophisticated Bronze Age gold artefacts ever found in Ireland. It is named after St Dympna, a seventh century saint who was said to have stopped in the village while fleeing to Belgium to escape the attentions of her incestuous father (who would eventually follow and murder her). She is known as the patron saint of the mentally ill and her shrine at Geel in Belgium (with which Tydavnet is twinned) is a place of international pilgrimage – Geel first adopted a community-based model of caring for psychiatric patients as long ago as the 13th century.
Today Tydavnet’s little main street is as neat as a new pin, with its church, two pubs, guest house and public wildlife garden. It has refurbished a derilect former national school as a centre for ceili dancing and storytelling, and has clubs for GAA, soccer, tug of war, cycling and rambling. My host in Tydavnet was Breege Lenihan of the County Monaghan Community Network, who has worked tirelessly over the years to build cross-border and cross-community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Monaghan and Armagh.
Further west I walked out of Fermanagh across Slieve Rushen, with its concentration of windmills, and down into Bawnboy in Cavan. This is another very small place. Here I stayed in the charming, spotless Keepers Arms pub and guest house, a 165 year old bar which has been turned into a wonderfully cosy village hotel. The village itself boasts a handsome GAA complex, completed in 2005, where I watched the senior team train in the luminous evening. It is in outwardly insignificant places like these, not obviously heartlands of Gaelic sporting excellence, where the GAA’s generous investment is most admirable.
Beside the GAA ground is a relic of a grimmer past, the old Bawnboy Workhouse, looking remarkably unchanged (as least from the outside) from its Victorian beginnings. A mile out the road is the Jampa Ling Buddhist Centre, presided over by Panchen Ötrul Rimpoche, a close associate of the Dalai Lama, who sent him from India to the West to spread the teachings of the Buddha. The Irish countryside is full of surprises.
Leitrim village is an altogether livelier and more cosmopolitan place. It is blessed by its location at the point where the River Shannon meets the Shannon-Erne waterway, with the result that it is a major hub for summer boat traffic. It also benefits from being close to the boom town of Carrick on Shannon, with weekend hen and stag parties, and many other visitors, spilling over into its hotel, restaurants, bars and campsites. Its modern housing estates and apartment complexes were bright and clean and fully occupied when I walked through. The waterside campsite beside Beirnes pub restaurant at Battlebridge (complete with pods and tree houses) looked particularly idyllic in the bright sunshine, as families barbecued and children splashed in the river. I met a developer who has ambitious plans to develop walking tourism in the largely unknown Sliabh an Iarainn to the north of here.
However probably my favourite village of the walk was Coolaney in west Sligo. Who in Dublin or Belfast has even heard of this small place under the Ox Mountains? Yet seven miles before the village, outside Collooney, I ran into no fewer than a thousand people completing the ‘Sligo Camino’, a cross-county walk from Dromahair, 22 miles away on the Leitrim border, now in its fifth year. This major logistical exercise was being run entirely by volunteers from community groups in Coolaney. There were marshals slowing down the traffic, drink stalls outside back lane bungalows, and a full meal provided at the finish by Sligo’s only community-run café.
Coolaney is a harmonious combination of the old and new. Its traditional main street is tree-lined and whitewashed, but its new estates – not a ghost estate anywhere – speak of the relative proximity of the bustling regional centre and employment hub that is Sligo town. Across the border the flags flying from the lamp-posts would have been those of the historically warring Northern Irish tribes. Here, in this outstanding example of an outward-looking ‘new Irish’ village, they were of the 32 nations competing in soccer’s World Cup finals. Among the people serving meals to the Sligo Camino walkers as they arrived were children with beautiful Indian and Filipino faces. Leaflets were being handed out advertising an ‘international morning’ at the tiniest of tiny neighbouring places – the hamlet of Beltra – with a Russian folk group, Spanish tapas, Surinam snacks and ‘world food from the global kitchen’. As an Irishman with plenty of foreign blood in my veins, it made me feel right at home.
These villages may have looked deceptively alluring in the marvellous summer weather, but I couldn’t help thinking that their glowing well-being and extraordinary community spirit meant we are doing something right in rural Ireland.
I must be careful not be be a complete Pollyanna. A priest friend who I had dinner with in Coolaney warned me that neighbouring Roscommon towns like Boyle and Ballaghaderreen were full of boarded-up shops, and during a drive through East Mayo a few days later I spotted several still empty and derilect estates. But where there are towns that are doing well – like Carrick on Shannon, Sligo and Ballyconnell in Cavan (where Sean Quinn’s astonishing former empire of cement plants, hotels, building supplies and insurance firms still appears to be largely intact) – once remote and disadvantaged villages in their vicinity are thriving.
My final thought – as so often in these blogs – goes back to Northern Ireland, where I started my walk. Why would anybody in their right mind want to disrupt this green and pleasant republic by forcibly trying to unite it with the deeply fractious and economically parasitical North? The violence in Belfast and Derry during my walk through the peaceful countryside was only the latest reminder of this.
PS I am still accepting donations in support of my Armagh to Sligo walk to the Belfast charity BCM for their work with young homeless people in Northern Ireland at https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andypollak1. Many thanks to those who have already donated.