A Series of Unfortunate Crossings (Ireland & Northern Ireland)

My friend Chris has been talking about a visit to Dublin where he could continue his research into the Anglo-Irish painter, Sir William Orpen, for some time and so I suggested the following compromise. If he could come up to me by train, I would drive him from Worcestershire to pick up the ferry at Holyhead and then we would have the car for visiting his various friends and research contacts provided we take a brief detour into the North so that I could make a long overdue visit to the Giant’s Causeway.

As our departure date grew nearer the world watched as Ireland fumbled its way towards a long awaited referendum on Abortion Reform. Religious campaigners from America* journeyed across the Atlantic in an attempt to build up support for the retention of restrictive legislation while Irish women returned home en-mass from all across the world to make their views plain. The result was announced a few days before we set out on our trip and, although I had cautiously predicted 60-40, the final result was closer to 70-30 in favour of the liberalisation that repeal would bring.

It isn’t just that Ireland has been gradually becoming more and more pragmatically “European” in its outlook in recent years, it is the continually unfolding horror of the exposure of widespread sexual abuse by the clergy and the shameless complicity of the state that have precipitated so much change. If the revelations of the domestic slavery endured in the Magdalen Laundries and the trafficking of newborn babies for the American adoption trade were not enough to break the code of silence then there was even more horror to come. The recent discovery of a cache of infant bodies buried in the septic tank of a former convent released a stench of misogynistic hypocrisy so foul that not all the censers (or censors) of the entire Roman Catholic Church could mask it.

This is the background against which we set off for our trip and, since we would be guests in people’s homes, the only way in which to approach the situation was “eyes and ears open, mouth shut”. In truth, there is a great deal to be celebrated in a country where so many people are willing to admit to the injustices emerging from their own recent past despite the fact that many families were split down the middle by the abortion debate. But, however bad some of the current revelations in Ireland may be, there are plenty of other places in the world where sexual cruelty and exploitation continue unchallenged. And, as if to underscore the sensitivity of the situation in which I found myself, the first hospitality we were offered was in the gently decaying mansion of an octogenarian member of the Irish Catholic aristocracy.

If the ecclesiastical slant of the contents of his groaning bookshelves didn’t warn me to keep my focus carefully on art history, then the quotation of a “close doctor friend” who had offered assurance that pregnancy “almost never” really threatened the health of the mother told me that I was facing the type of immeasurable gulf in understanding that could not be bridged over tea and biscuits. Nonetheless, I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to hear a group of women protesters described as “silly shrillies” as, without a shred of irony, our host channelled the anti-suffrage opinions of multiple generations of his patrician ancestors. Actually it is quite a useful message: if you have something important to say on women’s reproductive rights then it might be a good idea not to expose your cause to ridicule by turning up in a pink knitted hat styled to look as much as possible like a uterus.

I would love to launch into a detailed description of the faded grandeur of our surroundings but the rules of polite behaviour dictate that I be careful not to include too much identifying information. The best paintings may have been sold off long ago to keep the plaster from crumbling too obviously down the stairs but the dim interior of the house was still a treasure trove of artists’ memorabilia and glass-fronted cabinets of curiosities. Outside, the winding paths of an overgrown garden that must once have given employment to a small army of staff led down to a set of cliffs overlooking a view of Dublin Bay of quite breathtaking beauty.

At about 3am a loud rap on the bedroom door awoke me to the startled realisation that Chris was trying desperately to get my attention. He had risen for a trip to the bathroom and looked out of the toilet window to see that a grass fire was spreading across the scrubby grazing land of the adjoining property and travelling in our direction. Given the number of winding staircases and the haphazard placing of light switches, it wasn’t particularly easy to locate the other occupants of the house, never mind wake an inebriated handyman slumbering in one of the back bedrooms or determine whether there were additional “unofficial” members of staff on the premises.

Apparently this fire had re-ignited from the smouldering remains of one which the local brigade had attended earlier. Such conflagrations are becoming a regular event here after any prolonged dry spell but by dawn this one was under control without damage to the house or any of the outbuildings and with no more harm to the neighbours’ horses than a hastily organised evacuation in the dark. Before leaving we were treated to a delicious breakfast, served by our host with the type of aplomb that only the most rarefied education can produce in the face of such a narrowly averted disaster. We made our goodbyes and set off for “the Border”, an expression that can still cast a chill over this former British police officer’s spirits even if, in more than thirty years of service, I have never actually got over there in a professional capacity.

I need not have worried; after the town of Dundalk the Irish N1 becomes the Northern Irish A1 without any apparent delineation at all. It took me at least half an hour to notice that the distances were marked in miles rather than kilometres and deduce that I had actually passed into a different country. We travelled directly to a countryside B&B hotel not far from the small town of Bushmills and missed out the larger cities of Belfast and Londonderry altogether so it would be inappropriate for me to comment here on the long and troubled history of Northern Ireland. Much as I might be tempted.

It all felt so much smaller than I’d imagined and the picturesque North Antrim coast has all the smugness of a beautiful landscape recently “discovered” by the international tourist trade. Of course it helps that so much of the TV series Game of Thrones was filmed up here and that the nearby Belfast shipyards have recently learned to capitalise on the Titanic craze**. The Giant’s Causeway was all I hoped and I even managed to come back in the evening for a walk along the famous basaltic cliffs and a look across to the legendary Scottish Isle of Jura in the distance. For hundreds of years Bushmills distillery has laid claim to be even older than its more famous cousin across the water but few would dare to pronounce the product of either one or the other to be superior. Since I have both Scottish and Irish ancestors, I can maintain a tactful neutrality and made a point of stopping by at the distillery shop for a bottle of their special reserve whiskey, personally engraved for my son’s forthcoming wedding.

The little town of Bushmills has an important World War One link for Chris’ research. Not only is it the original site of the clock-tower that was the inspiration for the memorial to the dead of the Ulster 36th Division on the Somme but it was home to one of the bravest heroes of that terrible conflict. Sergeant Robert Quigg was a sturdy chap who had worked on the Macnaghtan estate before the war and it is said that, when he joined up, the lord of the manor took him aside and entrusted him with the safety of his son and heir, the young Lt Sir Henry. At the very height of the fighting, Quigg went out into no-man’s-land no less than seven times in an attempt to rescue the young lord but, although he brought back several other wounded men who would otherwise have perished, poor Sir Henry was nowhere to be found. This exceptional valour may perhaps nowadays be seen as a product of the social mores of the day but, whatever the motivation for his actions, Quigg became one of the very few recipients of the Victoria Cross to live to a ripe old age.

On our journey back to Dublin we stopped off for a visit to the neolithic site of Newgrange, which has undergone a considerable overhaul since we just failed to make it there before closing time on an earlier visit ten years ago. How can a 5,000 year old “passage tomb” possibly have been overhauled, I hear my readers ask? Well, you no longer just drive up and pay at the box in the corner of a field. Nowadays you have to wait at a huge “interpretation centre” for a timed ticket that will take you on a special bus to join a small group for a carefully supervised tour. There are some interesting carvings on the ancient stones and the description of the sunlight penetrating the passage to to the burial chamber at Solstice certainly stirs the imagination but I have to admit to a bit of a sense of relief that I had ticked another World Heritage Site off the list at last.

Chris was able to have a couple more days for his Dublin research while I hung out with the kind ladies we had met a year earlier at Cassel in Northern France and then we headed back to the Dublin Flyer for our trip across the Irish Sea to North Wales. An interesting detour across some winding country roads (which I’d never have managed to traverse without Chris’ trusty satellite navigator) took us to the little village of Llangernyw where we were able to marvel at an ancient yew tree, once thought to be the oldest in the world, situated in a tiny churchyard opposite the village shop and beside the pub.

Such isolated trees are sprinkled all across Wales and pre-date Christianity by thousands of years. The fact that they are so often to be found situated in churchyards indicates, not that they were sacred to early Christians, but that early churches were often built on established Druidic sites. The exact age of this particular tree cannot be accurately determined because it long ago split in two and the dead middle was scooped out to make space for the church water tank but there are other trees in other Welsh villages that have been dated to over 5,000 years. If this means that Llangernyw has come to be superseded in the annals of world famous trees, then the ghosts of this sleepy village can rest easy that it will never attract more than a trickle of dedicated tree-huggers and there will be no need to install a bypass or a MacDonalds any time soon.

(*A strange sect who claim to be as vehemently pro-life as they are anti-gun reform)

(**Only in America could the concept of a film entitled Titanic 2 have so firmly taken hold)

Categories: Europe

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