Discovering Persia on a walk to Portadown
WALKING THE BORDER: On the latest stage of EDWARD BURKE’s walk along the Border, he visits the country-and-western capital of Ireland, and our finest Georgian city
Day 11, July 19th
Belturbet to Clones
I arrive into the Clones central “Diamond” after an easy, dry morning’s walk from Belturbet. Of all the towns in the south affected by the Border, Clones is perhaps its greatest victim.
The Border cut Clones off from its Fermanagh hinterland and 30 years of the Troubles sucked the commerce and energy out of the town. But people are trying hard to turn the tide: cleaning its buildings, promoting its hand-made lace, and hoping that the Monaghan part of the Ulster Canal will be re-opened.
The latter was a promise of former taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Clones is endearingly resistant to trends – it is still the proud capital of Irish country and western music although some admit that the best dancehall is Blacklion’s “ballroom of romance”.
I think Clones must be the last town in Ireland to cling to Bertie’s word. But the kindness and resilience of its people make me hope they are right.
Day 12, July 12th
Clones to Aughnacloy
Walking out of Clones on a sunny morning, I cross into Fermanagh to the village of Roslea in time for a big local wedding. Feeling a bit under-dressed, I push on to Knocknatallon across the Border in Monaghan. There I stop at the shop of John McIlhone. He tells me the Border has damaged relations between neighbours. An unwillingness to go through lengthy searches or questioning at checkpoints meant that people turned to living behind their respective lines. The soldiers were often young and nervous. Communities are now slowly trying to rebuild ties that were lost in those days.
Despite the lack of a town or a large village in this part of Monaghan, its people cannot be accused of lacking industry. Farmers here have to work for their land; much of it has been reclaimed. A brief dry spell prompts a burst of activity. I pass people out baling, fertilising, painting and fencing. Even the younger children have left their trampolines to help their parents out in the fields.
Day 13, July 22nd
Aughnacloy to Armagh city
This morning I leave the line of the Border for the first time in almost two weeks. I am on my way to Portadown to meet the Turkington family, whose son Neal died while serving in the Gurkha Regiment of the British army in Afghanistan in 2010. They founded the Neal Turkington Nepal Project to continue his previous NGO work in Nepal by building schools there, and it is for this organisation that I am walking the Border.
Leaving Aughnacloy, I come upon the site of the battle of Benburb, where in 1646 Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill won a victory over a combined Scottish and Irish Protestant force in a lengthy and complex civil war. Another battle is commemorated a few yards away – a small Orange lodge celebrates the Battle of the Boyne.
The story of Benburb does not endure. Five years of sectarian conflict saw Ulster reduced to what O’Neill described as “not only a desert, but like hell”. I watch what I think are sparrowhawks swoop and circle the freshly cut fields.
Around the next bend is the valley of Benburb itself, a deep gorge cut by the Blackwater river. The sides of the valley are covered by a thick sweep of beech, sycamore and other trees.
I stop at a local pub to watch the Ulster Gaelic football championship final. Munching on my lunch and making small talk, I am taken aback to be asked if I enjoy throwing bowls. I finally twig that, being close to Armagh, the patrons of the pub are talking about what in Cork we call “bowling”, pronounced “bowel”, the throwing of a heavy iron and steel ball down country roads, with a lot of money changing hands over who can reach a point with the shortest number of throws. It is played primarily in Cork and Armagh.