History in all its contrasts
WALKING THE BORDER:The second leg of EDWARD BURKE’s journey walking the Border brought inclement weather, illustrations of our complicated history, and some ‘suck and swallow’ holes
Day six, July 13th
Castlederg to Pettigo
I left Castlederg on a sunny morning. Today was the second anniversary of the death of Lt Neal Turkington in Afghanistan. In his memory, his family established a project to build schools in Nepal, and it is in aid of this that I am walking the Border. Neal’s father, Ivor, had told me about the great satisfaction the family had gained from seeing the school project progress during a recent visit to Nepal. But this would be a very long day for the Turkington family.
Pushing on over the Border I arrived at Meenreagh, a corner of Co Donegal that juts into Tyrone.
There I met James Gallen, a 65-year-old sheep farmer with a bad hip. His door was open, as was the custom. I asked for water but he insisted on giving me tea and cake. Gallen respects walking. He followed sheep as far as the Barnesmore Gap as a younger man and found one ewe after more than a year. He knows every inch of the Border in these parts.
Gallen pointed out the way to Killeter Forest, where the closeness of the pines stills the wind and sucks sounds out of the air. After five miles of solitary walking I was confronted by the jolting appearance of the basilica on Station Island in Lough Derg. Having long outgrown its tiny island, the church seemed to be afloat on the lough.
I thought of the story of the 18th-century blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan who, alighting from a pilgrims’ boat, recognised the lost love of his youth by the touch of the same, now older woman who helped him ashore.
My feet were sore enough; the purgatorial pilgrimage could wait awhile. I lumbered on to Pettigo.
Day seven, July 14th
Pettigo to Belleek
Pettigo is a microcosm of 20th-century Ireland in all its complicated diversity. It is a tiny village with four churches (Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist), three war memorials (Crimea, the first World War and the War of Independence), two names (in the north it is Tullyhommon) and one Border that runs straight through it. Many of the buildings are dilapidated and the population is declining.
But Pettigo, like a dowager striving to maintain standards, somehow retains its charm and elegance. You can now cross its bridge to the North, marvel at the survival of the Crimean War tree through subsequent conflicts, and sip a frothy latte while listening to the Gypsy Kings in the modestly named Cowshed cafe.
Walking on towards Lower Lough Erne, I met a local man called Dermot cutting a hedge. He pointed me in the direction of Belleek. Dermot had not worked in almost a year – he was just helping out a friend “to pass the time”. He asked me what I was doing. I said I had a walking problem.
Dermot said he had a “strimming problem”. He loves his strimmer and, with a toothy grin, he went back to laying waste to the nearest piece of shrubbery to prove it.
Day eight, July 15th
Belleek to Belcoo
Leaving Belleek, I found myself leaping for sanctuary in a clump of nettles only to receive an angry blare of a horn and the back of a middle index finger from the latest member of the “four wheels good, two legs dead” Fermanagh fraternity. But at least it was dry.