History in all its contrasts

Fri, Jul 20, 2012, 01:00

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.

I crossed into north Leitrim on my way to the village of Belcoo. Until this point I had seen constant evidence of draining, strimming and burning. But here in north Leitrim, nature has gained the upper hand. The landscape is lovely, despite the skeletal remains of the houses of those who were forced to give it up. The evening sun lit up canopies of ash and rowan above my head as I walked up the long boreen to the 1916 Easter Rising leader Seán McDermott’s house below Thur mountain.

Day nine, July 17th

Belcoo to Swanlinbar via Cuilcagh mountain

Leaving Belcoo, I re-crossed the border to Blacklion in Co Cavan. The sheer topography of this region inspires storytelling. Approached from the west, the truncated summit of Cuilcagh looks like a table made for giants, with a bridge through Lough Macnean at Belcoo. Even the names have a sense of a sense of drama about them; Béal Cú (the mouth of the hound) and Giant’s Leap at the foot at the Cuilcaghs.

This morning, a white mist formed a low, heavy ceiling over the mountains’ limestone cliffs and thick, green gullies. I pushed on to Cuilcagh itself, the highest point on the Border, joining the “Cuilcagh way” path. I picked my way up over the blanket bog for two miles or so.

Half-way to the summit, I saw a wall of dark cloud about to envelop the mountain. After half of an hour of being trounced by wind and rain, I found shelter under what I presumed was the summit of Cuilcagh, an eerie shadow I could half-glimpse through lapses in the mist.

On my sodden map I read warnings of “suck and swallow holes”, features that I hoped not to visit. The turf beneath my feet was drowning in rivulets.

I eventually splashed my way to the summit of Cuilcagh, where the Border bisected the mountain-top.

I joined the Ulster Way track and passed through limestone hills, sentried by an occasional hawthorn tree. The appearance of grand oak trees upon my descent from Cuilcagh announced the beginning of the Earl of Enniskillen’s demesne at Florencecourt and the approach to my bed at Swanlinbar.

Day 10, July 18th

Swanlinbar to Belturbet

During the 18th and 19th centuries Swanlinbar was a major spa resort.

The limestone-permeated waters of the nearby mountains brought people from all over Ireland, Britain and even Europe to sit in “sweat-houses” and drink from its wells in search of treatment for various ailments.

But other locations became more fashionable, the visitors stopped coming and Swanlinbar lapsed into decline.

Slieve Rushden is the former demesne of Seán Quinn, not long ago Ireland’s richest man. As I climbed its slopes a helicopter hovered overhead for some moments, making me feel very conspicuous. Asking myself if the aircraft was related to the Quinn group or the Border, I decided on the latter and kept going.

At the top of Slieve Rushden I was rewarded with a wonderful view of Cavan and Fermanagh’s many lakes, woods and hills. I also took in the scale of the Quinn group’s influence on this region. I could see gravel quarries, cement factories and warehouses that seemed to dwarf the nearby towns of Derrylin and Ballyconnell.

I stopped to watch two hawks hunting in one of the now-deserted quarries nearby, using the crosswinds to rush upward or descend to prey at lightning speed.

I meandered my way around the lakes until I reached my hotel in Belturbet.