Strandhill, Connaught, Ireland, May 10, 2013
We set off west from Lisburn on Friday, heading down the M1, past what used to be the Maze Prison and round the foot of Lough Neagh, although there were no views of the lough. There are no services on the motorway,
so come coffee time we followed one of the off motorway signs for services which took us to a filling station, a motel, an off licence, a Spa, but no coffee shop. There was the usual burger/coffee van in a lay-by but no room to pull in, so we had to
u-turn and half an hour later found a quiet lay-by where we could pull off and brew our own.
We crossed the border into the Republic without realising we had done. It is a far cry now from last time we went south, when the border was full of armed soldiers and snipers' nests. Gradually the flat farmland gave way to hills and mountains, and we had a very pretty run down Glen Car to Sligo.
West of Sligo is the odd little resort of Strandhill, on the wild Atlantic coast, and here was our first stop. The campsite was right on the beach, but the owner advised us to park back from the seafront behind one of the artificial dunes he had built to shelter campers from the wind. And, yes, it was windy. The beach itself was reached by a steep rocky drop with signs warning of the undercurrents and riptides and advising against swimming or even paddling. There were plenty of surfers out enjoying the waves though, and when we walked into the village we found several surf shops and surfing schools. There were also a couple of pubs, a couple of cafes and a seawater/seaweed health Spa. The thought of being rubbed down with damp seaweed did not appeal, but apparently it is very popular.
The camp site is dominated inland by Knocknarea, a 1,000 ft hill with a huge cairn on top, 200 yards round, probably containing a prehistoric passage grave which has not yet been found. Legend has it that it contains the grave of Queen Maeve (Queen Mab in English), the 1st century Queen of Connaught, although this is unlikely as it has been proved to pre-date her by several thousand years. To the north east rises the massive 1,700ft of Benbulben, the mountain much loved by the poet W.B.Yeats and his artist brother J.B. To the West is the Atlantic, with the wind and waves blowing non stop from Newfoundland and Labrador. That first afternoon we were fortunate in that the sky was clear, the wind was not too strong and it was quite warm, so we had good views of the mountains, which we were not to see again, because later the rain came and the Atlantic mists rolled in. By late afternoon Knocknarea was covered in black cloud and peals of thunder were rolling round the skies. Queen Maeve was obviously upset about something. Fortunately it remained clear over the campsite long enough for us to be able to sit on the dunes watching a glorious sunset.
Saturday dawned damp, misty and raining. We were not to be deterred though, as one expects it to rain in the Emerald Isle. We set off to visit Yeats’ grave in the little village of Drumcliff, where his great-grandfather had been rector, and where he and his brother had spent many childhood holidays. The village, the Benbulben mountain and of course nearby Lough Gill had a huge influence on Yeats’ poetry. Interestingly the house where they stayed, Lissadell House, 9 miles from Drumcliff, was the ancestral home of the Gore-Booth family, one of whom, Lady Constance Markievicz (she had married a Polish Count) was the first female ever to be elected to the House of Commons at Westminster. In common with other Sinn Fein members, she never took up her seat.
Yeats’ grave is in a lovely little churchyard, inscribed with his own epitaph, "Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by". The church, St Columba, is probably 18th century, and was built on the site of a monastery founded by St Columba in 575, of which all that remains is an old high cross and a round tower which was struck by lightning in 1396. The church itself reminded me of the old church in Boston, Massachusetts, with its second floor gallery. Next to the churchyard is the inevitable gift shop and coffee shop, where, of course, we had coffee and an excellent cake, and we bought a volume of Yeats’ poetry and an English-Gaelic dictionary which proved invaluable later in the trip.
We then drove into Sligo town and had a wander round its old streets and riverbank. A busy commercial centre now, Sligo has a long history, having been occupied by Vikings, Normans and Cromwellians. It was the last city to surrender after the Battle of the Boyne and in 1798 assisted in one of the several failed French invasions of Ireland We found it a pleasant, colourful city, albeit very old fashioned. Then it was a quick visit to Tesco and back to the campsite.
Because the weather was not good, and this area needs the weather, and because the forecast further south was better, we decided to move on on Sunday. But first we had to visit the megalithic cemetery of Carrowmore, on the eastern flanks of Knocknarea. This is the largest Stone Age cemetery in Ireland, consisting of at least 60 dolmens and small stone circles in varying stages of collapse, clustered around a large central passage grave which has been largely reconstructed.
Many of the tombs are hidden under the grassland, but 30 or more are clearly visible. Those that have been excavated properly have revealed human ashes and various grave goods, and radiocarbon dating of the ashes shows that the tombs were used and re-used for over 1,000 years, between 4,000 and 3,000BC. It was a mysterious place, with a very calming feel to it. The rain had stopped and the sun was fighting its way through the mist and we were so captivated it was not until we got back to the car that we realised how wet our feet were.
But then it was time to return to the caravan, pack up and move on.