Wednesday, 5 September.
For another day without much of a plan, today ended up with a lot of activity and interest. We had to reach Cavan for our next overnight stop, but we had plenty of time to do it. So we grilled our host over breakfast (pardon the pun!) for more ideas and set off to explore Belfast.
After finding a car park, the next job was to decide what to do. Armed with the info from our host, we sought out the open top bus tour. We were a bit doubtful with the 11 pound cost and our memories of the poor audio of a similar tour in Rome, so we kept looking around. We soon came across a taxi tour that, at eight pounds each was at least a bit cheaper and gave us our own private guide. However, the tour was not a general city tour, but rather a political tour of the "Troubles" that wracked Northern Ireland for decades. It was unclear, at first, if it would be a balanced or biased tour, but that soon became obvious - we were going to be treated to a Republican view of events.
It soon became clear that sectarian tensions are still simmering beneath the surface of the present peace - at least, for the consumption of tourists on this tour. The driver told us that some cabbies - and they are all Catholics in this company - will not drive into Protestant areas, ever. They still fear for their lives.
The first area our driver went to, but did not enter, was Sandy Row. There is a huge mural that declares the "border" and murals were to be the theme of the entire drive. We were taken along the length of the Falls Road and saw police stations with 10 metre fences, a Protestant church that had been converted to a community centre - because the parishioners had been driven out. There is a graveyard that, when it was first developed in the 19th century, had a 3 metre underground wall built to separate the Protestant and Catholic dead and the Catholic part was left unconsecrated. The oppression and violent responses - by both sides - was madness.
Throughout the Falls district, there are dozens of murals that commemorate those that lost their lives on the Republican side and praise those that defended that cause. The evidence and icons of the troubles are everywhere. We saw the "Peace Wall" that separates the Falls and Shankhill districts and drove - albeit briefly - on the Shankill side. While we were stopped there, a building site worker watched us constantly. Although he probably had nothing else to do, it was a bit unnerving! Despite the peace, there seems to be a lack of willingness to let the conflict go. Of course, we only got one point of view and there are several here, including Protestant and pacifist. We offered no views then nor will I here - suffice to say it was a revealing and interesting tour, if somewhat unusual.
We didn't really know how long it would take us to get to Cavan, so we headed off at around 2 pm. Our route took us to Armagh and, as we were well ahead of schedule, we decided to have a quick look around. As we were looking for somewhere to park, we chanced upon St Patrick's Trian, an exhibition that gives a great overview on St Patrick and Armagh, generally. As we didn't have time to explore the city, we made do with the exhibition on St Patrick. This was where our previously mentioned ignorance was somewhat relieved. St Patrick arrived in Ireland on the banks of Strangford Lough and spent his life roaming around the Northern parts of Ireland, on both sides of the then non-existent border. Although St Patrick is revered throughout Ireland, this bit of knowledge explained why we saw the monument in Westport and many other places across the north. But nowhere is more "St Patrick" than Armagh. It is the centre for Catholic and Protestant Christianity in Ireland and there is a St Patrick's cathedral for both persuasions. It was here that St Patrick wrote his "confession", which was later incorporated into the Book of Armagh. It was with some regret that we took our leave of Armagh, as we felt there was so much more we would have liked to see and do.
Anyway, we continued our journey and our return into the Republic of Ireland - at least, we tried. The main road we were following - A3 on the British side, N54 on the Irish side - crosses the border no fewer than five times, thanks mainly to the convoluted border between Co Fermanagh of Northern Ireland and Co Monaghan and Co Cavan on the South, where there are four border crossings in about ten kilometres! We managed to negotiate the changing road numbers and speed limits without too much drama and soon were navigating the back roads of Cavan, looking for our accommodation - the haunted Ross Castle!
We found Ross Castle quite easily, thanks to excellent directions from the manager. It has been very well restored and all the furniture is at least 100 years old. It has the reputation of being Ireland's most haunted castle and we were to be accommodated in the topmost two rooms in the tower. Access to the bedrooms is via a tight spiral staircase, passing through a great sitting room on the first floor. Marie's room, on the second floor, has a fantastic four-poster bed and a long, narrow bathroom set into the very walls of the castle! Our room is on the top floor with great views over the countryside and both rooms are huge. It was very exciting to be there and the place has a great atmosphere.
Before dinner, we took a walk down a country lane to the paddock above the lake. Family members reading this journal will understand when I say it was very much like Bolomore. As it happened, the eldest son of the family was having a birthday and, as we were the only guests for the night, we had our evening meal with them. It was a very pleasant evening but we soon found out we had the castle to ourselves for the night, as the family lived about five kms away! Marie made me go around and check that every door and window was locked, even though we assured her that such temporal barriers would not stop ghosts! Did we survive our night alone in the castle? If this journal has no further entries, you'll have your answer....
Until next time, "slán abhaile" and make sure you lock your doors! Marie, Angela and Ray.