Posts Tagged With: Armagh

One Day. Six Counties. A Winter Tour through East Ireland

It’s a long drive from West Clare, my base in Ireland, to Carlingford in County Louth.  In fact it is across the country from one coast to the other.  So when you get there you want to maximise the time. Early in February a small festival known as Feile na Tana is organised by renowned fiddler Zoe Conway and she manages to attract some of the finest traditional musicians in the country.   I posted on this festival on my blog a couple of years ago (here) and nothing much has really changed.  Centered on instrument workshops the focus of the festival is on reaching out to the young and to try and restore and invigorate a once strong musical heritage on the edge of Ulster. The other thing I love about coming to Louth, the smallest county in Ireland, is that it and the neighbouring counties of Armagh and Down has unrivaled beauty and such unique landscapes, geology, ancient archaeology and recent history.   I relished the chance to explore this while playing music at the same time.

I was blessed on a number of accounts this time.  The weather was relatively fine (let me translate: ‘it didn’t rain’) and I found a marvelous place to stay through AirBnB.  Eve, another expatriate drawn to leave her life in the US behind and put down roots in Ireland, was the perfect host.  With views toward the Mountains of Mourne and in the shadow of Slieve Foy, I could come and go, I could practice the fiddle or settle down by the fire. And then she was instrumental in convincing me to stay an extra couple of days to experience the coming snow.  Thanks Eve.  I was well rewarded for that decision.

And that’s what I want to talk about in this blog.


Looking from Louth across to the Mountains of Mourne


Slieve Foy near Carlingford


Carlingford nestled at the foot of the Cooley Hills

Coming from the Land of the Midday Sun (I’ve just renewed my Poetic Licence!) I have little experience with snow.  Except that I love it and the spectacular images that may result if the light is right. This lack of experience however led to some interesting learnings about coping with ice and snow on the road

In West Clare when it rains or hails you certainly know about it. The sound of the rain on the slate can be deafening. Here if it snows at night you sleep through the silence. The flakes drift to the ground steadily and quietly building up anywhere where gravity is only mildly resisted.  This is what happened on the Monday night. After an unusually undisturbed night snuggled up with the thoughtfully provided electric blanket (surprisingly unusual in an Irish BnB),  I looked out the window in the morning, with no great expectation, but was dazzled by brilliant blue sky and a sparkling carpet of fresh white powder. And remember I was at sea level.

I had a loose plan. I would take the ferry across the Carlingford Lough to County Down and explore the Mountains of Mourne, which I could see from the window of my second story bedroom.


Looking across the Lough from Greenore towards the Mountains of Mourne


View across the Carlingford Lough to the town of Warrenpoint


Another view across the Carlingford Lough to the town of Warrenpoint

However the best laid plans. The ferry was closed for ‘adverse’ weather conditions. Hardly surprising really with a strong wind now making life difficult and whipping up the waters of the Lough. In Ireland you always have to have a Plan B, so I drove north towards  Slieve Gullion.   Lucky really as in retrospect driving through County Down would have been treacherous.

My vague plan was to revisit some spots on the Ring of Gullion but really I was dictated by which roads were passable.  I had earlier spent a couple of days exploring this stunning area of South Armagh .  A blog on this is on the way.  I was curious to see what this ancient world looked like under a white blanket.  My route took me through Carlingford to Omeath and up to Flagstaff Hill. Mistake. There were stunning views on the way up.   But.


The Cooley Hills between Carlingford and Omeagh


Rock and Ice


View across the Newry River to County Down on the way up to Flagstaff Hill.  The tower house on the River is the Narrows Keep and the site of the most deadly attack in the Troubles, by the Provisional IRA in 1979, which killed 16 British paratroopers.  

My car struggled to deal with the icy hill and only after some hair raising moments did I make it to a relatively ice-less part of the road to pause.  Up ahead the road continued to climb with even more ice and snow.  What did they say about discretion and valour?  So I did an 11 point turn and gingerly pointed the car back down the hill.



Flagstaff Hill is actually in County Armagh.  But are they miles or kilometres?

Having got this far though I decided to walk to the top of the hill.  So glad I did.  I actually didn’t realise that this was Flagstaff Hill which I will talk about in another blog but the snow certainly added another dimension.  Flagstaff Hill is actually in Northern Ireland.    There are no border signs so you don’t actually know.  In fact the only way you know you have passed into another countyr is that the road signs and Google Maps switch to miles.  Honestly I can’t conceive of an hard border here.

The fine white powder transformed the green rolling hills of the elevated Cooley range into an Alpine wonderland. The biting wind and an outside temperature of 1 degree though did nothing to dampen spirits.  I actually didn’t want to leave but I was worried about how the car would handle the trip back down the mountain.


View down Carlingford Lough from Flagstaff Hill


View across to the Mountains of Mourne from Flagstaff Hill in Armagh


Flagstaff Hill

It was nerve wracking I have to say.   Slipping and sliding with shuddering and totally ineffectual brakes I edged back down the hill to Omeath and then on to Slieve Gullion by a more circuitous and less treacherous route.

Naively I had expected to be able to drive to the Summit but luckily the road was closed because I might have been tempted to give it a go.

Thwarted again, I made my way west to a castle I had visited a couple of days earlier (Castle Roche).   Only a light dusting of patchy snow remained at this lower level but this is one of the most imposing ruins in Ireland and the patches of snow added to the mystical quality of the fortification.  I will have more to say about it in my upcoming blog on the Ring of Gullion.


Castle Roche


Fields surrounding the Castle

Suddenly the blue skies weren’t blue anymore and snow showers would sweep across the fields.  Not enough to settle and they were only intermittent but they reminded me how quickly the weather could change.


A dark sky looms over a bucolic winter scene


Moments later snow sweeps in 


By now it was approaching 2 pm and  as I had to be back in Clare I reluctantly headed south.

But my adventure was not over.  Driving down the M1 towards Dublin the snow continued to blanket the cuttings along the motorway. Skirting Dublin on the M50 and then south west on the M7,  I could see plenty of snow in the distance and I just couldn’t bring myself to speed past it.


Snowy hills around Kilteel in Co Kildare


A rural scene in County Kildare

So so I left the Motorway at Rathcoole in County Dublin and headed east, I had never been here and had no idea where I was going. I love that.  The only thing on my mind was to get closer to those white hills.  My confused route took me through the west of  Dublin to Kildare and then crossing into the edge of Wicklow.   If anything the snow was heavier here than further north and there were unrivaled picture postcard views of snowy villages and of winter landscapes revealed around every corner.  The ranges in the distance I later discovered were the Wicklow Hills.


Kilteel, Co Kildare


A snow covered barn in Kilteel, Co Kildare


The charming village of Rathmore, Co Kildare


Great weather for sheep.  Co Wicklow.


Abandoned farm buildings, Co Wicklow


Co Wicklow


Co Wicklow


Co Wicklow


Something was drawing me on but common sense intervened.  As the bright blue sky turned orange with the disappearing sun, and darkness descended, I headed back to the Motorway.  Continuing to Limerick, as if to tease me in the fading light, drifts of snow reflecting in my headlights, continued to tantalise .

A marvelous day and indeed a rare day and I think I took full advantage.  I manged to experience and observe snow-draped winter terrains under largely blue skies across Six Counties – Louth, Down, Armagh, Dublin  Kildare and Wicklow.


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Road Bowls Armagh

During my recent visit to the Armagh Piping Festival I went for a drive through the pretty countryside around Armagh.  As I noted elsewhere it is very “English” and very ordered, in contrast to the wildness of Clare, and the last vestiges of Autumn gave it a colourful tinge that would soon disappear.  About ten kilometres west of Armagh, I was privileged to encounter a game of road bowls (or ‘long bullets’ as it is also known in Armagh). This involves two players who project a steel ball about the size of an orange along a predefined course on public roads with the aim of reaching the finish line in the fewest throws. A brilliant concept when you think about it, except for the obvious hazards.  A crowd of participants (all men) follow the progress. Some of these men seem to have a specific role with one advising the thrower and another standing with his legs apart and arms up in the air to show the best throwing line. Others are charged with finding the ball when it leaves the road and disappears into the long grass with one carrying a 7 iron for this purpose. The end point of the throw (which is where the ball comes to rest, not as you would expect where it leaves the road) is marked with a pile of grass placed on the road and this becomes the next throwing point. There is much barracking and I was told there was significant betting though I saw no evidence of this. The throwing requires a degree of athleticism and great distances are achieved. An athleticism not however displayed in the assembled crowd, except maybe in dodging the speeding cannonball at the last minute – but nevertheless what a great excuse for a Sunday stroll.

All the participants seemed comfortable with the obvious dangers inherent in a crowd of twenty men standing in the middle of a narrow twisting and hilly Irish road. There seemed however to be a tacit understanding between drivers and pedestrians and this was entirely consistent with the great other Irish leisure activities that I have observed all over the country, such as stopping your car in the middle of the road for a conversation oblivious to the waiting traffic or standing in the doorway of a pub to have a cigarette ensuring no one can get in or out, or parking on double yellow lines (which seems to be ok if you put on your hazard lights). Don’t you love it?

One man stopped to tell me that I shouldn’t park where I had as the Guards will book me. I looked again and sure enough there was a tiny No Parking sign in the lane where I had stopped. I was thoroughly bemused that I might get booked for parking miles from anywhere while the law turned a blind eye to the obvious hazard of using a public roadway for a sporting event.

I felt lucky to have witnessed this. An event that I have only seen in documentaries and to have experienced this insight into an activity that dates back to a very different country in the 17th Century. Ireland continues to surprise and enthral me.

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William Kennedy Piping Festival Armagh

The sounds of the Ennis Trad 21 had hardly faded away and I found myself heading to Northern Ireland for the 21st William Kennedy Piping Festival. Piping you say? Well it wasn’t just pipers and I was attracted by the list of performers which included Dezi Donnelly, Mike McGoldrick and Peter Carberry along with a who’s who of piping and the chance to session with a variety of new musicians. And to visit another country.

I arrived just in time on Friday night for what they called a ‘Hooley’. This involved simultaneous concerts at three venues within the same theatre complex. A great idea and a chance to catch at least bits of every act. Highlights for me were the exquisite combination of box and pipes of Peter Carberry and Padraig McGovern, a great set from Tola Custy, Laoise Kelly and Cormac Breatnach with Tiarnan O Duinnchinn guesting and of course Dezi Donnelly, Mike McGoldrick and John Joe Kelly. Electrifying!

The remainder of the weekend involved a fiddle workshop (of course) with Tola Custy who was in great form and then sessions in cafes and pubs and an Uillean Pipe concert in the Cathedral and well, more sessions. The Cathedral was a fantastic venue for the pipe concert, though the night was cold and many of the pipers had trouble with their tuning. This aside two and a half hours of pipes was a little too much for me though there is no doubting the quality of the music.

On Sunday morning I needed a break and took a drive to Dungarvan and the through the Armagh countryside. Much more ‘English’ than Clare with grand homes, very ordered fields and the last vestiges of autumn colours appearing on the nearly bare trees. It was on the way back that I came into contact (nearly literally) with Road Bowls. I will blog on this separately, but it was a great insight into a pastime that I am told is mainly practiced here in Armagh and in Cork.

Back to town for the best sessions of the weekend. At Turner’s I joined the McCusker family, three sisters (Brenda, Marlene and Donna) and brother Paddy playing fiddle, concertina, box and guitar. They are from near Armagh and Brenda told me that there were two other musical siblings in Belfast and Australia! And that between them they have 19 children, most of whom are learning trad instruments. Wow! What a musical dynasty developing here. I am seeing this all over Ireland and it is just tremendous for the future of Irish music. This session was a treat for me and the other visiting musicians which included four pipers (naturally). After this folded I was privileged to join a session in the same pub with Tiarnan O Duinnchinn on pipes and fiddler Danny Diamond among others. This was the icing on the cake for a fabulous afternoon of music but I had to drag myself away for the long drive back to Caherush – getting home at 1 am.

After what started out fairly indifferently for me, turned out to be a fabulous weekend. Now I definitely need a rest!

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