Enniskillen and Armagh

Sunday 2nd August 2009, Dungannon, County Fermanagh
This morning we were joined at breakfast by a very groggy Sun. He'd finally struggled out of bed, pale faced and wan. His face lit up a little as he turned to page 3 of the newspaper (the Sun of course), but he didn't stay with us for long, quite unable to cope with the boisterous behaviour of Rain, as he rushed in to join us. He'd returned to bed even before we were ready to leave the campsite.

There was some sort of annual fete in the town of Enniskillen yesterday. The weather was so awful only 2% of last year's supporters turned up! How soul-destroying for everyone concerned.

This morning, on our way into Enniskillen we turned off down a tiny road leading to a small jetty on Lower Lake Erne. From here it would have been possible to take a boat across to Devenish Island, one of the major of the 90 plus islands in the lake. Had we gone we'd have been stuck there for several hours without shelter and we'd have been sure to have been kept company by the rain. Instead we took a stroll along the lakeside from where we could see the remains of a monastery on Devenish Island along with one of the minaret-like towers dating from the 11th century that are so common in Ireland.

Devenish Island with the monastery founded by St.Molaise in the sixth century, Lough Erne

Lough Erne

Trying to keep their feet dry, Lough Erne

We continued into Enniskillen where, it being Sunday, we parked easily in the High Street. The entire population of the town was flooding into the three main churches on the high street. Both the Methodist one and the Roman Catholic one were packed to the gunnels, overflowing out onto the street! The Church of Ireland cathedral had already celebrated its service and the congregation were heading off towards the pubs.

Enniskillen is a pleasant little town that sits on an island in the river linking the upper and lower Erne lakes. The High Street comes to life around lunchtime on Sundays when all the shops open and seemingly the whole town takes to the streets. Enniskillen achieved notoriety when, one November Sunday morning back in 1987, the IRA detonated a bomb amongst the crowd gathered at the war memorial for the Remembrance Day service, killing eleven and injuring more than sixty. Tragically there are so many towns in Northern Ireland that have suffered similar terrorist attacks. Standing out in everybody's memories are the words of the Irish senator, Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter Marie that day – "I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her, but I bear no ill will, I bear no grudge." His example did much to forward the cause of power sharing and steps towards reconciliation.

Down beside the river stand the remains of the castle, home of the powerful Maguire family, overlords of the region in medieval times. Both it, and the Buttermarket which is now used as a craft centre, were closed. We did though, climb up into the pleasant but saturated park overlooking the High street. Here there is a tall column topped with a statue of General Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, veteran of the Peninsular War and comrade in arms of Wellington, a member of the planter family responsible for establishing the town back in the early 17th century. There is also a delightful wrought-iron bandstand, so at least sometimes the sun must shine and people gather on the grass to listen to concerts. We tried to find Portora Royal School where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Becket were pupils, but ended up in the convent school of Our Lady of Lourdes where we were reprimanded for trespassing by a nun holding her rosary.

Enniskillen Castle, home of the Maguire family

Main Street with cathedral, Enniskillen

Bandstand and monument to General Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, Forthill Park, Enniskillen

Back in the town we discovered Wetherspoons pub and took shelter from the rain over a Sunday roast. The effects of that together with Guinness in the middle of the day left Ian so sleepy he climbed into Modestine and went to sleep for half an hour while I joined the crowds for a bit of shopping therapy.

This afternoon we've headed back towards the east, to Dungannon, built on the top of a steep hillside. From the castle on the summit there are wide views of the countryside. We are back near the shores of Lough Neagh again. It stretches away in the distance, a great inland sea. Dungannon was the stronghold of the O'Neill clan. They fought the English during Elizabethan times but were forced to flee. Attempting to get to Spain their ship was blown off course and they somehow ended up in Rome, never to return to Dungannon castle again. All that remains of the series of castles that crowned the hill are a couple of ivy-clad towers from a 19th-century mock gothic building.

View toward Lough Neagh from the castle hill, Dungannon

Remains of the castle, Dungannon

There is little pleasure in exploring the towns of Northern Ireland on a Sunday evening. The only places open are the bars and to judge by the fight going on at the entrance to one we passed in Dungannon, they are pretty tough places. Dungannon has a wide central street but the shops around the square and the surrounding streets are all hidden behind strong metal shutters. Perhaps part of the legacy of fear bequeathed by the years of threats from the terrorist factions of the IRA, or perhaps there's just a lot of violence and drinking in Northern Ireland.

Some people go to extreme lengths to secure their properties, Dungannon

Monday 3rd August 2009, Gosford Forest Park near Armagh
This morning we were up and away from the campsite before anyone else was astir and by 9am we'd parked Modestine near the Catholic cathedral and were searching the streets of Armagh for somewhere for a cooked Ulster breakfast as a special treat on a wet blustery day. For £2.50 each we were presented with sausage, egg, bacon, fried soda bread, a potato farl and toast. Let it rain, who cares! It may be unhealthy but it set us up for the rest of the day until around 5pm we succumbed to sharing a bag of chips smothered in vinegar as we steamed off the wet in Modestine.

Armagh is considered the religious capital of Northern Ireland. It has two cathedrals, one Protestant, the other Catholic and both dedicated to St. Patrick, reflecting the long split between the two denominations. Nowadays the Protestant one has lost its spire but in the past there was a local joke that the spires of the two cathedrals represented the horns of a dilemma!

For over 200 years the Catholics were denied the right to worship freely in Ireland. Services and schools were conducted either out in the fields or in secret places with lookouts to warn of the approach of the authorities. This was known as the penal period. When, in the 19th century, Catholics could once again meet openly to celebrate Mass, Armagh established its Catholic cathedral as a celebration. Attractive from the outside, we found the inside of this neo-gothic building quite stunning. The walls are entirely decorated in delicate ceramic mosaics and the floors tiled in beautiful Celtic designs, the colours frequently coming from the use of different marbles. Apart from a voluntary donations box near the entrance this cathedral was free. On the opposite hill though, we found the older, Protestant cathedral requesting a "small donation" of £3 each. So we are unable to compare the two as we left rather abruptly.

Protestant Cathedral, Armagh

Saint Patrick's Cathedral from Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh

Saint Patrick's Cathedral from Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh

Mosaic decoration in Catholic Cathedral, Armagh

Altar with bas-reliefs inspired by early Celtic sculpture, Catholic Cathedral, Armagh

Floor mosaics in baptistery, Catholic Cathedral, Armagh

We did though look in at the delightful Church of Ireland parish church erected in 1811 and found it quite charming particularly its heavy polished wooden doors with coloured glass panels, its individually numbered pews, brightly tiled floors and gleaming brass fixtures. The delicately shaped upper windows are gothic in style shedding clear light into the building while the small lower stained glass windows dating from the late 19th century to as recently as 2005 are really attractive.

Parish church, Armagh

Modern stained glass in parish church, Armagh

It's not been all churches though. There have been libraries! Armagh has four! Non librarians can skip this bit if they like.

First we used the internet in the Armagh City Library, grandly housed in the former Market House and were impressed with the range of services provided and the diversity of the collections. Later we visited the Irish and Local Studies Library which houses a full range of resources for local historians and genealogists. Many of the collections are on open access, including runs of directories and censuses and fascinating minutes of 19th century assizes. The library also has extensive runs of newspapers, many on microfilm. They also hold on microfilm the Linenhall Library's unrivalled collection of political journals from the "Troubles".

The most interesting library for us was the Armagh Public library, founded by Archbishop Richard Robinson in 1771 as part of his aim to establish a university in Armagh. It is housed in a handsome classical style building just below the Church of Ireland Cathedral with a Greek inscription above the public entrance which translates as "The healing place of the soul". The main reading room bears out this description. Lined with leather-bound volumes and with display cases housing a selection of treasures, it reflects the wide-ranging interests of the founder. Among the gems are Jonathan Swift's annotated copy of the first edition of Gulliver's travels, published by Benjamin Motte in 1726. Swift was angered by unauthorised changes by Motte, and these annotations were intended for the second edition. There were also on display autograph letters from Swift, who was Dean of the Cathedral in Dublin, enabling us to compare his signature with an annotated pamphlet Ian discovered in the Westcountry Studies Library. The handwriting certainly looks very similar. All this delighted an enthusiastic young student from the University of Nevada, working on a group assignment on various aspects of Armagh, who asked us for our impressions of the library. There are also extensive collections of engravings and mezzotints and a full set of the first edition of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland.

Armagh Public Library

Reading room, Armagh Public Library

Bishop Robinson, founder of Armagh Public Library

Autograph letter of Jonathan Swift, Armagh Public Library

The last library visited was almost an afterthought, our last port of call before returning to Modestine, the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (pronounced O'Fee) Memorial Library. Housed in a modern building, constructed with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, we imagined it would be mainly a theological collection. We were surprised therefore to see a display of sporting strips hung around the main public hall. One of the Cardinal's interests was the Gaelic Athletic Association, whose 125th anniversary is being celebrated this year, and Irish sport is one of the strengths of the collection. There is also much material on Irish history, the Irish diaspora, the Gaelic language as well as ecclesiastical matters. Apart from the 30,000 books and hundreds of runs of periodicals, there are extensive manuscript collections, including the Cardinal's own research papers and the archives of the Archdiocese of Armagh. All this and more was related to us very knowledgably by a member of staff who even stayed on for us beyond the library closing time. He told us that acquisition of collections was still affected by sectarian views. Some donors were unwilling to deposit collections with the Public Record Office in Belfast, which they saw as representing an alien authority. This library provides for them a more acceptable alternative.

Although parts of the town are a rather shabby and run down, it does have a remarkable collection of Georgian buildings, handsomely laid out, due in no small part to Archbishop Robinson and his successors and the architect they supported Francis Johnston, a native of Armagh who became one of Ireland's leading architects. The grandest feature of the city is the Mall, a grassy area over 400 metres long, wide enough in the middle to accommodate a cricket pitch. At one end is the courthouse and at the other the gaol, so prisoners about to be conveyed from one end to the other must have hoped that they would not have too long an innings. There are Georgian terraces on either side and, in the style of a classical temple, the Armagh County Museum with a wide-ranging collection of exhibits including pagan carved heads, a collection of wooden items found in peat bogs including vats of "bog butter", and a display on Ireland's worst rail disaster in 1889 when 80 Sunday school excursionists died in three runaway carriages.

The Mall, Armagh

Courthouse at one end of the Mall, Armagh

Gaol at the other end of the Mall, Armagh

Georgian terraces on the Mall, Armagh

Armagh County Museum, Armagh

Pagan head in the County Museum, Armagh

St Patrick's Fold, thought to stand on the site of the Saint's first church in Armagh, a building by Francis Johnston dating from 1812

An unusual structure in the city is the observatory, another of the endowments of Archbishop Robinson, established in 1789 and containing one of the oldest continually operating meteorological stations in Ireland. In the landscaped grounds there are domed buildings with windows we could peep through to see the massive telescopes still in situ. There is also a state of the art planetarium and what is described as a human orrery, laid out on the ground so that people cleverer than us could work out the relative positions of the planets at various dates. An orrery, or model of the solar system, by the way, is named after Charles Boyle (1674-1731) the fourth Earl of Orrery in County Cork who commissioned one of the first of these moving astronomical models. So, if we find that we are unable to visit the great telescope of the third earl of Ross in Birr, this will provide us with an alternative demonstration of Irish intellectual curiosity.

Observatory and human orrery, Armagh

All in all, for its size, Armagh is the most intellectually absorbing town we have encountered in Ireland, and there are still places we never managed to visit, for example the various buildings in the Archbishop's palace complex, and the important hill fort at Navan, just outside the city, the capital of Ireland at the time of St Patrick's arrival in the fifth century and the reason that he gave Armagh precedence above all other churches in the island. In Dublin we hope to see the Book of Armagh, written here in 807 when the city was indeed the intellectual capital of Ireland.

Tonight's campsite was recommended to us by the very friendly staff in the tourist information office and it is set in the soggy heart of the Gosford Forest Park – a haven of peace now that the rain, welcome for once, has driven away the noisy motor-cyclist who was using the forest paths as a race track.