Friday 31st July 2009
It will come as no surprise when we say that once again it has been raining! It’s been particularly wet today and the sun hasn’t even bothered to get out of bed for a beer and sandwich all day.

The wind was cutting across Lake Neagh when we walked down for a look at the water before moving on. There were waves scuttering in and breaking on the shore exactly as if it were a real sea. Last night we’d toyed with the idea of spending an extra day on the site as it was so peaceful. However, when it’s pouring down and Ian has lost his brolly there is little fun in squelching through the woods along the lakeside, so we moved off after breakfast. At least we are warm and dry in Modestine as we drive along, with a good view of the ever changing countryside.

Lough Neagh on a windy day, Ballyronan

Our first stop was at Cookstown, a very pleasant town that was once a major centre for the Ulster linen trade. The town was laid out on an ambitious scale with very wide streets by a Dr Cooke in the 17th century. Indeed, the main street is the longest and widest in Ireland. In common with most Irish towns, there is little evidence of chain stores; just lots of small, independent shops. Cosy and attractive this may be, but such an arrangement means that it can be quite impossible to purchase certain items - in our case decaffeinated coffee and an umbrella. The town has no co-ordinated approach when it comes to the bulk purchasing of umbrellas! £-stretcher had sold out weeks ago when the rain first began in earnest and all they could offer Ian was a choice between a kiddy's pink one with Snow White on, or a yellow one with Winnie the Pooh! As for the decaffeinated coffee, we finally found what we needed in the Polish shop though we needed to check we'd understood the label with the lady at the till.

At the library we sheltered from the rain while loading another blog and reading and writing emails. The library is modern and most impressive for a town the size of Cookstown, which has about 10,000 inhabitants. The collections are well balanced, with history and literature placed in its wider context, though there is also generous coverage of Irish history, language and culture.

Continuing towards Omagh we turned off to investigate a beetling mill. We had no idea what beetling was and the joy of retirement is that purely on a whim we can go for a beetle drive on a dripping afternoon through the muddy Irish countryside, simply hoping to learn something new. The mill was closed when we found it but we think it's some process involved in the production of linen. (We've since discovered that it's a polishing process where the woven lengths of linen are hammered to make then smooth and shining.)

Soon we arrived in Omagh, pretty well in the centre of Northern Ireland. Like us, you have probably all heard of this small town as the place where one of the factions of the IRA exploded a bomb near the busy main cross roads one sunny August afternoon in 1998, killing 31 people and injuring over two hundred more. Today the town goes about its daily life and it would be easy not to realise that the scars are still evident. The first sign we noticed was a police presence on the main street with several young armed police officers wearing luminous orange uniform jackets while keeping a very watchful eye on any vehicle that stopped for more than a second or so. An inconspicuous grey plaque on the wall marks the spot where the bomb exploded and over the bridge, near the council offices is a touching garden of remembrance where the names of all those murdered that day are listed. Most are either from Omagh or the rest of Ireland, but there were visitors from Spain and England also killed as well as one lady pregnant with twin daughters. The Omagh people themselves describe the bomb's perpetrators as "dissident republican terrorists". They achieved nothing from the bombing, except perhaps to hasten the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement signed earlier in the year and to which they were opposed.

The exact spot where the IRA bomb exploded in 1998, Omagh

Garden of Remembrance, Omagh

Plaque in the Garden of Remembrance, Omagh

Otherwise Omagh is a pleasant little town. At the top of the main street stands the huge Victorian parish church. Inside it is particularly pleasing with its dark wood hammer-beam roof, carved corbels, stained glass windows and polished brasswork.
The town has a thriving arts centre and a very helpful tourist information office - the lady there gave us details of a nearby campsite, for which we are really grateful on this wet and windy evening.

Looking down the High street from the Parish Church, Omagh

Saturday 1st August 2009, near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh
The Sun is definitely suffering some kind of malaise and has spent yet another day with its head under the duvet. Meanwhile the rain has hardly eased for a minute all day. Fermanagh has so many lakes that a third of it is said to be underwater! It's a fair assumption that that level has risen over the past weeks. The roads and pavements are awash with water and the countryside, boggy at the best of times, is a waterlogged oozing sponge.

As for us, we struggle through the rain but are getting a lot out of our visit. It has certainly been very enlightening on Irish history. The people have not had it easy, that's for sure, but some of their problems seem to have been made worse by their own nature. Even before the English came they were a mass of little kingdoms beating the living daylights out of each other while illuminating the odd manuscript, and so it has gone on - a mixture of violence, wretchedness and remarkable creativity.

We have spent a fascinating day at the Ulster American Folk museum, just a few miles north of Omagh. It's an outdoor museum of original, reconstructed or copied buildings from both the old and the new worlds providing an easy interpretation of the circumstances that caused the Irish to emigrate to America in their millions, the hardships of the voyage and how they settled, suffered or made good when they arrived. There is also an excellent interpretation centre with exhibits, models and explanatory panels. Nearby the library holds material on those who emigrated and assists with genealogy enquiries.

The museum has been established by the American Mellon banking dynasty. Thomas Mellon originated from the area of the Sperrin Mountains. Descendants, seeking out their roots, decided to establish the museum, incorporating the ancestral home, still standing in its original setting.

Initially we spent a couple of hours until lunch-time in the exhibition area learning about the early emigrants back in the 18th century. Many were from Ulster, usually Presbyterians, of mixed Scottish/Irish ancestry. They embraced the work ethic and for many it was an adventure and a way to finding a fortune for younger sons unlikely to inherit. The various periods of famine that swept through Ireland in subsequent years swelled the numbers of emigrants, desperate to survive, dreaming of making a fortune and sending back money for their families to join them.

Certainly there were opportunities in the New World and many did become wealthy land and property owners. Over time, two million people emigrated from Ulster alone. Those who left in the 19th century could spend up to nine weeks at sea in very uncomfortable surroundings. These sailing ships left directly from Irish ports. Later steam ships were to reduce the crossing time to less than two weeks, though they left from Liverpool. So in order to travel west, the Irish first had to go east, to England for embarkation. Many ended up getting drunk or robbed in Liverpool and never made it any further.

Initially settling in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, the Irish, and other settlers from Europe, eventually saturated the East coast and spread southwards to Georgia and Carolina. New arrivals now pushed inland, entire families with everything they would need to set up homesteads – tools, weapons, food, grain and seeds – set off with their packhorse and, if they could afford it, wagon, heading westward through the Cumberland Gap. Others headed further west, seeking a fast fortune, searching for gold. Some found what they were seeking, others did not.

After lunch in the museum's excellent café we braved the rain and puddles, scurrying between one building and the next. The first section of the park is laid out to represent the Old World, with Irish peasant cottages, a weaver's home, a thatched rural church, the ancestral home of the Mellon family and that of the Campbell brothers (who definitely made good in America and curiously, their American home is also a museum!) There is a farm with outbuildings of barns and grain stores. There are small potato plots and scratching chickens. Every building was warm inside with an open peat fire. Guides were dressed in 19th century costume and were living the lives of the Irish peasants - spinning wool and flax, cooking on the open peat fires and making rustic chairs, benches or fence pickets from rough hewn wood.

Single roomed peasant cabin from Sperrin Mountains, Ulster American Folk Park

Blacksmith's forge, Ulster American Folk Park

Bedroom in the Mellon farmhouse, Ulster American Folk Park

Home of the Campbell brothers of Plumbridge, Ulster American Folk Park

Towards the end of the Old World park there is an entire reconstructed 19th century street. A Victorian public house also provided a grocer's shop with household essentials such as tea, sugar, flour and soap. Opposite is a pawn-broker's shop and a chemist full of interesting phials, jars of Virol, plasters and tinctures. There is a Victorian post office and a jobbing printer's shop with its heavy iron press where a lady was occupied hand-setting individual pieces of type in a metal frame in preparation for printing a poster.

Ulster street scene, Ulster American Folk Park

Post Office, Ulster American Folk Park

Jobbing printer's workshop from Strabane, Ulster American Folk Park

Chemist's shop, Ulster American Folk Park

At the heart of the open air museum is an exact replica of an emigration ship from the 1880s moored beside a quay. The quayside street with its cheap lodging place would be the point where emigrants would say their last goodbyes before going on board. Usually their passage was paid by relatives who had gone before them but sometimes, if people could not afford the fare, it was paid by wealthy landowners or companies in America in exchange for a guarantee to work for them as indentured servants on arrival, usually for a couple of years.

Leaving the Old World of 19th century Ireland behind, we climbed on board and wandered around the ship trying to imagine what it must have been like for these brave or desperate Irish men and women. They would be between the decks sleeping and living in near darkness, in wooden cubicles lining the walls. Above, the crew would be occupied in sailing the ship while below would be storage for the ship's cargo. Ships like this were relatively comfortable compared to the overcrowded "coffin ships" used in the 1840s at the height of the potato famine when there were simply not enough ships to carry the numbers forced either to stay in Ireland and starve, or to emigrate.

Accommodation on the passenger ship, home for nine weeks, Ulster American Folk Park

We left the ship on the far side to find ourselves plunged into the New World after only a few minutes on board! As we walked along the New England quayside we passed similar shops to those we'd left in Ireland. Many were run by Irish entrepreneurial immigrants, including one, Pattersons, who had set up a business selling tinware – perfect for cooking and decorative containers. The company lasted for generations in the Connecticut town of Berlin.

Connecticut street, Ulster American Folk Park

Soon we'd left the "town" behind and were walking through the New World section of the park where individual settlements were constructed of logs set in their plantations of maize and squashes. Once again the individual houses were open for us to explore but, in the interests of authenticity, the fires burned wood rather than peat. Here, instead of potatoes, the costumed guides were cooking cinnamon and apple cornbread muffins on their open fires. There was a "hunter" telling tales of tracking, showing us pelts of coyotes, wolves and beavers. There was a typical settler's wagon and even an exact replica of the Mellon family's first American home. All the buildings were furnished in keeping, with very worn and discoloured rugs and quilts and large, uncomfortable wooden beds with rope slats. Nothing was wasted and each house had several old authentic patchwork quilts on the beds. There were demonstrations of candle-making and wood-turning.

Log cabin with plantation of maize and squashes, Ulster American Folk Park

Copy of six-roomed log farmhouse built by Mellon family, four years after their arrival in Pennsylvania, Ulster American Folk Park

Log house transported from Green County, Pennsylvania, Ulster American Folk Park

By now we were soaked and covered in mud. We'd spent the entire day in the museum and it was time to move on. Before leaving we glanced in at an additional, unconnected exhibition about the history of Irish boxers, both in Ireland and America. The Irish have always been great fighters, long before the use of gloves and the Queensbury rules. Bare knuckle fighting with no control on violence was a sport that young men were encouraged to try hoping it would be a way out of poverty for them and their families. Betting was always heavy and the fighters' rewards for success were great. Failure though could leave a fighter brain-damaged for life. The exhibition didn't really appeal much though it was amazing just how much material was included.

So we eventually left Omagh in the teaming rain, driving through the waterlogged countryside until we reached the banks of Lower Lough Erne near Enniskillen where we are camped on a very bedraggled site well away from any friendly pubs or indeed anything interesting at all.