It’s the border, stupid

One news item on the radio this morning caught my attention. Today is the 50th anniversary of a civil rights march that took place in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and which descended into violence as officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacked demonstrators with batons.

This date, 5 October 1968, is widely regarded as the start of The Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland until the signing of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement thirty years later, in April 1998. In the intervening two decades, Northern Ireland has prospered, and an open border with the Republic of Ireland facilitated by both the UK and the Republic being members of the European Union. Last year, Steph and I toured Northern Ireland and saw for ourselves how far the province has come since them, with clear signs of prosperity and peace.

Once again, the island of Ireland is dominating British (and European) politics. Northern Ireland is at the forefront of the Brexit agenda, because of the border issue between the province and the Republic of Ireland. Post-Brexit in March 2019 this border will be the UK’s only land border with the EU. During our holiday in Northern Ireland, we criss-crossed that border multiple times. In fact, a single road, denominated A3 in Northern Ireland and N54 in the Republic, crosses from one country to the other four or five times in the space of less than 10 miles.

We traveled that road, and the only evidence of crossing from one country to the other were speed warning signs for mph or kph (Northern Ireland or Ireland).

Concerns have been raised in all quarters about a return to a post-Brexit hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic post-Brexit. That is one potential  (and awful) outcome of no withdrawal deal being reached between the UK and the EU. ‘Negotiations’ continue, and will come to a head in the next few weeks.

But no-one seems able to square the circle, and the UK government and the European Commission seem as far apart as ever. Incidentally, the dismantling of the hard border and its continued open status were conditions of the Good Friday Agreement that has undoubtedly brought peace and prosperity, It’s a legally-binding treaty that could potentially scupper Brexit. Brexiteers seem to forget the legality of this agreement.

On this 50th anniversary, it is appropriate in the context of the Brexit process to reflect on bitter times past and the consequences of communities unable to co-exist without resorting to violence.

It beggars belief, however, that someone as prominent in British politics as arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg can demonstrate, in recent cavalier and insensitive language that elicited widespread shock, his lack of understanding. He once again proved (to me at least) that he and acolytes are quite prepared to make Northern Ireland a sacrificial lamb in their determination to bring about a hard Brexit.


Unfortunately its devolved government has not been functioning since the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017, and effective government is at a standstill. The majority political party, the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP is pro-Brexit, and is playing hardball with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government which is in hock to the DUP for parliamentary support following the 2017 General Election when the Tories lost their overall majority.

I’m not going to go into detail about any or all of the various solutions that have been put forward to solve the border issue. Some involve technologies or approaches that have yet to prove their value or workability. To date these suggestions have been dismissed by one side or the other.

The Irish border question might be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. Inevitably, I guess, there will be a fudge, some compromise that will satisfy no-one. However, it’s possible—probable even—that any agreement that Theresa May secures from the EU will be voted down in parliament, and then the risks of crashing out of the EU escalate significantly.

I strongly support the demand for a People’s Vote (i.e. a second referendum in some form or other). That’s our democratic right. People do change their minds and as the vision of a post-Brexit UK becomes clearer, there is a growing clamour for a new vote. In a number of recent nation-wide polls not only is there growing support for a People’s Vote, but the outcome of that vote would support remaining in the EU, with a much higher proportion supporting Remain than voted Leave in 2016. Ironically, in the 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU by a majority of 56% to 44%. Going forward, Northern Ireland could be key to remaining in the EU.

Hope springs eternal!

Springhill: a complicated genealogy

Springhill House, near Moneymore in Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland, is a typical ‘Plantation House‘, a 17th century farmhouse that was embellished in the 18th century with the addition of single storey wings, and pavilions with Dutch gables on either side of the avenue leading up to the front of the house.

Constructed in about 1680, it was the home of the Conyngham family of Scottish settlers who came to Northern Ireland from Ayrshire around 1611. Becoming the property of the National Trust in 1957, the house had remained in the same family until then. The family name had changed to Lenox-Conyngham in the early 18th century. The genealogy is complicated by there being multiple Georges and Williams.

To one side of the entrance hall is a small study with a fine display or guns and swords, especially a long gun on one side of the fireplace. Original 18th century wallpaper was uncovered during the restoration of Springhill by the National Trust.

Ceilings are quite low in the 17th century parts of the house, but much higher in the 18th added wings. This can be seen quite distinctly, moving from the library, to the drawing room, and into the dining room.

Springhill is said to be haunted, by the ghost of Olivia, second wife of George Lenox-Conyngham (whose portrait hangs in the ‘haunted’ bedroom). Was he murdered by his wife or did he commit suicide? A secret door and passage were found in the bedroom, which you can just make out in the far right corner beyond the wash-stand, in the photo below. Was this how Olivia crept in to commit the foul deed? Some documents were found, but the evidence is circumstantial. We will never know for sure.

There’s an interesting costume museum, and ample opportunity for long walks on the estate. The weather (and time) was against us.

The Full Monty

With extensive parkland, some of the most beautiful formal gardens, an elegant yet somewhat understated house that simply oozes wealth, position, and history, Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula in Co. Down has everything (map).

The Mount Stewart estate (then known as Mount Pleasant) was purchased in 1744 by wealthy merchant Alexander Stewart. His son became the 1st Marquess of Londonderry in 1816. Mount Stewart is the family home.

If I mentioned the name Robert Stewart, this would probably just evince a shrug of the shoulders. Mention Viscount Castlereagh, however, and the reaction would probably be very different, as he was one of the most influential politicians and diplomats of his age, Foreign Secretary in the British government, and a visionary of the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 that sought to re-establish peace and order (and national borders) to post-Napoleonic Europe. Castlereagh became the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry in 1821 on the death of his father, the 1st Marquess. Yet he had committed suicide just a year later, and the title passed to his half-brother, Charles, who married (as his second wife) one of the wealthiest heiresses of the age, Lady Frances Anne Vane-Tempest. Her wealth gave the impetus for expansion and refurbishment of Mount Stewart. Charles had served as one of the Duke of Wellington’s generals in the Peninsula War, and was Ambassador to Austria at the time of the Congress of Vienna. After this marriage, the family name became, and continues as, Vane-Tempest-Stewart.

Mount Stewart became the principal home of the 7th Marquess and his wife Edith. She was a great socialite and political hostess, and much of today’s decor and the impressive formal gardens are due to her influence and creativity. Their youngest daughter, Mairi, their only child to be born there, was bequeathed Mount Stewart in the 7th Marquess’s will. One of Mairi’s daughters, Lady Rose Lauritzen, still has an apartment at Mount Stewart, and while we were touring the house, I saw her describing some ‘Congress chairs’ to one of the National Trust volunteers in the dining room.

There’s so much to see at Mount Stewart. It must be the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the National Trust in Northern Ireland. I’ve read that the Mount Stewart is counted among the world’s top ten gardens!

So let’s start with the grounds, followed by the formal garden, and then a tour of the house.

We took the lakeside walk, about a mile and a half, encountering the White Stag of Celtic legend, and visiting the family burial plot, Tir n’an Og.

To the south of the house, and up a slight hill about 10 minutes walk, you can find the Temple of the Winds, built in the late  18th century (before the house was even built). There are wonderful views over Strangford Lough to the west, and Scrabo Tower, just south of Newtownards on the other side of the lough. Scrabo Tower was constructed in 1857 as a memorial to Charles, 3rd Marquess. It has now been re-opened in partnership with the National Trust.

On the west side of the house, which faces southwest, there is a Sunken Garden and the Shamrock Garden, with a topiary Irish harp, as well as the Red Hand of Ulster planted with bright red salvias. Along the top of the hedges, there are other topiary figures.

You enter the larger garden through an impressive black and gilded gate. What a feast for the eyes, with lots of mythical animals, extinct ones like the dodo for example, and one clearly male fox!

You can explore the house on your own, but there are very knowledgeable and friendly National Trust volunteers in each room, ready and able to fill in the detail.

The entrance hall is quite unexpected, as you first pass through a modest vestibule, with the hall opening out into a sea of light.

Passing from the hall, towards the dining room, there is a very large portrait of the 3rd Marquess above an arch. To one side are some cabinets with articles of the family’s wealth and connections on display. In the room itself, there is a fine portrait of Castlereagh (the 2nd Marquess), and the ‘Congress chairs’ lining the wall beneath a portrait of a familiar figure: Napoleon Bonaparte.

From the dining room, you can enter the study of the 7th Marquess, and through to a Saloon-cum-breakfast room. The ceiling rose is mirrored in the beautiful inlaid woodwork on the floor. The table standing in the middle of the room is a so-called Irish coffin or wake table.

Lady Edith developed her own drawing room, luxuriously furnished, but homely at the same time. There’s a portrait of her on the wall.

At the bottom of the staircase, there are cabinets on either side displaying the family china. The cantilevered staircase divides halfway up, beneath a huge painting of a racehorse, that’s clearly out of proportion: in the horse itself, the length of the groom’s legs, and the right arm of the other boy.

Finally, in a large and very grand drawing room the walls are covered with portraits of family members, and lined with other objets d’art.

It’s no wonder that Mount Stewart is one of the National Trust’s most popular destinations. The history of the house and the family is almost unparalleled. And if you are ever in Northern Ireland, the trip out to Strangford Lough and Mount Stewart has to be high on your list of attractions. We were not disappointed. You won’t be either.




Fermanagh’s finest . . .

The National Trust manages three properties in Co. Fermanagh in the southwest of Northern Ireland: Castle Coole; Florence Court; and Crom. Florence Court is the Trust’s furthest west property in the United Kingdom. We took in all three on our recent tour of National Trust properties in Northern Ireland, but not on the same day.

Castle Coole and Florence Court and  are elegant 18th century mansions, just a few miles apart near Enniskillen. Crom is a little further south, on the east shore of Upper Lough Erne, close to the border with the Irish Republic (map).

Interior photography is not permitted inside Castle Coole and Florence Court. The interior images included in this blog post are provided courtesy of, and used with permission, from the National Trust, to which I am most grateful. Access to both houses is through a guided tour.

Castle Coole was built by Armar Lowry-Corry, 1st Earl Belmore between 1789 and 1798. He was the grandson of Belfast merchant John Corry who had purchased the estate in 1656. A fine Queen Anne house used to stand on the estate, to the north of the present mansion. The current and 8th Earl still lives in a cottage on the estate, and the family still has access to the south wing. It became the property of the National Trust in 1951 (from the 7th Earl), although the family still own most if not all the contents.

Castle Coole is a very grand, somewhat austere, Neo-Classical mansion with Portland stone façades, built to impress. It appears to have just been placed in the middle of a parkland. Nothing to soften the exterior. But that belies a delight for the eyes inside.

The rear of the house, from the north at the site of the Queen Anne house

There are no formal gardens at all close by. Irish architect Richard Johnston was originally commissioned to design Castle Coole, but got no further than the basement, after which renowned English architect James Wyatt was handed the brief to redesign and complete the building. He also designed some extremely elegant interiors, especially the Saloon, and the furniture to fill it. In fact, the Saloon is one of the most elegant rooms I have seen in my many visits to National Trust properties, and it’s a pity that I’m unable to share any images here.

The entrance hall has four massive scagliola columns, and beyond an impressive double cantilevered staircase, there is another saloon on the first floor, also with scagliola columns.

There is an impressive State Bedroom, decorated in a deep red, on the first floor that was prepared in 1821 for the expected visit to Castle Coole by King George IV. He never got much further north than the outskirts of Dublin, having encountered one of his many ‘lady friends’ there. Obviously he must have found a visit to Castle Coole (and the long journey that would have entailed) less attractive than the charms of M’Lady. Apparently the bedroom has never used on a regular basis subsequently.

All around the outside of the building is an underground passage way, that permitted servants to move about unseen from the residents above. This passage connects, through an impressively wide tunnel (wide enough to accommodate a carriage and four, apparently) to a large stable yard to the north east. Supplies for the house, coal in particular, could be brought right up to the house and stored for easy access in underground storage rooms.

Florence Court sits well in its landscape, the estate nestling below Benaughlin Mountain in the Cuilcagh Mountain range, that straddles the border between C. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and Co. Cavan in the Republic.

Home to the Earls of Enniskillen, the exact architectural history of Florence Court is somewhat of a mystery. Its central structure is flanked by two pavilions connected by colonnaded passages.

Like at Castle Coole, there is an underground passage that allowed servants to move around without being seen.

The decor of the rooms is defined by stucco plasterwork of the highest quality. When a major fire gutted the entrance hall and rooms immediately above in 1955, the National Trust was faced with a major challenge to repair the damage to the same standard. It is remarkable what they achieved. It’s somewhat ironic that Florence Court had no electricity supply until 1954, and it was an electrical fault that caused the fire! Fortunately, the fire itself did little damage to the rooms either side of the central section, apart from water damage that, at one point, threatened to bring down the ceiling in the drawing room. This was quickly rectified by the judicious drilling of several holes (two of which can still be seen) to allow the water to drain. What is also remarkable is how many of the original pieces of furniture, paintings and other objets d’art were saved. In the entrance hall, there is a rather fine bust of King William III. His travelling trunk is also in the hall, and that of his wife, Mary II, is on display in one of the bedrooms. The nose of the bust has clearly been damaged. Apparently, in the haste to remove artefacts from the burning building, King Billy was unceremoniously thrown on to the lawn outside, and the end of his nose broke off. The butler found it a few days later and glued it back on!

The outbuildings include a laundry with the highest ceilings I think I’ve seen in such a room, just appropriate for hanging out the drying linen.

There are extensive trails to explore throughout the estate, with views of the surrounding mountains. Because of the weather, and wanting to take an early tour of the house in the afternoon, we only took a short walk. There is a working water-wheel-driven sawmill, as well as a smithy in the grounds.

A large walled garden was developed by Charlotte, wife of the 4th Earl in the 1880s. The National Trust is working hard, and with results already, to restore this garden to its former glory.

Florence Court is well worth a visit. It had been high on my list of Trust properties in Northern Ireland. We had to dodge some pretty serious showers (as we did throughout our week in Northern Ireland), but we enjoyed about four hours walking around the estate, and taking the house tour. We learned that the title went to Andrew John Galbraith Cole in Kenya, who became the 7th earl in 1989, and who still resides in Kenya on his 40,000 acre estate!

There is privately-owned castle (not open to the public) on the Crom Estate, home to the Creighton (or Chrichton) family, Earls of Erne, built in 1820. The family acquired the estate in 1609, and there is also a ruined castle on the estate, on the shore of Upper Lough Erne. The estate is managed by the National Trust.

Leaving Florence Court by mid-afternoon, we reached the Visitor Centre by about 4 pm, and apart from two other couples we were the only visitors. The Visitor Centre closed at 5 pm. In any case, we wanted to take the short walk (less than a mile) to the ruins to take in a view of the lough, and the Creighton Tower on Gad Island, about half a mile offshore. Near the ruins are some impressive yew trees said to be about 1000 years old.

Following this visit, and closer to 6 pm, we headed back to our base on Mid-Ulster, via Co. Monaghan in the Republic and along one road, the A3/N54, that almost imperceptibly crisscrosses the border in just a few miles, and will be a complex situation to resolve during the Brexit talks.


Let’s call the whole thing off . . .

Thus end verses in the 1937 song penned by George and Ira Gershwin. And that’s what I was humming to myself after a recent visit to the National Trust’s Castle Ward, on the shore of Strangford Lough in Co. Down, Northern Ireland (map). It was built in the 1760s for Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor. However, the Ward family (originally from Cheshire) owned the estate since the 16th century, and an Old Castle (from about 1590) still stands north of the house.

The 1st Viscount and his good lady, Lady Ann Bligh, had very different tastes. It’s a wonder they went on to create a dynasty. But they did, having four sons and four daughters.

Bernard and Ann didn’t see eye to eye on all things architectural. As you drive up to Castle Ward (from the west) you see a typical Neo-Classical 18th century mansion, epitomised by its symmetry. Walk round to the east side, with its views over Strangford Lough, and you are faced with something quite different: 18th century Gothic. What an unexpected surprise, and a dramatic contrast. Certainly an interesting combination.

Neo-Classical and Georgian Gothic side by side, back to front

The view of Strangford Lough from the Gothic, east-facing side of Castle Ward

But the Bangor husband and wife differences were not restricted to the house’s exterior. It is almost perfectly divided down the center, Neo-Classical decor on one side, Gothic on the other. Quite extraordinary!

Ward’s son Nicholas succeeded as the 2nd Viscount, but having been declared insane, he died in 1827, unmarried and childless. The title passed to his nephew Edward. The current Viscount Bangor, the 8th, lives in London with his wife, Royal biographer Sarah Bradford, but they have an apartment at Castle Ward for their use. Castle Ward passed to the National Trust after 1950 when the 6th Viscount died, and the estate was accepted in lieu of death duties.

Entering through a Victorian porch on the south end, there is a staircase on the right leading to bedrooms on the first floor.

Just off this entrance is Lady Ann’s boudoir, with its flamboyant ceiling based apparently on that in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Passing through Boudoir into the Drawing Room, one encounters a room full of the Ward treasures, paintings, objets d’art, and furniture.

Further on, a study has paintings of the various Viscounts. The 5th Viscount (d. 1911) I think it was, had been a keen sailor, and desired to be buried at sea. It’s said that immediately after the funeral the Dowager Viscountess had his body consigned to Strangford Lough from the end of the family jetty. At least this is what National Trust volunteer guide George told us. You can see George in the photos above describing a beautiful tea chest.

On the west side of the house (the Neo-Classical side), there is a grand entrance hall, and off that a fine dining room.

From the Library, there is a ‘secret’ door to passages and a stairwell that would have been used by the servants to come and go without being seen.

Several bedrooms are open on the first floor. The Viscountess’s bedroom has original 18th century wallpaper, and there’s a wonderfully decorated screen in front of the fire.

The estate is extensive at Castle Ward, with walks down to the Old Castle, the farmyard, and along Lough (estate map).

Close to the house and stable yard is a Victorian sunken garden and a rockery.

We also discovered that Castle Ward is one of the locations for ‘Game of Thrones’. And I suspect that many of the tourists we saw that day had come to Castle Ward for that purpose rather than taking in the beauty of the house itself.

On our way to Castle Ward, we stopped at Rowallane Garden (map) and had a very enjoyable wander through its natural and formal parts over almost 90 minutes. It’s certainly a haven of tranquility. And we discovered that Rowallane Garden is the headquarters of the National Trust in Northern Ireland. Rowallane Garden was laid out by the Rev. John Moore in the 1860s, and developed further by his nephew, Hugh Armytage Moore after 1903.

No longer on my travel bucket list . . . another igneous encounter

I’ve been very fortunate (and privileged) to have visited many places of interest all over the world: Machu Picchu in Peru; the temples of Tikal and Angkor Wat in Guatemala and Cambodia, respectively; some of the world’s iconic cities like New York, Sydney, and Hong Kong, to name just three; and many of the wonderful parks and monuments throughout the USA, such as the Grand Canyon, Devil’s Tower, or Crater Lake. I’ve written about these, and many others, in this blog.

But there is one place, much closer to home, that I wanted to see as long as I can remember. And that place is the Giant’s Causeway, on the north coast of Antrim in Northern Ireland. Last week I was finally able to tick the Giant’s Causeway on my travel bucket list.

Steph and I have just returned from a week-long road trip to Northern Ireland, mainly to visit most of the properties owned by the National Trust over there. We actually got to visit nine houses, one garden, and the Giant’s Causeway.

It took a little under two hours to drive north from our guesthouse in Ardboe, beside Lough Neagh, to the Visitor Centre – mainly because we decided to take back roads to avoid the expected early morning congestion around Coleraine, and also because we missed one turn and found ourselves heading east instead of north, delaying about 15 minutes as a consequence.

It must have been around 10:30 or so when we parked, and already the site was busy. The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and attracts visitors—by the coach-load—from all over the world, most of whom (not being National Trust members) must handsomely boost the National Trust’s finances. I was surprised to note how many Chinese visitors we met at the Causeway.

The National Trust has built a fine Visitor Centre, with its gift shop and cafeteria, and many exhibits describing the geology and history of the site.

I was surprised how much limestone and chalk can be seen on the north Antrim coast, having been protected, as it were, by an overlay of volcanic rocks. Interesting geology!

It’s the volcanic history that we see at the Giant’s Causeway, an outcrop of beautiful pentagonal and hexagonal basalt columns, stretching from the shore northwards into the incoming tide.

You have to walk just under a mile from the Visitor Centre down the cliff face to reach the Causeway itself. Fortunately, the National Trust does provide a regular shuttle bus service back up, free to members. We were happy to take the bus after wandering over the Causeway for well over an hour.

But the Causeway is not the only landscape attraction. The spectacular cliff backdrop to the landscape just adds that extra grandeur and mystery. Old Irish myths spring to mind! We also took a walk on Runkerry Head (on the left of the map below) so that we could view the Causeway from a distance through a gap in the next headland east (between Portnaboe and Port Ganny). In the far distance the crags of The Amphitheatre just add to the drama.

Looking east from Runkerry Head towards The Amphitheatre (in the far distance) and the Giant’s Causeway that can be seen through the gap in the next headland. The road down the cliff passes through that gap.

With some clever angles and hiding behind various basalt columns I was able to take most photos without any tourists showing, despite there being several hundred or more there at the time. I was also a little surprised at how small an area the Giant’s Causeway covered, but I guess that as the tide was in (or coming in) more would be exposed at low tide. I’m quite happy with my photos, but I have seen several more spectacular photos of the Causeway taken at dawn or sunset.

The Giant’s Causeway is certainly an impressive landscape. If you do plan a visit, do check the weather forecasts carefully. Although mainly overcast, we did have some sunny weather. Half an hour after we left, heading further east and south on the Antrim coast, the heavens opened, and visitors to another National Trust site, the Rope Bridge (where we stopped for a picnic only) were probably soaked to the skin, with the weather turning in the bat of an eyelid. Further south, the chalk is exposed at a number of points including here at Garron Point (map).

A National Trust trip around Northern Ireland

Well, if I count the visit to Plas Newydd on the southern shore of Anglesey, on the way to Holyhead to catch the ferry over to Ireland, Steph and I visited twelve National Trust properties in eight days.

We have wanted to visit Northern Ireland for many years, but until now never really had the opportunity, or we felt that the security situation didn’t make for a comfortable visit. All that has changed. Now retired, we have time on our hands. ‘The Troubles‘ are a thing of the past (fortunately), and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland has transformed the opportunities for that part of the United Kingdom.

Being members of the National Trust, and knowing that there were some splendid houses to see over in Northern Ireland, as well as some Trust-owned landscapes such as the spectacular Giant’s Causeway on the north Antrim coast, this was just the incentive we needed to decide, once and for all, to cross over to the island of Ireland again. We have visited south of the border several times. I first went to Co. Clare in 1968, and Steph and I had holidays there traveling around in 1992 and 1996.

Planning the trip – finding somewhere to stay
For a number of recent holidays, I have used to search for hotels when I was planning our road trips across the USA. So I used this company this time round when looking for an overnight stay in Holyhead, convenient for the ferry to Ireland early the next morning.

In Northern Ireland we were looking for somewhere central from where it would be a relatively easy drive each day to any part because the National Trust properties we wanted to visit were scattered all over (as shown in the map above). After reading various online reviews (are they always reliable?), and looking for value for money, we chose The Drummeny Guest House in Ardboe, Co. Tyrone (Mid-Ulster council district), on the west shore of Lough Neagh.

Me and Tina Quinn on the morning of our departure from The Drumenny Guest House

What a find! Our hosts, Tina and Damien Quinn, were the best. What a friendly welcome, and hospitality like you would never believe. The reviews on were all very positive. Were they accurate? Absolutely! In fact, our experience was even better than previous reviewers had described. Such a breakfast (full Irish), and lots of other extras that Tina provided. In fact, staying with Tina and Damien it felt as though we were staying with family, and a week at The Drumenny was better than we ever anticipated. So, if you ever contemplate a Northern Ireland holiday, there’s only one place to head for: The Drumenny Guest House in Ardboe. You won’t be disappointed.

Less than a mile away there’s a good restaurant, The Tilley Lamp, that serves good, simple food, and lots of it. Very convenient.

Day 1: 8 Sep — home to Holyhead, via Plas Newydd (168 miles; map)
Our Northern Ireland trip started just after 09:15, and because of major road works (and almost certain traffic congestion) we decided to travel northwest from Bromsgrove via Kidderminster and Bridgnorth, before joining the A5 south of Shrewsbury. We then continued on the A5 through Snowdonia, and over the Menai Strait to Plas Newydd House and Gardens, just a few miles west of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

Home to the Marquesses of Anglesey (descendants of the 1st, who as the Earl of Uxbridge, served alongside the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and had his leg blown off by a cannonball), Plas Newydd stands on the shore of the Menai Strait that separates Anglesey from mainland Wales.

Day 2: 9 Sep — Dublin to Ardboe, calling at Derrymore House near Newry, and Ardress House (120 miles), Co. Armagh
Our Stena Line Superfast X ferry arrived to Dublin Port on time, just after noon, and we quickly headed north on the M1, crossing into Northern Ireland just south of Newry in Co. Armagh.

Derrymore House lies a few miles west of the A1, and is open for just five afternoons a year. That was a piece of luck that we happened to pass by on one of those days. It’s a late 18th century thatched cottage. The ‘Treaty Room’ is the only room open to the public, and the 1800 Act of Union uniting the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland is supposed to have been drafted there.

Further north, and the route to Ardboe, we also visited Ardress House, built in the 17th century, and embellished in the 18th. It has a traditional farmyard.

We arrived to our guesthouse around 18:00, and enjoyed a meal out that evening at The Tilley Lamp. The best pork chops I’ve ever tasted.

Day 3: 10 Sep — Ardboe Cross, Co. Tyrone, Springhill House, Co. Londonderry and The Argory, Co. Armagh (53 miles)
Sunday morning. We decided to briefly explore the Lough Neagh shore near Arboe, and see one of Ireland’s national monuments, the Ardboe Cross.

Springhill House is a typical 17th ‘Plantation‘ house, showing the history of ten generations of the Lenox-Conyngham family.

The Argory is just 20 miles south of Springhill, and was built in the 1820s and was the home of the MacGeough Bond family, and has remained unchanged since 1900. It has magnificent interiors, particularly the cantilevered staircase.

Day 4: 11 Sep — Florence Court and Crom Castle, Co. Fermanagh (169 miles)
Florence Court is the furthest west of all of the National Trust’s properties, a few miles southwest of Enniskillen in Co. Fermangh. It was the home of the Earls of Enniskillen, and was built in the 18th century. There are beautiful views of the nearby mountains from the front of the house. Inside, where photography is not permitted, the walls and ceilings have some of the finest stucco plaster work I have seen. In 1955 there was a disastrous fire and it’s credit to the National Trust how well they accomplished the refurbishment. Remarkably many of the precious items in the house were saved.

On our route back to Ardboe, we diverted to make a quick visit to the ruins of Crom Castle, on the banks of Upper Lough Erne. There was time for a walk to the ruins from the Visitor Centre before it closed for the day, and approaching showers drenched us. There were some lovely views over the lough to Creighton Tower.

We also saw how convoluted the border is between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Sorting that out during the Brexit negotiations will be a challenge, nightmare even, and so unnecessary. It is an invisible border, and hopefully obstacles will not be put in place by this incompetent Conservative government that will undermine the economic and social progress that Northern Ireland has made in recent years. This story on the BBC website (20 September) has a video of the very road we took back to Ardboe between the counties of Fermanagh (Northern Ireland) and Monaghan (Republic).

Day 5: 12 Sep — Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim coast, Co. Antrim (162 miles)
The Giant’s Causeway has long been on my Bucket List of attractions to visit. And we weren’t disappointed. We had carefully monitored the weather forecasts and chose what we hoped would be the best day of the week. In general it was. The drive north from Ardboe took just under 2 hours. We passed through the small town of Bellaghy, Co. Londonderry, burial site of Nobel Literature Laureate Seamus Heaney. I wish we had stopped.

Although it was not yet 10:30 when we reached the Visitors’ Centre at the Giant’s Causeway, it was already very busy, and just got busier over the three hours we stayed there. There were visitors from all over the world – particularly from China.

It’s a walk of more than a mile down the cliff to the actual Causeway, so we took a leisurely stroll there. But we did take advanatge of the free bus ride (as National Trust members) to go back up the cliff road.

We then headed east along the north Antrim coast, and stopped for a picnic at the Rope Bridge car park where a torrential downpour spoiled the view and prompted us to move on rather than have a wander around. Then we headed down the east coast on a road that hugs the bottom of cliffs along the seashore, before reaching Larne and then heading west around the top of Lough Neagh and home to The Drumenny.

Day 6: 13 Sep — Mount Stewart, Co. Down (127 miles)
On the northeast shore of Strangford Lough, just south of Newtownards, the Mount Stewart estate was purchased in the mid-18th century, and became the home of the Marquesses of Londonderry when the current house was built at the beginning of the 19th century. It has a beautiful formal garden, mostly the work of Lady Edith, wife of the 7th Marquess.

Day 7: 14 Sep — Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh, Donegal (Republic of Ireland), and the Sperrin Mountains in Co. Londonderry and Co. Tyrone (200 miles)
On Day 7, we headed west once again to visit Castle Coole, situated just outside Enniskillen. We were not able to visit there when we had travelled west on Day 4, as the property had been closed for a special BBC Proms in the Park event.

Castle Coole was built by the 1st Earl Belmore between 1789 and 1797. It’s mostly the design of famous English architect James Wyatt, who also designed much of the interior and even the furniture. Photography is not permitted inside, and I’m unable to show you some of the splendours of this house, particularly the Saloon, which must rank as one of the finest examples of its kind among any of the stately homes in this country. The current Earl Belmore resides in a cottage on the estate.

Leaving Castle Coole, we headed west into the Republic, turning north at Donegal and crossing back into Northern Ireland at Strabane. We decided to cross the Sperrin Mountains, and had the weather been better (much of the journey north of Donegal was in torrential rain), I could have taken some nice photos. But we did have one surprise. Having taken one wrong turn too many when road signs petered out, we stumbled across a Bronze Age site of stone circles and cairns, at Beaghmore. It had stopped raining, everywhere was sparkling in the evening sun, and we enjoyed a half hour walk around the site.

Given the sunshine and showers, conditions just right for the appearance of rainbows. We saw ten throughout the day, some double.

Day 8: 15 Sep — Rowallane Garden and Castle Ward, Co. Down (136 miles)
Just south of Saintfield alongside the A7, Rowallane Garden is a haven of tranquility, about 50 acres, created in the mid-19th century by the Revd. John Moore and his nephew Hugh Armytage Moore. It’s also the headquarters of the National Trust in Northern Ireland.

Then we headed the further 16 miles southeast to Castle Ward on the tip of Strangford Lough. It’s an extraordinary building: Neo-Classical Gothic! The two architectural styles are reflected on the front and rear of the building, and mirrored inside, because, it is said, the 1st Viscount Bangor and his wife could not agree.

The Ward family, originally from Cheshire, settled here in the late 16th century, and there is an old castle on the estate – used in the hit HBO TV series Game of Thrones.

Steph (L) and Clare at Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens

Day 9: 16 Sep — Arboe, Co. Tyrone to Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow (224 miles)
We travelled south into the Republic, taking a winding route through Co. Monaghan, Cavan, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, Kildare and Wicklow to spend the night with old IRRI friends Paul and Clare O’Nolan. Paul had been the IT Manager at IRRI; Clare was my scuba dive buddy (video) for several years. On the evening of our arrival, Clare took us on a tour of the Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens close to where they live on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains.

Day 10: 17 Sep — Rathdrum to Dublin, Holyhead to home (235 miles)
We left the O’Nolans just before noon, and headed north around the M50 to Dublin Port for our 15:10 Stena Superfast X ferry to Holyhead. We disembarked at exactly 19:00, and the drive home to Bromsgrove took four hours. Fortunately the roads were quite quiet and we made reasonably good progress until we were less than 20 miles from home when we were slowed down by major roadworks on the M5 motorway.

Ten days away, 1594 miles covered, twelve National Trust properties visited, seven enormous Irish breakfasts enjoyed. Northern Ireland was everything we hoped for: beautiful landscapes and friendly people. We had delayed our visit there for too long. And the National Trust was our excuse, if one was needed, to make the effort to visit.

All in all, ten days well spent! Here are the detailed posts for the properties:



Orange and Green: tribal loyalties and conflict in Northern Ireland

A story in The Guardian a couple of days ago caught my eye. It was a piece about happiness across the UK, the results from a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Those surveyed were asked to comment on their personal well-being, two components of which were ‘happiness’ and ‘anxiety’.

What surprised me, given its turbulent and uncertain past, were the apparent high level of happiness and low anxiety among those surveyed in Northern Ireland (relative to other regions of the UK). Now this interested me because I had just finished Michael Farrell’s detailed (and I have to say rather depressing) account of the birth of Northern Ireland, and the ethnic and religious conflicts and violence (tribal even, at least on the part of the Protestant community) that have characterized life in that province since 1922. Incidentally, the ONS survey provided aggregated data for Northern Ireland with no further breakdown across counties, some of which have a Catholic majority.

Northern Ireland: The Orange State is a comprehensive account of how partition and its aftermath shaped political, cultural and economic development in Northern Ireland, and how the domination of the Catholics by the majority Protestant Unionists or Loyalists was bound – eventually – to culminate in The Troubles that came to define the late 60s, the 70s and 80s.

The bald facts cannot be challenged. There was systematic and ‘official’ persecution of the Catholic population, collusion between the Unionist State and Protestant organizations like the Orange Order at the very least. With the backing of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now disbanded and replaced with Police Service for Northern Ireland, PSNI), the Specials (particularly the violent B Specials) and other groups, the Northern Ireland government was determined never to let the Catholics improve their lot. Legislation, gerrymandering and discrimination (and thuggery) were used by the State as tools of repression of the Nationalist (Catholic) minority, and to prevent – as far as possible – the power and influence of the Protestant community from ever being assailed.

It’s no wonder then that at the end of the 1960s, a vibrant civil rights movement sprang up among the Catholic communities. And although I unreservedly condemn the violence that both sides of the conflict perpetrated on their fellow Irishmen, I can understand better the causes of that violence and what motivated the Provisional IRA to take up arms. And so Northern Ireland was subject to assassination and reprisals, often at ransom and against civilians not engaged in any form of political or civil disobedience or violence. Violence was used to inflict terror per se and, if Farrell’s analysis is to be believed, the Protestant community and its various bodies (including state bodies) has to carry the bulk of the blame. Even the British Army may have colluded with the Loyalist organizations to maintain the status quo.

In 1970 I was a young man of 21. Northern Ireland and its growing conflict didn’t really register on my radar. I was abroad for much of the 70s so didn’t fully appreciate what was happening in Northern Ireland. The 1980s (when I was back in the UK for a decade) were the Thatcher years, and the industrial conflicts seemed perhaps more newsworthy than what was happening across the Irish Sea. Frankly, my memory is now quite vague about those 10 years. And during the 1990s, when finally progress was being made in the Peace Process (with the active involvement of US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and their representatives) I was again out of the country, and got my news second-hand, so-to-speak.

I cannot – and don’t – claim to be a pundit on the affairs of Ireland. That would be naïve and presumptuous. As I have pointed out in other posts in this blog, I have been trying to understand my Irish ancestry and how the history of Ireland would have affected my family.

What I see today (simplistically or naïvely perhaps, and from afar it has to be said) is a more settled Northern Ireland, that is trying to come to grips with is turbulent past, trying to develop economically, and move forward. For several years the Peace process has led to a more stable democracy in which former arch enemies are working together, or at least giving the appearance of working together, and that can only be a positive thing. Unsavoury individuals like the Rev. Ian Paisley (whose bigotry and promotion of violence during the 60s and 70s must be roundly condemned), who formed the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is the majority party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, eventually mellowed and did sit down in government with Sinn Féin. The signs of progress are everywhere to see. Derry-Londonderry is one of the 2013 European Cities of Culture. Who would have thought that would have been even thinkable several decades ago when Derry was the heart of the struggles.

But one of the iconic moments of the whole Peace Process in a broad sense happened in when HM The Queen visited Northern Ireland and was introduced to members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Not only were its Assembly Leader Peter Robinson (DUP) and Martin McGuinness (Deputy, Sinn Féin, and a former commander of the Provisional IRA in Derry) standing side-by-side, but McGuinness shook hands with Her Majesty. Who would have predicted that?

Nevertheless serious tensions lie just below the surface, old wounds are opened, and violence breaks out between the two communities, as we see during the annual Orange Order marches (how they still remain so insensitive – indifferent  or disdainful might be better descriptions – beggars belief). And of course the Protestant community (or at least one hard-line element) came on to the streets in December 2012 to protest the ending of the flying the Union Flag above Belfast City Hall. Memories are long, and prejudices run deep in Northern Ireland, it seems. Even today, letter bombs have been sent to the Chief Constable of the PSNI, reportedly by dissident Republicans. And so it goes on.

Is there hope for the future? There has to be, and surely increasing economic prosperity – and a new generation – will bring about the lasting positive changes that most (but not all, I’m convinced) cherish. Even Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has visited Northern Ireland recently to understand more about the Peace Process. Nevertheless, I think I’ll have to leave Irish history for the time-being – it does begin to get to you after a while.