For two weeks in September of 1997, Betsy and I
rambled around the north of Ireland searching
for traces of my Irish ancestors. Here is but
a sample of what we saw along the way.
Driving in Dublin is not for the faint of heart.
After a scream-filled, mind-bending, marriage-wrecking ride, cartwheeling
in a backwards rental car through the twisty streets and whirling roundabouts
of a Dublin rush hour, we concluded that this very interesting city is best explored by foot.
In Dublin, all the double-decker buses are green, half the signs are in Gaelic, and the Guinness ads are everywhere: Guinness For Strength! Guinness Is Good For You!
The stately Georgian houses with their famous red, green, yellow, blue, pink, and purple
doors, seem like rows of solemn barristers bursting forth in song.
The irreverent spirit of the town is nicely revealed by a quotation in neon on
the fortress walls of Trinity College:
"I wouldn't give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning."
The surprising thing about the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland
is that there is no border - the roads meander back and forth across that
infamous divide without so much as a highway marker. By the time we became convinced
that we had crossed into the North, we were already upon the outskirts of Belfast.
Most of our time in Belfast was spent at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. With the help of the able staff and a remarkable friend I met through this website, Mr. Sean McCartan, Betsy and I were able to pinpoint the house my great great grandfather left 150 years earlier.
Belfast has much in common with my old stomping grounds of Helena, Montana: an excess both of saloons and churches, a roughness which squats amidst the architectual grandeur of an
earlier and more prosperous era, and a small-town resiliancy - tough but friendly. While there we witnessed a remarkable sight: an entire block in front of city hall filled with flowers, poems,
and teddy bears in memory of Princess Diana.
On day six we reached the Antrim Coast at Larne and followed the A2 as it hugged the rocky coast.
Along the way we paused to chat with the locals at Carnlough and again at the
outskirts of Ballycastle, where the ruins of a 15th century friary doubled as
hole 3 of the local golf course.
After lunch we braved the perils of Carrick-A-Rede, a rickety suspension bridge that hangs
80 feet above the jagged rocks and crashing surf of the coast. Although she swore she
wouldn't, Betsy finally traversed the chasm and made it back alive.
Our next stop was a bizarre geological formation called The Giant's Causeway. At this
spot volcanic forces somehow caused some 40,000 six-sided basalt columns to rise up
in weird clusters and formations. The hexagonal columns seem too precise to be natural,
thus the legends of a huge causeway built by a giant.
As night closed in we also paused to admire the haunting ruins of Dunluce Castle, the
ruling powerbase of the North Coast for nearly half a century. After this, a warm room
and a good Indian meal in the resort town of PortStewart.
The next morning we parked our car at one of the two entrances to the remarkable estate
of Downhill Castle and walked past the empty guardhouse into a garden which filled a small
canyon. One path led up onto a windswept field, deserted except for the distant bleating
of sheep. As we rose over a small ridge there was, quite suddenly, a towering mausoleum.
Then, in the distance, the castle itself, surrounded by soldiers for some reason, with a
camera crew and two kilt-clad bagpipers.
In the dream-like atmosphere which pervaded this place we were drawn ever closer to the sea.
Here we found the most remarkable sight of all: Mussenden Temple, a circular library perched
on the very edge of the cliff overlooking Benone Strand at the entrance to Lough Foyle.
For me this will remain the center of all the enchantment that is Ireland.
Lunch, in blustery Dungiven, was typical: huge, hot, mostly fried, and served with a smile.
Chicken curry, sausage rolls, a nugget of pure cholesterol called a Scotch Egg,
then on to Claudy.
For many years I knew only one thing about my Irish ancestors: that they came from a village called Claudy, mysterious as the moon and almost as far away. I never thought I would see it, yet here it was: a cluster of freshly-washed shops around a single intersection. Below that a fine old church and cemetery with several Cartans planted beneath the moss-covered stones. We met Martin Cartin in the pub, friendly Mrs. O'Neill in the general store, and, after some adventures, other Cartan and O'Neill cousins who seemed reluctant to claim us: two American tourists falling out of the sky after 150 years.
Before leaving we climbed the rolling hillside of Gortilea above the village and found
the house and land that was once our family farm. Then, as my ancestor did before me, I
turned my back and headed west.
Ten miles west of Claudy, at the tip of Lough Foyle, is an ancient walled
city which has become infamous in recent years. In fact, even its very name
is a cause for debate, so it is a matter
of some delicacy whether to refer to it as Londonderry or simply as Derry.
It is a city steeped in history and still smoldering from grudges long remembered.
The impressive walls of the old town are pierced at regular intervals by
great arched gates. The cobblestone roads lead up a hill and converge at
a stately town square (called "the Diamond"). Some of the tired
brick walls have been painted with passionate political posters, and
occasionally a heavily armoured police car trundles past, but our two days
there were completely peaceful.
The rugged county of Donegal is perhaps the wildest and most untamed corner of Ireland.
Here Ireland reaches as far north as Alaska reaches south, and the coastline is
shattered into innumerable twisting fingers. Some of the remote villages in the west of
Donegal are completely Gaelic - here even the road signs spoke only in Gaelic.
We followed the N56 as far north as the fishing village of Dunfanaghy and around the edges of Glenveagh National Park. Along the way we climbed up into high tundra-like country with great swathes of purple heather. We crossed the Gweedore Peninsula with Mount Errigal looming in the distance. After a hearty lunch in Dungloe we continued south along the coast, arriving finally in a magnificent room overlooking the bay in Donegal town.
That night the wind swept across the Atlantic and arrived howling at our door. It
soon became obvious why this place is so famous for its sweaters. The town itself
was as lovely as any we saw, but catered much more to the tourist than any town in
Northern Ireland. We lingered there in the shops, then followed the magnificent coast past
the sleepy grave of Yeats to the town of Sligo, turned eastward, and raced back across the island.
Our time in Ireland was now all but gone. On our way back to Dublin we paused
for a few delightful hours at Mornington House
in County Westmeath. This stately mansion, hidden deep in the Irish countryside,
is now open to guests. The hosts, Anne and Warwick, were so friendly and interesting
that we were reluctant to leave.
Ireland, indeed, is the kind of place that lodges in your heart and, like so
many before us, we left vowing to return.
|Pictures and impressions by John Cartan