Re-possession or Eviction – reflections on the Strokestown affair

0011321b-1600Some words given their ordinary meaning may describe something distasteful but are unlikely to cause offence to the general populace. The same words uttered in Ireland can be transformed and give rise to may grave offence and outrage. They might even stir men to commit violent deeds. It is not to say that we Irish are thin skinned, though on balance we probably are, but rather that certain words not only remind us of sad and shameful events.

Sometimes in the wake of such offense the Irish raise fists or whatever else they can find close by. On others they simply repair to the Law Library to hire the best defamation lawyer they can afford, demanding vindication of their good name. This is exactly what happened in the early 1970’s when a man called Peter Berry, a high-ranking civil servant took on the Irish Times. The plaintiff claimed that he had been defamed when the defendants published a photograph of a person at a protest carrying a sign with allegedly defamatory material printed on it.

“Peter Berry – twentieth century felon setter – helped jail republicans in England.”

Mr. Berry did not succeed in his claim but the dissenting views of some of the Supreme Court members are interesting. Fitzgerald J said that:

“’Felon-setter’ and ‘Helped Jail Republicans in England’ were not words in respect of which one has to have recourse to a dictionary to know what they meant to an Irishman; they were equivalent to calling him a traitor.”

McLoughlin J, also dissenting, took a similar view:

“Put in other words, the suggestion is that this Irishman, the plaintiff, has acted as a spy and informer for the British police concerning republicans in England, […] thus putting the plaintiff into the same category as the spies and informers of earlier centuries who were regarded with loathing and abomination by all decent people.”

If you don’t want to annoy an Irishman please refrain from calling him a Felon setter. Nor should you ever call him a “Gombeen Man” for it was this slight that led former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds to take on the Sunday Times for an article which was effectively his political obituary. For “Gombeen” is a pejorative term that hints at a shady, unscrupolous dealer who hoarded food during famine times until the price would rise and profits would flow.

As the English Landlord system gave County Mayo Captain Boycott so did Irish land agitation give to the English Language, a new word, defined as
‘to withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest’.

In a country where Land Reform is just over a century old the word Eviction is still emotive. The recent goings on a farm outside Strokestown, County Roscommon has highlighted the fact that this word is still capable of stirring up the wildest of emotions in people. It also suggests that some people in KBC Bank ought to undertake some cultural awareness training – at least intensive instruction for the bright spark who decided to hire a few gentlemen from the northern part of this Island, instructing them to travel to a farm in the rural west of Ireland for the purpose of forcefully removing (even if they argue the force used was reasonable) the legal owners of that property.

irelandevictions-6The whole sequence of events also highlights the gulf between mainstream media and social media. In some newspapers the event is called a “re-possession” which is legally the correct term. On most social media sites it is referred to as an ‘eviction’ and therein lies the problem. Re-possession begs one to explore the background to how this situation was arrived at. Eviction on the other hand needs no such reflection, eviction is always bad, eviction pushes different buttons altogether in the Irish psyche.

In 1880 Captain Boycott had to avail of the services of up to fifty Orangemen from Cavan and Monaghan to save the harvest on Lord Ernes Estate. They were escorted to and from Claremorris by over one thousand policemen and soldiers.

In 2018 KBC in their wisdom hired a security firm from Northern Ireland to re-possess / evict the owners from a farm in Roscommon. Maybe it is true that History teaches us nothing, save that we are doomed to make the same mistakes as before. One incident from some amateur footage taken at the scene records the underlying tensions. The cameraman suggests to one of the security men that he should be ashamed to call yourself an Irish man. The security man, in a thick northern brogue, tells his accuser that he is not Irish, I’m British. The Ulster Plantation, the gift that keeps on giving, it is enough to break the Internet.

The exchanges in the Dail after the eviction / re-possession was fiery. Pearse Doherty TD said that what happened when the family was evicted was a “disgrace. It was unjustified and it brought to mind the scenes of our past where families were being evicted and thrown onto the side of the road.”

It was an ordeal of thuggery from a group of men acting on behalf of a financial institution with the Gardaí watching on.”

The Taoiseach focus is in the ‘vigilantes’ and the risk to the peace of the State.

It really could have been Mayo in 1880, the Orange men under the guard of the Royal Irish Constabulary, mass evictions nearby. It lays the blame firmly at the feet of the bank and the State for not acting. Some online commentators allege state collusion but never is any evidence produced to back this up. The Gardai come in for a lot of blame but what is their function in what is a civil matter. Online forums are full of mis-information, false assumptions and ignorance of the law. But don’t let that get in the way of the posters narrative building, they’ll just shout you down anyway.

The print media generally focussed more on the people who attacked the security firm. The narrative shifts depending on what viewpoint you wish to articulate. The Irish Independent describes those who attacked the security firm as “dissidents”,Vigilantes” “republican elements” who “exploited the anger”. The reports focus on the baseball bats, chainsaws, burnt out vehicles. You can’t be left without thinking that this was a well organised and executed punishment beating. Meanwhile online the perpetrators are hailed as “patriots”. Are they the modern incarnate of the land-leaguers that Davitt inspired? Or are they bigger thugs than the previous thugs.

Wherein lies the truth? What can we believe? Who can we believe? Where is the room for the moderate view in these conflicting narratives.

DK17_16_June20_1885Parnell asked a meeting in Ennis in 1880 what they would do to to a Tenant that bid for his evicted neighbours farm. The crowd replied in unison “shoot him, shoot him”. Parnell replied that there was a much better way “you must show him by leaving him severely alone, by putting him in a moral Coventry, your detestation for his crime”

By getting the crowd to illicit the extremist response Parnell then counselled the crowd on a moderate but more effective strategy.

The security firm that attended the property are hardly politically motivated. Most are simply there for the cash. In order to demonise them they must be labelled, they must become ‘loyalist thugs’ ‘ex UVF’, Ex UDR’, ‘Former British Soldiers’ and thereby ‘Scum’.

istock-000061298742-smallThe Re-possession must be portrayed as an Eviction in the same strata as Victorian Ireland evctions. KBC assumes the role of cruel, tyrannical landlord. The Gardai (now headed by Drew Harris) are the RIC and are all in on it and are not there to protect the citizens. Its all one big conspiracy.

Nowhere in this particular narrative does one look at the facts or the lead up to the fateful moment these persons pulled up outside the farmhouse in Strokestown. Nor is it part of this narrative to examine the dealings and behaviour of the borrower over the last decade or more. Could it be that therein lies  some inconvenient truths. What was the original loan for? What were the funds used for? What repayments were made? How much arrears were built up? What engagement had the borrower with the bank? What Court proceedings have issued? Did the borrower engage with the Courts? Did he engage with a Personal Insolvency Advisor? What efforts were made to make some payments? Are these matters private or because of what has happened now in the public interest.

This information is crucial to understanding what has really happened at Strokestown. Colm Keena in the Times makes an attempt to give people some information about the financial background whereby the landowner had a major tax settlement over an under-declaration as well as a number of Judgements registered, some involving local businesses. Again this is very factual and short on context but it does paint a picture of a man in severe financial difficulty. An article by Keena today suggests that KBC have been seeking repayment for at least nine years now past. These are not irrelevant matter.

When a person takes out mortgage they are always advised that default of payment can lead to you losing your home. Sure we might not think it will ever come to that just like think the doctor will never give us bad news about our health. The reality is we all must borrow money at some stage in our lives and we all must repay that money plus the interest. Similarly, we must pay our taxes even if we grumble about them. It might therefore be appropriate to also pose questions such as; What if we stopped paying our taxes? What if we all stopped paying our mortgages?

We should also look at the answers; If we don’t pay our taxes we risk being audited by Revenue and been subjected to not just paying the original tax owed but also penalties and surcharges. Without this deterrent the State would not function. A Mortgage is a Contract and if we fail to meet our repayments we are in breach of that contract. The causes of the breach can then be looked but no matter what the cause, be it unemployment, illness, economic downturn etc the mortgage contract has been breached. The Courts in Ireland make the distinction between those who can’t pay and those who refuse to pay. The Family Home is also treated differently. What would happen if we all decided to default on our mortgages?

The truth behind this Strokestown Eviction / Re-possession is very well camoflauged and as such suits the many different narratives that have jumped on it. On the one hand the security firm are ‘loyalist thugs’ and ‘Henchmen’ of the cruel Bank, on the other they could be just men in need of a few quid and doing a really crap job. Their attackers are either patriotic heroes, rural robin hoods or as the Independent tried to paint them ‘linked to dissidents’ and a well known criminal gang. The landowner is either a victim of corporate greed, a citizen let down by the state or perhaps a foolish man who bit off more than he could chew, or a serial defaulter in his financial dealings. Wherein lies the truth?

This last week we have seen what can happen when imprudent lending and imprudent borrowing marry and what can quickly inhabit the vacuum that lies between. Never were the words of the wise Polonius more appropriate – ‘Neither a borrower nor a Lender be’.

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Life, Is changing every day, In every possible way.

Rockefeller centerIt was the Summer of 1994 I was working in New York. It was my first time to fly on  a plane and it was good to get away from Ireland for a little while. It was exciting, it was exhilarating, an amazing experience for a young buck from the west of Ireland who thought he knew it all. I lived in Elmhurst, Queens in a diverse ethnic neighbourhood but where the majority seemed to be either Colombians or Koreans. I had secured a Doorman’s job in a large Manhattan Apartment building and a couple of day jobs as well. Earning plenty of dollars I was able to pay the rent and have plenty of beer money. Mid-week we got the train up to Van Cortland Park for pretty basic Gaelic football training.  I remember there was a rock on an outcrop overlooking the playing fields and Broadway with an Irish Tricolour painted on it. At weekends we played matches in Gaelic Park and met people from home in the bar afterwards.  I threw myself completely into the City and when I was off work into Irish-Americana. An Irish-American friend gave me tours of old Bronx Irish neighbourhoods such as Fordham, Kingsbridge, and Bainbridge and regaled me with stories of famous local characters. We drank together in neighbourhood bars. With one ear we listened respectfully to ‘old-timers’ and with the other it was all  Nirvana and Pearl Jam from the jukebox.

gaelic parkwoodlawn

In many ways that summer was a rite of passage for me and my first real foray into the a wider world.  I still longed for news from home.  Occasionally I bought the Leitrim Observer in an Irish shop in Jackson heights. For national news I sometimes bought the Irish Independent from a Yemeni man who had a small kiosk not far from where I worked.

The start of the summer for us was the World Cup and that memorable game in Giants Stadium. Who can forget that moment Ray Houghton chipped Pagliuca. It was a great day to be Irish. It also gave us bragging rights in a City which culturally was so dominated up to that time by the Irish and Italian communities. It felt strange at the time defeating a big time soccer nation like Italy.

Later in the summer my native County also made history by winning the Connacht Championship for the first time in sixty seven years. The previous year Derry had won their first All-Ireland. There was much new ground broken in those crucial years, the collapse of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the USSR. All these things were unimaginable and improbable just a short time earlier.

Despite all these new beginnings the Troubles in the North lingered on. A number of events stood out for me in 1993; the IRA bomb in the Shankill, the UFF massacre at Greysteel and the naked sectarianism on display in Windsor Park on the night Ireland qualified for USA ’94.

One other atrocity earlier that year had a huge effect on me. It happened in a town called Warrington which is about half way between Liverpool and Manchester. The IRA made a warning call to the Samaritans in Liverpool saying that they had planted a bomb outside Boots Chemist. The authorities still maintain that the caller never said what Boots shop the bomb had been placed at. Just 30 minutes later a bomb exploded outside Boots in Warrington. As people ran from the scene they were caught up in a second bomb planted outside Argos.

The bombs were placed in cast iron bins which ensured there was lots of shrapnel. Johnathan Ball died at the scene, only 3 years old he was in town with his babysitter. She was buying him a Mother’s Day card. About fifty people were injured and maimed by the explosions. warrington_parry_ball_pa

A few days later the parents of 12 year old Tim Parry had to make the awful decision to turn off his life support machine. The aftermath consisted of the IRA blaming the Police for not acting on precise warnings and the Police and most right thinking people blaming the bombers. The weeks following the bombing were punctuated by even more sectarian killings in the North. Tim Parry’s father made a huge impression on me when I heard him speak about reconciliation and conflict resolution on TV.

One morning late in my summer sojourn I was walking south on 3rd Avenue. I had walked past Hunter College and The Armoury. Suddenly I heard someone calling me. It was Asil the Yemeni kiosk owner. He was shouting ‘Irishman, Irishman, look, look, peace in your country’. He was holding up the latest edition of the Irish Independent an in big back letters I could clearly read the words ‘ITS OVER FOR GOOD’.  IRA Ceasfire

He looked like Neville Chamberlain come back from Munich. Of course my reaction was that this can’t be true and I think I actually said this to Asil. I was certainly dismissive. Nevertheless I bought the paper, which is probably what Asil really wanted. I read it as I walked and read it again several times on the subway home. It slowly began to sink in. It was true. It really was. Peace in our time. Ironically the roles are now reversed and I wish peace for Asil’s home country of Yemen.

The only reason I’m recalling those crazy days of 1993 and 1994 is the sad passing of Dolores O’Riordan. The Cranberries were the soundtrack of that period for thousands of young Irish people like me. The Band released the album ‘Everyone else is doing it why can’t we’ in 1993. In a way the title sums up how we felt when we beat the Italians over in New Jersey. The Cranberries were heading for rock stardom. They were touring the UK when the Warrington bomb went off. In the aftermath Dolores apparently penned the words to the song ‘Zombie’ . It would be released on the 1994 Album ‘No need to argue’ and later be a number one single. The song would also win best song at the MTV Music awards.

Another head hangs lowly

Child is slowly taken

And the violence caused such silence

Who are we mistaken

It’s not necessarily the Cranberries best song and is very much a departure from their songbook even if the instantly recognisable grungy riffs are still to the fore. It is at its heart a quintessential anti-war song and it struck a note big time with many of us, expressing as it did how we had come to feel about the Troubles. It was also marvellous that it was this feisty little rock chick from Limerick telling the World how we felt. There will be enough commentary about the premature passing of Ireland’s first global female rock star. For many of us she will always be simply the voice of the generation who lived either side of the watershed of peace on this Island. That’s how I’ll remember her.

life, Is changing every day,dolores-o-riordan

In every possible way.

And oh, my dreams,

It’s never quite as it seems

 

 

 

This too shall pass

House windSo it begins, our worst storm in fifty years, poised and ready to unleash its fury. News stations have no problem filling their schedules, feeding our puerile interest in natural disaster. Meteorologists and Weather forecasters, typically born to bloom unseen, take centre stage today.

I brought the dog for a walk earlier amidst balmy sunshine and humid weather – a pleasant but foreboding experience.  It was like taking ones seat in a fully lit theatre whilst behind the thick curtain Ophelia’s symphony orchestra tuned up ready for the big matinee. One thing that struck me was the absence of small birds. Normally I throw something to the sparrows – yesterday they were all busy fluttering about hither and tither over and back to the makeshift feeding board I have nailed to the boundary fence. This morning all are absent – presumably they watched Sky News all night and decided to hunker down.  A quick glance around the garden to make sure I didn’t miss anything on last night’s sally to nail everything down. Flasks filled with hot water, nothing says we’ll be alright like a cup of tea.

Ophelia! Ophelia! A tragic name and warning to us not to take this storm lightly. We’ve had disaster before and survived famine and economic calamity – for the latter we would have done better had we heeded Ophelia’s fathers advice to ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’. The best advice from the wise old Polonius relevant to today is probably to paraphrase his next line, don’t lose yourself or friend today. Stay safe everyone.

The fog is lifting from the scene and I am forced to go… Lovely Leitrim and the call of duty

 

I set out to write this piece about a week ago but got completely side-tracked. One thing that distracted me was getting glued to the twenty four hour news coverage of the most recent terror attack on the Borough Market in London.  In horrific moments such as these we cling to any semblance of normality and hope. The pieces of shattered humanity can begin to be glued together by tales of came appearances of real heroes, ordinary people doing extraordinary acts to try to help and protect others. I’m thinking of the paramedics rushing in to tend to the injured whilst the attackers still roamed the streets. I’m also thinking of the Spanish man on Saturday evening last who took on one of the knife wielding attackers with his skateboard. What a brave man, a true hero. At moments like these you can’t help everyone but everyone can help someone.

Irish people tend to remember heroes by penning songs about their feats. I intended writing today about one such hero and a song. The song isn’t about his heroism, it’s a song he wrote reminiscing about his home county in Ireland, his heroism was to come later. The song is not a complicated verse, it is quite simple in fact, typical of its age but it is very sincere. When music was put to the lyrics the verse became a waltz and when a man from Longford called Larry Cunningham sang it in the 1960’s it became a hit. By this time the author had already been dead for almost two decades. It is the nature of his death that makes the song all the more poignant today for Leitrim people everywhere.

I was in ‘Fitzpatricks’ Bar in Mohill, County Leitrim recently. This fine public house is run by Val Fitzpatrick and his wife Carmel and is also known as the Ceili House. The Fitzpatricks originally hail from the proud parish of Aughavas in the heart of South Leitrim. The family have a long musical tradition going back through the generations. As an aside the family are also related to the late BAFTA Award winning actor Patrick McGoohan, he who appeared in famous TV serials such as ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Danger Man’ in addition to Hollywood blockbusters like ‘A Time to Kill’ and ‘Braveheart’.

Phil FitzpatrickAs usual I digress. The person I most want to discuss is a man named Phil Fitzpatrick who was born in Aughavas, Co. Leitrim in 1892. Phil emigrated to New York just after independence and he joined New York’s finest as a Patrolman in 1926. He spent most of his career in the mounted section patrolling precincts around Midtown and Central Park.

It probably seemed like an ordinary day. Fitzpatrick was off-duty and having lunch with a colleague Patrolman George Dammeyer in a tavern on the Upper East Side. Suddenly two armed men rushed into the Tavern and sought to rob the staff and all the patrons. Fitzpatrick and his colleague confronted the criminals. A shootout ensued. The two criminals were killed but Fitzpatrick was badly wounded in the stomach. He was taken to nearby Beth Israel Hospital and survived for six days before finally passing away on the 26th May, 1947. A year later he was posthumously awarded the NYPD Medal of Honor. He left behind a widow and five children.

The song ‘Lovely Leitrim’ was originally only a B-Side on the record released by Larry Cunningham. Gradually though it became popular and eventually it would go all the way to number one knocking The Beatles off top spot.

Today the song is synonymous with County Leitrim and sung on all occasions happy, sad and everything in between. I recall it being sung very poorly one night by three inebriated Leitrimites (including yours truly) in a taxi in Manchester. Perhaps the best renditions were given on those long nights in the summer of 1994 when Leitrim were crowned Connacht Champions for the first time in 67 years.

leitrim-cocoLast night I had a pleasant dream, I woke up with a smile

I dreamed that I was back again in dear old Erin’s isle.

I thought I saw Lough Allen’s banks in the valleys down below

It was my lovely Leitrim where the Shannon waters flow.

As is often the way one begins to write something that is already clear in your mind, yet somehow by the time it reaches the page it has transformed into something else altogether. I’ve since discovered numerous well written articles about Phil Fitzpatrick online and referencing the 70th anniversary of his death. I’m a bit behind the crowd so to speak ……. except, what I’m looking for now is a meaning and a modern parallel to this mans life and his death.

It seems to me that time moves on and so this emigrants lament just seems to tag along with it. This despite a lot of changes. The scene of the fatal shooting on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 96th is now opposite the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. Fitzpatrick’s grand-nephew Brian is now a Republican Congressman for Pennsylvania.  Phil Fitzpatrick put his body on the line seventy years ago to tackle two armed raiders. I’ve already mentioned a man who acted the same way last Saturday night in London. His name was Ignacio Echeverría.  ISIS and all terrorist s will not succeed in their hate and terror campaigns. I know this to be true because they are faced not just by powerful nations but with the might of ordinary citizens prepared to take on their armed and bloodthirsty cadres with nothing more than a skateboard.  In the frontline are people and responders motivated not by religion or hate but the simple desire to help a stranger. I’m also thinking of another line in another poem by Fitzpatrick that resonates. It is called ‘Soldiers of Peace’ and it contains the prophetic line, “when he kisses his wife and children goodbye, there’s the chance he will see them no more”.

Helping others

 

Keep your face toward the sunshine

thomas-edisonLet me introduce you to a young boy. His name is Thomas and he is naturally bright, savvy and streetwise. He is not afraid of hard work or long hours and is innovative and enterprising. His story is very relative to what we see happening in America today.

Thomas family fled their native country and found shelter in the US. The boy’s father had become involved in a political reform movement in his home country. The government there were extremely corrupt and power lay in the hands of just a few. This small group dominated the church, business and political institutions. A couple of recent bad harvests had only made matters worse. The people were starving, impoverished and desperate. The Government failed to act and simply ignored their plight. The Reformers were inspired by similar movements in other countries. They believed in ideas such as democracy, equality and liberty. The reformers slowly grew in number, meeting in private dwellings and later in public houses and taverns. As the movement spread the ruling elite began to get nervous. Armed supporters of the Regime began to attack the Reformers and break up their meetings. 

Gradually the reformers became more radical and believed that only physical force would advance their cause. In the wake of an election to the ruling assembly there was evidence of vote rigging by the State. Soon the country was in open rebellion and Thomas’s father was involved. Despite initial success the Military and Government-backed militias use dtheir overwhelming force to decisively crush the revolt. The leaders were rounded up and put on trial, many were imprisoned and some were executed. Reformist supporters become victims of sectarian vigilante mobs. 

Defeated and despondent Thomas father decides that they must leave. They cross into the US at night without any visa or green card and eventually settle in a small town in Ohio. Thomas finds school hard. He is easily distracted, his concentration span is short and the teachers find him difficult to handle. Thomas mother eventually decides to teach him at home and he quickly develops a voracious appetite for reading and learning. Thomas never returns to formal education but this is no hindrance to him in the land of opportunity, for he will go on to become a hugely successful businessman known all over the world.

Thomas’s life is an example of that all too elusive “American dream” – he is the embodiment of the self-taught, hard grafting self-made millionaire. This is a guy who made it big. The boy we are talking about is none other than the renowned inventor Thomas Edison. Edison’s father Samuel was a political refugee[i] from colonial Canada ….. Yes you did read it right, Canada! Edison invented the light bulb thus it would be remiss of me not to use the analogy of him enlightening the lives of his compatriots, and at the same time inventing a new pastime, dusting!

Sadly the modern day Edison family would find America to be a very different place. We must ask ourselves if young Thomas Edison were around today where would he be? Could he possibly be on a flimsy raft in the middle of the Mediterranean or Aegean Sea? Would he be shivering around an open fire in a Serbian detention camp? Perhaps he’d be getting ready to move in to a converted Hotel in Roscommon? Is the person who will finally find a cure for cancer amongst these desperate people? 

            k15210796The majority of the residents of the US are the descendants of refugees of some kind or another – they might be like Edison’s father, a political refugee, or perhaps their ancestry lies with some of the millions of Irish and Italians, fleeing famine and poverty. America has benefitted from these refugees; it is they who made America great. Trump’s malignant narcissism will destroy America and diminish whatever small bit of light she has left as a beacon for the rest of the world. America cannot hide away in isolated paranoia,  no more than Trump can solve its problems by creating scapegoats to prop up his alternative truths. Perhaps the better policy to pursue is the one the great Walt Whitman counselled ‘Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you’. A big wall creates a big shadow and soon America will need a new Edison to take them out of this darkness.

The best thinking has been done in solitude. The worst has been done in turmoil.’

Thomas Edison

[i] Samuel Ogden Edison fled Canada in the wake of the failed 1837 Mackenzie Rebellion. Ironically Samuels’s father had fled the US for Canada in the wake of US Independence. He had been a Loyalist in the Revolutionary War.

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rebellions-of-1837/

 

Where the wandering water gushes

knocknarea-1

Knocknarea, Strandhill, Co. Sligo  http://gostrandhill.com/local-information/ photo Irish Aer Corps

The morning frost heralded the low January Sun to bathe its light on the neat patchwork of fields around Coolera, County Sligo. As we climbed the ancient hill of Knocknarea, Yeats words came floating over the shrill air;

“The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,

And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say”[i]

(W.B Yeats ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’)

It must be ten years or more since I last climbed this beautiful summit – its distinctive outline bookends the southern end of Sligo Bay with the majestic Ben Bulben to the north. The pathway has been well maintained and access is comfortable even for those of us with moderate fitness.

A few steep rocky climbs near the top are the only challenging obstacles that lie before the famous Neolithic Cairn that crowns the summit finally comes into view. The Cairn is the reputed burial place of the legendary Queen Maedbh of Connaught. Indeed the landscape stretched out below is abundant in ancient portal tombs and passage graves, making this area as important to archaeology as the better known Bru na Boinne on the east coast[ii].

 

One cannot help but feel that you are literally tracing the footsteps of our ancestors as you approach the top. The views when you get there are spectacular. The infinite expanse of the Atlantic stretches out below, becalmed today, as it laps up gently against the shore at Strandhill. Across the entrance to Sligo Bay lies Rosses Point with its famous strand, beyond that Lisadell House, home of Countess Markievicz, and Drumcliffe graveyard where Yeats now lies in eternal peace, casting a cold eye on us all. In the distance can be seen the hills of Donegal and the mighty cliffs of Sliabh League.

 

 

Inland is the aforementioned Ben Bulben, majestically carved by glacier, wind and rain into its unique undulating face.  It was in the heather atop this iconic Mountain where the mythical Diarmuid and Grainne found themsleves confronted by a wild boar. As the young warrior shielded his lover (the most beautiful woman in Ireland) he fought off the boar and after a ferocious struggle killed it with his sword. Sadly the story did not have a happy ending. The brave Diarmuid in saving his lover was alas fatally gored by the Boar and died soon after in Grainne’s arms. In the further distance lie the Dartry Hills and the peaceful glens and mountains of North Leitrim, a hill walker’s paradise.

Later we drive along the northern shore of Lough Gill and view the Lake Isle of Innisfree where Yeats intended to arise and go to:-

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee loud glade. 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings. 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

(W.B Yeats ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’)

parkes-castle-sligo-irl153

Parkes Castle

We are now into  County Leitrim and our first stop is at Parkes Castle which although closed for the winter is still a worthwhile stop. The building is not really a Castle as such but a 17th Century Manor House built by the Planter Robert Parke. Its main purpose was  defensive as Parke had recently acquired lands confiscated from the local Gaelic Chieftains, the O’Rourke’s, traditional rulers of the Kingdom of Breifne.

A few miles on further along this picturesque lake side road lies the neat village of Dromahaire. The town sits on the banks of the River Bonet and was the seat of the O’Rourke’s and the Franciscan Abbey at Creevlea. We drive north towards Manorhamilton before turning left on the N16 and into the valley of Glencar. A few miles on we turn off and drive down to the lake of the same name and visit Glencar Waterfall. The Discover Ireland website states “while not the highest waterfall in the area, Glencar Waterfall is generally considered the most romantic and impressive”. The enchanting waters cascading into the leafy glen also inspired the National Poet:-

img_9926“Where the wandering water gushes

From the hills above Glencar,

In pools among the rushes

That scarce could bathe a star,

We seek for slumbering trout

And whispering in their ears

Give them unquiet dreams;

Leaning softly out

From ferns that drop their tears

Over the young streams.”

(W.B Yeats ‘The Stolen Child’)

The Waterfall is easily accessed from the lakeside car park along a well maintained pathway. Also at the entrance is a charming little coffee shop called “The Teashed”. The staff were very friendly and welcoming and as coffee shops go the food here was excellent and not too pricey.  The fare consists  of freshly baked scones and bread, various sweet goodies, a wide choice of freshly made sandwiches, wraps, paninis, salads and hearty homemade soup. There are lots of local crafts on sale. The site has a playground – useful to rid the young ones of any pent up cabin fever. This is also the perfect spot for weary limbs to recover from hiking in the hills above. The outside tables would be a lovely place to sit out in the warmer months. [iii]

 

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“The Teashed”            photo www.ldco.ie

All along the lake are many places where one could have a nice picnic. We caught a lovely sunset on the lake as the weak winter sun surrendered itself for another day. We began our journey home with just a further quick pit-stop for ice cream for the younger travellers, notwithstanding it was now below freezing outside! Later on, safely home, unshod, night fallen and the fire taken hold we continued to relish in the glow of a day well spent, dipping into the ancient and majestic landscape of Sligo and North Leitrim. We have many similar day trips planned. You can check out what’s on offer in Leitrim at http://leitrimtourism.com/ and in neighbouring Sligo at http://www.sligotourism.ie/ . Go and find your “bee loud glade”, its out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.

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Sunset at Glencar Lake, Co. Leitrim

[i] https://allpoetry.com/The-Wanderings-Of-Oisin:-Book-I

[ii] http://www.worldheritageireland.ie/bru-na-boinne/

[iii] http://www.discoverireland.ie/Activities-Adventure/glencar-teashed/95624

Aleppo- a broken city preserved in memory

AleppoMy memories of Aleppo are beginning to fade. It is now eleven years since I was there. I have kept many notes of my travels but somehow those on Aleppo are either lost or perhaps they never existed. It is almost irrelevant now as the city I saw no longer exists save for in old photographs and the fading memories of its former residents scattered across the world. Every time I see an image of this once magnificent City’s crumbling Dresdenesque cityscape I weep. I can remember enjoying Syria; savouring the warmth and hospitality of its people, its magnificent historical sites, its layers upon layers of history from Greeks to Crusaders, Assyrians to the Mamluks. Who could not swoon at the impressive ruins of Palmyra, the awe inspiring Krak-des-Chevaliers, the Orontes Valley or wandering around Bar Touma Neighbourhood in Damascus (birthplace of half a dozen Popes). I cannot forget the hum of Homs, the noisy water wheels (or Noria) of Hama, and the majestic Ummayad Mosque. The Souks of Damascus and Aleppo were places of wonder for me, the trade carried on in their arched cubicles seemed to provide a snapshot of an ancient and unbroken tradition. Throughout all this I can also remember being aware of the regime and it’s all seeing eyes and ears but otherwise (bar this obvious erosion of what we in the West call civil liberties) I remember a place that was hustle,  bustle and full of life.

After I made it to the cradle of the North I came to the realisation that if Damascus was where Mandarins reigned then Aleppo was where the merchant was king. The first place I stayed in Aleppo was in an area called Al-Jdeida which I soon found out was a neighbourhood dominated by various groups of Christians. I hadn’t planned to stay  here  but an Australian couple I had met had chosen a hotel there and I just followed their recommendation. There was a Mosque up the street but there were also at least four or five churches within a stones throw, all were very charming with opulent, beguiling interiors. I visited churches belonging to the Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox, the Maronites and Armenians. Aleppo is home to a large Armenian population many of whom fled the massacre of 1915 and found sanctuary in Aleppo. I also met some Chaldeans who had fled Iraq a few years earlier. At night time the area came alive as people came out to eat in its smart restaurants. The area was atmospheric and aromatic in equal measure. Walking along the high walls of the narrow side streets you couldn’t but admire the ornate Alleppin doorways. If lucky you might catch a glimpse through an open doorway of a beautiful ottoman courtyard, the centrepiece of an old merchant residence. Sadly I didn’t get the chance to explore one of these fabulous residences and perhaps now I never will.

After a few days in Aleppo I moved about half a mile away from Jdeida to a busier and less glamorous part of the New City. I took a room at a small Hotel just off Yarmouk Street. It was a grimy street where almost every second vendor sold car- tyres and fixed punctures or fixed exhausts. The room was upstairs just off a common area where the friendly owner tried to make up for shortcomings in décor and hygiene with a large smile. It was a winning strategy. No problem was too big for Samir as I later found out.

I spent the days just wandering the streets of Aleppo’s old and new city. Once when I got lost I just hailed a taxi driver and found I had only strayed five minutes drive from the Hotel. The Citadel dominates the old city as do the various minarets of the mosques. Yet there are so many church steeples that you realise that Aleppo was a collage of creeds. At night the noise of the traffic was incessant as were the car fumes. Eating out was relatively cheap and I grew to love the mezzes, shwarma, tahini, tabbouleh and eventually the thick coffee laced with cardamom.

I also remember the cinemas near the iconic Baron Hotel with the hand painted advertisements of the latest Bollywood fare. I hadn’t known that the Hindi movies were such a hit with the Aleppo menfolk. 

On the night of the 25th May, 2005 I headed back to the Hotel. Earlier in the day I had asked Samir to make sure I could watch the match on Telly. I am a Liverpool FC Supporter all my life and it was over twenty years since they were champions of Europe. I was tired and slept for an hour and when I got up it was close to match time. I had originally planned to make it to Istanbul for the final )ticket or no ticket) but I had spent a month making my way from Cairo through the Sinai and up through Jordan and by the time I got to Damascus I knew the Champions League Final was not to be.

That evening Samir was not in the reception area but a young man was in his stead sitting behind the desk. I asked him if I could watch the football, he nodded and turned on the telly. He switched the various knobs and I guessed he was looking for the right channel. A few minutes passed but still all that was on the telly was snow. The young man was now getting agitated. I asked was there another telly but he shook his head. He telephoned Samir and they talked in that Arabic way that sounds like they are having a serious disagreement. Within minutes Samir was back in the hotel and he began trying to get the TV tuned into a channel. He managed to get some channel but it was an old black and white film not the scenes from the Ataturk Stadium I was hoping for. Samir sensed my anxiety; it was just 15 minutes to kick-off. I asked if there was somewhere nearby where I could watch the game, my question went unanswered.

Eventually Samir just said “Come, this way” and he left by the stairs. I followed him and moments later we were driving headlong and crazy through the busy Aleppin streets in a battered Mercedes to some destination unknown. It looked like Samir was intent on driving me all the way to Istanbul. Soon we pulled up outside a nondescript three storey apartment building, what direction or where we were I didn’t know, the maze of streets and alleys we had just been through were completely dis-orientating. Up the stairs we went and into a room furnished with ornate carpets, soft cushions and sofas. On a table at the far end of the room was a small table and atop it sat an old Grundig Television .

Samir turned on the telly and navigated rapidly through the channels, alas still there was no football. He started tuning the set and eventually the screen lit up with the familiar red shirts of Liverpool. I hadn’t noticed that a number of men had come into the room by then. One was missing a hand and I just presumed he had lost it whilst fighting Jihad. It seemed entirely plausible; I suppose now all these years later I am inclined to think it may have been something more mundane like an industrial accident. My joy at finally getting to see the game was short-lived, already Liverpool were a goal down. It would get worse, by halftime they were losing 3-0. I was dejected and disconsolate.

Samir sensed this and said ‘Have faith my friend, in challah’. I put on a rueful smile; it would be extremely rude to this sociable man to ask to go back to my lodgings. I didn’t want to witness my team annihilated on this big stage but then a tray of warm sugary tea came out and I had to endure the well intentioned hospitality. More men had come in to the room as the first half went on and everyone was chain-smoking a toxic brand of cigarettes. There were at least twelve of us present for the start of the second half. None of the men could speak English but if I made eye contact they gave me a sympathetic nod and cupped their hands in a gesture of hope and solidarity. Samir was a source of endless optimism, ‘There is time, God willing’. I had long given up hope of any comeback. How wrong I was! In just six glorious minutes Liverpool had levelled the game through Smicer, Gerrard and Alonso. But Liverpool having drawn level seemed reluctant to go and try and win the game. Milan came back into it and the finale was simply a dual between goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek and the entire Milan team. They did not score though and Liverpool beat them on penalties, a famous night, a glorious night, more sweet tea, more cigarettes passed around and we twelve men in Aleppo all celebrated as much as if we were from the banks  of the Mersey.

A few days later I shared a taxi from the Karnak Bus Station to Gaziantep in Turkey. As I crossed the border I promised myself I would visit this fascinating country soon again. Nobody knows when this war in Syria will end or what the final casualty count will be. What will be left when the guns do fall silent? Who is to know what will be rebuilt and what will be lost forever? Memory will preserve some of it but it is hard to share memories and we cannot live someone else’s life or experiences. Robert Fisk visited Aleppo in the summer of 2016 and recorded the complete and utter destruction of the city. Even he who had witnessed the demolition of Beirut in the Lebanese Civil war was shocked by what he saw. Despite all this Fisk still concluded that this ancient City will arise again from the rubble and ash, for as broken as Aleppo may currently be, the current butchers are not in the same league as the city’s worst ever marauder, a man by the name of Genghis Khan. All that is left is hope and as Samir, the man who kept my flagging hopes alive on that pleasant May evening in 2005 said; ‘You see my friend you must have faith’.