Coleraine

The earliest known settlement in Ireland was found at Mountsandel Fort, about one mile from the centre of present day Coleraine.  It was there where nomadic hunter-gatherers built their shelters in about 7000 BC.   Dating from about 4000 BC, there is much evidence of Neolithic Man in the area, such as the stone tomb at Magheraboy and the standing stone at Carnalridge.

Coleraine is reputed to have received its name when St Patrick passed through around 450 A.D. Popular tradition states that the Saint was given a piece of land by the local chieftain on which to build a church. The ground was covered with ferns, and so he called it “Cuil Rathain”, which means the ferny corner. Again, authorities differ in this, some asserting the meaning to be “the rath at the bend of the waters”. Over the centuries the name was anglicized and became “Coleraine”.  It is believed that the first church, or monastery, was in the same location as the present St. Patrick’s Church.  The earliest record of Coleraine occurs in Adomnán’s ‘Life of Saint Columba’, written on Iona, circa 700.

Located at the lowest fordable point of the river Bann, Coleraine suffered repeated devastation by competing tribes, by the Vikings in 830 AD and by the Normans in 1177.  It was not until the end of the 16th century that the Ulster tribes were subdued.  In 1610 the first settlers arrived to rebuild Coleraine.  Fortifications were erected and the town was laid out in its present form.

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Coleraine in 1613

In 1642 the dispossessed Irish rebelled and for six weeks laid siege to the town, during which 2000 of the inhabitants died of disease and famine, many of them having fled from the countryside seeking protection.   The siege was broken by the arrival of a Scottish army. In 1689, when the invading army of James II approached the town, the people fled to Derry, where they again suffered siege and famine. James II was eventually defeated at the Battle of the Boyne.

As a result of the devastation of the countryside, poverty was widespread and over the next 200 years there was a steady exodus of locals to the New World. There was continued threat of uprising and there was much suffering as a result of the serious outbreak of cholera in 1832 and the Great Famine of 1840-46.

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Possibly due to the lack of local opportunities, there was a strong tradition of young men enlisting in the military and many local men fought in the Crimean, Boer and the two world wars.  The Battle of the Somme had a particularly devastating effect on the area and there was scarcely a household that did not lose a family member, as witnessed by the long list of names on the local war memorials.

In 1844 a new stone bridge was built across the river and in 1855 the current town hall in the Diamond was built. The town also became an important centre of the linen industry and textile and shirt-making industries expanded.  In 1888 the river was dredged and piers built, allowing the passage of ships to Coleraine harbour.

In 1968 the new University of Ulster was opened between Coleraine and Portstewart and the influx of students provided a much-needed new source of income to the providers of accommodation, suffering as a result of tourists going to warmer climates for their holidays.

Like much of Ulster, Coleraine suffered from ‘The Troubles’.  In 1973 an IRA car bomb killed six, in 1992 a car bomb exploded in the town centre and in 1995 a massive explosion devastated the entire centre of the town.

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The Diamond with its town hall as it is today

A grammar school in Coleraine was first proposed in 1846, but the plan was shelved, die to the economic crisis resulting from the Great Famine.  Coleraine Academical Institution (C.A.I.) was finally open in 1860, with two masters and 14 boys. The number of students peaked at about 1100 in the 1970s and has since been reduced to 700.

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Coleraine Academical Institution, now known as Coleraine Grammar School

The school includes 27 acres of sports fields, including rugby and football pitches, tennis courts, cricket pitches, an athletics track, a swimming pool, a games hall with multi-gym equipment and a boathouse.

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James Nesbitt – actor

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Andrew Trimble – Ulster & Ireland rugby

Two well-known C.A.I. Old Boys

Boarding, which was a feature of the school since its beginning, reached its peak in the 1970s with 300 boarders, but since then it went into decline, and the boarding department was closed in 1999.

In 2015 the all-boys C.A.I was merged with the all-girls Coleraine High School, to become Coleraine Grammar School.

Just past the school, off the Castlerock Road, was the farm of my maternal grandmother’s family.  Her ancestors had farmed the land since at least the early 1800s.  Unfortunately, there are very few records that have survived from before the mid-1800s, so the tracing of Irish ancest0rs soon meets a dead-end.

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Kilcranny House

My great grandparents had eight children, seven girls and only one boy.  I guess that the only son did not want to be a farmer, and the farm was eventually sold.  The only son died when he was only 48.

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Today some peripheral buildings have been added to Kilcranny House, which now belongs to an organization that promotes much-needed peace and reconciliation.

I suspect that the organization would have had my ancestor’s approval.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Causeway Way

The Causeway Way is a long distance path of some 50 km, that starts near Portstewart, at the mouth of the river Bann, and ends at Ballycastle.  It passes through Portrush, Dunluce, Bushmills, the Giants Causeway, White Park Bay and the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

The North West 200 is a motorcycle race meeting held each May.  It is run over public roads between the towns of PortstewartColeraine and Portrush (the Triangle)  and is one of the fastest in the world, with speeds in excess of 200 mph (320 km/h).  In practice for the 2012 event Martin Jessop was clocked at 208 mph (335 km/h).  The first meeting was held in 1929.  It is the largest annual sporting event in Ireland, attracting over 150,000 visitors for the weekend.

There have been 16 deaths since the event was first held, with three in one day in 1979.

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The path of the Causeway Way follows the northern leg of the NW200.  My father’s farm was on the road,  just south of Carnalridge.

At the edge of the headland at Portrush, between the port and the recreation grounds is a disused quarry, in which is today located a water amusement park.  Originally it is believed that this was the site of Portrush castle which, together with the church, was ransacked and destroyed by the army of General Munroe in the late 1600s.  It was later demolished to create the walls of the harbour.

It was Richard Óg de Burgh who built the first castle at Dunluce, on the cliffs adjacent to the White Rocks, near Portrush.  The castle was first documented in 1513, as being in the hands of the McQillan family. They were Lords of Route from the late 13th century, until they were displaced by the McDonnells in the late 15th century.

In 1588 the Girona, a galleass from the Spanish Armada, was wrecked on nearby rocks in a storm. Of the 1300 men on board, only nine survived, and were eventually transferred to relative safety in Scotland. About 260 bodies were washed ashore.  In 1967-8 a team of divers located the wreck and much treasure and other valuable items were recovered and are currently held at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

Following the Battle of the Boyne and the defeat of James I in 1690, the McDonnells were impoverished, and since that time the castle deteriorated and parts were scavenged to serve as materials for nearby buildings.

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In 2011, major archaeological excavations found significant remains of the “lost town of Dunluce”, which was razed to the ground in the Irish uprising of 1641. Lying adjacent to Dunluce Castle, the town was built around 1608 by Randall MacDonnell, the first Earl of Antrim, and pre-dates the official Plantation of Ulster.  It may have contained the most revolutionary housing in Europe when it was built in the early 17th century, including indoor toilets which had only started to be introduced around Europe at the time, and a complex street network based on a grid system.  95% of the town is still to be discovered.

Bushmills is a village some 8 km east of Portrush, along the coastal road.  The river Bush passes through the village.  It is home of the world-famous Bushmills Whiskey.  There used to be five distilleries in the region, but only one now survives.  The distillery draws its water not from the river Bush, but from one of its tributaries, Saint Columb’s Rill.

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King James I granted a licence to distil in the area in 1608 and Bushmills claims to be the oldest licenced in the world.  In 2005 the company was acquired by Diageo, but now is in the process of changing ownership with José Cuervo.

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Close to Bushmills is the Giant’s Causeway, an area of basalt columns that descend into the sea.  The Scottish island of Staffa has similar rock formations.  There are approximately 40,000 columns, typically with five to seven sides and measuring up to 25m in height.

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When we moved in to the new house at Islandflackey in the early 1950s, my mother bought a load of five-sided causeway stones, to use in her garden as borders.  I cannot imagine that today that they are quarried in the same manner.

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The Portrush to Bushmills tramline was the first in the world to be powered by hydroelectricity, by water turbines installed in a generating plant at Wakemill Falls outside nearby Bushmills.  The service started in 1883, with an extension to the Giant’s Causeway in 1887.  The line ran from Eglinton Street, beside Portrush railway station and the distance to the Giant’s Causeway was about 15 km.

Initially there was considerable mineral traffic from quarries along the line to shipping in Portrush harbour and there was goods traffic to Bushmills.  By 1900 this business deteriorated and the line relied on tourist traffic, supplemented by military operations during WW2.clip_image007

In late 1949, operations ceased, and the line was dismantled.  The section from Bushmills to the Giant’s Causeway was reconstructed and opened at Easter 2002.

From the Giants Causeway, the path follows the cliffs until one arrives at White Park Bay, and a little further on, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

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There has been a rope bridge there for more than 250 years.  It was used by fisherman laying their nets to catch salmon that used to pass by there, on their way to their spawning rivers.

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The Causeway Path ends at Ballycastle, the port for access to Rathlin Island.  Ballycastle is known for its Ould Llamas Fair, held every year on the last Monday and Tuesday of August.  The fair has been held for at least 400 years and it probably started as a market at the end of the harvest season  These days there are more than 400 stalls and traffic is grid-locked for miles around.

When I was young, I recall being given a packet of dulse from the fair.  Dulse is a reddish edible seaweed, very salty, but allegedly quite nutritious.

I have a long-held ambition to walk around Ireland.  When I finally set out, the first stage will be on the Causeway Path.

 

My Home Town

Portrush is on the north Antrim coast of Ulster, close to the county Derry border.  It was originally a small fishing village built around the port, on a peninsula.  The town was recorded as having been granted to Richard de Burgo in 1305.  There are many spellings of the name of the town – Portros, Portross, Portrossce – all meaning Port on the headland.

Shortly after the ice age, some ten thousand years ago, the headland was an island surrounded by bog land.  Evidence of the bog can at times be found exposed on the West Strand.  Evidence of early settlements have been found where the East Strand car park and Causeway Street are now situated.

Above the Harbour next to Ramore head there used to stand the taller Crannagh Hill but it was quarried away to provide the rock to create the harbour’s pier.  Also around here used to stand a castle known as Castle an Teenie (Castle of Fire), because a light was shone from it on stormy nights to warn sailors of the rocks all around.

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Portrush in the late 1960s

The village of Glenmanus, where I spent my first five years, is less than a mile from Portrush harbour, and just off the road to Coleraine.  Originally Glenmanus would have consisted of a small cluster of houses, surrounded by farm land.  When I was young, Glenmanus was on the edge of Portrush, but today it has been swallowed up by the expansion of the town and the old traditional Irish houses have been demolished and replaced by humdrum modern bungalows.

Portrush remained little more than a fishing village, until the railway between Belfast and Londonderry, via Coleraine, was completed in 1855, with a branch line connecting the latter to Portrush.  With easy access from the industrial cities, Portrush was eventually transformed into a fashionable seaside resort, complete with hotels, boarding houses, golf course, boating, cinemas, amusement arcades, bowling green, tennis courts etc.

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Portrush railway station in the late 1800s

In 1870 the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway purchased the already established Antrim Arms Hotel and renamed it as the Northern Counties Hotel in 1883.  With over 100 rooms overlooking the Atlantic, both at the front and back, it provided luxury accommodation for wealthy tourists visiting the Giant’s Causeway.  It even had an indoor swimming pool in an era when few, if any, existed within many miles   For many years in the late 1940s and 1950s, my father’s dance band played at night in the ballroom during the summer season, as well as the Easter and Christmas holidays, often with an additional session in the afternoon.

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The Northern Counties hotel

An ancient abbey formerly stood on the site of the hotel and its lawn. It was mentioned in a document from 1262. In 1884 portions of the walls were unearthed, with quantities of human bones.

The hotel was destroyed by arson in 1990 and the owner and two others were eventually charged with paying terrorists to burn it down, in order to claim the insurance money.  The owner was Roy Crawford, with whom I used to work at Dalzell & Campbell in Coleraine.

East Strand lies between Portrush and the White Rocks.  In calm weather the water looks inviting, but it is both very cold and dangerous, with strong currents and steeply shelving shore.  Behind the East Strand lies an extensive area of sand dunes.

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The East Strand

About halfway along the strand there is a deep hollow in the sand dunes, between the Strand and the golf course.  Here it is believed took place the Battle of the War Hollow in 1103, in which the King of Norway, Magnus Barefoot, was killed along with many of his supporters.

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The War Hollow

At the eastern strand are the White Rocks, an area of chalk cliffs, with caves, arches and freestanding pillars.

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The White Rocks

North of the East Strand, between one and four kilometres off shore, are the Skerries, a group of seventeen islets which help create a natural breakwater. There is vegetation on four of them. The islet furthest east is called Island Dubh. It is probable that it was named after Tavish Dubh, a pirate, who once frequented the Skerries, and died in his ship there, and was buried on the island.  The place of his grave is unknown. It is said that Tavish Dubh, in 1310, when Edward Bruce invaded North Antrim with the object of winning Ulster, waylaid four English ships bound with provisions for Coleraine, held by an English army, and took their provisions up the river Bann to Bruce, who was in sore straits.  Soon after, Bruce abandoned his attempt.

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The Skerries

On the east side of the largest of these islands there is good shelter, with an anchorage of six fathoms, a place often made use of in later times by smugglers.

In my time, there was a boat that took occasional visitors around the islands, when the sea was relatively placid, but I personally never knew anybody who had ever set a foot on them.

For most of us, they were so near, yet so far away…

Pamplona to Logroño

Kb

Pamplona

Tuesday, 27 March, 2012

I arrived from Uppsala in the mid-afternoon, after an overnight stay in Bayonne, SNCF to Irun, local train to San Sebastian and finally bus to Pamplona.  It felt great to be back in Spain, with the prospect of three weeks of walking from village to village.  After several pictxos (tapas), each accompanied with a glass of local wine, I felt that life could not get much better.

And I slept soundly that night.

 

Pamplona to Puente de La Reina (23km)

Wednesday, 28 March, 2012

It was quite cool when I set out in the morning. The sun does not reach the narrow streets of Pamplona until much later in the day, and then only briefly. When Pamplona was still a fortress, the inhabitants were not allowed to build outside the city walls.  So they expanded vertically.

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The narrow streets of the old city

I started very slowly, as my bad leg did not seem enamoured with the prospect ahead. After some fifteen minutes I emerged into the already strong sun, to realise that I had left my hat in the hotel. So reluctantly I went back and forth once more. I really did not need the extra walk on what was not going to be an easy day.

Once out of Pamplona, the path was undulating, climbing to a col between a multitude of huge wind turbines, strung along the ridge for as far as I could see. The steep descent from the ridge was arduous, on stones that moved with each step. It seemed endless.

But once down from the ridge, the going was easier, passing through several picturesque villages, each with their church, which I imagine pilgrims in the past would have visited. Today the churches are locked, a sign of the times we live in.

Finally I arrived in Puente de la Reina where I would spend the night. This is where two pilgrim routes merge – the northern Roncesvalles route from Paris and the more southern Somport pass route from Toulouse.

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Puente de la Reina, looking back to the wind turbines on the skyline

 

Puente de la Reina to Estella (22km)

Thursday, 29 March, 2012

It was once more quite cold when I set off in the morning, walking though narrow deserted medieval streets. That day there was a general strike in progress, and businesses had not opened.

It was Queen Muniadona, wife of King Sancho III, who built the bridge across the Río Arga, to aid the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.  She died in 1066.

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The bridge over the Río Arga

For a more than an hour I walked on a path along the river before climbing steeply into the hills. It was soon very hot and remained that way all day; not a cloud and no shade. I passed through three villages, each on a hill. Nothing was open.

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In one of the villages I met two old crones, each with her stout stick. They looked ancient.  I asked them if they wanted to walk the camino with me. They cackled and said they had already done it in 1993, after they had buried both their husbands.

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Puente Picudo felt like a steep climb to my tired legs

I was very tired when I arrived in Estella and walked straight into a bunch of heavily armed riot police about to charge a huge group of demonstrators. I made a hasty retreat and after much wandering, I found a hotel.

 

Estella to Los Arcos (21km)

Friday, 30 March, 2012

I set off at the usual time – shortly before nine, bracing myself for the long undulating trudge to the ridge that separates Estella from the next valley. After 45 minutes I came to Monestario de Irache, a former Benedictine monastery.  The first documented reference to the monastery is from 958, but it is likely to have originated from much earlier. It is an imposing building, with huge doors shut, and all windows barred. Were they barred to keep the public out or to keep the religious in?

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Monestario de Irache

Across the street from the monastery was a winery, and in a small courtyard was a wine fountain, for pilgrims only. Pilgrims can drink as much as they wish and also fill any spare bottles. Three old Spanish pilgrims were already there when I arrived, all looking much the worse for wear. I felt sorely tempted to join them, but found a hither unknown common sense, and kept on walking.

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Once over the ridge there was no shelter from the unseasonably strong sun, just mile after mile of vineyards and recently germinated crops. The path was stony and dusty and I was relieved when Los Arcos finally came into sight. The spirit was willing, but my body had seen better years.

 

Los Arcos to Viana (19km)

Saturday, 31 March, 2012

The previous year, when I walked from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Pamplona, I saw several crosses by the path, most with pictures, and even some with quite fresh flowers. They were all of older people and I assume they died while doing El Camino. In the last few days I had seen three more. I cannot but believe that they died as they would have chosen; following their faith, in the open air, and walking in such beautiful country.

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One of the common pruning methods in La Rioja

On that day I passed a quite old couple, having a picnic on the side of a hill, with an uninterrupted view across an expanse of vineyards. They were engrossed in their conversation and did not notice me. Later that day, when I was resting against a tree in an area of shade, I saw them again. They were walking along extremely slowly, hand-in-hand, like two young lovers.

If one of them were to die on El Camino, I suspect the survivor would erect a small cross and return each year to place some fresh flowers.

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The main street of Viana, with the church of Santa Maria

Inevitably, Viana was on top of yet another hill, with a steep access road.  On the long and narrow main street, I stopped at the church.  Inside one can see the tomb of Cesare Borgia, the most famous of the Borgia clan and greatly admired by Macciavelli.  The Borgias came originally from Spain and Cesare was one of the illegitimate sons of Pope Alexander VI.  He was commanding the Basque army of King John of Navarre when he was killed, on 12 March 1507, in a skirmish outside Viana.

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The paving stone commemorating Cesar Borgia

 

Viana to Logroño (9km)

Sunday, 1 April, 2012

When I emerged from the warren of streets of Viana and first saw the dark and intimidating mountains on the western horizon, I decided to have an easy day, and stay in Logroño on the way to Navarrete. And what a good decision that turned out to be, for Logroño proved to be a lively and prosperous town. It is the capital of La Rioja and very much a centre of the wine trade. Producing great wine is one of the few occupations that has not been outsourced to India or China, at least not yet.

On the way into Logroño, I was passed by a couple on horseback, with a dog, and en route to Santiago, with some 600k to go.

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The bridge over the river Ebro

 

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And the bridge at dusk

Later that day the owner of a bar told me that the previous year a pilgrim on horseback had passed through Logroño, having ridden from Switzerland.

I wondered where they stayed…

The Prince

The first method of estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him’    Niccòlo Machiavelli (1469-1527) – ‘The Prince’

When I read The Prince many years ago, that quote reminded me of sage advice that my paternal grandfather once gave me – ‘Judge people by the company they keep’, sound advice that has served me well from time to time.

Machiavelli served under the Borgia family of Florence, the head of which was Pope Alexander VI.  When Pope Alexander suddenly died in 1503 and the Borgia family were eventually defeated by the Medici, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured and eventually exiled from Florence to his nearby farm.  It was said that from his terrace he could see Florence, but he could not return, and never did.

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He wrote ‘The Prince’ as a guide to aspiring rulers, and dedicated it to Lorenzo de Medici, in a forlorn effort to endear himself to the Medici family. It is likely that Machiavelli obtained first-hand experience from observing the strategy and tactics of Pope Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia, as they attempted to conquer and unify several of the Italian city states.

Cesare Borgia was one of the many illegitimate children of Pope Alexander VI. Cesare was born in about 1475 and his father made him Bishop of Pamplona at the age of 15 and archbishop of Valencia and a cardinal while only 17.

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Pope Alexander VI

After his brother’s murder he resigned from the Church to take command of his father’s armies.  When Pope Alexander died suddenly in 1503 and was eventually replaced by Pope Julius II, a Medici and enemy of the Borgia, Cesare struggled to maintain his power.  He was eventually arrested and sent to imprisonment in Spain.  He escaped twice, the second time successfully joining his brother-in-law, King John III of Navarre, in Pamplona.

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Pope Julius II (1452-1513)

Commanding the army of Navarre in 1504, he led them in the siege and eventual capture of Viana, near Logroño.  When some of the besieged knights broke free, Cesare set off after them, but he was ambushed and killed.  He was buried in the church in Viana.

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Cesare Borgia (1475-1507)

In the era after 1527, the local bishop decided that it was not appropriate that a ‘degenerate’ such as Borgia should be buried in the church and his remains were removed and buried in the street, so that everyone had to walk over them.

In 1945 they were once more dug up and placed under a marble plaque outside church grounds and finally moved back inside the church in 2007.

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Church of Santa Maria in Viana

Outside the door of the church there is a paving stone commemorating Cesar Borgia.

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Apparently there used to be an epitaph inscribed on the original tomb:

Aquí yace en poca tierra el que todo le temía

(Here lies in a small piece of earth, he who everyone feared)

Today Viana is a relatively small and peaceful  town on the Camino de Santiago.  It stretches along the crest of a small hill, and is known as the last resting place of a famous Borgia prince.

 

Benandonner’s stone

I have vivid memories of some incidences in my early childhood: falling into the stream at uncle Bill’s farm in Glenmanus; aunt Tisha making butter in a wooden churn; Maurice Elliott crashing into the bushes on his sled on Loquestown hill on a bitterly icy winter morning; my father telling me at breakfast that a fox had got into one of his hen houses during the night.

I have no memory of my mother in that era.  For part of the time she was in the sanatorium in Derry, diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and I was cared for by our next door neighbour, Louise Wilson.

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One of only two pictures I have of me as a baby

For my first five years, we lived in a little wooden house in Glenmanus, on the edge of Portrush, one of many basic dwellings around a field, most occupied by destitute families with no work and few prospects.  In Ireland, the years immediately after the war were not easy years.  By day, my father worked on his fledging poultry farm raising a few chickens, and by night he was pianist and leader of a Portrush dance band.

But my mother’s uncle Bill believed in my father’s farming vision and leased him some of his land at Islandflackey, at a nominal rent, a mile from the village, and helped him to obtain a mortgage to build a new house. It cost just over £1,000.

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The original house at Islandflackey circa 1954

And so the poultry farm of ‘Greenacres’ was born.

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The house and farm buildings circa 1960

There was already a ruined Irish cottage on the site, close to the road.  It had been burned down at some time in the past. It was demolished and a new ‘bungalow’ built a little further back, on a freshly levelled site.

Initially there was no electricity, no running water, and only an outside toilet.  At night we used a paraffin lamp, drinking water came from a neighbouring well, washing water from the constant supply from the roof, and the toilet was a tin can in an outhouse, that my father periodically emptied on the midden.  And the sole heat was from the coal fireplace in the kitchen, and on special occasions, a fireplace in the living room.

Although one could tolerate the inconveniences, with livestock, the lack of running water was a major problem.

My father employed a water diviner to see if he could find a source.  I remember the man walking back and forth over the fields, with a forked sapling in his hands, but the only possibility he came up with was just behind the house.

So they started digging a well about 1.50 m in diameter.  When they were about 2 m deep, with no evidence of water, the attempt was abandoned.

I don’t remember how long it took, but finally we were connected to the water and electricity services.  The indoor bathroom took much longer.  I suspect that my father could not afford the expense.  But eventually a cess pool was built, pipes laid and the storeroom was converted into a bathroom.

The other ‘luxuries’ took a little longer; the first television rented when I was perhaps 11, a little second-hand car bought when I was about eighteen, and a rudimentary shower and central heating many years later, long after I had migrated.

My mother never did have a fridge, washing machine or drier.  Her life was never an easy one.

Behind the house, just above where the failed well was abandoned, there was a huge boulder, at least as a child I remember it as being very big.  It was circular and smooth all over, like a massive pebble.  I did not know where it came from, but it must have been in the vicinity when the new house was built.

I used to imagine that it had been thrown by the Scottish giant, Benandonner, missing Finn McCool, the Irish giant, at the Giant’s Causeway, during one of their fights, and ending up on our land.  The Giant’s Causeway is connected to Scotland, and as a child,  I believed that there must have been some basis to the legend. The Giant’s Causeway was not  far from our farm.

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The Giant´s Causeway, looking inland
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And looking across the sea to Scotland

When I was still young, I clearly remember a passing visit from Sam Wilson.  It was his wife who looked me when I was very young.  According to my mother he was a remote relation, but to this day I have never discovered the link.  When he saw the stone, he asked my father to fetch his heaviest hammer and he would break it up for him.

Now Sam was a powerfully built man and the heavy hammer was but a toy in his hands.  He swung and struck the rock with all his power, but the hammer just bounced off it.  He winged and whanged and the sparks flew, but to no avail.  Not even a small chip of the rock yielded.

Sweating profusely and red in the face, Sam eventually capitulated.

Not so long later, when I had just turned 11, Sam dropped dead of coronary thrombosis at the age of 47.

And somewhere on the former ‘Greenacres’, I suspect that Benandonner’s stone still stands intact.

Volcán Agua

Antigua, Guatemala

April, 1976

The original city of Antigua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadores, and was called Ciudad de los Caballeros de Santiago de Guatemala, but it was destroyed in 1541 by a mudflow from nearby Volcán Agua, possibly caused by an eruption.  The survivors relocated to the current location.

Antigua is surrounded by four volcanoes and in the intervening years has been once devastated and many times damaged by earthquakes.  These days it is known as one of the best surviving examples of colonial Spanish architecture.  It was there that we found a comfortable room in a remote wing of an old mansion, owned by a building contractor.

At 3760 m, Volcán Agua towers some 2100 m over Antigua, and the base at Santa María de Jesús is about 10 km south of the city.  From my first sight of the volcano, I wanted to climb it.  Locals told me that one needed two days, spending the night in the crater.  But I had neither suitable equipment nor clothes to spend the night at altitude.  I decided to do it in one day.

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The Arco de Santa Catarina, with Volcán Agua in the background (photo from internet)

So one morning I woke up long before dawn, carefully closing the heavy front door, across the courtyard, and through the outer door to the silent street outside.  No cars, no dogs, not even the crow of roosters, still asleep in their coops.  Nothing stirred in Antigua.

Walking in the middle of the cobblestoned streets, without a car in sight, one could have been transformed in time to the Middle Ages.  Past the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, many times destroyed by earthquakes since 1541 and rebuilt.  Under the Arco de Santa Catarina, past the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral and the church of San José and out into the countryside.  And once out of the city and away from the polluting neon lights, I could see, towering in the distance, the bulk of Volcán Agua.

After some time, the sounds of my own breathing and plodding footsteps were interrupted by voices, first faint and then becoming more distinct.  I hesitated, not sure whether those that approached would prove friendly or a threat.  Then out of the half-light appeared a large group of people; some men, some women and a horde of children of all ages from teenagers to quite young.  All carried massive bundles on their backs and heads.  One carried chickens trussed together, one had cages containing wild birds, others carried bundles of various vegetables.  Even the youngest, probably no more than four or five years old, had her burden.  They were heading to the market.  ‘Buenos días señor, buenos días, bueños días…  One by one the greeted me, as they passed.   There would be no school for those children that day, perhaps not any day.  For them earning a living and surviving may have had a priority to learning.

It was almost sunrise when I arrived at the village of Santa María de Jesús.  I continued through the village, up a long steep street, until I arrived at the last of the houses and a police post.  I had to produce my identification (passport) and sign a logbook.  I could see that not many people had passed that way in recent weeks.

From the police post the path climbed on long loops, back and forth across the slopes of the volcano, steadily ascending.  It was already a warm day in the sun, but still cool in the shade of the trees. I continued at a steady pace for the first couple of hours, until I was well above the tree line.  A bank of clouds moved in and I was soon walking through a thick fog.  It was noticeably cooler.

When I finally emerged above the clouds, the view was stunning.  Below me was an ocean of white with several volcanos dotted about, like upturned ice cream cones.  And the most impressive of them was nearby, Volcán Fuego, spouting towering clouds of smoke and ashes, and bleeding the vivid red of the streams of lava.  It was a magnificent spectacle.

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Volcan Fuego in early evening (photo from internet)

But by now, my progress had very much slowed.  My breathing was very heavy and my heart was beating so much, that I could feel the rapid thumping in my forehead.  In the last thirty minutes trudging steeply up on loose rocks and dust of the old lava flows, I found myself taking ten steps, resting for ten seconds, in repetition, until I finally reached the highest point on the mountain.

Down below, on the bed of the crater, I could see a partially completed building. I found out later that it was intended to be a religious retreat.  I was tempted to try to find a path down into the crater, but decided against it.  If I wanted to descend before dark, I needed to soon start back.  I then understood why most people did the climb over two days.

Although relatively easy at first, descending brings into play a different set of muscles.  It is not until the descent does one realize how far one has ascended on a mountain.  After two hours I realized that I was not much more than half-way down, and the sun was visibly lower in the sky.

It was not long after I was back in the trees, that I heard a crashing and thudding coming in my direction.  I did not have time to even imagine what it could have been, when a group of Indians burst out of the trees, across the road in front of me, laughing, shouting waving, and noisily disappearing headlong down a non-existent path.  I guessed that they were workers from the building work in the crater, and for them, straight down the mountain was preferable to the tourist path that I was on.

I was not tempted to follow them.

I reached the police post at just after 17:00, signed the logbook, and headed back along the road to Antigua.  It was already dark when I passed under the Arco de Santa Catarina.