Discovering the joys of the Monaghan and Armagh landscapes while venturing north, comes highly-recommended by Noel Baker
O stony grey soil of Monaghan, You... invested wisely in my bank of oncoming middle age?
It’s not very lyrical, I grant you, and it obviously doesn’t compare to Patrick Kavanagh’s cry for a lost youth, first disclosed through the pages of Soundings and the ache of youth, but all these decades later, his home county of Monaghan is far from the land that will feed you swinish food or fling a ditch on your vision. If the bould Patrick was to potter through the borderlands now, all a-jitter amid Brexit backstop uncertainty, he will find a place flourishing with creativity, fun and peace and quiet. Sure didn’t he love a canal bank walk himself?
As part of our annual family trek south to north for the family summer holiday, we’ve taken to breaking up the journey — Monaghan and Armagh direction, mostly. But with the ascension of Boris Johnson to Number 10 Downing St, a hard Brexit is hoving into view and with it, the prospect of a hard border. They want to take a yellowhammer to the backstop. What will it all mean?
No-one is quite sure, but if our experience is any guide, gumming up the works in this part of the world would do a serious disservice to an area that feels like it is kicking on.
Our first stop was two nights at the gorgeous Castle Leslie Estate in Glaslough village, just a few kicks of a ball from the border. It’s almost a holiday in itself: undulating grassland and lakes blending into thick forests, spread across some 1,000 acres, and accommodation options galore.
The 20-room Castle is a popular wedding venue, and we had previously stayed at the Stable Mews - two bedroom terraced affairs so beautifully appointed that you’d happily sell up your own gaff and move in, if only to pursue any outstanding Jay Gatsby fantasies.
However, the latest addition is a two-storey 21-room extension to the Lodge, bringing the hub of the whole affair up to 50 rooms, the new entrants each named after horses, past and present, at the Castle’s equestrian centre (they have 50 horses at present) and little courtyards. The central lobby areas feature local art, giving it a gallery vibe.
You could awake from a deep slumber and be in your gear and strolling up through Glaslough within five minutes. Castle Leslie also has plenty of activities to offer its visitors and is a great base for the area: Monaghan town is 15 minutes away, Armagh not much farther in the other direction.
The first port of call was a family spin on some hire bikes. Paddy McQuaid is the owner/operator of Drumlin Trails, located to the rear of his filling station just a pedal out the road from Gaslough. As well as an extensive range of bicycles, he is also a local historian of some renown. His website — www.drumlintrails.com — is brilliant, offering a range of routes of different distances and levels of difficulty, but all easily transferable to google maps with the press of a smartphone button. It also has loads of accompanying historical and local detail and the bikes have phone holders for ease of navigation.
There was five of us, so we took on the less challenging 6km Glennan, Donagh and Glaslough trail, but even this small triangle takes in a Viking Fort, a Monastic settlement and the old Glaslough Rail station. The biggest thrill is the e-bike — my first time on one — and the ease with which you push along roads and up hills.
You can see why people take on longer and more challenging trips, including Paddy’s specially-designed Brexit trail, which snakes along the border. The changes that could be wrought be a hard border can’t be overemphasised here - as things stand you can literally pedal back and forth. Paddy is trying to remain sanguine about what October might bring.
“I feel a big change is on the way,” he says, outlining how Brexit might end up bringing a border poll closer to being.
After returning the bikes, we strolled through the woods of Castle Leslie and then took the short walk to Busy Bee Ceramics, run by Brenda McGinn. This was the highlight of our entire trip — all five of us, each with a potter’s wheel, trying and mostly succeeding in fashioning something resembling a pot under Brenda’s watchful gaze.
It might be a cliche but there is something therapeutic about feeling the clay in your hands as it spins around. It also turns out that Monaghan could do better when it comes to giving its clod conceived. Brenda explains how Monaghan’s soil actually yields fantastic clay, but it just doesn’t pay for people to bring it up from the earth, meaning she has to import hers from Stoke-on-Trent.
Maybe this will change with Brexit, maybe not, but it’s hard to think her business — offering pottery classes and activities as well as beautiful bespoke ceramics to buy — will be deeply impacted by a Brexit Border. Glaslough is as likely to play host to a Porsche as a Massey Ferguson and the kind of visitor that pops in here sees it as a destination, not a passing-through point.
The streets are lined with history, while Brenda’s handcrafted bowls end up encasing your cereal in Castle Leslie at breakfast time. More and more, it seems a place apart.
The clay now washed from our hands we went across the border and grabbed some food in Uluru in Armagh city centre before heading out to Navan Centre and Fort for what proved a special and ancient occasion - the celebration of Lughnasa.
First up: what a setting. Home to an ancient ceremonial monument and one of the great royal sites of pre-Christian Ireland, it’s perfect for the annual Gathering event. As twilight fell we saw spectacular fire performances by FirePoise, Irish wolfhounds, *the* the Harry Potter Owl, as well as facepainting and music before it was time for the celebration of Lughnasa and the retelling of the story of Lugh himself.
With darkness tumbling the swordplay between the actors resulted in flying sparks, thundering drums and the burning of symbolic effigies of harvest. It stirred the Celtic blood and reminded us of a heritage - one shared by people on both sides of the border - that sometimes we too easily forget.
Our two-night stay in Castle Leslie at an end we headed to Dundrum House Hotel, a 1720 Georgian country manor alongside the Fallen River. Before docking for the night, we had two stops to make: the Armagh Planetarium and then a visit to the Armagh Cider Company in Ireland’s Orchard County.
The Planetarium is outstanding. Under its domed roof we watched the ‘Beyond the Blue’ presentation of our night sky, brilliantly illustrated through lights and lasers. Afterwards you can touch a 22 stone meteorite from Argentina and view other space rocks, then build your own rocket from a coke bottle and launch it into the air outside.
After that astral afternoon, it was time for apple refreshment. Philip and Helen Troughton run the Armagh Cider Company from their 3,500 acre orchard near Craigavon. It’s an education, learning about the localised ecosystem that means this is the most northerly apple-growing area in Ireland or the UK, how crewing cider was initially done to sterilise brackish water drank by troops who arrived here from the Continent for the Plantation, and the finesse required to secure the best harvest.
Helen and Philip grow 95% Bramley apples; Philip describes himself as a cider maker who grows apples and also as a Remainer who now just wants Brexit to be over. People in the North voted to remain, yet it seems there’s now just a desire for certainty — of any kind.
Yet, there are complications. The Armagh Bramley apples recently scored PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status, putting it up there with Champagne and Italian Castelmagno cheese. “Will Brexit mean we lose that?” Philip asks. Again, at this stage who can say? What is true is that the produce from here is mouthwatering.
If, like me, you abandoned cider after one manky flagon too many in your youth, the Bramley stuff will reignite your tastebuds. You can also press your own apple juice and have some absolutely gorgeous apple tart with juice, cider, tea or coffee in the factory’s rustic long room, seated at the trunk length table, while viewing other local wares from artisan producers.
All that was left to do was grab some food near our lodgings at Basil Sheils, a curio by the crossroads that does an excellent steak and manages to have Foster and Allen LPs on display inside while blaring 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ (uncensored version) at full volume outside. Before we headed back for a great night’s sleep I clocked the signpost outside the restaurant: Newry 17 miles, Dublin 70, Cork 245... A reminder that, backstop or not, we’re all living in a small place, and one with many connections and hidden treasures. As Patrick Kavanagh was drawn inexorably to the city, maybe we should be looking the other way, to the rivers and drumlins that have seen borders come and go.