Blarney Stone

I first came to Ireland over twenty years ago—it was love at first sight. At the time I was working in one of the two sea loughs that form the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Times were very different then, and the euphemistically-termed ‘troubles’ were in full swing.

There was a British gunship anchored in the middle of Carlingford Lough, stuffed with royal marines who hadn’t been ashore for weeks. Any device that looked even vaguely electronic would be blown out of the water in short order.

County Down and South Armagh, on the UK side of the lough, were known to the British army as bandit country. In that area, just as in Derry, it was easy for the IRA to slip back across the border into Ireland after raiding the North.

The Anglo-Irish war was so devastating that still today the two nations cannot agree a frontier line over the water, so neither Carlingford nor the Foyle have a political demarcation. This creates some very interesting situations for water managers on both sides of the border.

When you landed in Dublin in the early 1990’s, the road signs gave you a choice of highways: you could either take the M1 or the M50. I was immediately perplexed: given this profligate enumeration, were there another forty-eight freeways?

I’m delighted to report that as of last Sunday, the other forty-eight remain as elusive at the yeti—despite years of Celtic tiger growth, tempered by a blitz of austerity, the sign is still there.

That first time, I embarked on the M50 on my journey west. There were five miles of motorway, I paid my toll (in Irish punts) and was unceremoniously deposited on a one-lane road, where I alternated between ponderous progress behind trucks and buses, and a snail’s pace behind farm tractors.

Ordinarily, my foot tends to rest a little heavy on the gas, but my leisurely trip gave me ample time to observe road signs, pedestrians, even the occasional ant hill. The signs only reinforced my conviction that no one in this country was in any hurry whatsoever.

More importantly, as I gained distance from Dublin, my destination was sometimes tantalizingly close, only to become increasingly remote at the next sign. After a while, I realized the signs were a mixture of old and new, and variously reported my course in miles and kilometers.

The M1, on the other hand, takes the visitor north toward Belfast—I took the off ramp just south of Carlingford Lough.

I drove on a small road across the border between the Republic and Northern Island, headed toward Warrenpoint. The road east follows the course of the River Newry, with breathtaking mountain scenery on the Irish side.

Just before you get to the town is Narrow Water Castle, built in the mid-sixteenth century by John Sancky. He charged £361.4s.2d, about five hundred dollars, for the construction, and was then paid two shillings a day as warder.

The tower stands between the road and the river, and it was there, in 1979, than the British army suffered its most devastating losses of all the war.

The castle at Narrow Water, at the top of Carlingford Lough.

The castle at Narrow Water, at the top of Carlingford Lough.

A fertilizer bomb hidden in a parked truck was detonated just as an army convoy passed. The vehicles belonged to the parachute regiment, second battalion. The Irish Republican Army had a particular hatred for the paras—the first battalion had been responsible for the death of fourteen unarmed republicans in the Bloody Sunday massacre two years before.

The force of the blast was so great that the nineteen year old driver of the truck carrying the troops was obliterated—the only remaining part was his pelvis, welded to the seat by the fierce heat.

Colonel Blair took charge of the rescue operation. The IRA had noted that the British forces set up a perimeter following any bombing incident, and true to form, the army arrived at Narrow Water to deal with the dead and wounded.

It was at this point that the second bomb was detonated—this time the explosives were concealed in milk pails. All that remained of the good colonel was one epaulette, which was duly shown to Prime Minister Thatcher as evidence of the severity of the attack.

Many years have passed since this and other tragedies of the Irish wars occurred. For a visitor, in my case an assiduous one, the rampant violence of recent years and occasional flare-ups of today are always surprising. I can think of no gentler people than the Irish, both in the north and south. To my mind, that Celtic warmth has always made them the Portuguese of the north.

Decades after my first visit, the country remains delightfully (if frustratingly) disorganized, and the population deals with it with charm and patience. The guy who gives your passport back at immigration bids you farewell: “Good man!”

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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