Into the West — Larne to Westport

The fastest route to Limerick from Larne is probably due south to Dublin and then across to the West, the route we took as a family when we first visited Ireland together on the weekend of the Good Friday agreement.   At that time, the IRA and Unionist cease-fires had been in operation for several years and the border checkpoints, while still very visible, were not in use.  However, I vividly recall the gradual realisation that the alternating villages we drove through: one prosperous and brightly bedecked with red, blue and white painted kerbstones, followed by one more down at heel with a large church in the middle, were in fact alternating protestant and catholic villages, bringing home so sharply the social as well as political and religious differences.

Whether it is passing time, or simply a different route, but I didn’t notice the extreme differences this time.  However some things don’t change and beside the road, strapped to each lamppost, flap the Union Flag, the flag of St George with the hand of Ulster in the middle and even Scotland’s flag of St Andrew, but never the flag of St Patrick nor, of course, the tricolour1!  Like Norman castles in Wales, masonry also remains, and the heavily armoured police stations contrast so strongly with the bungalow with its ‘Police’ sign in Tiree.

As I had Saturday and Sunday to get to Limerick, rather than driving directly I planned to go to Doolin for the night.  However, not content with this detour, I decided also to go to Westport on the way.  I don’t fully understand this Celtic longing for the western seaboard.  Is it deep in my blood from birth, or borne from stories of the downed cantref beyond Aberdyfy and Tír na nÓg?  It is certainly not America, but somewhere out there in the Atlantic, caught between the wave trammelled coast and the crack in the earth that is the mid-Atlantic ridge, is a path into fairyland and myth that draws at something deep in the heart.

My route south from Larne took me through places that evoked again those childhood memories: Omagh, Antrim, and road signs to others: Enniskillen, Londonderry.  Like South Africa, it seemed so impossible that things could ever change and yet, despite problems still in both, it is a different world; hope still for other parts of the world that today seem equally impossible.

In those days there would have been check-points at the border, but travelling now I never even noticed a sign to say when I crossed from Northern Ireland to Eire.  However, as I drove through Ballyshannon I had no doubts that I was in the South: bright coloured shop fronts and ramshackle road signs, a country whose spirit is far more like southern Europe, than the cooler Northern blood that often mistakes tidiness for godliness — what happened to the hot fire that flowed through the veins of Visgoth and Viking?

I would have loved to have more time to stop along the way, camp on Boa Island at the top of Loch Erne looking out at the hills that tumble into the water across the Loch, or climbing Benbulben that, while gentler from the West and South, to the North rises square faced and square sided like a wooden-block mountain in child’s counterpane landscape. However, I did not stop and drove on towards the West, through the thick traffic near Sligo, and on into the County Mayo countryside.  It would have been good to stop and stare, to spend time savouring each place; and given time I would do so, but with limited time I always choose to move rather than stay, to feel the miles flow past whether by foot or car.  Like the thirst for the western shore, the itinerant spirit runs deep in my heart, and as a child I dreamed of being a gypsy or a tramp, living along the paths of the land.

next Serendipity and Song — Westport to Doolin

  1. To be fair south of the border tourist shops accept payment in euro or US dollars, but not pounds (not even Scottish pounds), and on flag poles fly the flags of Ireland, the EU, USA, France, Germany, Italy … but never the UK.[back]

Justice and mercy: al-Megrahi

I’ve been away most of the last two weeks with just a few days at home in between.  However, just before I was first away I heard the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announce the release of al-Megrahi.  The decision was clearly hard and arbitrating the balance between justice and compassion is an unenviable task.

Whether the final decision was right or wrong, hearing MacAskill’s explanation of his decisions made me proud to be living in Scotland. Rather than bowing to the clear political pressure he was under, instead he kept his focus on what justice means in a land where compassion is at the heart of who we are.  In a world often ravaged by war and terror, suffering under human cruelty, and governed by the twins of aggression and revenge, MacAskill put himself under a  higher order and demonstrated the clear difference between a country still under the influence of its Christian past and those, from all sides, who besmirch the names of their own countries and religions by terror and violence.

Since then the grubby world of UK deals over oil and US deals over billions of dollars of compensation payments have both been aired, but it appears that MacAskill’s decision stood against pressure from all sides.

It was perhaps inevitable that the release would provoke some controversy, but disappointing nonetheless; one always hopes that integrity will triumph over knee-jerk reactions.  However, it has been especially galling to hear US voices raised in protest, a country which for so many years acted as safe haven for IRA fund raising; bankrolling the London bombings of the 1970s and beyond.  While Gaddafi supplied the weapons, the US public supplied the dollars1.  I was only young at the time, but these were vicious attacks in crowded tube trains and on the streets of London and elsewhere, designed specifically to cause maximum death and injury; and all the while, in the US, the IRA were allowed to operate freely due to political support in high places.

Obama came to power with the promise of a new attitude and a principled approach to politics, so it is doubly disappointing that he has failed this early test of principle over public opinion.  If the current White House staff cannot accept the independence of the Scottish justice system over politics, what hope in other parts of the world.

  1. Of course, while the Libyan involvement in the Lockerbie bombing and al-Megrahi’s guilt have been a matter of debate, the involvement of Libya in IRA terrorism was indisputable.   Since those days the IRA have become part of the Northern Ireland political process and Libya itself has been welcomed into the allied camp of the ‘war on terror’.  Whether in India, Israel or Ireland, yesterday’s terrorists become today’s politicians.  This makes the focus on al-Megrahi seem even more like that of a scapegoat.[back]