Sligo to the Frictionless Border: The IRA, no Spuds, and no Injector

Far from wasting valuable time heading back South to the Ford garage at Ennis, we’ve actually been very busy tourists over the last few days. If only things had gone according to plan with the fuel injector…

Overview: 4 days, 376 miles


So there we were, driving South through County Roscommon at the start of our journey back South to Ennis, when what should we see but a big shiny sculpture of a horse and rider off to one side of the road. It immediately made me think of the Kelpies; probably something to do with the boldness of the sculpture and / or the shinyness of the finish.

By the time we’d both turned and uttered the words “what’s that?”, we had sailed past the turning for a minor road that may or may not have given access to parking. I’ve looked it up online and here it is:

Apparently, it’s a Gaelic chieftain, and marks the site of an important battle in 1599.

A bit further down the road, we spotted another big sculpture. We weren’t about to miss this one too! Mark immediately indicated left and we swung into a small parking area and went to have a look:

It’s the sort of thing that, back in the UK, would definitely turn out to be a World War 1 memorial.

“Ah”, said Mark, “it’s an IRA memorial”:

“They gave their lives for the 32 county Republic which has yet to be attained”

The statue was unveiled in 1963. Different times? I really don’t know. The most recent addition, a memorial to a chap called Ruairi O Bradaigh, was only erected in 2016:

“His life was devoted to the principles of the 1916 proclamation and the establishment of a 32 county Irish Republic”

I really don’t know what to make of it; I’ll leave it to you to formulate your own opinions.

Mark then said exactly what I’d just been thinking. “Oh sh**, it’s a good job SOK isn’t still wearing his poppy”. We figured that given our UK number plate, it was probably a good idea to make a reasonably swift exit anyway…..

Our first scheduled stop was at Strokestown House and National Famine Museum. Strokestown is a 1740s Palladian house that remained in the same family until 1979 when it was bought by a local businessman.

The house itself is still full of all the clutter you’d expect was there when it was vacated by its last, elderly, resident. I didn’t find the tour overly informative, but Mark really liked it. His favourite bit of clutter was a Hornby clockwork train identical to the one he used to play with as a child at his nanny’s house (and which had presumably belonged to his dad?).

We weren’t there for the clutter-filled house though. When the house changed hands in 1979, over 40,000 documents were found in the old estate office, providing a detailed picture of the management of the estate over time and an important insight into the famine period.

During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1850, over 2.5 million people, of a total population of 8.5 million, either died or emigrated. We’ve found no shortage of museums around Ireland offering information on the famine; indeed, in the South-West, it seemed that all you needed was a ramshackle cottage (of which there are plenty dotting the landscape) and you could slap up a sign reading “Original Famine Cottage” – Hey Presto! you have yourself a visitor attraction!

I had decided that, sticking to our general principle of one museum per topic, Strokestown was the place to go for famine information, being the National Famine Museum and claiming to draw on specific archive material from the estate rather than wishy-washy “wasn’t life grim when there were no spuds?”-type stuff (those who know me well will know that I don’t do wishy-washy!).

The old stables at Strokestown now house the famine museum, explaining many aspects of the famine (feel free to skip the bullet points if it’s too much information!):

  • the significant growth of the population, almost doubling to 8.5 million between 1780 and 1845, resulting in increased reliance on the potato (the only crop able to deliver enough calories to maintain a household on the tiny plots many families now had available);
  • a decline in the demand for labour (as land was converted to pasture) and the collapse of the cottage linen industry (due to the introduction of mechanisation) produced a substantial increase in the “destitute poor” during the early 19th century;
  • the highly indebted state of many of the landed estates, and pressure for landlords to evict tenants to free land up for pasture to increase returns;
  • once famine struck, the high and increasing burden that poor rates placed on landowners (up to 50% tax in some counties), the inadequate response of the “free trade” Whig government at Westminster, and the measures taken by Irish landlords to try to deal with the disaster.

At Strokestown, the plan for dealing with the famine was: to clear 2/3 of the tenants (around 8,000 people), make a switch from growing potatoes to growing oats, and promote emigration on a massive scale. Getting rid of the poor would save a fortune in poor rates; shipping a family to Canada cost less than half of keeping them in the workhouse for a year. Unfortunately, many of the 1000+ tenants sent for emigration from Strokestown died, either on the long walk to Dublin, on the coffin ships, or from disease after arrival in Canada. The landlord didn’t do much better though; he was assassinated in November 1847 in protest at the mass evictions (a case of mistaken identity; the overzealous land agent carrying out the evictions had been the killers’ target). All grim stuff….

Our next stop was Clonmacnoise, a monastery founded by St Ciarán in 544AD and one of the most important monasteries in Ireland during the medieval period.

Clonmacnoise stands on the banks of the river Shannon. It’s an attractive enough set of monastic ruins, though I can’t say that it stood out for me among the other sites that we’ve visited.

Perhaps part of my problem with Clonmacnoise was that it’s been turned into a proper tourist attraction, with a visitor centre and an €8 admission fee (as it’s managed by OPW, we got in free with our English Heritage cards, but still…)

One very impressive thing was the early 10th century High Cross in the visitor centre, one of the four most important in Ireland.

Mark particularly liked this illustration of a figure on the cross of Moone at Moone Abbey in Kildare (to the West of Dublin; we haven’t been there but we’ve put it on our list for a future visit). He is convinced that it shows an ancestor of Bod (that will only make sense to UK readers of a certain vintage……):

In contrast, we really liked Clonfert Cathedral. It’s a 12th century cathedral built on the site of an earlier 6th century church founded by St Brendan.

It’s known for having the best Hiberno-Romanesque doorway in Ireland.

I think the best thing about Clonfert Cathedral is that it’s completely unpretentious. There are no road signs as you approach it along narrow lanes, and there’s no charge for visiting when you do get there.

The interior of the cathedral houses some more impressive stone carvings:

The creature below is apparently a wyfren (now there’s a good Scrabble word!), a two-legged dragon commonly depicted in medieval times:

After a busy day of tourism, we arrived at a fantastic aire at Portumna, which is at the Northern end of Lough Derg. Not far from the town centre and next to a very cute little marina, this place had everything you could want for €10 a night (not including electricity; for that you need to buy a card from the supermarket in town). We liked it so much that we decided to return to Portumna on Wednesday night, at the start of our return journey North.

Tuesday saw us heading towards Ennis. We had a look at Kilmacduagh, a monastery founded in the early 7th century by St Colman Mac Duagh. The round tower is allegedly two feet out of perpendicular, though from some angles it looked more than that. We’ve already been told about round towers having shallow foundations and wondered if the tower is in any imminent danger of toppling.

We drove through the Eastern side of the Burren this time for another look at the fabulous limestone scenery:

We had plenty of time to squeeze in a visit to Quin Abbey on Tuesday afternoon, a Franciscan friary founded in 1433 on the footprint of a ruined Anglo-Norman castle. You can still see some of the remains of the castle; here’s the base of one of the four corner towers:

Wednesday was Mark’s birthday but was in other respects a big disappointment. We handed SOK over bright and early and wandered into Ennis, expecting the work to be complete by about lunchtime.

We took the opportunity to have a look around Ennis Friary, a Franciscan friary, the earliest parts of which date back to around 1285 AD. Here’s St Francis himself:

We were looking at the other stone carvings in the friary when the garage called with news of a problem. They couldn’t get the old injector out, and were worried that if they attempted to “encourage” it, it might break, in which case we’d be left stranded in Ennis for a week or more. They’d contacted the “Ford helpline” and tried everything they’d suggested, to no avail. They didn’t want to risk going any further.

SOK’s now booked in at the Ford garage at home for the day after we get back. We’re assured that the injector should be fine until then, and that there are no warranty implications from delaying. We left armed with plenty of paper to document our visit to the Ford garage in Ennis and their diagnosis. Now we can only hope that the Ford garage at home can get the injector out without any disasters….. At least if it all goes wrong there, we’ll have alternative accommodation close at hand whilst they sort it out.

As we mentioned above, we’d already decided to head back to the aire at Portumna last night after leaving Ennis. Apart from being a really nice place, with all the necessary motorhome facilities at the aire and washing machines at the local supermarket, it also has a castle and a friary to look at, which we did this morning (Thursday) before leaving.

The castle looks good from the front. We soon discovered, though, that the place burned down in 1828 and consisted of just four walls when the OPC took it on in the 1960s. They’ve since done a huge amount of work (including putting a roof on it and rebuilding the huge highly decorative chimneys), but there’s plenty still to do:

The castle was built around 1610 for the 4th Earl of Clanricarde whose English seat was at Somerhill near Tonbridge (which nowadays houses an independent school). The ground floor of the castle (the only part that’s accessible) contains an exhibition on the castle and the history of the family. The best part starts in the late 19th century with the 2nd Marquess, who was a known miser, eccentric, and notoriously repressive absentee landlord of his Irish estates. This guy was so unpleasant that an Act ended up being put before Parliament to expropriate his estates; this was passed almost unanimously with only 3 MPs voting against.

When the 2nd Marquess died childless in 1916, most of his titles became extinct but his sizeable fortune went to a great nephew. The nephew was Henry Lascelles, the future 6th Lord Harewood, who hence became independently wealthy in advance of receiving the Harewood inheritance. Lascelles went on to marry Princess Mary, the only daughter of George V and Queen Mary (i.e. the aunt of our current Queen), in 1922. A certain Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the future Queen Mum) was a bridesmaid…..

The walled garden at Portumna Castle is looking much more “finished” than the castle itself:

Portumna Friary, just outside the castle, is a 13th century Cistercian building that was given to the Dominicans sometime before 1414. Most of the ruins you can see today date to the 15th century:

This afternoon was spent driving from Portumna up past Cavan and just across the border into Northern Ireland. We’re now parked up for the night at a quiet little spot on Upper Lough Erne (GPS 54.203460, -7.495420):

We crossed the “frictionless border” that’s currently keeping the politicians awake at night not too many miles before arriving here. “Invisible border” might be a better description. It wasn’t at all like crossing one of the borders in the Schengen area; no signs of old border posts, no signs at all in fact. All that happened is that one road sign was in km and the next one was in miles. “Oh, was that it?” said Mark.

We’ve already been told by a friendly passing local that Theresa May was in the area today to “have a look at the border”. We’ll have to hope that she brought her bionic specs…..


  1. *LOVED* this blog post. It sounds so interesting. Your experience seems to make the argument for jumping off the beaten path. Especially love the 1599 chieftain statue. It’s the rare statue that seems to me to have some life to it. You know, makes being mounted on a horse seem glamourous and rewarding.But I enjoyed everything you explored. Thanks kindly!


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