September 2022. We just completed the first US-Ireland Alliance cycle along the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The four-day/five-night tour explored the history and heritage of the borderlands from Carlingford Lough to Lough Erne and traced the border as it ran through fjords, rivers, lakes, and streams and over mountains and drumlins. The days were spent crisscrossing the border separating the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom, visiting sites of historical and cultural significance, and learning how the border impacted communities North and South. The nights were spent with gracious hosts in a selection of the finest manor houses and castles on both sides of the border, including Killeavy Castle, Castle Leslie, Hilton Park, and Crom Castle.
At Castle Leslie, we were joined by special guests, including former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and Monica McWilliams, former member of the Women’s Coalition and the Northern Ireland Assembly – two people who were directly involved in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and who remain committed to the work of lasting peace.
The idea for the cycle, which we hope to turn into a periodic fundraiser for the US-Ireland Alliance, originated with Brian Barrington, former special adviser to Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan of the SDLP and Trina Vargo, founder of the US-Ireland Alliance and former foreign policy adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy. The hope was to give people an opportunity to learn about the border, The Troubles, the peace, and Brexit, all while cycling, enjoying great company, excellent food, lovely accommodations, and even some lake swims.
Today, one can traverse the border seamlessly, and repeatedly -- often within minutes, and with little indication of the crossings, save for the difference in road signs -- kilometers in Ireland, miles per hour in Northern Ireland; “Yield” in Ireland, “Give Way” in Northern Ireland.
The border area is predominately populated by Catholics, with pockets of Protestants. It was here that the IRA’s armed campaign was often at its most intense. The trip included stops at Narrow Water/Warrenpoint which, in 1979, was a site of a deadly day of IRA violence. The photo of the statue of the Virgin Mary was taken on an embankment by the car park at the western end of Templetown Beach, where the body of Jean McConville was unearthed. McConville was one of several people “disappeared” by the IRA during the Troubles and she was the focus of Patrick Radden Keefe’s book, Say Nothing. In Knockatallon, we saw the memorial to IRA man Seamus McElwaine. Also discussed was the Loyalist violence of the Glennane Gang’s atrocities. Belfast filmmaker, Trevor Birney, was another of our special guests. His film, NO STONE UNTURNED, documents the 1994 massacre at Loughinisland and collusion between the Northern Ireland and British security forces. And a lot may be learned about the geography of the area in a book by another of our special guests, Garrett Carr, author of The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border. There are, at least, over 200 border crossings -- more than the number of border crossings between the entire EU and the non-EU countries to its east.
We were not oblivious to the many incongruities and juxtapositions, which can be dissonant. The border itself, and the Troubles later, turned the borderlands into areas of deprivations. With the Good Friday Agreement and the consequent removal of the British army, locals seek to revive the area. We also hope our trip serves to bring attention and tourism to an often-neglected area on the island. We think our Photos from the trip, taken by Conor Ryan, do justice to this place and remind all of importance of the unfettered travel.
And a special thanks to our most gracious hosts along the way. The Madden family has owned Hilton Park, outside Clones, for centuries. Johnny, Fred and Joanna made us feel right at home.
We were also made most welcomed at Crom Castle by the Lord and Countess of Erne. We happened to be there on the sad occasion of the Queen’s death, and you’ll see a photo that indicates the connection -- Lord Erne’s father hosted the Queen at Crom Castle in 2012, nearly 60 years after he was a page at her coronation.