Ben Hills

I was defrosting in the savoury steam of McNamee’s bakery on a wet and windy Saturday morning, sipping a café latte and munching on a raisin scone, when suddenly a gunman walked backwards past the window. Well, not exactly a gunman, a British Army soldier in full battledress carrying an Armalite rifle which he jabbed in the air as he pirouetted around the square of parkland in the centre of the village of Crossmaglen.

And not exactly a café latte, either – that would be too much to expect in the rural boondocks of Northern Ireland – more a mug of hot milk with a spoonful of Nescafé stirred into it.

“So you still have the patrols here, then?” I say, trying to be cool, to the smartly dressed middle-aged woman with a mobile phone at the next table, with whom I have struck up a conversation.

“Yes, but it’s nothing like it was even two years ago,” she says, looking around at the women queuing for their baps and fruit-bread. “You wouldn’t have found anyone sitting in here having a coffee then; we came and got our bread and went straight home.”

Twenty years ago, when I was last here, Crossmaglen was a byword for all that was vicious and violent about the latest round of The Troubles. Slipping across the border from its sanctuaries in the south just a couple of kilometres away, the IRA gave this part of South Armagh its grim nickname, Murder Triangle.

Then, I was assigned (by The Age) to go on a patrol with the army, slouching along the hedgerows in an oversize uniform as the soldiers searched for anything suspicious, such as a discarded fertiliser bag. Mixed with diesel fuel in a milk-churn, fertiliser makes a crude but devastating bomb.

This time around I am the guest of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

You can still see the relics of those terrible times. The ugly concrete hulk of an army fortress, enclosed in a cage of steel to keep out rocket-propelled grenades, sits across the square from the Sinn Fein offices, defiantly flying the green, white and gold flag of the Irish republic.

Along the winding road from the county seat of Newry, honour rolls of “martyrs” and signs calling for the release of “political prisoners” and the expulsion of the British alternate with Union Jacks and Unionist flags bearing the crown and the bloody red hand of Ulster snapping in the gale. A spooky sign at the crossroads carries the silhouette of a hooded gunman with the warning: “Sniper At Work”.

But even here in the heart of the border badlands, you can see subtle signs of a thaw. Since the first IRA ceasefire five years ago – and particularly since the Good Friday power-sharing agreement was signed last year – people have begun to hope that this peace may prove more than a mirage, and that even if the agreement does collapse, the killing will not resume.

You can now drive from Crossmaglen across the unmarked border to the republic – the craters the army blew in the roads have long since been filled in. The town even has a new tourist bureau, and down the road at the Creggan parish church (which has an interesting collection of skulls in an underground vault, says the lady I met in the bakery) plans are in full swing for a harvest festival.

All over Northern Ireland – once a place so depressed that Cold War spy movies were shot on location here because it was the only place in the West that looked as bleak and decrepit as Eastern Europe – there are similar signs of awakening. Cranes are busy on the skyline of Belfast; new hotels, restaurants and golf clubs are opening almost every week; cruise liners are stopping over at Derry, the scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday riots that left 14 dead.

If it sounds, well, unhelpful to begin an article about tourism with a reflection on the recent political violence, that is because the two are inextricably intertwined. Every time tourists take their first tentative steps back into the province, say the Tourist Board people, Canary Wharf is bombed or TV shows frightening scenes as the Orangemen march in Drumcree and suddenly reservations are cancelled and the hotels are empty.

In 1979 when Corinne McAlister – now a successful Belfast restaurateur – arrived in Northern Ireland as a backpacker from Chinchilla in Queensland and filled in “tourism” as the reason for her visit, she was taken aside and had her hair searched for weapons. “No-one, but no-one came here as a tourist then,” she laughs.

Even the latest edition of Fodor’s, that gold standard of guidebooks, devotes only 46 of its 438 pages to the north-east quarter of the island – half the space it gives to Dublin alone. Everyone ignores the fact that the south, too, has had its sorrows – only last year was a memorial finally erected in Dublin to the “forgotten” 33 slain one Saturday afternoon in 1974 when bombs went off in two busy shops.

Northern Ireland didn’t even have a centralised computer reservation system five years ago when the ceasefire was called and the first wave of tourists poured in, says John Herlihy, a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Hotels and Caterers’ Association, who runs a gourmet retreat in the east coast town of Portaferry: “They flocked in like lemmings and we were completely overwhelmed.”

Today it’s a different story. Although most package tour companies include Northern Ireland, if at all, as an afterthought tacked onto the better-known attractions of the south, the province has been discovered by the high-spending, independent travellers known to the industry as go-as-you-please tourists, who see it as Europe’s last undiscovered destination.

And there is its greatest attraction. While southern Ireland is in danger of being loved to death, inundated by more than five million tourists a year – more than its entire population – the north remains a relatively unspoilt backwater. Last year it attracted about a million visitors, of whom only 300,000 or so were holidaymakers.

The roads are just as winding and narrow, but you are far less likely to get stuck behind a behemoth of an earth-mover or crushed into the hedgerow by a tour bus in the north. A hire car is still the best way to explore the highways and byways of both Irelands – the whole country is only about the size of Tasmania – and you will probably, like us, be issued with a five-speed manual model, the top gear of which you would do best to ignore.

Although almost unknown compared with celebrated southern destinations such as the Ring of Kerry, the Aran Islands, the craic of Galway or the literary/pub scene of Dublin’s Temple Bar, the big attraction of the north’s culture and scenery is its relative lack of development. When they greet you with the traditional Irish “You’re very welcome” it doesn’t sound quite so much like something they learnt in hospitality school.

The rugged Antrim coast, with its ruined Norman castles and the extraordinary lava columns of the Giants Causeway is always counted among the province’s top attractions, though even in high summer it is relatively uncrowded. So are the wild and beautiful Mountains of Mourne – unfortunately the two days we were there they were closed because of rain, a hazard to tourism on both sides of the border.

And visit Fermanagh’s Lake District and you will get some idea of what its English namesake must have been like before William Wordsworth penned its praises and spoilt it for everybody. With a canal connecting it to the River Shannon, the Lough Erne system claims to be Europe’s most extensive waterway, hundreds of square kilometres of lakes filled with fish, fringed by reeds, and dotted with islands on which are the mysterious ruins of monasteries from the last millennium – you could cruise here for days without seeing another human being.

This is serious huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ country. The walls of the antique shop in the pleasant provincial capital of Enniskillen are hung with the heads of giant boar and stuffed salmon of improbable size. You can hire a boat and take potluck, or seek out a local legend by the name of Sean Maguire, above a shop next door to the post office in the village of Garrison on the banks of Lough Melvin.

The lough, which straddles the border with southern Ireland, is famous for its game fish. In the spring it’s sea-run salmon; in the summer it’s wild brown trout – the lake is not stocked – up to five kilos in weight, and some varieties you will find nowhere else in the world: the gillaroo, the ferox and the sonaghan – a salmon-trout landlocked since the end of the Ice Age.

You catch them with flies, which is where Sean Maguire, a former world champion fly-fisherman, comes in handy. For a modest price, he can make you feel like an English laird, providing you with a boat and a ghillie, a local expert who knows all the secret spots, ties your flies, and shows you how and where to cast.

If you get someone like Pat Mulrone, he will also tell you about the day he caught 17 trout. “But I didn’t keep them all – once you have filled the freezer for winter, what’s the point?” Bastard.

I fish valiantly all morning, whipping the water to a froth and braving the occasional icy shower, but all I succeed in hooking is a 75kg ghillie. Pat says I’ll improve with practice, and asks me whether I’ve ever met Rex Hunt.

But it is a mistake anywhere to stick to the guidebook, and northern Ireland is no exception – the place is full of tiny unspoilt discoveries. Take Bessbrook, another small town in South Armagh struggling to emerge from the shadows of The Troubles.

What makes Bessbrook special is that it was the first attempt anywhere to build a “model village” of the sort that became popular with philanthropic Victorian industrialists. In 1845, a Quaker businessman named John Grubb Richardson bought the local linen mill, and built a village for his workforce, which at its peak numbered about 2,000, on the banks of the Camlough River.

Richardson believed that alcohol was the root of all evil. He did not allow a pub to be built, so there was no need for a police station or a pawnshop – it is renowned as “the village without three P’s”. Constructed of brick and local granite and set around two large village greens, the town is preserved virtually intact, though the mill is long closed and has been taken over as a large army base.

The Quaker congregation has also dwindled over the years – there are just six sitting in a small ante-room to the main meeting hall, which must in its heyday have seated 200 or more, when I join them one Sunday morning. The irony escapes no-one when a military helicopter roars overhead, interrupting the meditation of the pacifists.

Ever optimistic, a member of the congregation later shows me around the plain granite building with its small cemetery buried in the woods and declares: “You know, it used to be a lot noisier. This used to be Europe’s busiest heliport. Today I only heard one.”

If Bessbrook is hopeful about its future, Belfast is becoming blasé about its past. Although the police stations are still walled and barbed-wired, the politicians still wrangle in Stormont (Parliament House), and the papers carry ominous stories about new IRA arms shipments, and ugly “punishment beatings” on the Catholic estates, Northern Ireland’s capital seems to have a new confidence about it.

The ring of steel, which once enclosed the central shopping area, has long been dismantled, and the 2,000 white crosses – each representing someone murdered by one side or the other – which once made the lawns in front of the magnificent Edwardian city hall look like a war cemetery, have been removed. The streets, silent as the grave at night when I was last here, now buzz with life until the wee small hours.

In the so-called “Golden Mile” there are now dozens of smart bars, nightclubs and restaurants. Caffrey’s ale is the local brew, and you have a choice of 400 pubs to drink it in, including the splendid brass-and-tiled Crown Liquor Saloon, described by John Betjeman as “the best gin palace in the British Isles”, and claimed to be the only pub run by the National Trust.

You could never really get away with calling it a “Hibernian Rio” nowadays, as a travel writer once did. But Belfast is a handsome enough provincial Victorian city, with enough sights to keep you busy for a few days: City Hall, Stormont, Belfast Castle, Queen’s University (Joern Utzon is one of its most celebrated alumni).

It has reclaimed its docklands, cleaned up its river to encourage the salmon to return, is recycling its derelict old factories, and boasts a smart new concert hall and a three-week arts festival that attracts talent from around the world. The rain held off for a night so that Luciano Pavarotti could sing at an open-air concert at Stormont.

Half a dozen new international hotels have been built, and the old Europa – bombed a dozen times during the ’70s, mainly, one suspects, to excite the foreign press who stayed there – has undergone a glittering refurbishment.

“People think it’s a dull, dour, smoky place full of police and soldiers,” says our guide, Ken McElroy, a rugby player and a man who takes obvious pride in his city. “But that just isn’t the case. This is the safest city in the UK – we have less crime than Dublin, and if a tourist gets his bags stolen it makes front-page news and people send in money.”

The city is facing up to its bloody history, even capitalising on it. The IRA wants the section of the notorious Maze jail where its prisoners were held preserved as a museum; the Black Taxi Company has for some years offered tours of the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road, with its red, white and blue kerb stones, where some of the worst atrocities were perpetrated.

Twenty years ago such sightseeing would have been reckless and provocative. Today, McElroy is more than happy to drive me up the Falls Road, pointing out the Republican slogans and the Irish flags, the green ribbons flying from the lampposts to symbolise people from the neighbourhood still to be released from the Maze.

Past the Republican pub called The Rock with its iron-meshed windows, where I was given my first lesson in Irish politics which began over the first of a remorseless succession of Guinness pints with the words: “Now, in 1690 …”

Past Beechmount Avenue, renamed RPG Avenue to celebrate an attack on the army involving rocket-propelled grenades.

Past the Miltown Cemetery where the IRA buries its own, and where an Ulster Volunteer Force leader once lobbed hand grenades at a funeral procession, killing three or four.

Past the heavily guarded Royal Ulster Constabulary fortress in Andersonstown; past the green-painted Felons Club to which, so it’s said, you have to have a criminal record to belong; past Connolly House, Gerry Adams’s headquarters.

Past the bulldozed site of “Fort Apache”, the White Rock Army base, and past the end wall of a block of terraces painted with a huge mural depicting a dove (“Time for peace”) sitting on a soldier’s head (“Time to go”).

That could well be the symbol for the new Northern Ireland.

Ben Hills visited Ireland as the guest of the tourist boards of north and south and Cathay Pacific, Aer Lingus and Midland Airways.

Case Notes

When: Northern Ireland is nowhere near as crowded as the south, even in high summer, but it would be sensible to avoid the often ugly and violent July “marching season” and mid-winter when it is cold and wet. May is said to be the best month, particularly if you are interested in salmon fishing.

Getting there: Most people tend to combine a visit to the north and the south (there are no border controls now), and there are myriad ways of doing this from the logical jumping-off point of London. Dublin, Shannon, on Ireland’s West Coast, and Belfast are the major airports; there are regular car and train ferries to southern Ireland from Wales, and to Belfast from Scotland including a high-speed SeaCat service from Stranraer to Belfast, which takes only 90 minutes.

Travelling around: Bus and train services between the major cities are adequate if you have plenty of time, but a car is essential if you want to explore the highways and byways. Allow twice as long as you would for the same distances in Australia, and in Northern Ireland expect to pay about $100 a day to rent a basic manual car, and $2.50 a litre for petrol – a full tank can cost about $100.

Clothing: Although Ireland receives only a metre of rain a year (less than Sydney) it is spread over about 150 days. The weather can switch from rain to sun and back again within the same day, so take several layers of light clothing and waterproofs any time of the year, a heavy coat for winter and walking shoes.

Accommodation: Northern Ireland has the full range from converted castles to cosy bed-and-breakfasts – the Northern Ireland Tourist Board publishes a booklet of approved accommodation called Where To Stay. Be warned: with the surging pound, Northern Ireland is expensive by Australian, and southern Irish, standards. Expect to pay $60 per head per night for a humble B&B, $200-$300 for a decent hotel room, and $5 for a pint of Caffreys. We enjoyed the loch-side chalets on Lusty Beg Island in Lough Erne, phone (0011 44) 1 365 632032; the fine food and hospitality of John Herlihy at the Portaferry Hotel, phone (44) 1 247 728231); and the chic and location on the fringe of Belfast’s “Golden Mile” of Madison’s, phone (44) 1 232 330040.

Publishing Info

Pub date: Saturday 23 October 1999
Edition: Late
Section: Travel
Sub section:
Page: 1
Word count: 3159
Geographic area: Northern Ireland
Photos: Ben Hills.
Caption: The stark contrasts of northern Ireland:
1. A tranquil resort on Lusty Beg island in Lough Erne … two hours’ drive away
2. A Republican flag and a British Army fortress in the town of Crossmaglen, grim reminders of yesterday’s Troubles
3. The Irish long black: publican Cyril Dunne pours pints at Blake’s In the Hollow at Enniskillen A Chilling reminder of why this part of South Armagh was called “murder triangle” (above).
4. Feed the man meat: prize-winning Enniskillen butchers Gabriel and Finton Stewart (left).
5. Light at the end of The Troubles: mural on a housing estate off Belfast’s Falls Road.
6. Lovely weather for ducks: champion angler Sean Maguire offers a selection of hand-tied flies to coax the trout from showery Lough Melvin.
Map: Northern Ireland.