Thursday, 23 August 2018

Leitrim's Payback

As I write this, Leitrim’s payback has been hard felt; for the first time in my biking ‘career’ I have come back from a biking weekend full of aches – especially in my legs and back – as well as a rather painful mouth ulcer….I must have been more tired and rundown than I thought! The alternative narrative is that the part of the ride on the Saturday in the most torrential rain I have ever ridden in has had an impact on my ever-aging body. The weekend had been planned after the last July trip to roads as yet unexplored which had been something of a revelation; we have visited the main hotspots extensively previously, but we thirst to see places that are new to us. This ethos inevitably leads to more remote locations and more challenging roads – this weekend was perhaps the zenith of this approach.

We had booked a cottage near Killashandra, a small town in Co. Cavan; Cavan is one of those counties that people think has not a lot within it, a poor neighbour to the likes of Meath and Sligo, but it is ancient and charming because it isn't visited as much, it therefore has the feeling of being undiscovered and relatively untouched. Killashandra is derived from the Irish Cill na Seanrátha meaning ‘Church of the Old Rath’ and is in the middle of the Cavan lakelands – an area popular with those that enjoy fishing. In decreasing light the initial journey on the Friday night involved some motorway work to get out of Belfast’s urban sprawl; the days of daylight after 9pm are now long gone. After forming our group outside Keady, the journey was west south-west on the N2 to Clontibret then to Monaghan and the N54 to the ‘twisties’ outside Castlesaunderson and the R201 to Milltown.

Into the Lakes
To the immediate north of Town Lough, we turned off the R201 to a narrow side road, the glow of the sat-nav was being blindly followed and I am happy to admit a complete reliance on it, the road soon forms a causeway over the Lough before turning west on the R199. This latter part of the journey was interesting to say the least; the road is narrow, overhung by large trees that seem to make the night even darker and with a grass centre dividing the two tarmac 'strips' that means that, in essence, the bikes can only use a quarter of the road width. In night and with rain falling this made it exceptionally challenging – at one point I must have hit the grass and the back end slid out to my right side, there was a momentary thought - "I'm going down" before instinctively I put on opposite lock and applied some power, allowing the traction control to take over. Thankfully the bike corrected itself and I was again on the narrow strip of tarmac. A close call!
Map of the Saturday route to Parke's and Ballindoon
The cottage, only 2km from the Leitrim border, was a welcome sight; seemingly on its own, it was actually one of a number of gate lodges for the nearby large manorial site and was perfect for the occasion. We soon lit the large wood burning stove, a pleasing hiss as the last of the moisture from the logs was driven off before catching light, it is amazing how such a thing adds to the sense of homeliness. Within minutes, the craic was mighty and it seemed like it hadn't been so long since we had all been together. There was a variety of spirits brought and the revelation of the night were the delectable 'Dark & Stormy' cocktails - a mixture using ginger beer, lime, dark rum (in this case Gosling's Black Seal Rum) and a few dashes of bitters; a perfect sipping drink if ever there was one! My best laid plans for some quality White Russians was immediately thwarted when I gazed, disappointed, into my creation to see that it resembled something that had left a body in a hurry, rather than something that should go into the body in a hurry! The plan for the following day was firmly set; Parke's Castle on the Leitrim / Sligo border on the northern shore of Lough Gill -  a decent journey west. We awoke early on Saturday morning, determined to get a full day on the bikes, initial concerns, though, were all about empty stomachs and where we could get a good breakfast. We were again soon on the R199 north of Garadice Lough in search of this!

The Wetlands to Parke's
The first town we came across was Ballinamore, proudly displaying banners for the Ballinamore Family Festival. We, though, simply wanted a full Irish breakfast and duly stopped at a hotel in the town centre. We entered to find a group sinking pints and the atmosphere wasn't exactly conducive to a relaxed breakfast so, with a degree of haste, we decided somewhere else would be a better bet. Fortunately the appropriately named 'The Corner' situated on the corner of Main Street provided one of the most delicious full breakfasts I've had in quite a while. The little café overlooks the Yellow River (modernly referred to as the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal). It is from this river and its importance that the town gets its name, Anglicized from Béal Átha Móir ('mouth of the big ford').

Stopping for a break near Parke's Castle
We travelled west on the R208 that is seemingly flanked my numerous loughs and lakes; these bodies of water are everywhere - St. John's Lough, Lough Nacarriga, Corrachoosaun Lough before passing much larger bodies of water like Lough Scur which had Mesolithic flint flakes found around its banks (Driscoll, 2006, 229). The countryside is of flowing drumlins and there was a serenity that came over me when riding in this sort of landscape, the road[s] seem to flow with the land around rather than 'fighting' it. Perhaps it's the joy of having these large areas of fresh water - the road builders had little choice but to work in sympathy with the terrain. Around the Roscommon / Leitrim border we turned northwards flanking the western shore of Lough Allen on what is now the R280 - I remember parts of this road from a previous trip to Sligo in July 2017, the drumlins seem to give way to areas that are much more densely wooded and feel more 'wild' as a result. Following signs from Dromahair we turned due west onto the R289 before entering the village proper. The centre felt quaint and compact and the village is ancient in origin. It is named from the Irish Droim dhá Ethair ('ridge of two demons) which is so named after a ridge of high ground above the Bonnet River. This ridge was the site for the foundation of a 5th Century Christian site of Drumlease. The village was also the seat of the O'Rourkes and the capital of a medieval Briefne. Only now did I realise that immediately outside the village lies the remains of Creevelea Friary and within it [the village] is a 13th Century hall-castle and later fortified house associated with the O'Rourkes. My research must be slipping! 
Main entrance (east façade) of Parke's Castle
The original gatehouse (white block) with later manor house attached

The road (now the R286) hugs the western shore of Lough Gill, with plenty of twists and turns; it was a joy to again be 'throwing' a bike left, right, left then right again, applying a little counter-steer to tip the bike into the direction of the corner. Then, gradually revealing itself, was the outline of Parke's Castle. When someone mentions a castle to me, my mind initially thinks of Anglo-Norman fortresses, the ones I studied many years ago: Dundrum, Trim, Ballintober, King John's (Limerick and Carlingford) etc. Parke's seems more delicate, for want of a better word. It is later and with a heavier slant towards domestication rather than the pre-dating military fortresses. But it seems more inviting perched on the lough shore. The site is undergoing some internal works (thatching the old forge), and was free in as a result. But it was pleasingly quiet with only a few small groups inside. From a visitor experience point of view, for me, this is key as a cluttered busy site is one I seem to naturally shy away from.

We took the excellent tour to learn that Parke's is the later name for the site, previously known as Newtown or O'Rourke's Castle. The courtyard excavations revealed the foundations of an earlier 16th century tower house - the original O'Rourke stronghold - with a pentagonal bawn wall surrounding it. Conveniently differentiated by its colour (white), the original gatehouse was subsumed by the  later additional manor house. It was in this original tower house the O'Rourke entertained the shipwrecked Spanish Armada Officer Francisco de Cuellar, an act that no doubt helped his ultimately execution for treason in 1591. It was after the O'Rourke era, in the early 1600's, that the castle was gifted to Sir Roger Parke, an English planter and captain, and it is from this family line that the castle is now known/named. They domesticated the arrangements, using the stone from the tower house to construct the manor house that became their main residence. We walked the castle walls, and your eye is immediately trying to take in the scenery, the views over the lough and neighbouring countryside genuinely breathtaking. It was here that the ONW Guide informed us of the rumors of an impending downpour later that evening....how right she would be! On my list of sites in the area one stood out; Ballindoon Friary. We had time to visit this and then get something to eat in Carrick-on-Shannon before heading back to the accommodation, so with this plan in mind we headed due south towards the friary - it was, though, on these roads constantly flitting between Leitrim and Sligo that we had to pull over to give our bodies a break.

Who Needs Waterproofs?
The journey to Ballindoon is on the R284, at times nothing more than a track between seemingly baron fields or solemn trees, the surface was rutted and challenging; in many areas I had to stand on the pegs not only for my own sanity, but to give the suspension a break! The distance from Parke's to Ballindoon is only approximately 30km, but it definitely felt much longer. The road is within inches of Lough Bo and that particular area feels feral, like we were genuinely stepping back . At Killadoon Crossroads, literally a meeting of roads and tracks, we simply had to stop; my arms were shaken off me and I have no doubt that everyone else's were too, but were only 2km away from the friary and we continued. Then, seemingly rising out of the landscape, was the remains of Ballindoon Friary. My immediate impressions were that the land seems to be slowly reclaiming and enveloping the site; it has long been abandoned (the friary was dissolved in around 1585), but this reclamation process looks almost like an act of predation by the trees and ivy.

Ballindoon (Baile an Dúin) Friary
The site is a Dominican priory within an earlier ecclesiastical enclosure, built in one architectural style - 'Middle English Gothic'. The church (now comprising the nave, chancel, tower and transept) was founded in 1507. Although it is easy to view it in splendid isolation perched 6m above the shores of Lough Arrow, it has to be looked at within the context of the larger holy site (that also includes a font, ritual holy well, the ecclesiastical enclosure) as well as the nearby Ballindoon House which itself contains a large early ringfort/rath. As we soon observed by the freshly dug graves, the site is still used today and for that reason still exudes a reverence, despite its decay. It was in one of the dark interior rooms that the lads, presumably through a sudden change in light conditions, noticed that one of the earlier headstone carvings aesthetically changed to a relief formation. To be there at that specific time, change of light etc was a million to one shot! Chance or design....now there's the great debate! By this stage the breakfast sustenance had worn off and hunger was setting in, an Indian in Carrick-on-Shannon was widely agreed on, and we duly set off south towards the town dominated by that great river. It was with more than a little relief that we turned off the R1013 just north of Lough Key onto the N4....smooth roads again....bliss! We were able to ride past the backed up traffic just west of the town to Shamrat (Spice) Indian Restaurant. By the time we had finished the clouds had gathered and they were dark and heavy.

The rain commenced in anger, and it was a deluge. We had no choice but to ride through it and as we set off east it became apparent very quickly that even with the best of gear, we were not going to stay dry. Water was lying in deep pools on the road such was the sheer volume of rain and as it splashed up onto my trousers and boots I realized that I was struggling to see. Even a slight lift of the visor did little to help with vision. I was somewhat surprised (and relieved) by how well the big Triumph gripped and handled. As soon as I felt the water running down my chest, though, I could only laugh and accept just how drenched I would be by the journeys end. More than one time I saw frogs hopping across the roads, this is no exaggeration, it was that wet! It was with more than a little relief that we all arrived safely back at the cottage; the floors soon like the shallow end of a swimming pool as the water dripped off all the gear. The fire was again lit, a genuine necessity, and I will attempt to claim that the rum was purely for warmth!

There is something that happens on trips away on the bike, a head space and zen-like state that seems to be inevitable. But getting diaries that sync is getting ever harder. There remains so much to see on this isle, the question is always; 'where to next?'.