An Enlightening Trip by Basil McCoy

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We were missing our trip away in the Austin Sevens mid-summer so in an effort to disperse lockdown blues the gang decided a weekend away might help. The fresh air, rain or shine, was an enticement and plans were made to spend a weekend away on the Cooley Peninsula.

So, Marion Erskine got on the computer and booked us in for two nights at ‘Ghan House’ in Carlingford village and what a pleasant place it is. Twelve bedrooms, good food, friendly and helpful staff and best of all ‘old world charm’.

‘Us’ was made up of Mark Kennedy and Debra Wenlock in their side valve Riley, with Perry McCoy, Tanya Johnston, Francie McNally and myself dispersed in three Chummies, and Dave and Barbara Miller, who came up from Ashbourne, Co. Meath, to join us in Dave’s much raced and rallied Jaguar Xl 140. 

The Northern contingent set off into dismal skies mid-morning with hoods up and headed for the Strangford ferry and thence through Newcastle and around the coast to Rostrevor. We parked the cars in a car park just opposite a church and had an excellent lunch in a tea-room café.  

Now, have you ever heard of the ‘Bell of Bronagh‘? Well, some time ago Mary Galbraith had told me that her father was a pharmacist in Rostrevor and that he rode a Harley Davidson motorbike and side car. She backed this up with a photograph of himself and his wife cruising along on the Harley.  When the First World War came along, he joined the army medical corps and was sent off to the western front to attend to the wounded. He survived all that and returned to civilian life once again.

Mary was born between the wars and when she met and married Billy and had a family, they decided to name one of their girls after a connection with Rostrevor which happened to be ‘Saint Bronagh’ who is commemorated by a bell known as the ‘Bell of Bronagh’.

From time to time I’ve met people who live in or near Rostrevor and always enquired about the whereabouts of the ‘Bell of Bronagh’. Some had never heard of it; others had, but hadn’t a clue where it was.  So, when we returned to our parked Chummies we met a local man who described himself as parochial and who had worked most of his life in the Ordnance Survey mapping office.

So I thought to myself — the very man. “Do you know where the Bell of Bronagh is?” Himself: “Aye, sure it’s in that church just across the road“. Bingo! He continued: “You can go in there – the main door is open — and there’s a wee leather -bound mallet just by the bell. Feel free to hit her a ding and it’s tradition to make a wish if you feel like it.”

So off we traipsed into the church grounds, read the COVID signs on the front doors and hit the bell. It was rather smaller than I had imagined — maybe a foot top to bottom — but when you hit it with the mallet it sounded like a deep ‘dong’ rather than a ‘ding’.  The other interesting thing was whilst mooching about outside at the back of the church we came across a wheelie bin with a chrome tap on the bottom clearly marked ‘Holy water’! 

So, whilst we were in the historical mode we thought we’d move from saints to soldiers and Mark suggested we could look at the Major General Robert Ross obelisk on the road to Warrenpoint. Well, this was another eye opener to me. I’ve been up and down that road many times and never noticed this monument before. 

It’s about half the height of Belfast City Hall at 99 feet and very prominently built from Mourne granite. The inscription reads:

‘Dedicated to the Memory of Major General Robert Ross who, having undertaken and executed an enterprise against the city of Washington, the capital of the United States of America, which was crowned with complete success, was killed shortly afterwards while directing a successful attack upon a superior force near the city of Baltirriore on the 12th day of September 1814.’ 

This man’s remains are in a tomb in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and he is also commemorated by a monument in St. Paul’s cathedral in London but the Rostrevor obelisk is well worth stopping to look at if you happen to be passing by.

From this point we made our way to Newry and into traffic for fifty yards before turning left along the canal on the south side. There were some interesting old boats parked in there but soon we were on our way south of the border to Omeath and onwards to Carlingford where we met up with Dave and Barbara who had booked dinner for all of us at a local hostelry.

Next morning the Chummies spring into life but the Riley was reluctant and the removable starting handle didn’t encourage it either. But strong, women and the odd bloke pushing did the trick and we set off to explore some hidden gems on the Cooley peninsula. Late afternoon brought us again to a superb little café in Omeath where I was served up with the most delicious slice of-apple pie I’ve even had in my life, baked apparently by the brother-in-law of the waitress who was great crack.

On returning back to Ghan House it was ‘sad movies’ for all of us as Mark’s starting handle had inadvertently been left on and was now missing and we had been everywhere. But great news as Mark went for a dander before dinner and he found it — ‘happy days’ as Hugh Kerr would say.

Next morning, we said our goodbyes to Ghan House and made our way a short distance to the ‘Leprechauns Chair’ overlooking Carlingford Lough and there we met the local resident who had made the chair along with other artifacts like ‘The Brown Bull of Cooley’! He had dug what looked like an entrance to a tunnel to facilitate (his words)

“the fairies from the Mourne mountains to come across underneath Carlingford Lough and cavort with the Leprechauns of Cooley”

He then went on to tell us that he had received a European grant to form these structures and — better sit still — 27 members of the European Parliament had visited him and we were very pleased, so much so that a Spanish MEP was returning to Madrid to replicate this garden outside his own city!  When we returned to the parked Chummies, one had been adorned with a Leprechaun on the radiator!

We then tootled down the road to the old railway village of Greenore and travelled back to Greencastle on the Carlingford ferry and made our way via an afternoon tea stop in Dundrum to home.

As the editor says, and he’s right, I too need to get out more!

Basil McCoy – September 2020

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