Saturday, 15 June 2013

Final Day

Tues 11th June - Final Day
I was in no hurry getting up this morning.  My host Anthony Diver brought the children to school first and after breakfast brought me to McClean’s shop and pub in the village of Malin.  The previous day I had decided to leave a few miles to complete along with Mary Ann so I wanted a convenient place to stay while waiting for them.  When I crossed the bridge into Malin there were two men standing at the petrol pumps.  I asked them if there was a hotel in Malin where I could get a cup of coffee next day while waiting for Mary Ann to arrive and pick me up.  There is a hotel it seems but it would not open till Thursday.  I’m not sure what that was about.  However he told me to come to his shop at the petrol pumps and the shopkeeper would let me into the pub even though it would not be open and I could wait there.  When I arrived she offered to make me a cup of tea.  Hospitality has been endless.  The posse arrived at about 11.00 in a delegation of six including my son Niall, my grandchildren Oisin and Darragh, friends Eamon and Isabel Beattie and Frances Fingleton who was born and reared in Malin Village.  She has a house there now and insisted on bringing us there for coffee before we set out. 
Mary Ann left me off at the place where I had finished yesterday with the three children.  The others drove on to Malin Head to park the cars and walk back to meet me.  After about a mile a blue car passed us and waved, and a short distance later the driver and his companions were waiting for me in their gateway.  They congratulated me on the walk and gave me a donation for the hospice.  We arrived at Malin Head a short time later.
This has been a memorable experience for me.  There are some lasting things that will stay with me.  The generosity and goodness of people day after day, who stopped to talk, give me encouragement and donations, was completely unforeseen and has been an especially heartening part of the experience.  The generosity and time that so many of my friends and strangers have given to fundraising for Ndi Moyo in support of my walk has been overwhelming.   To date you have contributed more than £14,000.00 to the dying in Malawi and the young children they leave behind them and the money is still coming in. currently Ndi Moyo Hospice cares for more than 350 patients and about 1,000 young children who have been orphaned by their parents who have died in the care of the hospice.  They do all this on a budget of one hundred and ten thousand pounds for the whole year of 2013.
I have been blessed by all the people who have been my hosts along the way.  They could not do enough for me.  And I have been enriched by getting to know so many new interesting people and spending time with my nephews and their families.  They have given me transport, fed me bountifully, given me comfortable beds to sleep in and shared their homes and families with me. 
I have been able to see and experience this island as few people have.  Walking the whole way from South to North is certainly the best way to experience our land.  I have been exhilarated by the bounty of growing things and landscapes, the proliferation of colours smells and shapes.  The walk for me has been a meditation.  I have enjoyed the rhythm of walking the roads day after day and the beauty of the silence that is the music of nature.  I have been content both in my own company and in the company of others.

Finally I want to say thank you to Mary Ann without whom this marvellous venture would not have been possible.  Thank you too to those who have persevered with reading this blog.  I have enjoyed writing it.  John Conlon

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Before the End

Monday June 10th

Got to Quigleys Point at 8.30 am and started the long climb up the hill.  At the top I came on a memorial plaque at the side of the road.  It was even more moving than the many others I had come across.  This one was for three young people who had all been travelling in one car and had been hit by another vehicle and killed on October 8 2005.  Their pictures were looking out at me written beside their names, Gavin Duffy aged 21, Charlene O’Connor 21, David Steele 23, Rochelle Peoples 22, Darren Quinn 21.  I stood there for some time and reflected on the tragedy of these young people whose lives were snuffed out like burning candles on the cusp of their adulthood and the pain of that for their families and friends then and now.
It was another beautiful day on my last long leg of the walk.  The sun shone on me and a soft breeze from the east gently urged me on, or was it that same little angel come to see me home, that had caressed me and whispered around my ears on the first two days of my walk in West Cork.  There is something exhilarating about walking along a quiet road high up with beautiful views all around.  I passed a field with a flock of sheep with magnificently whorled horns like antlers.  I could imagine them frequenting the ovine beauty parlour to keep them in shape and make themselves more attractive.  Other sheep with only little stumps must be so jealous.
I walked into Carndonagh about mid-day and found the Persian Bar in the centre of the town.  My hosts for that night, Anthony and Anne Diver, own the bar.  However, they were not there when I called.  I drank a shandy – half a pint of lager, half a pint of white lemonade and ice, a very refreshing drink on a long march.  It was only when I had walked about a mile out of the town that I realised that I had forgotten to pay for the drink.  Just outside Carndonagh a young man pulled up on the far side of the road and crossed over to talk to me.  He told me that when he was in university in England they had a house with a room to let and a female student from Malawi had been the first person to apply for it.  He said she was one of the loveliest people he had known and he wanted to give me a donation for the hospice.
I had only gone another mile or so when another car pulled up alongside me.  It was Maureen Morgan from Draperstown who is the central promoter of support for Ndi Moyo Hospice in these here parts.  She would not be able to be there at the end tomorrow and so wanted to see me near the end.  She had brought lunch with her so we sat in the car at a gateway and chatted and had lunch.  I had decided to leave just a few miles to finish the walk next day when Mary Ann and some of the children were to join me.  Mary Ann has been involved in the whole venture as much as I have been.  I could not have done it without her being at home to look after Niall, and she has done most of the work with the funding campaign and banking the money.  She has supported and encouraged me all along and we have talked to each other every day.  So it is important for her and me that she is there at the finish.  Besides rain is forecast for tomorrow and having walked in sunshine every day I did not fancy walking in the rain tomorrow.  I left 4 miles to the finish for tomorrow.
I had referred earlier in my blog to the profusion of buttercups every day of the walk and since I am not aware of any poem to buttercups I had promised to write one.  Here it is:

Buttercups are everywhere
Smiling up at me,
Gently waving in the breeze,
A cheerful sight to see.

Buttercups in ditches,
Buttercups in fields,
A richness of golden yellow
In overflowing yields.

The farmer doesn’t like them,
But they refuse to go away,
So better just enjoy them.

They are here to stay.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013


Sunday June 9th   
Started out between St Johnston and Carrigans at 8.40 a.m.  People of Carrigans were still asleep this Sunday morning.  As I was leaving the only sign of life was a farmer coming into the village on an ancient tractor for the Sunday paper.  My nephew Patrick had shown me where I could take a cycle/walking path the whole way to Derry.  I found it easily just outside Carrigans.  It leads to the former railway track that ran along the Foyle estuary and the first few miles are through a wooded area which gave me cool shade on this hot Sunday morning.  It is a delightful walk.  Coming towards Derry a part of the railway track has been left intact though it is mostly covered in long grass alongside the path. Just before Craigavon Bridge I passed the former Foyle Valley Railway Company railway station with the steam train parked beside it painted red and black.  It is clearly visible from the Craigavon Bridge.  By now I was meeting lots of people out walking and cycling, many with dogs in tow.  By the time I reached the Peace Bridge I was ready for a rest and a coffee.  A taxi driver outside the bus station recommended the Soul Café just around the corner across from the newly renovated Guild Hall.  The coffee, scone, raspberry jam and cream were very welcome.  I recommend it for a morning pick-me-up.  I went back refreshed to the riverside walk and was soon stopped by some walkers who were curious about my venture and like many others on the trip they gave me a donation for the Hospice.  I continued on the walk right to the Foyle Bridge where I climbed up to the Culmore road.  On the way up I passed the ruins of an old mansion.  The walls were intact and two chimneys still protruded above the walls but the roof was gone.  It stood there sightless with its windows and doors blocked up and six stone steps leading up to what was once a grand double front door.  I thought of all the life there once was in and around it with the rich owners, their servants and visitors and now only their ghosts remained.  It reminded me of the well known poem from my childhood, the Listeners.

And he smote upon the door again a second time;
Is there anybody there? He said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall

Up a little from the ruined mansion I passed the old farmyard buildings and behind them a walled garden.  If I were to bring anything home with me it would have been the walled garden.  I counted thirty horses grazing the fields around the ruin.  I learned later that the house is known as Boom Hall because it was near there that the boom was laid across the river to prevent anyone coming to the aid of those besieged inside.  When I see one of the “big houses” I think of all those small land owners whose land was forcibly taken from them to make way for the new landed gentry.
I walked on to the Culmore road and past the entrance to the Foyle Hospice.  A woman out for Sunday morning cycle dismounted and walked with me until she came to the turn for her own house.  A little bit further along the road I passed the entrance to Thornhill Convent with its stone gatehouse, high stone wall concealing the parkland and tall stone house appearing above the wall that housed the nuns.  It struck me that only the Church could traditionally emulate the life style of the landed gentry and both depended on the pennies of the poor to enable them to do so.  “Blessed are the poor ...“.  Just up the road from the convent is Thornhill College with its motto Adveniat Regnum Tuum.  My feet needed a rest so I sat in a bus stop, ate my first sandwich and banana, rested a little and moved on.  I walked on through Muff and along the seaside to Quigleys point where I enjoyed a shandy and waited for my lift.  I reflected that I had started out in Donegal, walked into Derry, then out of Derry again into Donegal.


Sunday, 9 June 2013

Long Live the Weeds

Saturday June 8th
Patrick my nephew drove me to Castlederg to where he picked me up yesterday.  There was a long climb out of the town, up and up and up for about four miles, a tough start to the day.  On the way up I passed a field with flock of dark brown and black sheep.  I had never seen so many together before.  There was an expanse of bog cotton on my right.  But mainly I just concentrated on getting to the top.  When I did eventually get up there the view was marvellous. There was the whisper of gentle cool breeze form the east.   I could see for miles on every side as far as the blue hazed mountain ranges and I counted seven wind farms.  Below was a patchwork of fields, many framed with white hawthorn blossom.  All the way down I could simply luxuriate in the exuberance of nature.  It was a glorious morning to be walking this little country road with very few vehicles, a blue sky and a far away contrail in the clear sky from a single jet plane heading west to the USA or Canada. A tinkling invisible stream accompanied me on the way down hidden by the surfeit of growing things.  At one place the farmer had planted a hedge of purple rhododendrons for a few hundred yards.  It would have been a great improvement if he had planted a greater variety of them flowering at different times and maybe added a bit more interest with lilac and laburnum and such like.  But I’ll give him credit for making the effort even if it could have been much more imaginative.  There were giant wild rhubarb plants with their reddish brown and green stalks and all my usual friends many of which I do not know their names – little blue flowers, white ones, robin-run-the-hedge, nettles, lots of grasses, broome and as usual, whins.  To paraphrase Hopkins, long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

I came to the little village of Clady and I was back on the main road so that I had to concentrate on the vehicles coming towards me rather than the sights and sounds around me.  The day had lost some of its magic.  Also it was getting to be a very hot day.  I stopped before I reached Lifford because as usual the toes on my right foot were crying out for attention.  So I took of my shoes and socks by the side of the road, had half my lunch and wrote a few notes.  In Lifford I had a bowl of soup and coffee in MacAuley’s café.  Then on again to Johnston (it is also spelt Johnstown on some of the sign posts).  I chose a little used road rather than the main one.  After a few miles a man was standing by the side of the road waiting for me.  He had seen me back a bit.  We chatted about my walk and he gave me a donation.  A little while later a car stopped with a man and a woman.  They also gave me a donation.  I came to Maggie’s bar about 2 miles outside Saint Johnston and since my toes were complaining again, I went in, had a shandy, rested and nursed my feet, had the rest of my lunch and walked on to Saint Johnston.  Phoned Patrick to come for me on the north side of Saint Johnston.  I am well ahead of my schedule and looking forward to walking a bit less on each of the remaining three days.  It has been such a hot day.  As I write this I am now fresh and clean having showered and on my second beer.  I can smell the barbeque. 


Friday June 7 
A lovely sunny morning, the weather has been very good to me although a little cooler would be good.  Started just north of Irvinestown.  I have been spoiled at Joseph and Maria’s – good food and good conversation and very good wine cellar.  I had only walked a mile when a woman pulled up in a car in front of me.  “I see you are collecting for a hospice “ she said.  I explained to her about Ndi Moyo and she gave me a donation.  I stopped in Ederny at McKervey’s store.  They seem to own most of the village.  I had been at school in Armagh with a Tony McKervey and wondered where he had been these past 60 years  since I last saw him.  His brother told me that he lives in Belfast and has been lecturing in Queens University.  I’m sure he has retired some time ago.  I went into a little café for a cup of coffee and got the weakest pot of coffee ever.  I chatted to a few workmen who were already on their second breakfast.  The coffee was not good enough to delay long so I headed towards Castlederg which was another 14 miles.  I passed a couple of windfarms.  Where there are windfarms there are hills so I did a good deal of climbing.  I had lunch at the entrance to Bin Mountain and doctored my feet.  The right foot especially the two smaller toes are the ones that give most bother, but a rest and a little pampering keeps them happy for another few miles. 
When I reached Castlederg I went into Mickey Joe’s pub to wait for my lift from Paddy me nephew.  There were a couple of men and three women sitting up at the bar drinking.  The men were already quite drunk and two of the women were pretty far on.  The landlady would not let me pay for my half pint and then one of the drunk men insisted on buying me another half pint.  They wanted to know about my walk and when I was leaving each of them gave me a donation for the hospice.  They had some kind of player where they could choose the songs they wanted and they all tended to sing along with the song – mostly Country and Western.  I think I have led too sheltered a life so far.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Faithful Foot

Tuesday June 4th

I stayed with Lourda McGowan last night in Mohill and we went to her sister’s house where we had a wonderful meal and plenty of chat.  Just outside Lourda’s house is a statue of Turlough Carolan the famous blind harpist.  He was harpist in residence to a local family – the landed gentry of course.  The statue was the final piece of work by the well known Irish sculptor, Oisin Kelly.  He died just when he had finished sculpting the head. Mohill is a neat little village where many of the people are related to each other and everyone knows everyone else.  A stream flows through the village and passes in front of Lourda’s house.  There is a bridge between her house and the street and the statue of Turlough is just across the stream. 
I set out from Ballinamore to walk towards Enniskillen via Swanlinbar.  Before I got as far as Swanlinbar I heard 4 more cuckoos – such a feast of cuckoos I have never experienced.  I think it must be to do with the kind of the terrain, peat bogs and bushes.  It is a treat to hear their clear two note call but when I think about them, I know that they are the ultimate in exploitation and survival of the fittest.  Not only do they expect another bird to hatch out their egg, and then to feed their hungry offspring, but that same off spring dumps all the other fledgling birds out of the nest so that it can benefit from all the food their surrogate mother brings back to the nest.  A sweet voice can hide a ruthless soul. A couple of miles before I reached Swanlinbar, I came across three workmen on the road, one operating a digger and the other two emptying the truck when full.  We got to chatting and they each gave me 5 euros for the hospice.  One of them passed me with the full load and I came across him again unloading it.  He came over to the edge of the road and wanted to talk some more. He told me he is the president of the Cavan beekeepers association and is very enthusiastic about the young people doing courses with them to learn how to look after their bees. He claims that this recession has brought the ordinary man to the fore so that the young people on the two courses they are currently running all have bees already, whereas previously they would have had a lot of yuppies and hippies who never had bees. He said the Church of Ireland has always been strong in Cavan and it has been mainly them who kept the tradition of beekeeping alive, when young Catholic men were only interested in running off to Gaelic matches.
I stopped for lunch at a bench outside a pub on the only street in Swanlinbar.   The pub was closed and the whole village seemed to be asleep.  The day being hot I fancied an ice cream cone but the best I could get was a choc ice in a shop run by two women in their eighties.
 As on the previous days I was flanked on either side by myriads of beautiful yellow buttercups – a sign perhaps of meagre cattle fodder but easy on the eye.  I don’t know of any poems to buttercups, nor for that matter dandelions and yet they both proliferate and delight the eye mile after mile.  They are irrepressible. Soon after that I came into Northern Ireland for the first time on my walk.  The roads were indeed much smoother and easier on the feet.  I passed two memorials to IRA members who had been killed during the troubles.  The rest of the walk was pretty uneventful.  I walked to the junction of the Swanlinbar road and the Sligo road, sat down on a bench outside another closed pub and waited for Maria to come and pick me up. Not a lot of luck with pubs today.

Wednesday June 5th

Another hot day like the past three days, but each one a little hotter.  I had a wonderful evening with Joseph and Maria.  Maria brought me back to where I had left off yesterday.  There was a long traffic tail back coming into Enniskillen on the Sligo road.  The alternative way into the town is already closed due to the G8 summit.  Walked the three miles back into Enniskillen and got some Nuerocol in Corry’s chemists for my back pain.  On the way out of the town I bought a whipped ice cream in Subway.  It was just the ticket for the hot weather.  By the time I got to the new South west Hospital my feet were already hurting a bit so I went into it and had a lovely cup of coffee and a Danish pastry and doctored my feet.  I was already well ahead of schedule so I was not in a hurry today.  I wrote an ode to my feet while sitting there.  Here it is: 

My poor feet are down below
In the smelly darkness of my boots,
I’m like a tree going walk-about,
And my feet in darkness are my roots.

My eyes can see such great delights,
Colours, sizes, shapes and hues.
My ears can hear the songs of birds,
But my feet are trapped in smelly shoes.

My nose can smell the heady scents,
Of saffron whins and meadow sweet,
But in the end they all depend
On my obedient smelly feet.

So you my feet I now salute
Hidden down in my smelly boot,
Pit ponies labouring in the dark
A song of praise for my faithful foot.

I stopped for lunch in a gap on the road and tended to the smelly feet down below.  Walked on refreshed through a tunnel of trees.  I came on a council worker picking up garbage on the roadside.  He was keen to chat.  Told me what a great man I was to be doing what I was doing.  I liked that.  He thought Donegal where I was headed was a great place but personally he said he would rather be on the bike.  He loves sitting in the centre of Donegal town and just watching the world pass by.  I passed a large house that someone had started to build, walls and roof were complete though there were some slates missing around one of the chimneys.  Windows had had stones thrown at them and were mostly broken.  What is about empty houses that seems to attract yobs to throw stones at them and break the windows?  I expect there is another sad story behind the half finished house and someone’s broken dreams.  I went on through Irvinestown and Joseph came to pick me up a couple of miles further on the road to Ederny. I am well ahead of schedule.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Inner freshness

Blog Sun june 2

Started out after 8.30.  It felt good to be back on the road again.  I had stayed the night in Skelleys pub and B&B in Ballymahon.  The faced looked quite unloved and when I walked in the door, I found myself in and off-licence that was also a basic grocery shop. Through the door I could see the bar.  At this stage I was a bit wary wondering what the accommodation would be like.  We were led through a couple of doors and upstairs to the room where I would spend the night.  This part had been recently built.  The room was fine and the bed comfortable, but the light in the bathroom did not work, the toilet seat was not attached to the toilet, and Mary Ann noticed that some spiders had made their home in the skylight.  In spite of that I slept very well.  Next morning when I went to pay for my board he gave me back 15 euros for Ndi Moyo hospice.

In any case as I said it was good to be back on the road again. A little bit out of the town I came to a bridge where the Royal Canal crossed the road.  There was a walk and a cycle path along the bank.  I did not know that the Royal Canal went all the way to Ballymahon from Dublin.  It probably connects with the Shannon river.  I walked on through rich farmland with lots of cattle and a few sheep.  It was a warm morning, a sleepy Sunday morning with few people about and not much traffic and the cattle looked very content in their fields of plentiful grass.   After a few miles there were lots of large spreading trees standing in the middle of the fields, sycamore, beech and chestnuts decked with creamy ice-cream-like cones of blossom.  Vestiges I thought of the Landed gentry who were gifted these lands by conquering England and laid much of it out like parkland.

The first village I came to was Keenagh.  I was hoping to get a cup of coffee and rest for a while but the only café was closed in spite of having an Open sign in the window.  There is a monument in the centre of Keenagh.  It is a stone clock tower topped with a weather vane.  The inscription on it reads
Erected by the tenants and friends of the Honorable Lairence Harman-king-Harman who died Oct 1875.  In grateful memory of a good landlord and an upright man.  Justum et tenacem probisiri virum.  I wonder how many other such memorials there are in Ireland to good and upright landlords!
My brother Jim came to meet me just as I was going into Longford with a packed lunch – hot soup, a beer and sandwiches.  We spent an hour together.  It was a welcome break for my feet.  I passed a vintage rally in Longford.  Some of the cars had passed me during the day.  Jim and I thought that it might be a good idea if some of our young people were to start a vintage fair to show off their old relatives.  There would be different categories for different age groups.  They could get us all groomed properly and have prizes for the best presented old person in the various categories. As I was leaving Longford there was an inscription on a wall about a Dominican Abbey that had once stood there and had been destroyed by Cromwell’s army.  Two brothers had been martyred.  The stones from the Abbey had been used to build the local jail and when that was closed some of them were used to build the local school – St Christophers.  Just outside Longford a man pulled in beside me in a car and gave me 10 Euros.  A little further, a man turning into his driveway stopped to talk and gave what change he had in his pocket.  A couple of miles further on a young man came out to his gateway to talk to me.  Soon his wife joined him and she went back into the house to find money to give me.  They were Mark and Imelda.
I plodded on towards Drumlish but feet were complaining so I phoned my host for the night, Margaret McManus and she picked me up a couple of miles south of Drumlish.  Margaret brought me to her home farm near Granard, a lovely quiet retreat where she spoiled me with good food and good craic.  Margaret lives in Armagh but also spends time in her childhood home.

Blog June 3 Mon.

Started out again at about 8.30 a couple of miles south of Drumlish.  From Drumlish I had planned to take a small country road to Ballinamore going through Cloone.  The village was deserted. Later I discovered it was a bank holiday.  I took the road signed Ballinamore. I met an old lady hurrying up the street and asked her if I followed this road would I come to a sign for Cloone.  She said I might but she was not sure but she wanted to know if she was late for Mass.  I said I didn’t know, so she rushed off again saying she would in any case say a prayer for me.  So I walked on out the road and saw nobody until I had gone a mile and a half and a cyclist stopped to talk.  He told me I would have to go back into town and go out another road that would bring me to the road to Cloone.  So back I went.  That was an extra 3 miles and my feet did not approve.  I did find the road and there was little traffic on it.  On both sides of the road were turf bogs and bushes.  Later there were fields where rushes ruled and often a sea of buttercups.  I have never seen so many buttercups, field after field.  Wordsworth made such a big fuss of the little patch of daffodils he chanced on
beside the lake, beneath the trees,
fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
But his little patch of daffodils was nothing compared to the fields and fields of buttercups in Leitrim, and along the ditches lots of cows’ parsley shoulder high.  I even saw a ditch with lots of wild strawberry blossom.  It brought back memories of walking home form Tullysarran school, pulling wild strawberries and threading them on to cocksfoot stems of grass to bring home.   Then there was the odd patch of sweet red clover that we used to pull and suck the bottom of each of the red bits.   All the natural richness of the ditches and the land on each side and the lovely smell of summer growth remind me of Hopkins poem about Spring “ all that juice and all that joy and that inner freshness deep down things”  I often think that those words sum up the essence of life -  keeping ourselves always fresh, always being surprised by joy and wonder of all the life that is pulsing around us.
Jim met me again this time in Cloone, where we had a picnic beside the graveyard.  Then walked on and got as far as Ballinamore, further than I had thought I would.  I’ve been stopping every few hours to air dry and treat my feet.  This time round they take high priority.  I was waiting at the outskirts of Ballinamore for Lourda to pick me up when a car stopped and four young lads got out and came over to talk to me.  They were from Cavan and wanted to know all about my walk.  They asked for a photo and I gave them Mary Ann’s email so that they could send it to her to include in the blog.
Lourda brought me to Mohill where she lives and we went to her sister’s and her husband’s house for our evening meal.  We had a great meal and great craic.  The hospitality has been amazing.  Tomorrow is another day.