The Road to Roaringwater

by frankbeswick

This 1993 book takes the reader on a walk from the northern edge of Ireland to the southern.

This is a thoroughly interesting book that entranced me throughout with its breadth and quality of writing. Written in 1993 by Christopher Somerville, it is a journey through Ireland that blends a walking itinerary with thorough knowledge of Irish history, encounter with characters and accounts of their lives and description of landscape. Towards the end he includes a little personal family history, some of it tragic.

Photograph of Malin Head courtesy of Hazel Mclaughlin

Beginning:Malin Head to Sligo

The route began at Malin Head in Donegal, one of the northernmost points in Ireland, a place that blends quietness with beauty, but is often beset by the storms that barrel in from the Atlantic. I was delighted that the route took Somerville down the east coast of Lough Swilly, a place that I loved visiting.  This is not to say that the route was easy, for at times it took him through some difficult  terrain, some of it boggy and at places dangerous. Remember that this was in 1992, before the Good Friday agreement was concluded, when there were still troubles on the border, so when Somerville told locals that he intended to divert into Northern Ireland to walk some of the border mountains they strongly averred, urging him to adapt his route to take it into the safer south, "in case he encountered things that should not be happening" for a lone Englishman might arouse suspicion, with dire consequences. 

The journey led him through the Barnesmore Gap [An Beanas More], which is a glacial valley that provides a route from north to south. Somerville relished the lonely beauty of the gap, which provided a long and challenging stage of the walk, but it is not an easy place in Winter,  for the north of Ireland can suffer serious Atlantic snows, and the gap was in the past a haunt of highwaymen and footpads bent on robbing travellers, a reminder of Ireland's violent past,not all of which was due to the English presence. 

Having walked through Donegal and through the tiny stretch of Leitrim that separates that county from Sligo, he passed the magnificent Ben Bulben and came to nearby Drumcliffe.  Benbulben is a mighty Palaeozoic coral reef that was jutted out of the ocean in primeval land rise and which became a mountain and now presents a steep slope to the Atlantic winds that scour the Sligo coast, but slopes more gently eastwards. It was a great favourite of the poet Yeats who dwelt nearby and loved to walk its slopes and enjoy the views over Sligo. A visit to Yeats' grave at nearby Drumcliffe is almost a pilgrimage for literati. Somerville was then privileged to be given a tour of Lissadel House,the home of the Gore-Booth family, who were close to Yeats. This tour is not now available to anyone, as the house was eventually sold to rich people who exclude the public, to the chagrin of the successive Irish governments. 

Southwards through Connaught.

This was done in two stages: Sligo to Westport and then through Connemara to Galway. 

The first took Somerville through some of the loneliest lands in the British Isles, for which he needed a guide, for the drover's route that he took southwards went down paths [boreens] that took the driest route through the blanket bogs of West Mayo. I have stood on land to the west of Lough Conn and gazed westwards towards the blue-hazed mountains of Mayo, and they looked beautiful, but they are not easy, for these mountains are difficult and the bogs between them demanding. The blanket bog that arose after climate change in the Bronze Age was so deep that it swallowed up the wonderful dry stone cattle management system of the Ceide Fields, [pronounced cagey] now happily rediscovered and archaeologically excavated. The author avoided the mountain tops, for these are difficult mounts, made of hard, slippery rock with much scree,dangerous places indeed. 

He tells of how Irish drovers took the pass through what is  known as the Nephin Beg [Little Nephin] Range to deliver cattle from Mayo to the markets of Galway. There were some marvellous feats of endurance, with drovers walking many a long hour, and sometimes having to defend cattle and/or profits from robbers. This  route interested me, as my wife Maureen's research into her family history turned up the interesting fact that her maternal grandmother was from a family of cattle dealers, who may well have used that drove road at times. 

An ascent of Ireland's sacred mountain, the steep and rocky Croagh Patrick, followed, and Somerville marvelled at those who climb it barefooted. The view from the summit, when it is not too misty with the clouds scudding in from the Atlantic, surveys the island-studded Clew Bay, one of Ireland's unique sites. 

Then on to Connemara. I have been to Connemara, whose name means Conn of the Sea, possibly denoting the name of the people who anciently dwelt there. But I have not been often enough, for it is a place with an inexhaustible character. Connemara is a complex symphony of rock, water, bog, moorland and farmland, the farms being small and often struggling, the product of people devoted to dwelling in the land, but finding it hard and often  economically unrewarding. But this is the quintessence the Gaeltachdt, the land where Gaelic is still spoken. 

Somerville passed between the twelve pins [bens] of Connemara and the smaller Maamturks, but the Maamturks are just as difficult, for they are both hard, unyielding, ancient  shield rock dating from the Precambrian epoch, remnants of an primeval continent. To see this landscape stand in its stark, wild beauty after rain has cleared the air of dust and mist is an experience to remember for a lifetime. I will never forget it.

The author draws on his comprehensive grasp of Irish history to link Connemara with the famous rebel. Padraig Pearse, who had a cottage there prior to the 1916 rebelllion, which cost him his life. This is an important quality of the book, that Somerville delves at places into Irish history and literature. 



Southwards to Cork

After diversions to the various islands of Clew Bay and the Arans, and passing through Limerick, he ventured through the Burren and finally reached the counties of Cork and Kerry. The book brings out very clearly the wild and lonely nature of much of the land and the difficulties of making a living there from farming. There is in this part of  the book a strong sense of the tragedy of Irish history, for this was an area already poverty stricken before it was seriously hit by famine and then by emigration. Sadly young women were often keener to leave than men were, a situation that resulted in many elderly and lonely bachelors clinging on out of duty to maintain the family farm, even though they had no children to inherit it. 

Yet there can be no talk about the counties of the south west without speaking of the wild beauty of the landscape, where rolling sea mists weave patterns of light and shade around Ireland's highest peaks to the accompaniment of the wind. There are bays such as Dingle and Roaringwater that extend deep into the rocky land. Somerville does a good job exploring the landscape, but you get the feeling that he was merely sampling it, and that there is far more to explore. I think that he would agree with these sentiments. 

But Cork was the territory where dwelt the Somerville family, and we come to realize that this long journey is not just a geographical quest, but a biographical one. We learn of the flight of the first Irish Somerville in 1690, a Scotttish episcopalian pastor who fled the  covenanter  gangs who marauded in Southern Scotland by rowing with his family to Northern Ireland and who died three years later mourning his exile. Christopher Somerville  delights in speaking of his distant relatives, Somerville and Ross, who wrote the Irish RM stories; and we can feel his indignation when he speaks about retired Admiral Boyle Somerville, whose kindness to local boys wanting advice on joining the Royal Navy led to a night time visit by two IRA gunmen who shot him dead on his own doorstep. 

The book concludes with Somerville's visiting Clear Island, which lies in Roaringwater Bay. We gain the sense that this has been a journey that had long incubated in the travel writer's mind and which he relished.  A thoroughly enjoyable book well worth reading

Updated: 02/22/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/29/2020

It's good to hear from you gain, Derdriu.

It is a traditional route south from the northernmost parts of Ireland, which is why Somerville chose it. I think that he wanted a route that avoided roads as much as possible. So he was sticking to what are known as bothareens [pronounced boreens, small roads and footpaths] as much as possible.

There could have been alternative routes, but he wanted a wild way.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/28/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical information and particularly for the product lines.
Barnesmore Gap sounds like an unexpected choice for travel, what with the geography, loneliness and travel time. Was it the only option for travelers with certain destinations in mind?

Veronica on 02/25/2018

Not as far as I am aware no. I don't know why I was chosen but I was.
Maybe it is coincidental and they thought I was a hooligan. :)

frankbeswick on 02/24/2018

Did they discover that you were called Veronica? The name gives away your Catholic roots. Moreover, you resemble mother, who was often told that she looked Irish and asked which part of Ireland she came from. Maybe they added a few points together and inferred that you are Catholic. But Philip is Catholic also and he was not asked to leave, so Irish looks were probably behind this ejection. However, this confirms that Edam is not on my list of destinations to visit.

Veronica on 02/24/2018

Many years ago on a coach trip round Holland, the tour guide warned us that in Edam Catholics are not welcome. I knew I wold be OK as they wouldn't know I was RC . However in the hotel restaurant I was asked to leave and my son and husband were not.. They left with me of course.. There was no reason given and i can only assume they could tell .

In England in the 70'sand 80s at the school I worked in I encountered a great deal of anti catholic sentiment from the staff.

But never in Ireland either anti Catholic or Anti English.

frankbeswick on 02/23/2018

Veronica, your point about the literacy of registrars is well made and apt.

frankbeswick on 02/23/2018

I have not been to Edam, but I met anti-Catholic sentiment at school [Poundswick] once when it was said in my hearing that Hitler's mistake was to genocide Jews rather than Catholics, but in Northern Ireland I met not a whiff of it. And remember, I spent a year living on the border when the troubles were kicking off in 1969-70. That stay includes having to take evasive action to avoid the B.Specials, who tended to "fire from the hip." I met anti-Irish sentiment while working in Warrington in th 1990s, and there were one or two lecturers at the college where it took place who identified my features as "looking Irish."

frankbeswick on 02/23/2018

What you say,BSG, is quite right, as usual. But it is worth saying that while the struggle was characterized as Catholic versus Protestant, it was primarily a struggle for economic dominance between people of Gaelic Irish descent on one side and British descent on the other, and religion was just a flag of convenience.

Veronica on 02/23/2018

I have never encountered any animosity when travelling or staying in Ireland . The only anti Catholic sentiment I have encountered has been in Manchester, England and also in Edam, Holland.

Spellings of names always depended on the literacy of the registrar.

blackspanielgallery on 02/23/2018

It seems that the cessation of hostilities between English Protestants and Catholics would not make the route totally safe, for if there were others who would do one harm, they would not suddenly become peaceful.

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