Black Flags at Butler’s Bridge

I’d only ever been to the Roscommon area but my mate Ado had been to Belturbet in Cavan and he said the fishing was great. Get this though, he and two others went in a Reliant Robin with all their luggage, fishing stuff et al. I kid thee not. Every night when they returned from fishing, kids would stand on the side of the street applauding them, well applauding the car to be honest. He said two dogs with the kids walk round it a few times looking for the fourth wheel to pee on.
So when we decided to go we went in a proper car, a Ford Escort Mk1, not an RS2000, nothing snazzy, just a basic 1100cc model. Our visit coincided with the demise of two of the Republican hunger strikers. The situation in the north and more importantly as far as we were concerned, around the border area, was tense to say the very least. On the Friday before we travelled, Bobby Sands died. It was the 5th of May 1981. Sands was the Republican’s parliamentary candidate and polled 30,492 votes in a General Election to become a British MP. The vote was essentially a vote of support for all the hunger strikers in Long Kesh prison. He died after a 66 day hunger strike in the Hospital Wing at Long Kesh Prison, (otherwise known as the H-Blocks). He was the first, but a further 9 prisoners died before Sinn Fein intervened and persuaded the remaining hunger strikers to call it off to alleviate further anguish in the republican community.

As we were making our way up to Cavan we encountered a slow moving parade at Leixlip, a town just to the west of Dublin. Almost everyone was wearing black; some of the men were wearing black kilts. There was a lone piper up front and people held aloft banners and tricolours. There was a sombre mood in the air. However, to this day I don’t know whether this was organised for Bobby Sands or for a local personality. Nevertheless, given the circumstances I didn’t think it was sensible to hang around for too long in this area, so I discreetly accelerated away from the cortège.

Those in the know might ask, if you were heading for Cavan, then how did you end up driving through Leixlip? Easy, I took the wrong turn out of Dublin. Undaunted, I carried on towards Mullingar. On the road to Mostrim (Edgeworthstown), we were overtaken by a car containing two lads and two lasses, who thought it was a wizard wheeze to fling a sandwich out of their car window. I don’t know if it was because we had British registration plates or not. Bastards. It landed on my windscreen. It was raining and the windscreen wipers spread the butter evenly over the glass. Great, just what I wanted.

It was getting dark and it was tippling it down with rain. I had a hole in my wing and a larger one in my wheel arch on the passenger side, which let gallons of water into the car. I had about two inches of water either side of the bulkhead, which got deeper at the front going downhill and vice versa. Ado, my passenger spent the last few miles of the journey with his feet on the dashboard. My side was nice and dry though, the water couldn’t get over the propshaft channel!

We arrived at Sugarloaf House, near Belturbet, at about 10pm. It was pitch black and raining even heavier now. We knocked at the door and after a while a woman answered it. At this juncture I must point out that there was another flipping postal strike ongoing! Anyway we were shown into the spacious farmhouse kitchen, and then she told us we could not stay there because she had not received my letter and in anycase she was fully booked up already.

The feeling of deja vous was all consuming. She was good enough to make us a cup of tea all the same. It is not just the English who use a cup of tea to help them during a crisis! She was a Protestant who lived in Fermanagh but she told of her sorrow for Bobby Sands and the way he died and that Francis Hughes did not have long to live and “isn’t that also a terrible thing”. (Francis Hughes actually did die later that week on the 12th of May, whom along with eight others also to die whilst on hunger strike, inevitably became a martyr to the Republican movement in the north). My mate was non-too sympathetic, stating that Sands was a terrorist and that it served him right. That killed off that particular conversation.

Not everyone’s’ sympathies lay with the hunger strikers. Some of the older folk openly voiced their detestation of the issue. Open arguments usually ended in stony silence. These were tense times along the border.

There were two bars in Butlersbridge flying black flags in support or sympathy towards the hunger strikers. These were the exception to the rule. Very few buildings on the road up from Dublin had black flags out. I half expected the Tricolour on the Belturbet Town Hall flagpole to be at half-mast, but it wasn’t.

The woman informed us she had already telephoned a friend of hers to arrange accommodation and she would not be long coming. Meanwhile outside, the rain was making itself heard. Oonah, our new contact turned up, and we duly followed her towards the new lodgings, water swishing about in our Ford U-boat.

She too, like Nonie from Lisheen, drove with a style comparable to Colin McCrae trying to make up time on Stig Blomqvist! It was a skilled art not only to keep up with her, but also to miss all the enormous potholes in the road from time to time. It was pitch black and there are no streetlights in Ireland except in the towns and villages, so all the junctions looked the same in the dark and consequently I lost some of my bearings. Which way were we going? Were we near the border or heading away from it? All would become clear in the morning. As we hurtled down the bumpiest road I had ever driven on, bouncing all over the place, we slewed left on a sharp bend then via a chicane, standing on the brakes we veered left up a short narrow driveway and came to rest by a large bungalow. We had arrived. A small light flickered on above the kitchen door. What would it look like in daylight?

In contrast to the old world Georgian Manor house at Carrowroe Park, this was a recently constructed modern bungalow, complete with four bedrooms, a large farmhouse kitchen, a smaller kitchenette, a medium sized lounge, two bathrooms and a double garage. Essential to anyone taking in anglers, a drying room was provided, with storage space for fishing tackle and suchlike. The outside walls were washed in a jasmine yellow and white. Inside everything was up to date, from the locking brass knobs on each door to the roller blinds on each window, which are very popular in Ireland. In the large kitchen was (and still is albeit an updated version), an Aga cooking range, whilst in the smaller kitchen all the conventional facilities were evident, gas cooker, sink, worktops etc. There was no microwave though. Oonah said she doesn’t understand them so she doesn’t want one. Anyway judging by the food she cooks, I doubt a microwave would be of any use whatsoever. It’d only spoil it.

There is always a tussle to get into the chairs beside the Aga after we have finished tea. They are nice and warm and you can doze off effortlessly whilst you wait for the shower or the bathroom to become vacant or for someone to wake you. It was a rude awakening when one of the others would shake you and tell you it was time to go to the bar.

Unlike mainland UK, Eire does not have gas piped into its homes. Instead it has to rely on Ergas. There is infact one gas pipeline stretching out into Ireland’s only gas field in the Irish Sea, a hundred miles or so from Cork. Ergas, I am reliably informed, produces a higher cooking temperature than North Sea gas. So now you know. The alternative obviously is electric. Resourceful as this couple are, Ergas is the energy they choose to use and they think nothing of lugging a large empty gas canister into the back of the car, taking it down to the nearest store at Killeshandra and replacing it with a full one.

There are not many Englishmen who could make an Irishman. The Irish work very hard for small reward and they don’t worry about silly little things too much, they just get on with it. You have to make a living one way or another and farming is one of the hardest ways, but it is in the blood of an Irishman to be independent. Nowhere was this ideology better illustrated than at Roscommon and the ill-fated sweet factory.

Of course Ireland has eventually moved into the industrial age but in the provinces, the old principles still apply.