This little village was first place I ever visited in Ireland and is very special to me. It is a beautiful village inhabited by some very hardworking and friendly people whom I came to know as friends during my stays. On that first visit, mentioned previously when we stayed at Carrowroe Park, we did not know our way about and consequently we got a little bit lost on the way. After reaching Roscommon we took the road towards Castlebar but after a few miles I knew we were not on the right road so I stopped at the side of the road to have a look at the map. Luckily a bloke was riding a pretty well ancient bicycle nearby so I asked him the way to Castlecoote. He might as well have been talking Norwegian. I hardly understood a word he said, such is the harshness of the Roscommon dialect. I understood enough however to grasp we needed to take a narrow road to our left opposite a small shop to get there. We all thanked him and as we drove off he just sat there on his bike in the middle of the road watching us drive off.
About two miles down the road we chanced upon a priest, also riding an ancient black bicycle. We slowed down in our battered Transit van and told him we wished to get to Castlecoote and find someone called Nonie Golden. It turned out he was the parish priest and Nonie happened to be a great friend of his. He asked if there was room in the back for him and the bike and he’d show us the way. We flung the rusty back doors open and chucked his bike in and he got in the front with Ado and me. He navigated for us, all the time nattering away. We passed over the 9 arches of Donamon Bridge, which straddled what was to be our river for the week, the river Suck. We saw the Donamon Monastery of the Divine Word for the first time and commented on its elegant presence. It had parapets and on the whole it looked like a castle, but it was a purpose built monastic training centre. Modern annexes had been built onto it to accommodate the trainees. It was nestled away in the trees but stood out like a beacon against the skyline.
We followed the road towards Castlecoote, passing through forestry land and over the Derryhippo River, which drained Blacks Lough into Stonehams Lough (or Linbaum Lough as it is called on the OS Map). A short drive over the hill and we were there. We thanked the priest for his help and in return he said we could buy him a drink in the Old Forge Inn later in the week, which we all did.
We found Nonie’s house the second time of asking having first turned left at her pub, Golden’s Bar, then realising we were going the wrong way after we’d passed a sign that said Fuerty, we doubled back and a mile later, there it was, Lisheen. It was a large square detached building, pebble-dashed cream with a red slate roof. Lisheen is Gaelic for “A little fairy fort“. Don’t jump to conclusions. Just don’t!
I was to stay there on a later visit. I wasn’t too sure about staying in a “little fairy fort” though. However, as we approached the open front door a fellow angler, called Jack, came rushing in. He was a little bit excited. So was Nonie come to that, Jack had just caught the biggest pike ever to come out of the river Suck. At 35lb, it was a very big fish.
Nonie wanted to have it stuffed and mounted to put up in her bar, but Jack had just weighed it and put it back. It had attacked a 3lb bream as he was bringing it in, and in doing so had killed the bream. The dead bream was then mounted on pike tackle and used to entice the pike back again. It immediately took this large bait and with Jack now having fishing tackle capable of subduing such a big fish, he was able to land it. It was recorded immediately into the visitor’s book for everyone to see. It was a good advert for the quality of the fishing in that area. However, word went around and the French, Germans and especially the Belgians, who all specialise in fishing for pike, cottoned on and nearly spoilt it for everybody else. More about that later on.
Castlecoote is a beautiful little place; it has a village store which doubles up as a filling station, post office and almost any other service you can imagine. The river runs nearby and splits into two streams under a new bridge. Over the bridge is the primary school, complete with goal posts for their playtime games of hurling, Gaelic football or camogie (the lasses version of hurling). There are plenty of old limestone ruins round about in stony fields.
A wonderful feature in this village is the number of copper beeches. With the sun low in the late evening, these beautiful things positively glow. They sway about in the wind shimmering with their silverish bark and of course their golden copper foliage. There also seem to be taller beech trees here than anywhere else in Ireland.
Castlecoote church stands out high above all the other buildings in the village. The villagers built it themselves (with a little bit of help of course) and it is a beautiful edifice, a tribute to the people of Castlecoote. The old church is at Fuerty just over a mile away and it really is very old. The old church cannot easily be missed, because of the incredibly elaborate shrine built into the wall. It is whitewashed regularly and on a sunny day can be quite dazzling. Cemented into the front wall of the old church are some ancient Celtic inscriptions, carved into a piece of flat Connemara marble and a piece of what looked to me like shale. I have not got a clue what they say and would hazard a guess the locals don’t know either. I walked to the rear of the cemetery past a crypt and as I glanced back, perched in a small recess at the rear of the crypt was a human skull. Jesus, did I jump! When I had regained my composure I took a photograph of it. Don’t ask me why, I just did. I even placed it better in the light so it would show up better on the photo. The photo turned out poor anyway so I needn’t have bothered.
The area is networked by narrow lanes with limestone walls either side, covered in lichens and mosses, untouched for hundreds of years. Castlestrange is found along one such lane. The river Suck divides into two streams here and the bridge does a double hop to reach the other side. In a field nearby lies a large round stone originating from the La Téne period. It is carved with spirals and other round shapes. To give you an idea as to how old this stone is, La Téne was a late Iron Age Celtic culture named after a site in what is now Switzerland. Celtic culture is estimated to have reached Ireland in the 2nd century BC. There is another similar stone, a more famous one, called the Turoe stone and is to be found in the village of Ballaun, Co. Galway.
History is all around. Prior to the advent of tractors, the land had been worked in roughly the same way since the Celtic cultures had taken root. All the subsequent invaders, the Vikings, the Normans and more recently the English, have taken one look at the land and turned their backs on it. It is poor land and only fit for grazing animals. There are the occasional fertile pastures but they are very few and far between. The lower land is mainly bogland and saturated peat. Peat is dug, cut and dried in this area. You will frequently see little piles of peat drying in fields on the roadside when you pass a bog. The peat is burned and generates a lot of heat once you get it going. It does not burn like wood; it smoulders, and gives off an aromatic scent. Every time I smell burning peat I fancy a pint of Guinness. I must be the human equivalent of Pavlov’s dog!
Whether it is because there is a distinct lack of people or because they have more respect, there is never any litter anywhere in the village. It is always spotlessly clean. However, a few miles along the road is the Galway border and at the side of the road beside a sign, which says, “No Tipping by Order, Galway District Council“, as a gesture of defiance, it seems, someone had dumped a pile of old carpets, a mattress, a load of old bathroom tiles along with lots of other masonry rubbish. Some people have no respect no matter whether you are in rural Ireland or an inner city slum clearance in Britain.
I travelled alone once, staying with Nonie and Jim Golden at Lisheen. I wanted to clear my head of all the rubbish I had accumulated by my living in the rat race with the other rats. There is no finer place to come and wind down than Ireland. Each morning I would have breakfast with Nonie and Jim in the kitchen and we would put the world to right over bacon and eggs and a cup of tea.
I spent all week pottering about, taking photographs, talking to locals and learning a little history and a few little legends about the village. At nights I drank in Golden’s Bar. On the Wednesday night, one or two locals had a singing session around the peat fire and the more the Guinness flowed the more volunteers there were to sing. There were lots of songs about families emigrating because of the famine and of the hardship of working the land. I even played them a tune on my flageolet.
I returned to England refreshed and in a far better frame of mind. On my first day back I watched my team, Sheffield Wednesday lose to Arsenal in the League Cup Final at Wembley. I took it all with a pinch of salt, but by the time we played them in the FA Cup Final, two months later and lost albeit after a replay, things had changed. The Irish influence had all but disappeared. I’d reverted back to the disgruntled and unhappy steelworker the industry had made me. I had been working all hours God sends in that filthy steelworks alongside a lot of unskilled, hollow heads earning twice the money I was on earning due to their having worked there longer. I hated Arsenal nearly as much as I hated my job. It was time I visited Ireland again to cleanse my bitter memory banks.