Gateway to the West

Travelling along the Athlone road, heading for Roscommon road, the countryside changes. Rocky fields and barren scrubland fit only for hardy cattle, replaces the green fields and dense woodland. As you exit the village of Lecarrow you pass Coffey’s store on the right, easily distinguishable by its garishly cinnamon red painted walls. Once it changed to a jonquil yellow colour but it’s cinnamon again. Not far from Lecarrow you pass through Knockcroghery, several times Ireland’s tidiest village and mighty proud they are. The road through Knockcroghery was so wide at one point that you could get two football pitches end to end and still have room at the sides to develop terracing.

As you cross the railway line for the second time you fast approach Roscommon. We had to wait twice for the Guinness train, and twice we overtook it. Either the railway line or the road snaked about a bit. The railway line has long since gone.

You pass Carrowroe Park on the left, followed by the Roscommon Infirmary and the GAA football ground. There is a good chance you will encounter a shower or two from hereon. It is wild and wonderful around these parts, notorious for its varied weather conditions. If you see a big black cloud, chances are it will rain on you as there is nothing to stop it all the way back to the Atlantic Ocean.

If you glance to the right you can see the head of Lough Ree and Lanesborough, with its peat fired power station, its chimneys smoking away, filling the immediate area with the aromatic scent of burning peat. It can be quite heady at times. This aroma is mostly associated with open fires in small rooms, pints of porter waiting on the bar, pleasant company and the time of day on your hands.

At the roundabout at the end of the Roscommon road, a right takes you to the markets, Lanesborough and the N60, which eventually leads west. Roscommon is the gateway to the counties Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo and Donegal. To the left at the roundabout takes you past the nunnery and onwards towards Fuerty & Castlecoote where we were supposed to be to staying. Roscommon, for such a small town, has a splendid cathedral, a 13th century castle, a 15th century Dominican Friary and a racecourse. Thursday is market day where the square in front of the town hall is taken over by market traders, it is payday and the bars are buzzing.

My journey takes me west to the small village of Castlecoote. I have friends here. They own the bar! And before you jump to conclusions, this was unknown to me until the time of my first visit. Honest! The river Suck flows through the village, bisecting the school and the village store. It is my favourite river to fish because of the variations it throws up. It can be 2-ft deep rushing through rocks, ideal for trout, and yet 100 yards downstream it can be 20-ft deep and slow and deep, ideal for bream.

Golden’s Bar serves the best pint of Guinness in the whole of Ireland. So, however, does every other bar in Ireland! Funny that isn’t it? Joe always finished the creamy head off with a shamrock. One pint is not enough to savour the atmosphere, so you must always have “one for the road”, then take care, for this is tractor land!

There is never any litter in the streets, nor a tab end, nor a lollipop stick, nothing. At 9 am there is only the sound of birds singing and the odd cow lowing. It is so quiet you can hear the river running over the stones up by the bridge. It is one of the most beautiful sounds there is. There is nothing more natural than running water.

The land around Roscommon is of very poor quality. It is only good for grazing and even then it is prone to flooding. The fields are strewn with boulders and only a foot or so below the grass is solid rock. The people around here have had, and still do have a hard life. It is 100% agricultural.

On this my first trip to Ireland I stayed at Carrowroe Park, (by default as you will have read in the Lisheen chapter), a large Georgian manor house with extensive grounds, with deer roaming the parklands. It belonged to the late Major Molloy, and had servants quarters, numerous stables and was virtually left in the grand state it was in it’s prime. The servant’s quarters were tiny, more like cells, with a bunk bed and a tiny window just above ground level. Just what sort of life did those poor people have? They were slaves.

It was a very desirable place to stay, reaffirmed by the fact the Managing Director and Marketing Manager and their wives, of Nicholas Products, were also residing there. (“Disprin” is probably the most famous of this company’s products.) They were there to establish a factory, which was to manufacture “Ipsos”, a confectionery similar to “TicTacs”. They were sold in a plastic box, which you could interlock with Lego blocks.

Several years later I inquired as to what happened to the factory and was told it had closed down. Apparently the management couldn’t get people used to a routine lifestyle, you know, getting up, clocking in and going home at set times, as the business required.

The rural lifestyle of doing what you please when you please prevailed. The factory worker mentality, prevalent in Britain wasn’t for Roscommon. Consequently, the extra wealth the Irish Government and Nicholas Products had hoped to bring to the area was not forthcoming. Life just went along as it always had. As a fully paid up member of the anti slavery movement, I say good on ‘em.

I recall going to Roscommon market one Thursday when no shop was to open until 10 o’clock, which was about the time the traders had finished laying out their produce. The bars didn’t open until 11 o’clock but oddly you could have coffee or a pint of Guinness while you were waiting for them to officially open. An old friend of mine, George Bonsall (sadly now departed from this world) swore this happened to him down in Graiguenamanagh as well!

Roscommon is a pretty little town of only 5 or 6 thousand people. It’s never mentioned on TV holiday programmes or in holiday brochures. I suppose it was the gateway to the west in my eyes only. The main thoroughfare from Dublin to Galway in the west was the road through Athlone. Now it’s a motorway and lops two or three hours off the old journey. My first memories of Ireland are shaped by Roscommon and the villages to the west and south of this old market town. Things have changed, there are roundabouts and dual carriageways where there weren’t even any roads. There are supermarkets and huge road signs replacing the traditional shops and black-on-white cast iron road signs.

Roscommon castle has got quite a history, like most castles. Built by a Norman in 1269, three years later the Irish O’Connors besieged it and took it. Eight years later, the English nicked it back. Sixty years later, the O’Connors won it back again and had it for nigh on 200 years before the Parliamentarians claimed it then gave it to the Elizabethan Governor of Connaught only for it to be captured by the Irish Confederate Catholics in 1645. Are you following? Anyway, the Irish had it until Cromwell’s violently anti Irish Ironsides, sacked it in 1652, blew it up & dismantled the fortifications, finally it was burned down in 1690 and fell into decay. And there you have it. It is at the edge of a flood area, now fronted by ornamental gardens with neat and tidy footpaths. Almost every time I went, the fields surrounding the castle were flooded.

So much has changed.