Life and death in a lost Eden

I SPENT much of the month of June at my home in the borderlands where there are no queues at the shops and the pavements are free of dog turds. The village of Kesh, on the shores of Lough Erne in north Fermanagh, is a sleepy place and home to 972 souls. It takes its name from a wicker bridge that spanned the Glendurragh River in Gaelic times. In summer this enchanting little stream is a musical trickle accompanied by birdsong and the buzzing of honey bees. In winter it is an angry torrent that tears down stone and sweeps away farm animals. There is one school, one church, two supermarkets, two bars and two cafes. The hotel is closed due to neglect but there are caravan parks by the lough shore and mooring facilities on the river for summer’s holidaymakers. It is largely a unionist community though the colourful Orange arch, which usually hangs over the main street at this time of year, is missing for the first time in living memory. The annual three-day pilgrimage to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, at nearby Lough Derg, has also been cancelled. The Coronovirus crisis has had an impact on even our most enduring of traditions.

Kesh It owes its origins to the Blennerhassett family who came from Norfolk 410 years ago after the defeat of the Great O’Neill during the Nine Years War and a period of what we would now call ethnic cleansing. Castle Hassett lies in ruins by the shore of the broad lough at Crevenish. The English were followed by border Scots in the time of King James’ Plantation. Reiver names such as Armstrong, Crozier, Elliott and Graham are still common here. This is a green and pleasant land of rich pasture, airy mountains and rushy glens, as described by Ballyshannon’s poet William Allingham. The fields are full of rabbit, hare, pigeon and pheasant. The trout fishing is good and pike grow as long as your leg but two hydro-electric power stations, constructed by the Free State government in the 1940s, put an end to the best salmon fishing in Ireland and brown eels have to be netted and transported by road around the turbines if the population is to survive. The writer, angler and High Court judge, TC Kingsmill-Moore, lamented that the flooded Erne valley was a ‘lost Eden.’

Kesh was my parents’ home in their retirement and the community made them welcome. My sister is married to a Fermanagh man and lives just a few miles away at Killadeas, in the townland of Bunninubber, on the road to the historic island town of Enniskillen. The pink line of the border snakes around us here and at its closest point is just five miles away in the village of Pettigo in the Republic. Theresa May mistakenly told parliament it was in the UK during her Brexit babblings. I love my seaside home in Bangor north Down but the commuter town of 57,000 is insulated from many of the realities of Irish life. I’m a country boy at heart and feel at ease in the borderlands where there is a strong sense of community and I have time for reflection and writing. I consider myself lucky to have such an agreeable bolthole.

But like many beautiful places this land holds dark secrets and is haunted by Ireland’s long and bloody past. I have been assisting local historian David Keys with his latest book which is a short history of the Ulster Special Constabulary in north Fermanagh. My contribution is largely as a photographer, map reader and editorial adviser. The Specials were formed before partition to support the Royal Irish Constabulary. Their role was to defend isolated unionist communities from raiding IRA gunmen who were intent upon unpicking the hard won Treaty which brought an end to the Anglo-Irish War. The last land battle in the UK was fought here when Churchill provided artillery to remove anti-Treaty forces from the Pettigo salient in 1922. Best known for the part-time B Specials, the USC has been lionised by Ulster unionists and demonised by Irish nationalists. It is hero worshipped by last-ditch loyalists and branded as a bigoted militia by die-hard republicans. These are partisan portrayals which badly require revision 100 years after the formation of the force and 50 years after it was stood down. The whole truth is always more complex. There is the story of a Special who supported an Irish republic. It is possible to believe in a united Ireland yet reject the violence and deceit with which it is pursued. Michael Waters took his own life. Another Special was dismissed from the force because he fell in love with a Catholic girl. It is possible to believe in partition yet reject bigotry and discrimination. The couple remained lifelong friends but never married. Armed groups in Ireland have always contained their share of heroes, cowards, rogues and criminals.

In Fermanagh alone more than 10,000 men served in the Specials, some for as long as 30 years, and 47 were killed many as they went about their day jobs as farmers, bus drivers, postmen and breadmen. The same fate was endured by their successors in the Ulster Defence Regiment and brave young men and women in the Police Service of Northern Ireland still face this threat on a daily basis. They are easy targets for republican gunmen who can flee back across the border to the security of their homes. In this decade of commemoration which includes the Easter Rising, Anglo-Irish War, partition and Irish Civil War, the role of police officers has proved to be an open sore. If we are to secure lasting peace and true reconciliation for the generations to come this wound must be properly addressed. I hope David’s book, which is expected to be published next year, will make a small but valuable contribution to this huge political challenge. I am proud to assist him with his work.

© Maurice Neill 2020

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