Saturday, 28 June 2014

   After the doctor’s appointment I took the first available bus back to Armagh, where I had a chance to peruse some faded photographs on the wall in the station, of President Bill Clinton[1] and Tony Blair, addressing crowds at a ‘Gathering for Peace’ on 3rd September 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement. Then I returned to the cathedral where a couple of school groups were rehearsing for an event of some kind; I said prayers, and bought two miniature prayer books for their gift potential. Hoping to find an internet connection to check emails, I then visited a place styling itself as ‘Armagh Public Library’, but instead of your average book and DVD-lending affair, this turned out to be a very grand rectangular room, with a row of glass display cases, surrounded by shelves filled with antiquarian books on two levels. It contains for instance Jonathan Swift’s personal copy of the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with his manuscript corrections. Also notable was a 13th century Papal Bull of Pope Innocent IV, with a caption theorizing that it set out his guidelines on punishing heretics, and an illuminated Book of Hours from the early 16th century, open at a page with a charming depiction of Our Lady.

Book of Hours, Armagh Public Library
   Eventually I found a computer in Armagh’s regular municipal library, the stamping-ground of numerous teenagers studying hard for exams. Heading south in late afternoon I paid a brief visit to the RC Church of St Malachy[2], and then doubled back a few yards to get my water bottle topped up at a pub, notable for its sumptuous furnishings and polished wooden panelling. I hadn’t meant to stay, but was summoned over to speak to a gentleman at the bar, and soon found myself being amiably interrogated about the pilgrimage etc. Shortly afterwards, this same fellow was fixing me with a direct stare and gesticulating, as he got up to leave, saying: "If you move from here I'll wring your neck!"

Having formed the opinion that I would need to sample the wares of his local supplier, he was going round the corner to buy me a spectacular portion of cod and chips! Until just a few days before, he had been on pilgrimage to Medjugorje, so Mary’s Meals was known to him through the café there. Bringing back my seafood banquet however, he gave clear instructions that I would have to wait until midnight before eating it, since it was Friday; for over thirty years, in her messages at Medjugorje, Our Lady has been earnestly entreating the faithful to fast on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays.

   Walking on in bright sunshine, I visited another church where I sensed that my arrival made the priest, conversing with a group of parishioners, apprehensive for a second, until I knelt down (this is called genuflection in Catholic circles) out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Once you get to South Armagh the union jacks have disappeared completely, and local graffiti does sometimes name-check outlawed Republican groups. Yet again that evening though I had a pleasant encounter, this time with a trio of locals, among whom was a lady who had just come back from a pilgrimage to Lourdes; one of her companions gave me another £10 to add to the Mary’s Meals kitty. By the road near there I came across a baseball cap with ‘Mallorca’ written on it, which got quite a lot of use over the following weeks. The place I found to sleep as darkness fell was a shed, with an entrance just below the level and out of sight of the road, containing crumbling notices from the local forestry commission dated 1979, inside a glass-fronted information board. There was also a road sign lying on the floor, pointing the way to Bond’s Mountain. Waking up at first light, I turned my attention to the fish and chips, in a cardboard box covered in superlatives like 'succulent', 'delicious', 'excellent', and most frequently of all - 'hot'. This last epithet certainly did not describe the food I had that morning, but all the others certainly did.

   On the morning of Saturday 18th May 2014, having gone back to sleep after my break fast, I got up and away rather late. By and by though, in Newtownhamilton I came to a café on whose walls were prominently displayed a couple of signs: 

‘FRIENDS are the sunshine of life’ …and, ‘HAPPINESS is a journey, not a destination’ 

Walking on in grey and damp weather, in the afternoon there was the first ‘Tricolour’ Republic of Ireland flag that I’d seen, near the Silverbridge stadium. At an upmarket pub near the border with the Republic, a television broadcast of the final of Europe’s most prestigious rugby union competition was just starting, contested by Clermont (where Pope Urban II threw the whole of Christendom into ferment by preaching the First Crusade in 1095) and Toulon. Later there was actually nothing to indicate that one had crossed an international boundary, as I crossed from Armagh County to County Louth. St Brigid’s, Kilcurry, the first church I came to in ROI, was closed, but there was a Lourdes grotto where I could pray. I then noticed a signpost to a place called ‘St Brigid’s Shrine’ – flagging down a 4x4 that was passing at that moment, I asked for clarification. Soon I was being told by the middle-aged couple on the front seats to put my stuff in the back, to be driven 2 or 3 miles to the shrine. She explained about her personal devotion to St Brigid, and I was amazed also to hear mention of the name of Edward Bruce, brother of Robert, who was defeated and killed in a nearby battle. Arriving chez St Brigid, I left my stuff in their boot and we agreed that I should be ready to be picked up again an hour later.

[1] US participation in the peace process was indispensable of course, because Republican groups had always relied on the Irish diaspora in the US for much of their funding.
[2] Patron of the archdiocese of Armagh and the second most famous Bishop in its history (after St Patrick), St Malachy was a great reformer and restorer of Christian morals in Ireland in the first half of the 12th century. After his death at Clairvaux in 1148, his friend the illustrious Abbot there, St Bernard, wrote his biography. In 1199 St Malachy became the first native-born Irish person to be formally canonised. 

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