February 2004: County Down

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Land of saints and scallops

The St Patrick’s centre in Downpatrick separates the legend from the Saint.

It is a sign of the times that the euro prices available from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board make a weekend in Down as affordable as a meal at a Dublin restaurant.

In the two gateposts at either end of Strangford Lough you can enjoy the meal as well, seafood that genuinely comes from the stretch of water where the Strangford to Portaferry craft plies its trade. Delicious, and you get change.

The Cuan restaurant in Strangford, where plates of hot food are served out to hungry passengers is one place to take it all in.

Crossing on the nifty little ferry that plies its trade from Strangford to Portaferry, you begin to appreciate that there are more kingdoms, more landscapes, perhaps even more dimensions to Down than a glance at the map would suggest. Strangford is in turn a quiet sanctuary, or a raging tidal inlet, and the Narrows at its mouth where the sun rises over water and sets again over water is one of the great treasures of Ireland.

At the other side of the cove, you can stop with the children at the Exploris aquarium and watch the seals being fed. Exploris has been around for ten years, and the touch pools remain the biggest hit with children.

You can fondle a ray or a starfish at certain times of the day under supervision, but the aquarium is about to undergo another phase of expansion, with better use of its tanks to display smaller fish. This reflects an international trend, where the first generation of aquaria with their dancing dolphins have been superseded by something more environment- friendly.

 

Down is one of the best types of tourist destinations, just a place with its own story to tell. Living history comes back to life, as children descend into the darkness and come out at the other side with the wisdom of centuries visited upon them.

The road north from Newry along the coast brings you past the picturesque castles of the coastline and through the places where the mountains genuinely sweep down to the sea. The Kingdoms of Down is how these regions advertise themselves, and indeed there are kingdoms to see. The famous roaring waves, Tonn Ruaighri comes roaring in to Dundrum bay as the tide turns. It is a special magic waves, one of the three magic waves of Ireland, and there is one special place where you can listen.

It is on Dundrum Castle, a round fortress looking across to Newcastle and more ancient places. It was designed as a military installation for the Normans, not a picnic site and play area, but the children don’t know that, do they? Or do they?

This part of Down is heaving with history, so much perhaps that they don’t know what to do with it. Downpatrick’s museum is situated in the town’s disused jail, a grim building with fascinating material on the 1798 rebellion, and as you wander through the corridors automatic sensors turn on prison sounds which can be startling if you are not prepared for them.

The cells have barely changed down the generations, and the 18th century graffiti and recreations of prison life remind the visitor of grim times gone by. In Saul, the very first church Patrick founded, a little graveyard and a vaulted roof salute the landscape where Christianity started.

Perhaps the most amazing and greatest treasure of the Kingdoms is hidden away in the mountains in the ancient rath of Drumena. With its own escape tunnels still intact, it could have been designed as a playground rather than as a defence for deadlier times.

Appropriately enough, you might think, as the dark Mournes sweep past you to the sea.

 

Saint Patrick’s life and times has been a tourism product in their own right since Lough Derg was on every continental pilgrim’s wish list. The tradition that he was buried in Downpatrick has inspired a local interpretative centre, just a flight of steps away form the saint’s birthplace.

A sweeping audiovisual which takes you through the sites associated with the saint is the centrepiece of this exhibition.

Two sizeable medieval documents indicate that the saint himself was a much more interesting character than the cross between Santa Claus and Superman that used to adorn the medals distributed every March.

His life was already complicated within a few hundred years of his death by the existence of two rival biographies and a series of local claims on the saint that would vex a Viking.

Until recent years a great granite slab with Patrick’s name on it was all the town had to show for their prize possession. It was placed there a century ago, conveniently in the graveyard at a time Catholics could not visit the interior of the church.

 

Parishioner Joy Wilkinson conducts tours around Downpatrick career, sharing her wealth of knowledge and passion for the history of the building with tourists.

DOWNPATRICK Cathedral has spent most of its centuries trailing in the shadow of its famous founder. St Patrick is said to be buried somewhere under the church interior rather than the famous slab outside placed in honour of Ireland’s patron saint. An earlier church was built at right angles to the current model.

“I think it is a very spiritual place,” tour guide Joy Wilkinson said. “You sense it as soon as you step in to the building.”

The carved pews give a sense of 18th century manor life, when grand families occupied the best seats, and bottoms were a lot smaller than they are today.  Sermons were longer, and a serious case of DVT might develop if the Dean rambled off the point. The building also served as a law court, so you had boxes for Bishop and Judge placed opposite each other. Little plaques commemorate the families who helped build the church, “the 18th century equivalent of Coca Cola advertising their product” Ms Wilkinson says, and the monuments on the walls commemorate families who no longer live in the area, wiped out by the call to arms to fight foreign wars.

The organ is a work of art in its own right. One of the finest in the country, it sits resplendent over the entrance.

The cathedral is almost shy about its heritage, as if the modernity of the giant stone with Patrick’s name on it casts doubt on the entire spirituality of the place.

Inside the cathedral there are hanging flags and coats of arms. Many of the great  18th century families who paid for the restoration are no longer around to sit in their pews. Some of the families that survived WW1 were killed off in WW2.

 

The Kingdoms of Down have a detailed 76-page brochure, one of the best produced available in the country, available from NITB. Website www.kingdomsofdown.com

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