Strangford Lough

March 13, 2012

 I know everybody wants to read about O’Reilly but many of my readers enjoy the descriptions of my part of Ireland. Here’s one I wrote some time ago. O’Reilly will be back in the next blog I promise.

Turn the map of Ireland through ninety degrees and you will see the silhouette of a shaggy dog. The animal’s legs and body form the sovereign nation of the Republic of Ireland. Lying in the dog’s head are the six counties that owe allegiance to the British crown. Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital, is ten miles as the crow flies from Newtownards, a busy market town set at the head of the largest salt-water inlet in the British Isles. It marks the little dog’s ear. Strangford Lough, 33 kilometres long by six kilometres wide, the largest sea inlet in the British Isles, is one of Ulster’s most popular tourist destinations.

When I left Ireland for Canada forty years ago Strangford was a wild lonely place of mudflats, islands left behind when the last great ice age retreated, and pladdies, low rocky reefs, sea wrack covered and hidden at high tide. Strangford Lough was where two young men, friends since boyhood, spent their Saturdays in their own private retreat away from the bustle and grind of the weekday city. Neill, stockily built, darkly complected, a superb shot, skilled helmsman, and I, fair skinned, slight, shared an unspoken love for the place where our pleasures were dictated only by the changing of the seasons.

The local flocks of mallard, teal, and pintail were joined in autumn and through the bitter winter by flocks of migratory waterfowl, buff-pated widgeon, clanging battalions of brent geese, stately skeins of greylag which arrived to feed…and provide sport for wildfowlers. Early mornings would see us, accompanied by Grouse, Neill’s big, black Labrador, huddled in the lee of a ruined sheepcote that stood above the shore of the Long Island. When southerly gales churned the water into dark, steep white caps the hurled spume stung our faces and the wind numbed our fingers. Strangford was showing the face that led the Viking invaders of the Tenth Century to call it, Strangfjorthr, ‘the turbulent fjord’. And yet we waited, careless of the cold, straining to hear the whicker of pinions in the dawn’s gloaming.

            On summer days, when Strangford lived up to its old Celtic name, Lough Cuan, ‘the peaceful lough’, with the sea azure, the air as warm as fresh buttermilk, we’d leave the moorings at Kircubbin, take my 26-foot sloop, Tarka, to race or simply go where the wind blew, only returning to the anchorage when the distant Mourne Mountains scrawled an indigo line against a star-filling, velvet sky.

            The Mournes, heather-covered granite, solid and enduring as the Ulster folk, are the background to two water colours that hang in my home. When my working day has been too long, the British Columbia skies primed with a monotonous undercoat of flat grey, I sit and let the paintings draw me back to what was, and always will be, a magical place.

            The last time I returned, in October 2007, Ireland and Strangford seemed to have changed. The Republic of Ireland, once a poor country, now boasted one of Europe’s fastest growing economies. In the North of Ireland, after 30 years of internecine strife, a truce had been in effect for 13 years. On Strangford, tourists who before the Troubles had not even heard of Audleystown Neolithic cairn or Castle Espie, home of Ireland’s largest living waterfowl collection, now visited the Lough’s historic sites, bird sanctuaries and wild life interpretive centers. Americans, many searching for their Irish roots, cycled from Greyabbey to Portaferry, stopping at churchyards to read the names from moss-grown headstones that stood tilted among long grasses beneath sombre yew trees. Sailors on skippered or bare-boat charters explored the myriad islands…the locals will tell you there is one for every day of the year…and sheltered inlets.        

            The years had indeed changed Strangford…and two men, friends from boyhood. 

            Neill was to collect me from my hotel in Belfast. We’d planned, for old times’ sake, to drive down to Strangford and make the short voyage to the Long Island.

I hardly recognized him when he walked into the lobby. His once jet hair was streaked with grey, a bulge at his midriff accented his stockiness but his eyes shone the way I remembered, his smile when he saw me was the smile I’d seen so many times when he’d made a difficult shot, or beaten a competitor’s boat across the finishing line.

            “How the hell are you?” His handshake had lost none of its power.

            “Good to see you Neill. How’re Jenny and the kids?”

            “They’re grand, and I’m off the leash today. At least until six. We’re supposed to be taking you out for dinner tonight and she’ll roast me if the pair of us are late home.”

            “Like the time when we stayed too long in the ‘Mermaid’ in Kircubbin?”

            Neill laughed. “Mind you, that was a great night. The craic was ninety.” He glanced at his watch. “We should get moving. The dinghy’s on the car’s roof rack, picnic’s in the boot…do you still like a drop of Harp?”

I nodded, thinking of the tart, chilled lagers we had drunk together on Tarka in the warmth of the summer evenings, the race over, the sails furled.    

“Come on, then.” He turned and I followed.







“Last time we went to the island you had a brace of mallard,” Neill said, as he stowed a knapsack under the inflatable’s seat.

“And you had three widgeon.” I remembered that morning, the one we both had known would be our last for Lord knew how long together on the Lough. The wind had howled and kicked the water into vicious, short waves.

“It’s a better day today,” said Neill, clambering in. “I don’t think those clouds over the Mournes mean much.”

“I hope not.” As I climbed aboard I stared at the distant thunderheads. “I don’t fancy trying to get home in this thing if it howls up out of the south. And you know how quickly it can.”

“It’ll never happen,” he said, hauling on the outboard motor’s starter-cord.

            I knew it would be pointless trying to chat over the clattering of the noisy little engine so I sat quietly, drinking in the well-remembered sights, breathing the sea weed-salted air, content to let Neill steer out into the Dorn Inlet and down past the Castle Hill. On the crest of the hill great elms, bowed with the spring-green leaves, sheltered the ruins of an old church that had been constructed from the ancient stones of a castle built there by Baron le Savage in 1180. I saw Neill staring up at the hillcrest and wondered if, as he had said years ago, he still imagined he could hear the ghostly ring of Viking axe on Celtic shield, hoarse Irish battle cries of, ‘Erin go bragh’, and ‘faugh a ballagh’.

            We left the Dorn to cross Ardkeen Bay, its glassy surface rippled only by our wake and the splashes of seals that the racket of our engine had disturbed from their basking on the wrack-covered Seal Rocks. Three oystercatchers, black and white and scarlet billed flew in line astern. Ahead lay the Long Island, a shingle-shored wishbone. Off to my right I could see the long, low shape of Gransha Point, bent like a crooked finger, for ever beckoning towards the turrets of Scrabo Tower solitary on its promontory above the town of Newtownards. I heard the liquid calls of curlew high overhead.

            I felt a breeze on the back of my neck and glanced to my left. Catspaws riffled the water and cumulo-nimbus clouds bore down on us like great grey and black teams of horses unharnessed from their cannons that now flashed and roared in the sky.

            I could tell by the urgent increase in the engine’s racketing that Neill had pushed it to full throttle. He bent toward me and I had to strain to hear him over the growling of the wind, the slap, slap as the boat’s flat rubber bottom smashed over the chop that had come up out of nowhere.

            “Hang on. The sooner we’re out of this the better.”

            “Right.” I grabbed the rope that ran round the top of one of the pontoons and hunched against the blown spray and the rain that soaked my shirt and jeans and plastered my thinning hair to my scalp. What, I wondered, would it take to overturn our little boat? I found myself humming the air of Anac Cuan, an old song about a boat sinking and the drowning of people and frightened sheep.

One of the Long Island’s points, low and coarse grass covered, made a lee and blocked the waves’ force We sought sanctuary there like the early Christian monks fleeing to a round tower.

            The boat’s motion eased in the more sheltered waters and I felt my clenched fingers relax as Neill ran the bows up onto the shingle and cut the engine.

            “Hop out,” he said. “We’ll beach her.”

            We stepped into ankle deep water, took one side of the dinghy each and hauled the inflatable ashore, the bottom crunching on the shingle, slithering over the tide-line of glistening kelp.

            “That’ll do.” Neill straightened, flicked his head back and shook himself as I remembered old Grouse the big Labrador, now long gone, shaking himself after a water retrieve. Neill grinned. “Bit lumpy there for a minute or two.”

            “Told you it could come up fast,” I said, glad to be on dry land.

            “Aye, but these summer ones usually blow over pretty quickly.” He frowned. “It had better. It would be daft to try to get back until the sea’s gone down a bit.”

            “And Jenny wants us home for six.”

            Neill shrugged and grabbed the knapsack from the dinghy. “Come on. We’ll get a bit of shelter in the old sheep pen.” He set off at a smart trot and I followed, feet sinking into the springy grass.

            We were both short of breath when we rounded one of the ruin’s tumbled walls, but behind the weathered-smooth stones the wind was less and the rain seemed to be slackening.

            Neill puffed. “Not as fit as we used to be.”

            Nor as reckless, I thought, as I hauled in a lungful of moist, salty air.

            “Still,” he said, pointing to the south, “I think the worst of the storm’s over. I can see the Mournes.”

            “If you can see the Mournes, it’s going to rain, and if you can’t see them…it’s raining.”

            “Canada’s not changed you that much, has it?” he said, laughing at the old chestnut. “Still the same old Ulsterman.”

            “We all change,” I said quietly, and I knew it was the truth.

            “I know so,” he said, “but Strangford doesn’t. Not really.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “It’s seen the Firbolg, the Tuatha de Danaan, Celts, Saint Patrick and the monks, the Vikings, the United Irishmen, the Troubles, the truce. They’ve all left their marks and those are mostly tourist attractions today. Places you and I used to go wildfowling are bird sanctuaries. Some of the old pubs are swanky roadhouses.”

“So it has changed.”

 He shook his head. “Strangford’s like us Ulsterfolk. We wear jeans now, not kilts and caubeens, but underneath we’re still the same. The Troubles like the storms here blow over us, but like the islands and the mudflats, the green of those little fields over on the mainland, the birds and the seals, badgers and the foxes we’ll still be here no matter what.” He took hold of my arm. “And Strangford will always be here for you to come home to.”

            Home, I thought. There was moisture on my cheeks and not only from the dying rain.

            “Speaking of home,” he said, “we will get back to mine in time for dinner. Just look at that.”

            A strip of blue stretched from the hilly horizon to the base of the passing clouds. Bright rays of sunlight streamed down like the beams of heavenly searchlights, dappling the waves that even then seemed to be growing smaller. The rain had stopped.

            “Here,” Neill said, offering me an open bottle of Harp and a ham sandwich. “What’ll we drink to?”

            I looked around from the Mournes in the south, over islands and the white sails of yachts, to Scrabo Tower still mist shrouded in the north. I tasted the salt of the air, heard the piping cries of knots of dunlin that whirled low over the beach like spores blown from a puffball mushroom, raised the bottle and said, “How about, ‘To Strangford…and home’?”

I know everybody wants to read about O’Reilly but many of my readers enjoy the descriptions of my part of Ireland. Here’s one I wrote some time ago. O’Reilly will be back in the next blog I promise.

Well Said, Sir

March 5, 2012

First published in In Stitches magazine, June 1996

The silencing of Doctor O’Reilly


‘How are the mighty fallen?”David, a Biblical king said something along these lines. I’m sure his sage utterances would have been worth the listen if he’d been in the “Mucky Duck” the night O’Reilly met his match.

When I introduced you to Doctor Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills O’Reilly, I mentioned some of his attributes. As I recollect, I described him as an ex-navy boxing champion, classical scholar, unregenerate poacher, bagpiper, souse, cryptophilanthropist, foul-mouthed widower and country G.P.. I may have neglected to note that in addition, he regarded himself as a bit of a wit, and disliked intensely being bested in any verbal joust.

The fact that all of his local potential opponents knew very well that Dr O’ could be a great man for prescribing, and on occasion administering, the soap-suds enema as a panacea for just about any minor complaint, if the complaint was brought by someone in whom the font of medical knowledge wasn’t well pleased, may in part have taken the edge off the local competition.

On the particular evening I’m about to describe, Doctor O’Reilly was in full cry.

No wonder he was in good voice. He’d just won the local pibroch competition.

The pibroch is said, by those who understand these matters, to be a thing of complex beauty. It’s the classical music of the great highland bagpipe. Only the most experienced and skillful piper will even attempt the pibroch in public. (Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a great relief. To me, the thing is interminable, tuneless, repetitive, embellished with incomprehensible grace notes and an assault to the civilized ear.)

The tune, if it can be so called, is played on the chanter and immediately brings to mind the noise that would accompany the simultaneous gutting and emasculating of a particularly bad-tempered tom cat. Over the melody, on and on, thunder the drones, those pipes that stick up from the back of the bag like the remaining three tentacles of some long-fossilized prehistoric squid.

Needless to say, playing pibrochs takes a great deal of breath. I forget exactly how much water is lost per expiration, but judging by the post-pibroch intake of uisquebeatha by the average exponent of the arcane art, the amount of dehydration suffered must be extensive.

To return to the public bar of the BlackSwan. O’Reilly sat at a table in the middle of a circle of admiring fellow pipers, replacing his lack of bodily fluids like one of those desert flowers that only sees rain once every ten years. I was in my customary corner sipping a small sherry and trying to mind my own business. I’m told that some people in Florida try to ignore hurricanes.

O’Reilly was at his pontifical best. His basso voice thundered on. He’d launched into a monologue several minutes previously on the relative merits of plastic versus bamboo reeds for the chanter. The assembled multitude listened in respectful silence, although judging by the glazed expressions on some of the faces their interest had waned. O’Reilly warmed to his subject, brooking no interruption, rolling like a juggernaut over anyone who might try to get a word in edgewise. He was talking on the intake of breath.

I watched as a member of the group signalled for a fresh round of drinks. The barman delivered the glasses shortly afterwards. O’Reilly was now up to verbal escape velocity, emphasizing his words with staccato jabs of his right index finger on the beer-ring-stained tabletop.

He stopped dead — in mid-sentence. A ghastly pallor appeared at the tip of his bent nose. Something had annoyed the great man. I craned forward to see. Catastrophe. Somehow the barman had neglected to deliver a drink for Doctor O’.

The silence, now that he’d shut up, was palpable. He fixed the cowering bartender with an agate stare and demanded, pointing at the appropriate orifice, “And haven’t I got a mouth too?”

That was when it happened. A voice, from which of the assembled pipers I never discovered, was heard to say clearly, distinctly and with heartfelt sincerity, “And how could we miss it? All night it’s been going up and down between your ears like a bloody skipping rope.”

I  do believe David Rex went on to say, after his remarks about the precipitous plummeting of the powerful, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.”

Philistines are rare in the North of Ireland. There were no women in the public bar, and it would be a breach of professional confidentiality to tell you who among the party were preputially challenged.

But the rejoicing — if not in the streets, at least in the “Mucky Duck” — was vast. And for once, O’Reilly was at a complete loss for words. 

Fingal O’Reilly, Irish Doctor

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