01 October 2011

On the border and dreaming of flowers in my hair.

The Parish Church of Annagh stands on a prominent hilltop in Belturbet, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Belturbet, Co Cavan, last night for the ordination of the Revd Naomi Quinn. There was a good turnout of family members, local parishioners, clergy and student staff members from the Church of Ireland Theological Institute for this ordination – for this was the last of 17 ordination in the first cycle of deacon-interns this year.

Naomi was ordained by the Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh, the Right Revd Kenneth Clarke. The preacher was an old family friend, the Revd Robert Kingston, Rector of Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, and there was a warm welcome from the Rector of Belturbet, Canon Steve Clark, from Archdeacon Craig McCauley of Virginia, and from the churchwardens and the local parishioners.

As Naomi signed the declarations in the vestry, Craig, Robert and I mused that the last time we had been together in a vestry together was in Saint Maelruain’s in Tallaght while Craig was a student reader prior to his ordination in 1999.

With the Revd Naomi Quinn outside Annagh Church, Belturbet, Co Cavan, last night (Photograph: Elizabeth Hanna, 2011)

The Church of Ireland parish church, known as Annagh, stands on a prominent hill at the top of Belturbet (Béal Tairbirt, “mouth of the isthmus”), is a border town, just 4 km from the border between Co Cavan and Co Fermanagh, 36 km south of Enniskillen and 14 km from Cavan town. This is one of best places for crossing the River Erne, which meanders through the fields and meadows immediately below the hilltop on which the church stands.

When the Anglo-Normans arrived in Co Cavan in the early 13th century, Walter de Lacy built a motte-and-bailey on Turbot Island. The fort was probably made of wood and has not survived, although the steep mound of earth where it was built is still to be seen.

Remembering the Butlers of Belturbet, Newtownbutler and Lanesborough in Annagh Parish Church in Belturbet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Belturbet celebrated its 400th anniversary as a planned town last year. The town was first was developed around 1610 by Stephen Butler. The Butlers also gave their name to nearby Newtownbutler and held the title of Earl of Lanesborough in the Irish peerage. The titles, which date back to Theophilus Butler (1669-1723) and his brother, Brinsley Butler (1670-1735), who were MPs for Belturbet, Kells and Cavan at different times in the early 18th century, became extinct in 1998 at the death of Denis Anthony Brian Butler, 9th Earl of Lanesborough (1918–1998).

Belturbet retains much of its original layout. The road from neighbouring Butler’s Bridge leads into Butler Street and the Main Street leads to the square or the Diamond, where all the town’s important buildings cluster together.

In 1760, John Wesley passed through Belturbet and said it was “a town in which there is neither Papist nor Presbyterian; but, to supply that defect, there are Sabbath-breakers, drunkards, and common swearers in abundance.”

Belturbet is mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses in the fifteenth episode, Circe, where Cissy Caffrey says: “More luck to me. Cavan, Cootehill and Belturbet.”

Today, the census returns show, Belturbet has a population of 1,411 (2006).

Annagh parish church dominates the skyline of Belturbet, standing on the highest point in the town. The church was built between 1622 and 1634 on the site of an earlier church, but is also said to stand on the site of a former O’Reilly castle. The church has a fine tower and spire, and inside there is beautiful fan-vaulted ceiling, Victorian tiling and family monuments dating back to the 17th century.

In the churchyard, there are impressive vaults and mausoleums to local families. Hidden in among the graves is the grave of James Somers, a local parishioner who was decorated with the Victoria Cross in World War I. Below, there are spectacular views of the River Erne as it wends its way through this border countryside.

Belturbet is 123 km (76 miles) from Dublin, on the N3 road, and two of us set off yesterday afternoon from Portrane, where the sea was choppy and the view from the Quay across to the Burrow and Rush was covered in rain-filled clouds and mist.

The Park Hotel, Virginia ... the summer house and former hunting lodge of the Headfort Taylors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

We stopped off for half an hour at the Park Hotel in Virginia, on the Meath/Cavan border. Virginia is a colourful, picturesque lake-side town, 40 km from Dublin. The Park Hotel is the former summer residence and hunting lodge built in 1750 by the Taylor family of Kells, Co Meath, who held the titles of Marquis of Headfort, Earl of Bective. The same family also built Ardgillan Castle, between Skerries and Balbriggan.

The hotel is set in a charming 18th-century country estate, sprawling across 100 acres, with a nine-hole golf course, sunken gardens with Victorian geometric designs, and 20 km of walking trails, many leading down to the shores of Lough Ramor. On the shores of the lake there are three boathouses, the oldest of which – the Fairy Boathouse – is built like a miniature castle.

Looking out across the parklands at the Park Hotel towards Lough Ramor in the autumn mists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

I have happy memories of holidays here on the shores of Lough Ramor as a 15-year-old schoolboy in 1967. I had finished my Intermediate Certificate exams, and I was about to face into the two-year cycle for the Leaving Certificate exams in Gormanston.

This was the summer of the Six-Day War in the Middle East, but it was also the year of Scott McKenzie and The Streets of San Francisco. My father tried to teach me how to play golf and took me out rowing on Lough Ramor, hoping to persuade me of sensible, solid career choices. But my mind was changing, my values were about to mature and I had no idea where I was going.

On the way back from Belturbet last night, the heavy rain had eased off, although it would return later. As we passed back through Virginia again, Friday had turned to Saturday and they were playing Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) on RTÉ Radio 1, and recalled how back in 1967, we thought we were going to change the world. But then I had hair. And there were flowers on the shores of Lough Ramor.

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