Our Town

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There is an underlying meaning of bleakness and sadness about the word Omagh now. A layer of meaning added by people who knew nothing of the town, its past, its people, its spirit.

It’s our town. We grew up there. It was no different than other places I’m sure. But it was where we were born and raised. Lately although I no longer live there, the spirit of the town has raised itself in my mind. The utter bleakness is there of those August days but also the glimpses of a happy childhood. I feel in some way I need to reclaim them.

My son asked me the other day where I got my football boots when I was his age. I thought for a minute and replied ‘the Fairway Stores in Omagh’ and my mind flooded with memories of Frankie Bradley guffawing through his beard. With it memories of getting togged out in the dank, damp, dark dressing rooms of the Brothers Park.

At least it was better than St Pat’s Park with the flooded goalmouth and the brown stripped tree trunks for goals. Kit bags of mud caked jerseys for those brilliant Brothers primary football tournaments. Joe McElholm, Mr Farry, Harry Scully, Seamus Harkin and the boys. The craic they must have had in their staff room.

We used to leave St Colmcille’s to play football and dodge down along the side of the river Strule to get into the Park. Children would never be allowed to do that nowadays. One slip and you were in it. Never happened though.

The subject came up with my mother the other day. An Omagh woman all her life. She was raised in the Military Arms in McConnell Place, now the Hogshead. Every day she walked out to Culmore to the old primary school. She went on to the Convent. After studying at St Mary’s she returned to Omagh. My father was an Armagh man. He worked in the Brothers.

It was in Omagh that we were raised. It was our town. It was there we went to school. Like a native of any town, you know it like the back of your hand. As I grew older, I would walk through the town from the Hospital Road to my granny’s house on the Tamlaght Road. It was idyllic out there. I spent the best part of a year living with her when I was about three.  Until her passing in 1987 it was where I spent some of the happiest days of my life. We ourselves lived in the shadow of the County Hospital. It was our playground. Playing ball in the square. Being chased from the Old People’s home by an oul bitch of a matron: ‘Get outta here’ she’d roar arms a flapping.

I remember summer days in the Gortin Glens, at the Lovers’ Retreat or over at the Grange Park. Doing nothing much. For a while tennis was en vogue. Later times passed as we were older, idly up the town as Arty G vied with manic street preachers for audience share. Hanging about Robert Clarke’s record shop in Bridge Street. As a cub going down to watch Omagh Town play in the Showgrounds. The likes of Chimney Corner, the RUC and Dundela the opposition. Patsy Hetherington imperious at the back. I once signed him for my Subbuteo team he was that good.

Further on up the road Omagh St Enda’s, later Healy Park. Going to watch my first Tyrone match with my brother John. It was about 1975 against Sligo. Eugene McKenna scored the goal. The ground was all grassy banks but it was like a stadium to me. I kicked ball there for Omagh and against them for Killyclogher. Won a centenary year minor championship hurling medal there. I’ve since had some great days bringing the children to Healy Park in Omagh. Happy memories of the town.

Myself and Pete McCloskey used to go fishing round the town. I was a bad fisherman but we used to land the occasional silver bellied trout. Pete’s dad one time thought we should have put a fish or two back they were that small. He didn’t know the effort we’d put in to catching them, and I enjoyed gutting and eating them. We’d wander off up to the T&F and try our luck in the dark pools up there. Peter would catch something and I’d fill the wellies with water after falling in again. But the days passed slowly as if we were doing nothing at all.

There was music in Omagh. A vigorous band scene where lads with DMs, jeans and Harringtons would thrash the life out of cheap guitars and a drum kit in the minor town hall. In the summer they would pitch up on a trailer in O’Kane Park or Strule Park at a community festival, blasting out a deadly din altogether. Other lads would stand around smoking fags and eyeing up the girls.

There’s other things about the town that flood back if you let them. Jack’s chip shop in George’s Street. Gormley’s in Castle Street. As we got older, a pint of shandy and a microwaved burger in the Cellar Bar. Discos in Knocknamoe. Nights spent in the Mecca that was the GAA with Rock Stewart, the Memories and those discos with the massive dancefloor. You’d do more laps there looking at girls than you might do in training.

The town’s bookshop, the Carlisle bookshop where the owner would give you death if you were caught reading a paper or magazine in the shop. It became cat and mouse.

Omagh. The Herald on Thursdays. The Con. Father Rooney saying mass in that soft tone of his. Sitting about on the Courthouse steps before it too was blown up.  Those familiar places. The Royal Arms Mews. The Tech. Smokies. The Golden Griddle. Wellworths. John Taggart’s shoe repair shop, with that smell and your newly soled shoes in a brown paper wrapper, tied up with string. We grew up there.

That’s our town. On this day sixteen years ago the cloud descended. For all the people who were lost. For their relatives and friends. It was their town too. Still is. And the memories are just as powerful.

Our town.


Carrowkeel Passage GraveAcross the Bricklieve (Breac Sliabh) range of mountains in South Sligo are a network of passage tombs at Carrowkeel.

Perched remotely on top of the hillside on the west side of Lough Arrow, I’d heard of the graves but had never been in the immediate vicinity to go and explore. Recently we had the opportunity.

This is Tuatha Dé Danann country, part of Moytura where they fought the Fomorians according to the Book of Invasions. The passage graves at Carrowkeel are thought to predate the Pyramids in Egypt by five hundred years or so.

Having decided to visit the graves, we ascended through increasingly bucolic roads that narrowed with a narrow landing strip of green grass along the middle. My brother John led the way in his hired car. Eventually we came to a gate at which we had to halt to open to proceed onwards.

It is part of our family mythology that years ago on a family holiday in Waterford, when we were all much younger, John as the navigator led us all the way up into the Nyre Valley, getting out and opening gate after gate along the way as we moved farther from civilisation. My dad had relied on John’s map reading skills as he was a keen geography student and a budding geologist of note. Eventually frustrated the oul fella said: ‘John where are we?’ to which he received the reply, ‘I don’t know.’

The journey up into the hills of Bricklieve brought a smile to my face and I reminded him of this as we dismounted to open the gate into rougher territory.

We moved as far as we felt was prudent with cars and then set about walking the remaining mile or so up the winding road to the Passage Graves. The area was elevated, rough enough terrain and totally deserted bar a few sheep and the occasional American tourist. We met a walking group as we descended, one of their party clambering downwards in a fugue of cigarette smoke. It was incongruous in the peaceful and clear hill air.

From a distance the stone cairns are visible and as you draw closer they appear as mounds of limestone spaced apart on the hilltop. Upon approaching you can see that there are openings in each grave, apart from one where the roof has collapsed. We learned later that this was due to dynamiting by early explorers.

As we approached the graves, the boys crawled on hands and knees into the passages, you would need to be of slight build and have no qualms of claustrophobia to venture in. They reported back on the small chamber opening out into chambers either side. It was a strange experience knowing these were the burial places for young children thousands of years ago.

The graves were first explored and to an extent damaged by R.A.S. Macalister in 1911, accompanied by Robert Lloyd Praeger and Edmund Clarence Richard Armstrong. Writing many years later Praeger gave an account of what greeted him when he and his colleagues hastily rolled back the enormous grave capstone.

“I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last Bronze Age man (sic) had left it, three to four thousand years before. A light brownish dust covered all… There beads of stone, bone implements made from Red Deer antlers, and many fragments of much decayed pottery. On little raised recesses in the wall were flat stones, on which reposed the calcinated bones of young children.”

Apparently, it was Macalister and Praeger that destroyed the collapsed grave by trying to blow it open.

When I was young my history teacher Cormac McAleer at the Brothers in Omagh had taught us about passage graves, though the only one I had seen to date was Newgrange. In many ways Carrowkeel were more interesting and were closer to what I remember Cormac explaining all those years ago of their structure and purpose.

If you’re in the vicinity of South Sligo, Carrowkeel is well worth the time to pay a visit, stepping back in time as you ascend the speckled mountainside on foot. It is a wonderfully peaceful location with views across Sligo to Knocknarea to the west and an incredible vista to the south and east. More the pity that people don’t take the time to know and understand their own country around them. You would be surprised at what you might learn.

Links: http://www.carrowkeel.com




WHERE dips the rocky highland/ Of Sleuth Wood in the lake

Where dips the rocky highland/ Of Sleuth Wood in the lake

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car

The road home from Sligo was marked with a detour to the Glencar waterfall. In recent times I had done a lot of work for IT Sligo using Yeats poetry as an influence. Many of the places mentioned in his work are like familiar parts of my own work landscape to the extent that a few people wrongly believe I am a Yeats expert. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Travelling back from our stay near Lake Arrow, we turned right for Glencar Waterfall, the lake to the right, the towering cataract to our left, all the while surrounded by the most lush greenery you can see.

With IT Sligo we talked of the influences on their identify system of the blue grey of the mountain, the green of the landscape and the blue of the water. Nowhere is it better on view.

Having arrived at the lake, a large sign informed us that the local council had banned dogs from the waterfall and environs. Fair enough but there is nothing else much to do with a bounding one year old labrador, so I took one for the team and agreed to stay behind whilst the rest including my mother walked up the short distance to the famous scene.

As I moseyed about dog on lead I encountered a Polish lad bringing canoes and kayaks to the water’s edge of the lake. When the gang returned my mother who was feeling her age told me to go up and see the waterfall. She had walked up herself and said on her return “I was glad I did that.”

I too was glad I did. The sheet of water tumbled into the stream below before washing down into the Lake. It’s easy to see why William Butler Yeats was enchanted by the place. The vapour in the air hung on the ferns, the cliff overhung with greenery and the pools of dark and shade through the emerald enchanting. It’s no wonder Yeats thought of faeries and mystics in such a magical place.

I took my leave and walked back to the more sedate water’s edge of the lake where the little waves lapped on the shore. The children were a few hundred metres away having decided to take up the Polish lads offer of half an hour’s kayaking.

It was an altogether magical detour to the waters and the wild.