Dublin - Grey Scudding clouds are so low they seem to brush the top of the 12th century round stone tower that is the centrepiece of Devenish Island (the island of the Ox in old Gaelic). The ruins of a monastery, the fat light brown cows and the emerald grass are all postcard Ireland.
As I wonder about the monks who shivered in these draughty, stone buildings, my daughter calls me across to the upper graveyard. There is an old headstone, its words barely legible after almost two centuries. I peer closer. The stone was erected by Edward Seery, in memory of his father James and mother, Mary, “alias Boyle”, in 1818.
I shiver. And it’s not the chilly wind.
Ireland’s past has a habit of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. Even though my family roots go back to this area of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, the headstone is a surprise. Were they related to me or not? What did they do? What did they look like?
The next day, it’s another world, another Ireland. We stroll in glorious sunshine next to Lough Erne in the middle of Enniskillen town. Alongside jetties, cruisers are moored. A woman lounges in a bikini on the aft deck of one of them, already brown, looking as though she is chilling in Durban.
The Fermanagh Lakelands are one of the better-kept secrets on the island of Ireland… but more and more foreigners are uncovering what is not only an amazing place in itself, but also the perfect place for exploring the attractions of Northern Ireland and its southern neighbour.
Northern Ireland has started to take off, in terms of international tourism, thanks to the Game of Thrones effect: the hit TV series was largely filmed on location around Northern Ireland and in studios in Belfast. Also, the incredible Titanic Museum in Belfast – said to be one of the best in Europe – has been attracting almost double the initial number of visitors it hoped for.
The waters of Lough Erne (the upper to the east of Enniskillen and the lower on the western, Atlantic side of the town) and the associated rivers are some of the biggest and longest in Ireland. And they offer almost everything water-connected, from water-skiing to kayaking, canoeing, boat cruises and fishing… not to mention a host of adventure activities in between.
Fermanagh as a base enables you to hit a host of great tourist attractions within a two-hour drive: apart from Belfast, there is the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage site, the Game of Thrones locations, the historic city of Derry, the Wild Atlantic Way of Donegal, the quaint and attractive Galway, as well as Dublin, the Irish capital.
The real attraction of Fermanagh is that it has not yet hit tourist star status, and the prices are reasonable. Actually, even for South Africans feeling the pain of 18 to one for the British Pound (the currency in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom), this is a very affordable place.
For example, we stayed at a self-catering house near Lisnaskea (a mere kilometre or so from the shores of the Lough) for less than we would pay for a similar place in this country. For seven nights at Drumcon Lodge, we paid £560, or £80 a night. That’s just on R1 400 – for a place which sleeps six. And it is well-equipped – with everything from satellite TV, to heated floors to a washing machine and tumble dryer, as well as a small wooden deck and – hooray! – a braai.
On the long summer evenings, we sat on the deck, sipping wine and feeling the sense of peace of the place… broken on one occasion by a fox cantering through the twilight in a field next door.
Owner Martina Hagan says most of their visitors are from Ireland or, occasionally from the UK, and even more rarely, from further afield.
We couldn’t – and still can’t – get over the value for money (and quality) offered by Drumcon Lodge which, as with many things, looks way better in real life than it does in pictures on the web.
There are plenty of other self-catering options offering equally good value in the Lough Erne area, but there are also good hotels and B&Bs where the common denominator is good, old-fashioned Irish hospitality. They really do love meeting strangers and chatting.
Enniskillen is about two hours’ drive from Dublin airport (and slightly less from Belfast’s George Best airport) and the roads are excellent, while you will not get road rage (because your fellow road users do know what they are doing).
Another thing in Fermanagh’s favour is that, generally speaking, prices are reasonable (not fuel, though…) – and good food at good prices is not hard to find.
At the Linen Hall pub in Enniskillen town centre, I had a lunch of fish (cod) and chips and mushy peas (opt for the “normal” ones, they’re better) for just over £6 – with a pint of lager.
That’s about R110 for a meal and a draught beer. You’d struggle to get that in Joburg…
So, if you’re thinking of seeing Ireland, don’t do anything until you’ve checked out Fermanagh. You’ll be pleasantly surprised – even if you don’t get to see your family name in an old graveyard…
Brendan Seery, Saturday Star