Would you like to join us today on a journey today through the County Down? We might even take in a little County Down Genealogy. We are going to travel in style, in the company of none other than Mr. Van Morrison! We’ll also take in a bit of County Armagh along the way.
Susan Gunning was on to me a couple of weeks back. She wondered why I did not feature County Down a little more. So, I said I would – and here we go.
I don’t know about you – but I am a big fan of the music of Van Morrison – I think most people would find something of beauty in his vast repertoire. But this morning, we’re going to use just one of his songs – “Coney Island” to guide us around south County Down. I’ve even included a video with pictures and music to get you in the mood:
“Coming down from Downpatrick
Stopping off at St. John’s Point
Out all day birdwatching
And the craic was good
It was a cool, but bright autumn day in September last that saw Carina and myself heading towards Downpatrick for the night. While Van Morrison‘s song is based in the mid 1960s, the thing that Van, Carina and myself have in common is that our respective trips happened outside the time we know as “The Troubles”.
From the late 1960s to the early 2000s – Northern Ireland was a place that experienced some of the worst sectarian violence in the world. There was a heavy police and army presence in much of the province. This made it quite hard to move around freely – and tourism was definitely a non-industry.
Nowadays we move around without even noticing a border crossing – the only remaining sight of a high security presence being the high walls around local police stations.
We stayed in a lovely old Inn in the centre of Downpatrick for just one night – and I think the room was probably haunted. It had that feeling! County Down received it’s name from this town – from the Irish Dun Padraig – meaning the fort of Patrick. if you wander into the cathedral, you’ll see Saint Patrick listed as the founding head of this church – with all the names up to the present. He is also meant to be buried by a rock close to the church.
Downpatrick was also the seat of the Irish tribe known as the Dal Fiatach up to the 1100s. Chief families within this group were Dunlevy, Haughey/Hoey, Lynch, McGinnis, O’Lynn/O’Flynn, Gillespie, McArtan, and Lavery/Lowery. Many of these families moved further west with arrival first of the Normans and then the later Scottish and English settlers.
“On and on, over the hill to Ardglass
In the jam jar, autumn sunshine, magnificent
And all shining through
Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of
Mussels and some potted herrings in case
We get famished before dinner”
We drove south to the lovely fishing village of Ardglass – no mussels or potted herrings on offer – but maybe we didn’t look hard enough.
County Down – along with County Antrim – are the two counties in Northern Ireland with a Protestant majority. Basically, it means that these counties were the first settled by Scottish and English settlers – mostly from the 1600s onwards – and they managed to build up a majority of the population over time.
It’s probably ironic that many of these Scottish names came from families that arrived in Scotland from Ireland many hundreds of years earlier. However, when they returned this time, most brought with them a set of beliefs based around Presbyterianism – which was very much at odds with the Gaelic Irish in the area of the time.
Sometimes I get asked “Was my family Irish or Scottish?” I have found it most useful to reply that many Ulster Scots immigrants in the American colonies of the 1700s saw themselves as Irish – even though their families may have been in Ireland for only 2 or 3 generations.
The names in Susan Gunning‘s family were Gunning, Belshaw, McCafferty and McRobert – all from County Down. As you can see from the names – all of Scottish and English origin (although Gunning can also be Irish Gaelic from Limerick). I wonder did they see themselves as Irish? I would say so.
“On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
Heading towards Coney Island
As we left Ardglass we headed toward Dundrum and Newcastle at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. Maybe you’ve been here? Coney island was to our left, but we left that to the bird-watchers.
The songwriter Percy French is remembered on the seafront in Newcastle where “the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea”. Maybe you know the song:
“Oh Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight, there’s people here working by day and by night…”.
On we drove through this beautiful part of Ireland – the site of many battles, myths and much conflict and ambition over thousands of years. However, everything looked so peaceful and friendly on this Sunday afternoon in autumn.
We headed toward the ancient city of Armagh – and I think final words to Van’s “Coney Island” sum up our feeling in the best way possible:
“I look at the side of your face as the sunlight come
Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine
And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”
I do hope you have an enjoyable, healthy – and peaceful week.
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