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A Laois road trip across the soft border into Northern Ireland

A Laois road trip across the soft border into Northern Ireland

A wall stretches up into the Mourne Mountains, symbolic of a divide that could deepen with a hard Brexit border. Photo: Lynda Kiernan

This Laois reporter is a child of the 70's and I grew up listening to news of bombings and tit for tat murders in Northern Ireland.

It felt a lifetime away from my town of Mountmellick, where Quakers, Catholics, Protestants, Methodists and Presybyterians live and trade peacefully.

Despite the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the fear of driving into the wrong street in my Irish car and being attacked meant that I was never tempted by shops or tourism to cross the border.

And so my very first time to do so only happened this February, when I had to bring my daughter to a training course in Newry, a town on the Armagh Down border.

With Brexit casting doubt on the soft border's future and on peace itself, it felt timely to finally get a first hand experience, and the backup of Google maps and my laser card allayed the stress of getting lost and changing money.

I was surprised to realise Laois is just two hours from Newry, five miles over the border.

I planned a Sunday of hiking in the Mourne mountains with my youngest daughter and we headed off at 6am.

All went smoothly, indeed we had to guess if we had crossed the invisible border, and it was only when my sat nav spoke to me in feet not metres that I realised we had entered another country.

Then the roadsigns clicked, no Irish version of placenames, and distances in yards and miles.

Entering Newry, I was struck by the difference in architecture of the houses, they suddenly looked more English, modern bungalows and estates all in red brick.The hedgerows in the countryside are sheared flat, and paths extend well into the countryside. 

We were awed by the beautiful Craigmore Viaduct, an elegant 18 arch railway bridge that I later found is the highest in Ireland. 

A gay pride rainbow flag flew at the end of a garden, a reminder to us that Northern Ireland still does not allow gay marriage.

Having dropped my daughter to her training centre, we headed to a service station, where heads turned at our Laois accents but staff were really friendly.

I noticed an excessive use of disposable packaging. I bought a potato farl and my daughter a roll, and each were packed in big polystyrene and plastic boxes. with free “wee” plastic bags kindly offered but declined by us.

Between the pounds, the miles and this, It began to feel I had stepped back in time.

I set the Mourne Mountains into my phone's maps, and we entered the countryside heading north east into Down.

We stopped at an awesome dam high in the mountains, the Spelga Dam which has flooded an entire valley to create a reservoir that on our visit had icy shores whipped with bitter cold rain. We headed on to find a sheltered walk.

Houses were rare but we were bemused to see things like red public phone boxes in gardens, and posters and signs about Jesus, one giant poster in a garden warned “if you think Jesus is dead you are gravely mistaken”.

The unionist section might be a minority - Catholics make almost 90% of the population in Newry I have discovered - but they make their presence felt.

Heading to a scenic spot called 'Quiet Valley', we were shocked to drive across a stone bridge painted blue and red, a union jack flying high and a power box painted in the union jack with the UVF sprayed on it.

It felt too intimidating so we left the Mourne mountains and went to Slieve Gullion Forest Park, back on the Armagh side of Newry, where a beautiful broadleafed woodlands features an entrancing fairy and witch trail, top class toilets and clean bins aplenty.

To kill time we visited a shopping centre, where we were surprised by the number of cars from all over Ireland.

Newry has a population only a few thousand more than Portlaoise. It has prospered and expanded since the peace process. One can only hope that peace and prosperity will continue whatever impact Brexit has on this town.

It seems a town divided. On the North it felt more like England, but on the south side of the river in Armagh, more Irish.

With news that Britain is considering Newry as a site for a nuclear waste dump, it has made me sympathetic for Newry citizens who seem mired in the past with little say in their uncertain future.

It made me appreciate too that Ireland is independent, more progressive and part of the EU. I hope that can protect us from the fallout of Brexit, whatever road it takes.

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