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Emerald Isle's untroubled waters

Strife, both ancient and modern, has formed the history of Northern Ireland but has not veiled its watery and pastoral beauty.

March 23, 2003|Don Whitehead | Special to The Times

Enniskillen, Northern Ireland — My 13-year-old son, Alex, guided our 17-foot motorboat between islands and into the open water of Upper Lough Erne as my wife, Katherine, and I sat in front, watching the serene reed-covered shoreline pass by. Swans glided. Cows grazed. Only three passing yachts and the putter of our outboard motor disturbed our tranquillity.

Upper Lough Erne, with Lower Lough Erne to the north, forms the 40-mile-long heart of the lake region in southwest Northern Ireland. They are the northern end of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, at 465 miles the longest navigable leisure waterway in Europe, connected by canal to the Shannon River and ending in Limerick more than 100 as-the-crow-flies miles south in the Republic of Ireland.

A third of 647-square-mile County Fermanagh is covered by water, and vacationers, mostly Irish and English, are drawn here for water sports -- fishing, boating, water-skiing and windsurfing. My family flew here from our Los Angeles home last July to explore its history. Amid the area's watery beauty were castle ruins, ancient relics, historic towns and stately homes.

Northern Ireland's history is saturated with the deep-seated and ongoing divide between Catholics and Protestants, and reports of violence still find their way into the news. But no one in my family felt in any danger as tourists, even in Belfast. And politics seemed especially far away on the waters of Upper Lough Erne.

Staying in a castle's shadow

After our three-hour picnic cruise, Alex steered us back to Belle Isle Estate. A walled garden cottage on the 470-acre working farm, owned by the Duke of Abercorn, was our base for a weeklong stay. The estate offers self-catering accommodations -- from a wing of 17th century Belle Isle Castle (itself fit for a king) to refurbished stables and a few cottages. We began renting self-catering lodgings years ago to save money when traveling with our two sons, and we came to enjoy the space, comfort and privacy.

Roses lined the path to our comfortable cottage. Its ground floor had a combined living and dining room, a bathroom, a twin bedroom with a view of the garden and the nicest kitchen we've encountered in numerous rentals. It was roomy, modern and well equipped, with a toaster and a microwave. The second floor held a king-size bedroom and bathroom.

We toured every day. Fifteen minutes' drive north, where the Erne lakes meet, is the historic island town of Enniskillen. The bustling town, with lots of shops and restaurants, is home to Enniskillen Castle, which embodies some of Northern Ireland's history.

The castle fell to the English in the early 1600s, along with the rest of Ulster, one of Ireland's four ancient kingdoms. James I's subsequent "plantation," or resettlement, of Enniskillen and the rest of Ulster with Protestant Scots partly explains why Northern Ireland is divided from the Republic of Ireland and remains with Britain. In 1922, after the Irish War of Independence, Protestants made up two-thirds of Ulster's population and, fearing domination by the Catholic majority in the south, managed to keep their ties to Britain.

Ten miles farther north along Lower Lough Erne we drove through Castle Archdale Park, a thick forest of oaks on the grounds of a long-gone castle, and stopped briefly at its pretty marina. Once we turned west, the road followed the lough, or lake, giving us delightful views of reedy shores. We stopped on Boa Island to see the Janus, an ancient, perhaps Iron Age, stone carving with faces on two sides. Farther west, where the lake gives way to the Erne River, we found the busy town of Belleek, renowned for the fine ivory pottery that bears its name and that has been handcrafted here since 1858. We skipped the factory tour but admired several display pieces in a small gallery before purchasing some vases in the gift shop.

At Belleek we crossed the Erne River and headed back toward Enniskillen. During the Plantation era, from 1607 to 1641, many castles were built here, and the southwest side of Lower Lough Erne has two ruins worth a stop.

Tully Castle was built in 1613 and abandoned in 1641 after it was captured and burned and its inhabitants massacred in an Irish rebellion. It sits strategically above and back from the shore. The two-story roofless ruins made a peaceful picnic spot for us. Near Enniskillen is Monea Castle, nestled in the hills above the lake. Towers and turrets provide fanciful touches in the 17th century stone fortification. The ruin was closed because of the danger of falling rocks.

Our tour ended in Enniskillen, which we passed through daily. Most evenings we spent at the cottage, but one night Katherine and I visited Blakes of the Hollow, a pub that probably hasn't changed much since it opened in 1887. With pints of Guinness in hand, we listened to Irish music wafting toward us from the band playing in the crowded bar 15 feet away.

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