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Louth: A Week in the Wee County (and Where We’ve Been Since)

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As our first full year of vanlife drew to an end, we celebrated the waning summer with family in Dublin, dawdling on the driveway until the time came for Dixie to make the many airport runs required to dispatch my family for the usual winter diaspora. When the opportunity arose to escape the city (for just a week as we still had one Dublin deadline looming) and with all of Ireland’s counties to chose from, we opted to visit the smallest, County Louth, a.k.a. the Wee County. The little red lump on the map above, bordering Monaghan and Meath on the west, Northern Ireland to the north and with a long, sandy eastern coastline to explore, we have often driven through very quickly en route to Northern Ireland but haven’t yet given little Louth the attention it deserves.

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Clougherhead Pier in the picture above was the perfect stop off for us. So quiet after dark but for the sporadic metal clink of boat cinches and the bob and slap lullaby of the light harbour waves breaking on the rocks in the shallows. In the morning we threw open Dixies back doors and drank our coffee in the company of four big grey seals, their thick heads somehow floating seamlessly on the surface just a couple of feet from us without causing a single ripple, 8 beady black eyes fixed and focused intently on the humans. Just down the pier we found a public toilet (perfect timing for both of us I might add, as every vanner will understand the value of these public facilities although we do own our own. Rule Number Two is if you don’t put it in to the van, you won’t have to take it out of the van… human waste especially. Try to avoid making yourself the unfortunate middleman!) A public tap is available here too although not needed this time, certainly mentally noted for next. We picked our way carefully across the seaweed-sloppy rocks to get a closer look at the massive seadogs but they saw us coming and fled to the harbour wall opposite to resume their silent staring from a safer distance.

This trip to County Louth took place almost a month ago, and we haven’t updated the blog in as long. Where have we been since? I almost don’t want to associate the two by writing this, for County Louth is certainly in no way to blame for our silence online since but in truth, along with some wonderful days spent with family, we also had a few personal grey days to deal with. A mood, a dark patch, an all round case of vanxiety. It slowed us both in our tracks and stalled Dixie briefly, sometimes any disruption to the calm takes longer to process than the actual issue itself and days pass before the bruises heal and normality returns again. The road of life is seldom smooth they say, and 27,500 miles later we can safely say they are right.

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Louth is small, “wee” really and yet it is rather densely populated, it’s home to Ireland’s two largest towns, Drogheda the biggest and one of the countries oldest, founded around 911, and the county town of Dundalk, with just 1,000 fewer citizens, sprawling directly north. Approximately 130,000 people in total call Louth home. Because the county is also really thin, no more than 30 minutes drive wide at any point, at times we found it difficult to confine our week of sightseeing to within the border, especially with so many interesting and historical sites calling for us from nextdoor neighbour Meath. But just a step outside any town or village in Louth lies endless tempting tracks and trails meandering along empty sandy beaches and up misty mountains and through soggy, foggy bogs and cool, ancient forests, it is remarkably easy in such a busy place to escape the crowds and find that pure rural isolation we crave.

The Cooley Peninsula, on Louths north east coast, sticks both up into the sky and out into the sea as the great Cooley mountains (Slieve Foy at 589m is the highest county point) and the extensive Carlingford Ridge poke their ragged peaks into the clouds, follow the scenic route further east along the coast to watch the dark headlands slope into the calm blue waters of the Irish Sea. Louth borders Northern Ireland here and the accents get thicker, soupier and less decipherable, to this just-returned Dub anyway, with each mile north, luckily everyone we met was full of jokes and laughs and friendly conversation and I could smile and nod along and ask William to translate the lot later on. He’s from Mayo, he speaks country 😉

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Williams people are originally from these parts, his great-grandfather hails from nearby Dunleer and so we took the opportunity to spend the morning scouring the three local graveyards for signs of dead, descendant Duffys. Our search was fruitless in that regard but it did lead us down a wonderful winding dead end road to Salterstown Cemetery, with its ample shade, safe overnight parking and on the outskirts of the ancient graves, a big stray bunch of new potatoes, just sitting there under the soil, waiting to become our dinner…

I say ‘Williams People’ as if William is some kind of alien. He’s not, he’s just a normal human like you or I. But we are different people, and sometimes we can forget that. We’re neither perfect nor should we strive to be, and even though we’re living our lives so freely these days and doing what we want to do, our own minds can still sometimes be our own worst enemies. We both gave up alcohol almost two years ago which has really opened our eyes to so much but it also leaves us without that comforting quick release, that reliable, immediate reaction to any sudden heightened emotion, when faced with a problem we used to simply hit the bottle. Take that bottle away and we’re suddenly more vunerable, exposed, we can’t hide behind it or blame alcohol for the unfair things we might think or say in anger or frustration. Sometimes I struggle with an urge to drink so strong it starts to affect my mood right from waking, I can’t speak for William here but although I understand what it is and I recognise it happening I can’t seem to make it stop. Nothing but time seems to work for me.

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We took Dixie up a narrow, winding road to a viewpoint marked as Mountain Gate. From here we could see the big blue splash of Carlingford Lough sandwiched between the great green hills, ebbing and flowing and daily draining into the vast Irish Sea. This whole peninsula is one big ancient site, scattered with stones and circles and cairns, it feels like every field has a hidden structure or postration to find. The smog hung thick over Newry in the distance, a city of 27,000 people, but the brisk wind at this height was cool and refreshing and we tucked in beside a low wall and opened the back doors to enjoy the view with our dinner. A local landowner came by to have a (mostly decipherable) chat, he asked when the party was starting (I sometimes feel like answering that we’re up a mountain… trying to AVOID parties and bars) and in the end he welcomed us to stay put so we settled in for the night.

Somewhere along the way that day we had stopped to pick some blackberries and had easily filled two bags of the ripest, plumpestest kind. These berries are fast becoming my favourites, best eaten right off the plant, look underneath where the birds beaks can’t reach and as for which ones to pick, they tell you they are ready by falling into your hand as soon as you touch them, leaving behind a big bloody juice stain on your fingers.

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The pretty little crossroads and coastal town of Annagassan harbours a huge and ancient secret, just beside the bridge is a tall green hill, towering over the roofs of houses and factories, grassy and steep yet flat at the top like a table. Unbelievably, for the lack of signage or any kind of notice or monument to the fact, this is the site of a Viking city, Linn Duachaill, founded in 841, just before Dublin City was established. This place was busier than Dublin port back then too, a hub for boat fixing, sharing the spoils of looting and for slave trading, and experts reckon it was eventually abandoned due to Dundalk harbours shallow unreliable waters. Much to our disappointment this wonder has never been fully excavated, we grasped hard at the slick wet grass to pull our way up and walked alone on the oval hilltop in abject wonder. Who knows what treasures lie beneath this hill, who knows what we could learn about our past from this important Viking site, and talk about a disappointment to find not even a signpost to inform us of its presence? Below is just one of many great views from the hill.

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County Louth is the setting for the famous Irish mythology Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, known in bookstores as The Táin, an epic collection of fables and sagas of great heroes and giants featuring such Irish legends we know and love like Queen Medb of Connacht, her husband Ailill and everybody’s favourite teenage hero Cú Chulainn. Peppered throughout the Wee County are elements of the fable, wedge tombs and forts and dolmens and stone circles all with stories attached to explain their existence and their position on the landscape, the Hill of Faughart, St Brigids Well, buy none of these relics are more famous than Cú Chulainns stone, Clochafarmore Stone or ‘Stone of the Big Man’. Here, in this quiet golden field (the site of the Táins The Field of Slaughter), legend has it the giantman Cú Chulainn chained himself upright to this very stone in the height of fierce battle as he bravely fought off his enemy Lugaid Mac Con Roí and his three magical swords in the famous epics sensational finale… That iconic scene is cast in bronze and on display in the G.P.O. building window on Dublins O’Connell Street. Sorry, I have included no William for scale in my photo this time, he was too busy just off camera picking more spuds but I assure you the stone towers over 10 ft high with nothing but a nearby telephone pole to challenge it.

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We walked a lot that week in County Louth. Through the cobbled streets of Carlingford and Ardee, around Dundalk on a busy Saturday afternoon (where we did encounter some of the 130,000 Louthians going about their business), we scrambled up steep scree slopes to these cairns and monuments and strolled on near deserted strands which stretched on the horizon forever. We hiked through miles of graveyards, to Monasterboices slim round tower and intricately carved high crosses, around delapidated ruined churches and buildings in all states of decay. Walking is so good to clear your head but it never seems to appeal when the dark cloud descends, instead staying indoors, blocking everything out and feeding our bad moods with darkness, isolation and more negativity seems so much easier. On the hills in the fresh air nothing seems messy or complicated, nothing really matters but the direction of our feet and where we are headed and maybe the weather, depending. Indoors, in our confined little house, where our living and sleeping and eating spaces overlap daily, where every thing is shared and combined and so close by all the time, any annoyance can be magnified and any tension palpable. I guess in many ways we are the sum of each others moods, something else we learn as we go, we adjust, not just as people who happen to live in a van but as people who happen to live in the world. Our issues and complexities didn’t disappear when we left our house behind, we carry them with us in our individual but messy hearts and minds.

Talk about a mess. William whipped up a delicious blackberry crumble that night and we ate every bite, smothered in warm custard. The kitchen was turned upside down and every dish in the house was dirty yet we turned off the lights on the messy van, knowing we can always deal with it in the morning. Why can’t we be that easy with our own hearts and minds, why can’t we learn to give ourselves a break and permission to clean up the mental mess at a later date and for the moment just switch off the bad feelings?

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Unsurprisingly, the next morning the mess was still there. Cooking in a van involves expert level dexterity and extreme maneoverability as well as rigourous follow-up and just as one of us needs to clear the way for the other to take charge in the kitchen, the bedridden one should clean up with little or no complaint afterward. This time it was me who so conveniently “forgot” to play my part in the deal. Vanlife requires cooperation and teamwork and that’s down to both of us. We rarely argue about such things but that is only because we both make a huge effort to be fair. Most of the time.

The Cooley Peninsula we found is full of frogs. Birds, sheep, squirrels, cows and the usual marine suspects too, but more frogs than we’d ever seen in one place before. It’s great to hear the common frog is thriving in Louth just like most parts of Ireland and is facing relatively little threat to habitat since its addition to the protected species list in 1976. Personally I love the slimy, jumpy little things, Irish ones are so much bigger than the tiny translucent chirping treefrogs we chased from the house last year when we lived in Bermuda, and so much more quiet. How they sneak around and move in long stretchy half-jumps and try to hide underfoot, when caught they freeze still as slippy stripy statues, we have to admire their camoflague skills.

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Sometimes the best thing to do is just stop. Stop whatever it is you’re doing, if it is not working out for whatever reason, just stop. We stopped the van and parked up indefinitely, in a safe and secure place when one of us became frustrated. We stopped to work through whatever it was that came over us and between us, I stopped to catch my breath and clear my mind before I reached for the familiar bottle, we logged off from the world and from the blog too and tried to figure ourselves and our frustrations out. No negativity inside Dixie – thats Rule Number One, and when one or other reminds us that we usually can stop and think. Usually.

Proleek Dolmen and nearby wedge tomb is another wonderful, ancient specimen of stonework and in truth, experts know little about its use or significance. Locals play a game here, throw a pebble to the top and if it stays up there you get to make a wish. The 35 tonne capstone is over 13ft tall, the game is trickier than it sounds. I wish I had enjoyed even one success here but all I did was frustrate myself and shatter someone else’s dreams as my attempts brought a shower of other peoples wishes and other peoples little stones to rain down on the grass by our feet.

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When it comes to weird and interesting sights and fables of County Louth, the Jumping Church of Kildemock (near Millockstown) had our immediate attention by virtue of its name alone, and what a cool mystery it is. Legend has it the churches western gable wall, 19 foot high and 3 foot thick and made of local stone, physically jumped eastward on Candlemass Night in 1715. Locals awoke to the huge slab standing somewhat askew some 3 foot clear off its foundation. Apparently the result of an attempt to bury a converted (and therefore unworthy) Protestant within its boundary walls (or more likely due to the big storm recorded that same night) the church itself seemed to reject the mans grave…

Below (again with no William for scale, he was off talking at two ponies in the field nextdoor) is the massive chunk of wall and in front, its original foundation. The so-called traitor is still buried there, right beside the wall, as far as we know. I’d like to believe in the fairytale of the jumping church but that would require also believing the wall has emotions and I guess I’ve just not reached that level of awareness yet. That sounds almost…vegan 🤣

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One night spent high in the gorse-filled hills by Clarmont Cairns (the mountain is so full of stones and sites and with such clear views it must have been of importance since Ireland’s very first people) and one night by the sea at Port Beach, in both instances we encountered very few people along our way. So much for our previous assumption that the east coast is closely guarded, there are in fact plenty of little bays and inlets with access and parking, and if your van is no bigger than Dixie, our advice is head north from Dublin and when you get tired of driving, take a right, there is a beach there somewhere and it is bound to be beautiful. We watched the clouds sweep over the distant Mourne Mountains, casting dark shadows on the neat green fields below. Louth is a great place to take a campervan, these hills and greens and bays are open, accessible and free and the few locals we did encounter were friendly and welcomed us everywhere we went.

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It’s not easy to think straight when you’re upset. But it’s really not healthy to carry the weight of things that you can’t change all your life around either, its like starting off a hike with your bag full of rocks. It’s ok to get angry every once in a while, and it’s ok to ride that anger (preferably in a creative way… in my case, mixing rum cocktails is decidedly NOT a healthy creative outlet) and then let it go, let the tide go out and remember what you have and why you are happy with it most of the time. We jokingly call it vanxiety and we often blame the direct situation that is bothering us but actually it is only us who allow ourselves to wallow, inwardly we choose to dwell on one irritant and allow it to snowball. Being annoyed at something doesn’t have to evolve into being annoyed at someone. We have to learn how to realise ‘it’ for what ‘it’ is, and then how and when to switch it off.

County Louth is strange and wonderful, our week was cheap, interesting, memorable and a lot of fun. It is certainly the only place in the world we have ever seen an egg vending machine. I guess I understand, if there is a big egg emergency…

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Less than 3 weeks after our fantastic week in Louth we had already invented a plausible reason to return, thus I do feel sorry for lumping the lovely wee place into a blog about unhappiness and despair when unfortunate timing is all that connects the two. The sun was high in the afternoon sky as we tramped up the sloping bogs of the majestic Cooley Mountains once more, hiking from Windy Gap to Foxes Rock and beyond, carried along on the fresh country air, both of us smiling from ear to ear. The scenery was not quite the same, now the purple heather was asserting itself in much wider reach across the scrubby hills since last time and the bog cotton bobbed white along the way but we’d changed too, a little, we know a bit more now, certainly about each other, how and who we are, and afterall, learning to cope is one of life’s greatest skills. Everything gets better, as cliched as it sounds, with time. It is true, tell me a time when everything didn’t get better?

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P.S. Remember our hero, Cú Chulainn, last seen tied to a large monolith in the aptly named Field of Slaughter and about to be beheaded by his enemys sword? Unsurprisingly, and this spoiler in no way ruins your future reading of the classic Táin, he survived the attempted murder. A big black crow landed on his shoulder and so the ferocious enemy Lugaid assumed him dead. The fable ends with some convenient halo of light descending out of nowhere to cut off the enemys hand and relinquish Cú Chulainn from his chains, his stone and on to safety. That’s a great story but there is no giant hand coming from the clouds to save us, there is no deus-ex-machina in real life, it’s up to us to save ourselves. Maybe we can learn to avoid fighting these battles in our heads instead, to forgive ourselves our problems and our pasts a little, to downsize our worries to only what we can change. Maybe try not be so quick to overreact, to jump off our foundations entirely like the church did, or try not to lash ourselves to a huge stone to begin with?

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