It is hard to miss the strong connections between Ireland and Canada. We have heard so many stories over the past weeks, so many stories of emigration to our frigid shores. That includes our friend in Canada, born and bred in Northern Ireland and now living just across the Assiniboine River from us in Winnipeg. As it turns out, her sister still lives in Belfast and, after a few email exchanges, we have arranged to meet up with her.
So begins our road trip through the Irish countryside. Emma, our host, is at the wheel. Alfie, the affable border collie, is comfortably sprawled over the backseat and Gail’s lap. I am riding side-saddle in the front, trying to guess where we are.
Emma takes us south of Belfast and into rural County Down, along impossibly narrow roads tightly lined with stone fences. Roads not too dissimilar from the ones we walked throughout our cross-Ireland trek, pressing ourselves into the curbside walls as cars passed.
And, like the rest of our Irish trip this one is defined by layers of history. Charlotte Brontë was born here. St. Patrick is presumed to be buried in Downpatrick. Not far from his interment we stop at Inch Abbey, a Cistercian outpost dating back to the 1180s.
We are in the land of picturesque ruins and Inch Abbey is an excellent introduction. Nor are we alone. The television series, Game of Thrones, has used this as a backdrop to its own plot of death and destruction. Today, fans of the series are here, swinging cardboard swords as they re-enact some past episode.
Next comes the mansion of Castle Ward, set high on a hill overlooking Stranford Lough. The novelty of this 1772 grand home springs from its duelling owners. Husband Bernard Ward favoured a Classical style. His wife, Lady Anne Magill, insisted on Gothic. So they stylistically divided the house in two, each doing their own thing, in their own fashion. Somehow, it all hangs together.
Our trip continues around the scenic coast of Strangford Lough and to our final site for the day, Grey Abbey. It’s another Cistercian settlement, founded in 1193. It, too, is in ruins – since 1541, in fact – but the remains are much more impressive than Inch Abbey. Enough of the stone walls and Gothic lancet windows remain to offer a feel for the grandness and scale of the abbey.
Late in the evening, Emma and Alfie return us to our Belfast bed and breakfast. We thank them for the company and hospitality shown to two Canadians they didn’t know. Until now, our only connection an Irish expat, sister and friend, back in Winnipeg.