18 March 2006

Put Troubles behind you with a trip down the IRA heritage trail


**Via Newshound

By Tom Peterkin in Crossmaglen
(Filed: 18/03/2006)

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us"The people here are the friendliest in the world," said Tommy McKenna as he sipped his pint of Guinness in an upmarket hotel bar in the IRA heartland of south Armagh.

"But don't ever cross us," he warned. "The British Army crossed us and they had 30 years of hell."
Open: The Cross Square Hotel in Crossmaglen

With masterly understatement, Mr McKenna summed up the inhabitants of a place once notorious as the most dangerous posting in the world for a British soldier and where helicopters are still the safest mode of transport for the Army.

But following the IRA's promise to abandon the armed struggle, the lawless border area nicknamed Bandit Country is attempting to forsake terrorism for tourism.

The most obvious manifestation of that transformation is the brand new hotel where Mr McKenna sat drinking.

Opened yesterday, St Patrick's Day, the Cross Square Hotel, Crossmaglen, is the first such establishment to exist in south Armagh in almost a century.

Crossmaglen remains a place apart, however, with the 15-bedroom hotel offering splendid views of fluttering tricolours, a republican memorial and the helicopters flying into the forbidding military installation overlooking the village square.

The owners of the Cross Square hope visitors will be attracted by fishing on the Fane, a trail inspired by 18th century Gaelic poets and the Ring of Gullion, the beautiful geological landform dominating the Irish border.

But they are realistic enough to accept that opening in south Armagh means guests will be anxious to explore the former fiefdom of the Provisional IRA. The south Armagh brigade of the IRA was responsible for many of Ulster's worst atrocities and numerous mainland bombing campaigns

"We have grown up with the Troubles," said Fiona Carragher-Kieran, the hotel's marketing manager.

"It is part of our history and it is inevitable that people will want to see that, but we want to change people's perception of Crossmaglen and what south Armagh is about."

Judging from recent headlines that could be a challenge for Mrs Carragher-Kieran and her parents, Gene and Briege Carragher, who have invested £1.5 million in the family venture.

This month, police and Army raided the farm straddling the border at Hackballscross owned by Thomas "Slab" Murphy, believed to be the IRA's chief of staff.

A few miles from the hotel, fuel laundering equipment, oil tankers and smuggled cigarettes were found when six properties including Murphy's farm were targeted in an attempt to close down the Provos' smuggling empire.

Although the IRA's alleged criminality is still a cause for

concern, there is relief at the

passing of the dark days of the conflict when south Armagh republicans accounted for the lives of 127 soldiers, 67 RUC officers and 96 civilians.

After checking into the Cross Square, The Daily Telegraph went on its own "terror tour" taking in monuments to the hunger strikers and a lonely roadside cross at Kingsmill marking the place where 10 Protestant workmen were hijacked and slaughtered by the IRA 30 years ago.

Also on the itinerary were the remaining Army watchtowers, which are being dismantled as troops are withdrawn from Ulster, and the Three Steps pub in Drunintee. This was the Provisionals' watering hole from where Capt Robert Nairac, an undercover SAS man, was abducted and murdered after his cover was blown in 1977.

Graffiti, shrines, murals and unofficial signposts reflecting the IRA's dominance cannot be avoided by the tourist. But one horrific legacy of the IRA is not to be seen.

To this day the whereabouts of "the disappeared", corpses of several IRA victims, including Capt Nairac, is still unknown.

But a different side of south Armagh was in evidence in the friendly hotel bar.

The Carraghers, who have been in the oil distribution business for the last 25 years, explained that the last hotel in Crossmaglen was owned by a distant relative.

Fittingly, it was Mrs Carragher-Keiran's grandmother's aunt, Auntie Geough, who ran the Commercial Hotel.

This notable establishment closed after the Great War when the partition of Ireland saw Co Armagh become a border county. And south Armagh's ability to throw up the unexpected surfaced spectacularly when a representative of one of the most quintessentially English institutions appeared at the bar in this hotbed of republicanism.

Cricket is not something one would associate with a place whose notion of sport begins and ends with the highly successful Crossmaglen Rangers Gaelic football team. But Mick Hunt, a Londoner and the MCC's head groundsman at Lord's, has been visiting Bandit Country for more than 30 years.

In 1974 he married Rosemary Quinn, a nurse from Crossmaglen, after they met on an aeroplane.

His most frightening episode during the Troubles was a nasty scuffle with some Scottish soldiers, who took umbrage at his English accent following the 5-1 defeat of Scotland at Wembley in 1975.

"It was a bit squeaky," he recalled. "But as long as I was with someone local - my brother-in-law or my wife's cousin - then it wasn't a problem.

"I come back here every year, I really love it.

"You've got to remember St John's Wood is full of bank robbers."


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