Trail of the unexpected: The dog-eating pike and other sporting heroes of the North of Ireland

By Lawrence Hourahane
Monday 18 November 2013 03:53
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Sprinting, synchronished swimming and cycling (on or off the M61 motorway) are among the events being showcased at Manchester during the Commonwealth Games. But across the Irish Sea there are stranger sports to see – and I am not referring to the summer marching season. Now is the time to embark upon a Grand Sporting Tour of the north of Ireland.

The first stop should be one of the prettiest cricket grounds in the world – on the Mall in Armagh. Ireland's ecclesiastical capital boasts two cathedrals and predates Canterbury as a religious centre. Although Armagh is only a matter of miles from the border with the Republic, it has perhaps the most British feel of anywhere in Northern Ireland. The cricket ground can also be one of the wettest, so if there is little prospect of play you should visit Armagh's greatest claim to fame, Tayto Castle – surely the only stately home that doubles as a crisps factory. You can take a free 90-minute tour of the 1830s-built castle in Tandragee, a couple of miles outside town.

Next, skip across the border to Clones, a town with a name redolent of dodgy genetics, but boasting a sporting pedigree. The etchings on the glass door of the Lennard Arms Hotel, the town's biggest pub, give it away: a pair of boxing gloves. This is the home town of the "Clones Cyclone", former boxing world champion Barry McGuigan. Framed photos of the local favourite adorn the walls.

Clones offers more than boxing, however. At Pairc Naomh Tighearnach, I found the Gaelic footballers of Monaghan and Armagh ready to do battle in the All-Ireland Championships.

When they build Gaelic football grounds in Ireland, they build them large. The stadium capacity of 20,000 is 10 times the population of Clones, and the car-parking arrangements embrace the whole town. A second police officer was sent to Clones for traffic duty, such was the magnitude of the occasion.

For speed, thrills, skills and good-humoured support, there is nothing to match Gaelic football. But for solitude, nothing beats angling in the rolling countryside of County Cavan.

Lacken Millhouse and Gardens, 25 miles from Clones, is about as secluded as it gets. The location is a short drive outside the town of Ballinagh (or possibly Bellanagh, or even Bellananagh – local roadsigns never seemed to correspond. This recently opened guesthouse has its own 400m stretch of the river Erne. Local tales of pike in the nearby loughs that are fierce enough to attack swimming dogs left me anxious, so I abandoned plans to fish and kept to the banks instead.

Ladies Day at Sligo races was my final stop. As befitting an event of such magnitude, the local radio station's roadshow had turned up to add a certain sense of decorum to the occasion, and the tone of the meeting was set by Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys" belting out of the loudspeakers.

Unbeknown to a large number of mug punters, including myself, a close relation of the wooden horse that features in the song appeared to be making its racing debut, and I lost a tenner backing it in the second. Royal Ascot it wasn't – instead it was great fun, and devoid of any pomp and circumstance. There's unlikely to be a more painless way of losing a few surplus euros and ending a holiday.

Back in Belfast, more wooden pallets were being thrown on to the bonfires...

Information

Tayto Castle, Tandragee, Armagh: 028 3884 0249, www.tayto.com. Tours at 10.30am and 1.30pm Monday to Thursday, and 10.30am on Fridays.

Lennard Arms Hotel, Clones, Co Monaghan: 00 353 47 51075.

Lacken Millhouse, Ballinagh, Co Cavan: 00 353 49 433 7592, www.lackenmillhouse.com

Sligo Races – next meetings 7, 8 and 21 Aug: 00 353 71 83342

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