To most of us, St. Patrick means green beer, funny hats and a chance to let loose as winter gives way to spring. But Ireland’s patron saint has been celebrated with a feast for almost 300 years and still, few know his story. John Kernaghan and Pam Martin went looking for it, paddling in his wake on standup paddleboards and travelling his paths in a hulking camper van. What we also found was a remarkable trail of sea, sky, land and a welcoming people. Here’s Day 3 of our seven-day countdown to St. Patrick’s Day.
We began episode three with two nights of fine hotel accommodation at Bishop’s Gate Hotel in Derry, again mindful of how St. Patrick would have travelled rough through these parts, and enjoyed two paddles planned with Far and Wild’s Lorcan McBride, who goes by Lawrence.
The first Pam took on in wild wind tunnelling through the city on the River Foyle and the second on Lough Foyle, which the saint would have crossed as he converted Pagans to Christianity.
Before the river run, we enjoyed a pre-paddle nosh at Pike ’N’ Pommes, a quaint wee fish-and-chip stand set in a shipping container melded to a light-bejewelled double-decker bus and planted conveniently near the Derry City marina we launched from. Deliciously fresh squid tacos turned out to be the fuel Pam would need that day as the tail end of Hurricane Hannah buffeted her every which way but straight on the River Foyle’s fascinating urban stretch.
Pike ’N’ Pommes is a trendy eatery in Derry hard by the River Foyle. Seating is in a double-decker bus. Photos by Pam Martin.
History came alive as Lawrence recounted century-spanning stories of monasteries, garrisons, plantations, civil wars and sieges all evident by the ancient stone and earthen fortifications encircling Derry, the only city in Ireland whose walls remain complete.
After battling the wind and rain, losing the fight once when sudden gusts dumped Pam in the water, the paddlers hauled out and up onto the impressive stanchions of the Derry Peace Bridge.
The Peace Bridge connect the two Irelands in a symbolic handshake across the River Foyle. Photo by John Kernaghan
This elegant architecture reaches out in a symbolic handshake unifying the communities from opposite sides of the river. Boards secured from the whims of the current, Lawrence ceremoniously produced fruit and a thermos of hot tea from his dry bag, providing a much needed rewarming before the boards were turned to home. A much speedier paddle, with the tide, back to the marina where John, a clearing sky and sunshine met the paddlers for the final stretch culminated what was altogether an exhilarating ride in the land of myth and magic.
Pam celebrates surviving the fickle winds and cold water of the River Foyle while coming in to dock with Lawrence. Photo by John Kernaghan
As Lawrence stated with a mischievous smile, “It was just good craic!”, the all-purpose Irish term for spirited fun, adventure or conversation.
The second outing was on Lough Foyle, starting in the harbour at pretty Moville, Donegal and heading into the wind towards Derry.
Pam and John take a breather nearing shore after battling the strong wins on Lough Foyle. Lawrence preparing the boards. Photos by Lorcan McBride and Pam Martin.
Lawrence drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of local history, noting we would likely bisect a crossing St. Patrick would have taken some 1500 years ago.
Later that day on the Donegal side of the Foyle we would come across an ancient tribute to Egohan, the son of King Niall, who died in 465 of grief, the stone slab read, at losing his brother Conall, had been baptized in this area by St. Patrick .
Some research showed Conall was an early and important convert of St. Patrick, setting a tone for the other tribal factions to follow. He was killed in 464 by another tribe in the west of the country. King Niall and his family ruled what is now Northern Ireland.
Lawrence, with the paddling ease of warm knife though butter, got well out in front of us on Lough Foyle. A headstone referencing three kings of Ireland underscores one of St. Patrick’s early success in converting the Irish to Christianity. Photos by Pam Martin
Lawrence recounted the legend of Manannan McLir, a mythical Irish sea god who travelled waters on a chariot or horse.
Fictional myth-making took place on the west side of Lough Foyle where Lawrence pointed to a bench land below the summit of Binevenagh mountain.
It was used for a number of different Games of Thrones’ scenes, including the most memorable. Daenerys, having been rescued by her dragon Drogon above the city of Meereen, is spotted surrounded by a huge Dothraki horde.
A farm dog tracked us along shore and kept watch over us during lunch, later enticing John into a spirited game of fetch. Photo by Pam Martin
Meantime, there was some magic at work on this paddle as shortly into it a border collie appeared and tracked us along shore for some time before we put in for lunch.
The Atlantic mackerel with local potato bread, Broighter rapeseed oil and Dart Mountain Cheese was a welcome repast as the wind picked up.
The dog stayed close, often in herding pose, enjoying some mackerel and then selected a piece of driftwood and set it in front of John. It was playtime and she wore out his arm before, working on some inner clock, abruptly took her driftwood prize and headed off.
Our new friend maintained this herding pose through lunch as the expanse of Lough Foyle spread out behind her. Photo by Pam Martin
Lawrence denied arranging this encounter, a charming interlude before heading into an accelerating wind that eventually turned us around to glide back to Moville.
Cover photo: Pam and Lawrence took a break from the harsh conditions at the base of the Peace Bridge. Photo by John Kernaghan