‘Man you’re in heaven’, President Joe Biden is reported to have told a secret service guy during a trip to Carlingford in 2016, when he was Obama’s Vice President.
U.S. Presidents often claim their long lost Irish ancestry, but 10 of Biden’s great-great-grandparents were born in Ireland according to media reports, including his mother’s grandfather James Finnegan who left Carlingford when he was a boy.
Carlingford is a medieval village an hour’s drive north of Dublin or just over an hour south of Belfast. It sits at the mouth Carlingford Lough in the Irish Republic, facing the north shore which is Northern Ireland, where I grew up with a view directly across to Carlingford, on the Cooley Peninsula.
The Vikings arrived here in the 9th century and my mother always told me that they were reminded of home, by the mountains sweeping down to the sea, thus giving the lough its name : Carlinn’s Fjord.
The Normans followed the Vikings and they built the castle known as ‘King John’s’ in the 13th century. There is also a 16th century town house known as the Mint and 15th century town gate that acted as a jail in the 18th century, according to The Carlingford Heritage Centre’s website.
Carlingford has transformed in recent years into one of Ireland’s most touristy villages. Most resorts try to deter stag and hen parties but Carlingford embraces them, laying on adventure experiences and lively pubs with pub bands blasting out Irish soft rock favourites by Bryan Adams.
About 30 years ago a local pub owner showed off a glass case of wee bones which were said to be Leprechaun bones. The publican the late P.J. O’Hare claimed to have found the bones along with a set of little clothes fit for a leprechaun on the mountain behind Carlingford. You can still see the set of alleged Leprechaun clothes in a case at the back of O’Hare’s pub.
O’Hare’s pub is what every Irish pub around the world tries to mimic, full of character and charm, with a shop at the front still and great seafood for lunch.
The good people of Carlingford have run with this story and in addition to an annual Leprechaun hunt on Slieve Foy which towers above the village there is a newish attraction on the shore line called The Last Leprechauns of Ireland.
One grey day we joined a tour led by Kevin Woods, the self-styled ‘last leprechaun whisperer’. He showed us tiny fairy houses strewn around his garden as ‘evidence’, and then led us into a concrete bunker, which was the ‘portal to the underworld’ where he explained to wide eyed children about little folk (fairies). He produced an outfit which he claimed had been worn by the last leprechaun before inviting a child, to whom he had given tiny wings, to jump into a tunnel which was the entrance to the fairy underworld and stay there until she was 12, the 9 year old politely declined. The 11 children dipped their hands into the fairy well and made a wish and we returned above ground, safe from our near encounter with the ‘little people’.
The Cooley Peninsula is also the setting for one of the most compelling sagas in Irish mythology, The Tain which has been described as the Irish Iliad.
The region has recently been connected to the north (UK) by the Carlingford ferry, which is well worth a trip and takes to you Greencastle, which is another well preserved Norman Castle on the mouth of the north shore of Carlingford Lough.
The tourism industry around the world has been badly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but once life recovers some normality and we can travel again, I recommend a trip to Carlingford.
We often travel to Ireland from the UK mainland by ferry. It is about a 12 hour car and ferry journey from London to Carlingford via Holyhead and Dublin.
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All photos included in this blog post have been taken by me.