Emerald Isle's untroubled waters

Special to The Times

My 13-year-old son, Alex, guided our 17-foot motorboat between islands and into the open water of Upper Lough Erne as my wife, Katherine, and I sat in front, watching the serene reed-covered shoreline pass by. Swans glided. Cows grazed. Only three passing yachts and the putter of our outboard motor disturbed our tranquillity.

Upper Lough Erne, with Lower Lough Erne to the north, forms the 40-mile-long heart of the lake region in southwest Northern Ireland. They are the northern end of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, at 465 miles the longest navigable leisure waterway in Europe, connected by canal to the Shannon River and ending in Limerick more than 100 as-the-crow-flies miles south in the Republic of Ireland.

A third of 647-square-mile County Fermanagh is covered by water, and vacationers, mostly Irish and English, are drawn here for water sports -- fishing, boating, water-skiing and windsurfing. My family flew here from our Los Angeles home last July to explore its history. Amid the area's watery beauty were castle ruins, ancient relics, historic towns and stately homes.

Northern Ireland's history is saturated with the deep-seated and ongoing divide between Catholics and Protestants, and reports of violence still find their way into the news. But no one in my family felt in any danger as tourists, even in Belfast. And politics seemed especially far away on the waters of Upper Lough Erne.

Staying in a castle's shadow

After our three-hour picnic cruise, Alex steered us back to Belle Isle Estate. A walled garden cottage on the 470-acre working farm, owned by the Duke of Abercorn, was our base for a weeklong stay. The estate offers self-catering accommodations -- from a wing of 17th century Belle Isle Castle (itself fit for a king) to refurbished stables and a few cottages. We began renting self-catering lodgings years ago to save money when traveling with our two sons, and we came to enjoy the space, comfort and privacy.

Roses lined the path to our comfortable cottage. Its ground floor had a combined living and dining room, a bathroom, a twin bedroom with a view of the garden and the nicest kitchen we've encountered in numerous rentals. It was roomy, modern and well equipped, with a toaster and a microwave. The second floor held a king-size bedroom and bathroom.

We toured every day. Fifteen minutes' drive north, where the Erne lakes meet, is the historic island town of Enniskillen. The bustling town, with lots of shops and restaurants, is home to Enniskillen Castle, which embodies some of Northern Ireland's history.

The castle fell to the English in the early 1600s, along with the rest of Ulster, one of Ireland's four ancient kingdoms. James I's subsequent "plantation," or resettlement, of Enniskillen and the rest of Ulster with Protestant Scots partly explains why Northern Ireland is divided from the Republic of Ireland and remains with Britain. In 1922, after the Irish War of Independence, Protestants made up two-thirds of Ulster's population and, fearing domination by the Catholic majority in the south, managed to keep their ties to Britain.

Ten miles farther north along Lower Lough Erne we drove through Castle Archdale Park, a thick forest of oaks on the grounds of a long-gone castle, and stopped briefly at its pretty marina. Once we turned west, the road followed the lough, or lake, giving us delightful views of reedy shores. We stopped on Boa Island to see the Janus, an ancient, perhaps Iron Age, stone carving with faces on two sides. Farther west, where the lake gives way to the Erne River, we found the busy town of Belleek, renowned for the fine ivory pottery that bears its name and that has been handcrafted here since 1858. We skipped the factory tour but admired several display pieces in a small gallery before purchasing some vases in the gift shop.

At Belleek we crossed the Erne River and headed back toward Enniskillen. During the Plantation era, from 1607 to 1641, many castles were built here, and the southwest side of Lower Lough Erne has two ruins worth a stop.

Tully Castle was built in 1613 and abandoned in 1641 after it was captured and burned and its inhabitants massacred in an Irish rebellion. It sits strategically above and back from the shore. The two-story roofless ruins made a peaceful picnic spot for us. Near Enniskillen is Monea Castle, nestled in the hills above the lake. Towers and turrets provide fanciful touches in the 17th century stone fortification. The ruin was closed because of the danger of falling rocks.

Our tour ended in Enniskillen, which we passed through daily. Most evenings we spent at the cottage, but one night Katherine and I visited Blakes of the Hollow, a pub that probably hasn't changed much since it opened in 1887. With pints of Guinness in hand, we listened to Irish music wafting toward us from the band playing in the crowded bar 15 feet away.

Our explorations that week also took us to two manors. Between Enniskillen and Belle Isle lies Castle Coole, built in 1798 and considered one of Northern Ireland's finest homes. This grand Neoclassical house, with one-story colonnaded wings sweeping off each side of its three-story center, was designed by English architect James Wyatt, who never saw his creation. Much of the building, including the Portland stone facade, was shipped from England. Wyatt was also responsible for much of the interior's Regency furnishings, down to the dining table and chairs.

Another fine home, Florence Court, is about 10 miles east of Upper Lough Erne. The Palladian mansion was built in the mid-18th century by John Cole, father of the first earl of Enniskillen. The house was noted for its Rococo plasterwork, but most of it was destroyed by a fire in the 1950s. Only the dining room ceiling survived, and its lifelike artistry of a descending eagle is remarkable.

Northern Ireland's history came to life for us in the city of Londonderry and at two fascinating history parks in the neighboring county of Tyrone. Using displays, dwellings, churches, re-created towns and a ship, the Ulster American Folk Park traces the history of Ulster emigration to the United States. From 1700 to 1900, more than 2 million people -- Scottish Presbyterians, then Irish Catholics -- left for North America.

Following a well-signed path, we walked to the birthplace of Thomas Mellon. The 1810 house was constructed three years before the birth of the Pittsburgh banker-to-be, who moved to America when he was 5. We passed Irish cottages, houses and churches before entering a small re-creation of a 19th century Irish port and the reconstructed brig, the two-masted ship typical of those the emigrants would have taken.

We emerged from the cramped lower deck on the other side of the vessel, having arrived in America.

Five miles east, the Ulster History Park re-creates various periods in Irish history. Taking another walkway, we went past Neolithic stone tombs and dwellings -- thatch-roofed houses and a crannog, a home constructed on an artificial island surrounded by a palisade and only approached by boat or a hidden path.

A city with dueling names

Londonderry's long association with the Troubles, the violence between Catholics and Protestants, struck us even before we reached the city: Highway signs had "London" painted out so only "Derry" remained. The city was first known as Derry, a derivation of an Irish word meaning an oak grove, a sacred place to the Celts. With English conquest and the resettlement, Catholics were driven out and their lands confiscated, and the city was granted to the guilds of London for development and was renamed Londonderry.

Not everyone accepted the name change. I asked a tourism official which was correct. "Most people call it Derry for short, and others call it Londonderry," Karen Houlahan said. "There is no right or wrong answer."

The city's old walls have been tested in many attacks, perhaps most famously in the siege of 1689, when 13 Protestant apprentice boys locked the Ferryquay gate, one of Londonderry's four gates at the time, against Catholic troops loyal to James II, who was battling the Protestant William of Orange. When James II appeared outside the gate, Derry's citizens yelled, "No surrender!" It's still a Protestant slogan that appears around Derry.

The walls, a bit more than a mile around, look down on Bogside, the Catholic neighborhood that gained notoriety for 1972's Bloody Sunday. Murals of the civil rights marches that led to the violence show the area where 14 Catholics were killed by British troops. Today Derry is rising from the ruins. People are optimistic about a more peaceful future.

Shipquay Street has been rebuilt with shops and restaurants, one block done in 18th century style and the other in 19th century (representing periods of Protestant and Catholic migration).

As I crossed the Foyle River that morning, I saw a traffic circle with an arresting sculpture at its center. Before leaving the city that afternoon, I walked to it for a closer look.

Two curving stone walls led to pedestals, each with a man, a mirror image of the other, reaching to shake hands. A local artist, Maurice Heron, created "Hands Across the Divide" in 1992. The hands don't touch, but the work was designed so that could be changed.

I admired the sculpture for the art, of course, but mostly for the hope of reconciliation.

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Getting to know Northern Ireland

GETTING THERE:

From LAX to Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Continental has direct flights. Aer Lingus and British Airways have connecting service (with change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,174 until April 3, when they increase to $1,374.

From LAX to Belfast, Air New Zealand, British Midland, United, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Continental have connecting flights. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,095 until April 2, when they increase to $1,274.

Enniskillen and the lake district are about 70 miles west of Belfast.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code for Britain) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

We rented a two-bedroom cottage at Belle Isle Estate, Lisbellaw, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland BT94 5HG; 28-6638-7231, fax 28-6638-7261, www.belleisle-estate.com. We paid $675 for a week during high season. Most of the estate's other rentals cost more but can accommodate more people. The beautifully decorated Belle Isle Castle, which sleeps eight to 14 , costs $3,143-$4,400 a week in high season.

WHERE TO EAT:

Oscar's Restaurant, 29 Belmore St., Enniskillen; telephone/fax 28-6632-7037. Small, friendly bistro with broad menu in heart of Enniskillen. Reservations required. Entrees $14-$20 per person.

The Sheelin, on Main Street in the hamlet of Bellanaleck, about 3 1/2 miles southwest of Enniskillen; tel./fax 28-6634-8232, www.thesheelin.com. In a charming thatched building, with good food and service. Six-course dinner (including coffee and sorbet) $34.

Blakes of the Hollow, 6 Church St., Enniskillen; 28-6632-2143. A wonderfully atmospheric pub, where we enjoyed pints of Guinness and traditional Irish music (primarily on weekends). Sandwiches $5; steaks $18.

TO LEARN MORE:

Tourism Ireland, 345 Park Ave., New York, NY 10154; (800) 223-6470, www.tourismireland.com.

-- Don Whitehead

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