Chasing De Cuellar in Ireland with James Vella-Bardon

It is said that certain great novelists did not always visit the countries they wrote about. In October 2012 I had already spent around four years researching the setting of my historical thriller 'The Sheriff's Catch'. This novel is set in 16th Century Ireland and keeps earning rave reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. All of my research was carried out in brilliant libraries around Sydney, Australia. Yet I was curious to discover just how much my visit to the Atlantic coast of Ireland would add to my story. It was to prove an enlightening trip, yet also unforgettable for the natural beauty and excellent hospitality I found there.

When travelling it's always nice to beat the herd, so that you can visit exotic places with few tourists about. There's nothing worse than having to sidestep boatloads (actually, make that cruise ship loads) of tourists during the European summer swelter in an Italian city, or finding yourself walking in the road in London during rush hour, because there just isn't any room on the pavement in Oxford street.

A visit to Sligo Town and its surrounds in early summer or October will certainly help you beat the herd, with a cracking outdoor holiday also thrown into the bargain. Locals will confirm that October is one of the best times of the year to pay them a visit.

The droves of US tourists during the summer season also means that standards for tourists are very high, and you'll not believe the quality of coffee served in the most budget-friendly bed and breakfasts, which to my mind are the best places in which to lodge during your stay there. The people are just so warm and also very welcoming. Sligo is a very charming and laid back town, built around the rushing Garavogue river that pushes out to the Atlantic. Sligo Town's also got some absolutely great restaurants, with 'Coach Lane' still sticking in the memory, and rated 4.5 on Tripadvisor. The locals are extremely friendly without being intrusive, and there's some pretty good shopping to also be had.

It's also the perfect place to start visiting the sights around Sligo County which are a hiker's paradise and more. Personally I was very curious to travel to Streedagh Strand, which was the scene of the Armada shipwrecks which feature in my novel. The sound of the bracing ocean winds are the only disturbance in an otherwise serene and peaceful location, which is after all the westernmost edge of Europe. The hulking peaks of the Dartry mountains run alongside the coast, which are an incredible sight to behold and lead up to a picturesque spur called Ben Bulben. These countless mountain ranges also make for some great rock-climbing, with climbing for beginners also provided by a company called Carraig Climbing.

Staad Abbey Ireland Images

If the story of the Armada survivors grabs your interest, you'll certainly be familiar with the letter written by sea captain Francisco de Cuellar, who managed to somehow make his way back home to Spain following his shipwreck in Ireland. If you pull on your hiking boots you can visit many of the locations he mentions, starting with the ruins of Staad abbey further south along the coast, which is not to mention the great lakes in the valleys of Glencar and Glenade. It was here that de Cuellar was famously put to work by a ruthless blacksmith, until he was freed by sympathetic Irish natives of the MacClancy tribe.

Following the captain's footsteps will lead you north towards Lough Melvin, which was famously frequented by Charlie Chaplin, who had a house there. If fishing's your thing you can spend hours happily seeking to catch the Gillaroo (derived from the Irish for 'red fellow') trout, which is native only to Lough Melvin. Yet if you want to keep to the De Cuellar trail, you can head to Rossclogher and walk along the banks of Lough Melvin, where you can observe the sole surviving keep of the MacClancy chieftain, a crannog (castle on an island) which sticks out like a finger of defiance in an otherwise calm and pristine lake, also home to many white swans. The best way to shadow De Cuellar's footsteps would be with excellent guide Eddie O'Gorman (who I had the great fortune of meeting during my visit to Sligo) of Wild West Irish Tours.

The architectural and natural sights are just endless, and making your way back to Sligo you can spot the huge cairn (Irish tomb) of Queen Maeve atop the flat-topped rise of Knocknarea, which stands alongside other beautiful bays of Sligo and Ballysadare where you can ride horses along the ocean. The house of Lord Mountbatten (who tragically also met his end there) can also be seen at the beautiful inlet at Mullaghmore. Yet it's not all about hiking, and if surfing is your thing, you can pick up a wetsuit and board and join some of the other surfers hitting the waves at Mullaghmore, as well as Strandhill, Easky and Enniscrone. Windsurfers and kitesurfers can also be spotted on the ocean, and you'll sometimes also see them in huge lakes like Lough Allen.

Windsurfing Lough Allen Ireland Images

If relaxing on a boat is your thing, you can grab a ferry to tour Lough Gill, with the captain reciting the renowned poetry of the world famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who spent his childhood in Sligo, even coming to think of it as his spiritual home. Yeats' tomb can also be visited at St Columba's Church, Drumcliff, a fine example of neo-Gothic architecture. The more inquisitive visitor can also grab a boat to travel even further westward from the Atlantic coast towards the island of Inishmurray. Three of the Armada's galleys (one of which bore De Cuellar) berthed in its inlet before they were battered upon Streedagh Strand. Inishmurray was the site of many historical pilgrimages over the centuries, with the remains of an early Monastic settlement still clearly visible.

Although you'll instantly feel at home in Sligo, there's also many other areas close by which are worth a visit. You may fancy a drive to the old garrison towns of Belleek and Ballyshannon, further north of Rossclogher, or even visit Fermanagh, once the seat of power of the Gaelic chieftain Hugh Maguire. A southward jaunt to Ballymote Castle and Boyle is also worthwhile, but along the way make sure you park the car and make your way up the steep uphill track towards the legendary Caves of Kesh. Although the caves themselves are remarkable in size, the stunning view from them of Lough Allen and surrounds will endure long in the memory.

And should you find yourself as swept up by the Armada stories as I was, you could even journey as far north as Londonderry, after driving past the range of the Bluestack mountains (also great hiking territory) and past countless drumlins, stopping to lunch along the way in exotic and quaint villages like Letterkenny. Upon crossing the border reaching Derry you should visit the floor of the Tower Museum dedicated to the Armada wrecks to the north of Ireland, where you'll find all items brought up from the sea including Spanish cannon, shoes, treasure chests, kitchen equipment and chairs, among others.

All of the above should take up at least a week of travel, which should help to give you renewed appreciation of my debut novel The Sheriff's Catch! And if you can find the time to fit it in, you might also want to stop by the mesmeric Giant's Causeway in Antrim, a UNESCO World Heritage site, before hitting the gas and making your way back towards Dublin airport.

James Vella-Bardon

James was born and raised in Malta, an island nation steeped in the millennia of history. As a boy he often caught a rickety old bus to the capital of Valletta, where he would hover around the English bookshops to check out the latest titles in fiction.

Growing up he was an avid reader and a relentless day-dreamer, with his standout subject at school being English composition. He also won a couple of national essay competitions. Although he spent seven years studying and obtaining a doctor of laws degree, this did not cure him of his urge to write stories. So after emigrating to Sydney in 2007 he resolved to have a proper stab at writing his first novel.

The result of this decision is an epic, sprawling five-part historical fiction series called The Sassana Stone Pentalogy. It is the product of nine years of intense rewriting and research, and tells the story of a Spanish Armada survivor who is shipwrecked in Ireland.

The first instalment in the series is a rip-roaring, myth-busting page-turner called The Sheriff's Catch. Its anti-hero protagonist Abel de Santiago is an Armada survivor who finds himself on the run across Connacht, whilst being pursued by English troopers who want him tortured and killed.

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