Enniskillen & Environs

Enniskillen Castle & town. (Photo – www.tuesdaynightclub.co.uk)

Enniskillen (pop.14,000), occupies the eponymous island on the short but convoluted stretch of the Erne River linking Upper and Lower Lough Erne.

The town, long regarded as one of the most attractive in Northern Ireland,  nowadays extends onto the adjacent banks, but the only people considered  truly from Enniskillen are those born “between the bridges” (i.e. on the island).

The proximity of the lake and the presence of water on all sides create a special, vaguely continental ambience. Boats are almost as common as cars, with moorings easing the pressure for parking spaces, while the remarkably tolerant local swans and other waterfowl seem happy to share their space with humans.

The original Irish toponym, Inis Ceithleann “Ceithle / Ceithlenn / Kathleen’s island”, refers to a quasi-deity in Gaelic myth, the wife of Balor of the Evil Eye (who sought refuge here after defeat in battle at Tory Island).

Over the centuries the town was variously spelt Iniskellen, Iniskellin, Inishkillen and so on, most notably in the names of the locally raised British Army regiments, the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons (1689 – 1922) and the 27th (Iniskilling) Regiment of Foot (1689 – 1881), incorporated into the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (1881 – 1968).

Located at almost the exact centre of County Fermanagh, Enniskillen has long been the county town (administrative capital), and is nowadays the seat of Fermanagh District Council.

As by far the largest urban entity for miles around, Enniskillen is the retail hub of a large region stretching north and south of the Border, and also attracts shoppers from further afield in the Republic, seeking to benefit from the Euro / Pound currency differential.

In place of the frenetic activity of a city, Enniskillen has the friendly, quietly busy air of a smart market town, more rural than urban. The streets are strikingly neat and tidy. Chain stores sit comfortably beside small independent traders, while numerous small bars and hostelries provide welcome relief from the shops. There are new buildings, but no anonymous mega-malls; each premises is imbued with character, creating a special atmosphere.

 

Enniskillen High St. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.com)

Enniskillen was traditionally a Loyalist stronghold,  proclaiming its British identity on all sides with Union Jacks, Unionist symbols and Orange Order paraphernalia. However, 67% of the current population is registered as Roman Catholic, and a majority of locals vote for Nationalist and / or Republican representatives. Unusually for Northern Ireland, three of the towns main places of worship (Methodist, RC and Anglican) are within a few metres of each other, which surely indicates a tradition of civilised relations.

Enniskillen has undeniably experienced periods of serious inter-communal tension throughout its history, and was the scene of one of the worst IRA atrocities during the 1969 – 1997 Troubles. However, it has psychologically rebuilt itself since that awful time, and nowadays has a reputation for tranquillity. As one commentator remarked, where else could ducks safely mingle with pedestrians!?

Enniskillen History

As an ancient fording place on the River Erne, the traditional boundary between Connacht and Ulster, the island was always a strategically important point on one of only three possible land routes into the northern province. 

 

Enniskillen Castle, founded in the early C15th, was the stronghold of a junior branch of the Maguire clan, forced eastward by warring neighbours, and was frequently attacked by the O ’Neill and ODonnell clans.

English soldiers led by a Captain Dowdall succeeded in capturing the castle in 1593, but Maguire then laid siege to it and defeated a relieving force at Drumane Bridge in the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits.
 
 
In January 1594, a detachment of Henry Bagnal‘s army with 2 companies sent by Sir Richard Bingham under the command of his cousin, Captain George Bingham, besieged Enniskillen. The outer wall of the castle defence was breached, and the defenders – 40 shot, 60 able men and 200 others – locked themselves in. Preparations were made to fire the gate, but the defenders sought a parley which was granted and the castle was surrendered: 150 were put to the sword.
 
 
In August 1594 the castle had to be relieved by the Lord Deputy, and in the following May it was taken by Hugh Roe O’Donnell. It was not till 1607 that the castle was finally captured by Crown forces.

The Plantation of Ulster, initiated in 1610, saw native lands seized and handed over to Protestant English and Scots colonists loyal to the Crown. The first Constable / Provost / Governor appointed by King James I was Captain William Cole (c.1575 – 1653); knighted in 1617, he was the ancestor of the Earls of Enniskillen.

 

Cole strengthened the fortifications and built a “fair house” overlooking the Diamond, the central market place of the new town. For many years the island could only be reached across defensive drawbridges, and the Planters were obliged to build a ring of castles around the Lough to maintain control of their domain. The first Protestant parish church was erected on the higher of the island’s two hilltops in 1627.

Sir William Cole notified Dublin of the outbreak of the 1641 Rebellion, against which the Loyalists defended the town successfully. Arising from his putative role in Rory O’More’s plan to seize Dublin Castle, the Roman Catholic 2nd Baron of Enniskillen, Connor / Cornelius Maguire, was arrested for high treason, and after twice escaping from the Tower of London, was sentenced by Sir Francis Bacon to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.

Enniskillen remained firmly Royalist during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, resisting several Parliamentarian attacks until finally compelled to surrender by Sir Charles Coote.

By the 1689 start of the Williamite War, Enniskillen had erected permanent bridges and grown significantly. Learning that King James II’s army planned to quarter two companies of infantry on the town, Gustavus Hamilton of Monea Castle raised 2000 local troops to fend off a siege by the Duke of Berwick, plunder Trillick, burn Augher Castle and raid Clones before easily dispersing 3000 raw recruits under Viscount Mountcashel at the Battle of Newtownbutler. 1500 of the Jacobites were hacked down or drowned in Upper Lough Erne; of 500 men who tried to swim across the lake, only one survived. The “Inishkillingiers” played a significant role in the relief of the Siege of Derry and as King William III’s personal guard at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.
 
 

Enniskillen proved to be of key military importance with the threat of French invasion through the northwest of Ireland in the late C18th.

 

 The Remembrance Day bombing of 8th November 1987 killed 11 people and injured 63, nine of them seriously, when the three-story gable wall of St Michael’s Reading Rooms crashed down burying people in several feet of rubble. The Provisional IRA admitted responsibility, later claiming that their target was a colour guard of British soldiers. At the same time as the Enniskillen atrocity, a bomb planted20 miles away in Tullyhommon, near Pettigo, where the Boys’ Brigade and the Girls’ Brigade were due to participate in a Remembrance Day service, failed to detonate, preventing the further loss of innocent life.

 

The Enniskillen bomb is widely acknowledged as a turning point in the Northern Ireland peace process, in large part due to the reconciliation campaign by Gordon Wilson (1927 – 1995), father of one of the victims.

There are numerous educational establishments in and around the town, from primary level to the Enniskillen Campus of South West College, noted for its Equine unit.

Portora Royal School

 

Portora Royal School, overlooking the town from the top of Portora Hill, traces its foundation to a 1608 Charter by King James I, and was in fact established as Enniskillen Royal School in 1618. The present stately buildings date from 1777.

Long run as a Church of Ireland boarding school for boys, Portora was regarded as a “Public School” in the English tradition and enjoyed a (socially inaccurate) reputation as “Ireland’s Eton”. In keeping with this delusion of grandeur, local pupils were known as “town dogs”.

Famous old boys include Henry Francis Lyte, who wrote the hymn Abide with me in 1847, and Nobel Prize winning playwright Samuel Beckett.

Former pupil Oscar Wilde won a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, and his name therefore appears on the school’s Honours board. The name shines more brightly than those of his contemporaries and visitors have suggested that it has been deliberately highlighted. In fact, following his conviction and imprisonment in the 1890s, the name was deleted, only to be reinserted in the 1940s, which accounts for its lustre.

Nowadays classified as a Grammar School catering exclusively for day students, Portora is theoretically non-denominational and coeducational, although the c.500 pupils are all male and virtually all from Protestant backgrounds.

Enniskillen has excellent facilities for  angling, boating, yachting, cruising, scuba diving and almost every other water sport imaginable. The area is ideal  for wildlife observation, walking, cycling and horse riding (including hunting), while ball games are well provided with pitches, courts, courses etc.

The Ardhowen Theatre, opened in 1986, is County Fermanaghs main cultural entertainment centre. Scenically situated in a lakeside setting just off the Dublin Road, it incorporates a 290-seat raked auditorium, a studio theatre, a restaurant, bars and an exhibition area. The year-round programme includes professional plays, comedy, classical music, opera, ballet, contemporary dance, traditional Irish music and dance, jazz, blues, country music, puppets, mime, ethnic arts, films and lectures, plus a wide variety of community-based events such as charity concerts,  amateur drama  and school performances.

Rail History

 

(Photo – www.discoverireland.com)

 

Although Enniskillen is no longer served by trains, the town used to be a railway hub, linked to Clones, Omagh, Bundoran and Sligo.

 

Robert Stephenson was involved in the planning of the Enniskillen & Londonderry Railway track, begun in 1845 and first used by the Dundalk & Enniskillen Railway (1859), which linked it up with the Irish North Western Railway in 1862 and the Dundalk, Newry & Greenore Railway in 1873. 1876 saw the merger of most northern railways into the Great Northern Railway (Ireland).

 

The Sligo, Leitrim & Northern Counties line, opened in 1879, relied heavily on the transportation of live cattle, and remained one of the few privately-owned railways in Ireland until 1957, the year both it and the GNR ran their last trains to Enniskillen and most lines all over Ireland were closed. The former railway station yard is currently a car park.

Enniskillen / St Angelo Airport dates from WWII. While there have been a few scheduled flights in the past, the field now caters only for private aircraft, and is home to an aviation club and a sky diving club. 

 

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