They always had a little light in the window,” Gabriele Tottenham says, of my grandparents’ house. Her late husband Ashley had grown up two doors down. “He loved going there,” she says, “where there was always a candle burning.”
Ashley’s father, George Tottenham, was landlord here at Blaney, a medium-sized rural estate eight miles outside Enniskillen, on the western bank of Lower Lough Erne. He and his family lived in the main house, while my grandfather, James McGullion, his cattle master, was housed in a small cottage near the entrance to their land. From the 1940s until his retirement 30 years later, his home housed as many as eight people: himself, his wife May, her mother Catherine, and the pair’s five children. The youngest of these was my mother Sheila, who died in 1991, shortly before I turned six.
This estate is now home to Blaney Spa and Yoga Centre and its holiday homes, the Inishbeg Cottages, which are rented out for spa guests and tourists. Having always loved hearing about the vaguely Downton-esque trappings of my mother’s childhood, I set off from Derry with my family to check it out for myself.
The estate is a little different to when my mother knew it, as is evident when I pop into the spa area and find that morning’s yoga class sipping coffee on the sun-drenched porch. The centre isn’t bustling, but offers massage, sauna, hot tub and Gabriele’s own yoga classes. One of her pupils, a woman in her 70s, approaches as I enter, squinting at my face like an eye chart. “Oh my gosh, you’re like her,” she says, meaning my mother, who, it turns out, she used to bus to school with as a child.
“So, you’re digging up the roots?” she says, when I describe my trip. “Yes,” I reply. “I guess I am.”
And the roots are easily found. We are shown inside my mother’s house, which still stands but is currently between renovations. My dad tells us how it looked when he last saw it in the early 70s, gesturing to long-gone fittings and appliances, rearranging the floorplan with points and waves. “I was never allowed upstairs, of course,” he reminds us, since his last visits were before they were married, and he a good Catholic boy. It’s my wife who discreetly challenges him on this point, when we ascend the staircase, and find he is immediately able to tell us how the top floor looked as well.
Our own home for the trip is the nine-bed Blaney Island Cottage. It is one of several cottages within the estate, all self-catering. Far from the clay floors and outdoor toilet of my mother’s youth, these are beautifully turned out. Our bedroom has been equipped with a cot and we are issued instructions for the boiler and the fire, opting to use the latter, which soon suffuses the house with the soft, boggy sweetness of woodsmoke.
The real showstopper, however, is the extraordinary view from the front window. The hills round here don’t roll so much as leap in great big blobs, like children’s toys hastily swept under a dark green rug. County Fermanagh is like Ireland in miniature: its vistas wide, its towns tidy, its 4G variable. It has no coast, but makes up for that with the long, winding, picture-postcard grandeur of the Lough, and the 365 islands that lie within it. The Erne is split into two portions, Upper and Lower but, in a fit of confusing nomenclature which is very much a Fermanagh trademark, these are situated paradoxically, with the Lower “above” its Upper counterpart on the map. My father takes great delight in telling me this as we drive from the cottages and take in some local sights.
Aside from being an expert on Fermanagh’s lesser-spotted nooks and crannies, my dad also spent 40 years with the Northern Irish Water Service as an engineer, so this trip handily combines three of his specialist subjects: the extraordinary natural beauty of his home county; the intricacies of Northern Ireland’s waterways; and schooling his know-it-all son on things about which he actually-knows-nothing.
We journey to Boa Island and step out to see the remarkable Janus figures of Caldragh Cemetery, the sixth-century stoneworks captured in Seamus Heaney’s poem January God: “two faced stone / On burial ground, / God-eyed, sex-mouthed”. Here, Fermanagh’s nomenclature proves, again, deceptive. They don’t depict the Roman god Janus at all, but a different, two-faced Celtic deity whose true name has been lost to antiquity; more roots well dug, but clinging to secrets still.
We travel by ferry to Devenish Island, a spectacular monastic site also from the early Christian period and famous for having the finest preserved round tower in Ireland. It is also among the more stunning places from which to view the surrounding lough.
The best view, however, comes from the cottages the following morning. Knowing how much I love scenery, my infant son is good enough to rouse me at 5am, where I catch the eerie, milk-like fog ambling in across the placid surface of the Lough. As mid-morning arrives, the mist departs, replaced by perfect sun and crystal-clear sky; an effect enhanced by the gorgeous, complacent prattle of birdsong, ubiquitous here from every angle.
Gabriele, a gracious host and delightful company, offers a massage treatment overlooking the Lough in all its magnificence; its dotted islands, its darting, diving swifts and the distant reeling of hobbyist fishermen languidly drifting along the glassy lake. Patricia, my mother’s dearest friend, once said she thought my mum gained her calm from this place. “How could it not?” she emphasised. Lying here I find myself agreeing.
Gabriele speaks movingly of how practising yoga and massage have been therapeutic for her, both in grieving for her husband – who, like my mother, died tragically young of cancer – but also as a salve for the wounds of the wider community. The yoga centre was part-funded by a grant from the Reconciliation Fund set up after the Good Friday Agreement. Blaney is, in every sense, a place of peace; non-denominational, unsectarian, a hub for community and a platform for quiet reflection.
An oasis of calm that reflects the stately beauty of Fermanagh, while also preserving the roots of what went here before, Blaney is a light in the window, and one I hope never goes out.
Way to to
Ryanair flies from several UK airports to several on the island of Ireland from around £40 return. Inishbeg Cottages begin at £250 for 2-4 persons, £790 for 9+, see blaneyspaandyogacentre.com. For trips to Devenish Island visit ernetours.com.
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