It’s not hard to like the small town of Omagh. Tucked snugly into the valley of the Strule river, in the county of Tyrone, it is of manageable size.There’s the Court House, a few bridges over the river, the well-stocked Carlisle bookshop – and the marvellous Strule Arts Centre with a lecture theatre, conference rooms, a café, recording studio and, for free, a terrific overview of the river which, at this point, has a fish path created to aid the salmon as they make their mystical journey back up the river.
Omagh is the home of Benedict Kiely, prolific writer, joker and raconteur, whose memory is celebrated with the Ben Kiely Literary Weekend, held every year in September.
This year, the theme was travel with artist Eamon Coleman showing his work in Northern Ireland for the first time. Writers included Carol Drinkwater, Afric McGlinchey, Patricia Craig and Eoin Bourke with Paul Clements and Manchan Magan leading a discussion on travel and travel writing. My own contribution was on Sunday morning when I read from my book on Syria – and even found someone in the audience who spoke Arabic.
It was a great gathering of townspeople and others from further away such as Glenties and Portaferry – where, on a sailing jaunt, I was once left high and dry. Literally. That was the boat, by the way, not me.
Saturday afternoon, we were given an unexpected treat: a bus ride out into the hinterland of Omagh. Parked high up on Pigeon Top
, we had a stupendous view of the Sperrin mountains and, looking dead straight ahead westwards, Muckish and the volcanic cone of Errigal: Donegal – my soul home! (The graffiti comes free, by the way.)
Then we side-tracked along a private road to the site of an old mass rock. This is our shepherd – Frank Sweeney.
Tucked into the hillside where no one could see them, the people used to come here in the penal days and now, once year, they still come to make their local pilgrimage. The place is Corradinna with the land made available by the two local people.
Next up was Langfield Church in Drumquin and a lovely walk to the former rectory there along a secret, sunlit path.
Strule Arts Committee member Georgina Millar now owns the rectory and the cherry on the cake was a chance to hear her play the piano. A serene occasion.
On the way back, we passed through Dromore where Ben Kiely’s parents met and where he was born before they moved to Omagh and from where he eventually moved to Dublin’s Donnybrook.
But wait. I’ve forgotten something. Another deviation took us to the waterfall at Sloughan which, if you want to pretend to be a local, you pronounce Slavin.
It was here that the Black Bush was produced and where, with Frances Kiely and Ben’s old friend Stephen McKenna, we drank Ben’s health.
It must surely be something in the water – or the whiskey – for this area has produced many writers: Seamus Heaney is only a stone’s throw away in Derry, Flann O Brien is in nearby Strabane and the great John Montague is from just down the road in Garavaghy. Truly, Omagh is a special place.
The annual Ben Kiely Literary Festival is run by volunteers with the support of Omagh District Council. To find out more, email firstname.lastname@example.org