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South Armagh reaches out on its own terms

By Anthony Neeson

In his first day as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson said he had spent time in the "deepest, wildest parts of Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin members of parliament and councilors" and then referred to trips he had taken to the border areas of South Armagh.

"Well I think when you go down to the sort of Forkhill and Cullyhanna, you're quite a long way from here and it feels a long way from here," said Paterson in Belfast.

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For ex-political prisoner Jimmy Fox, who runs Cu Chulainn Tours, Paterson's description of South Armagh summed up perfectly how most people outside the region view what was once branded "Bandit Country." But he has a different tale to tell.

"The thing is," he says, "Paterson was talking about us. Eighteen months ago Conor Murphy (Sinn Féin MP for South Armagh), Brendan Curran and myself invited Owen Paterson at his request down to South Armagh to show him what we were doing here.

"He asked a lot of questions and it was amicable enough, but then he made those comments about being in the deepest, wildest parts of the Six Counties and I had visions of him coming up the river in a canoe and me and Conor Murphy coming out of the jungle to meet him, carrying spears."

Jimmy laughs at the very idea, but he has a serious point to make.

"South Armagh is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but Paterson's view is probably held by most people who live outside the area, and their views are probably formed because of the negative publicity that has come from our recent history."

South Armagh was one of the main theaters of conflict during the Troubles. Jimmy says that over 200 British soldiers and RUC personnel were killed over 30 years as well as twelve IRA volunteers.

Since May of last year the fledgling Cu Chulainn Tours has carried out over 50 tours of South Armagh with groups of tourists from Ireland and across the globe and Jimmy says the main reaction he gets from people is that they are "surprised" by the beauty, the wealth of cultural and historical sights on offer, and are fascinated by the full story of the area.

"The tours can last anything from two hours to three days," explained Jimmy.

"We now have state-of-the-art accommodation in Mullagh Ban called Ti Chulainn which we are really proud of. We have 16 en-suite rooms which people can stay in and there are also conference facilities available.

"The tours are really authentic. They are conducted by former republican prisoners and activists who would know the history, and would be able to talk about some of the most recent events from a personal point of view.

"You must remember that for years the British army couldn't drive the roads here for fear of being landmined. They had to do everything by helicopter, plus they had spy posts on every available hill in South Armagh. The story of South Armagh has always been portrayed from a British army point of view, never a South Armagh view, until now."

Jimmy says the tours have much more to offer in addition to the history of the Troubles.

"The scenery is stunning, especially around Slieve Guillion," he says.

"This is the land where Cu Chulain got his name. We have megalithic tombs and cairns, in fact the highest cairn in Ireland. There are also ring forts and ancient churches, plus we have the burial place of Edward the Bruce, who was the brother of (Scotland's) Robert the Bruce.

"You can also visit where some of the major military operations and gun battles took place during the recent conflict and monuments where volunteers lost their lives.

"But if you prefer, there is also great fishing, hill walking and general relaxation amongst some of the nicest people you're ever likely to meet.

"Ti Chulainn is the perfect base for a stay here. It's a very lively cultural center with Irish music, dancing and Irish language classes taking place in the shadow of Slieve Gullion. It's the place to come if you want to learn the real story of South Armagh."

To find out more about tourism in South Armagh and where to stay, click on to www.cuchulainntours.com and www.tichulainn.com.