Donegal: The Forgotten County
An appreciation by Enda Cullen.
Apologies to readers from other counties but my mother used to say that Donegal and Clare people were the friendliest people in Ireland. She has passed on to a better place now and I never found out why she thought that, but like most of her beliefs I have found them to be true.
As a family we always went to Donegal on holiday. It could be Downings in the north where my dad helped the locals make hay, or Bundoran with its amusement arcades, in the south. I recently went back to Downings for the first time in 40 years. There were a lot more holiday homes and a large fishing trawler was moored up where I only remember small fishing boats. It was also the pier where as a small boy I swore off fishing for life. I was casting back and caught an irate woman’s poodle with my hook!
For a Catholic nationalist family from Armagh the holiday had to be across the border. The journey was 60 miles over mountainy and winding roads but when we spotted the first shop with sandcastle buckets and nets full of plastic soccer balls we knew that we were close to our destination. We were not alone.
The Bundoran of the 1960s, especially during the July holidays, was full of people “escaping” from Belfast and its Orange Order marches. A friend fed up with not being allowed down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown decamped with his family to Rossnowlagh in Donegal. Waking in his holiday home on 12th July he was faced with a large Orange Order march that takes place, peacefully and with cross community support, every year!
With peace as the norm, Donegal is still full of July holiday makers from its neighboring counties. Teach Hudí Beags, (Gallagher’s bar), in the Donegal Gaeltacht is full of Northerners playing and listening to traditional Irish music – most of them have holiday homes in the area. Their children attend the local Irish-speaking schools in the spring and summer vacations. Gallagher’s is a place that offers a warm welcome, and despite being called an “English man” by Bean Hudí for my deficiency in the Irish language, I enjoy the mighty craic to be found there.
People often refer to Donegal as “the forgotten county.” The most northerly county on the island, it’s not in Northern Ireland. And economically, it neither benefited nor had the social drawbacks of the now deceased Celtic Tiger. Time and infrastructure has stood still in this, the least commercialized part of Ireland. Consequentially, emigration has had a major effect on the county.
Scotland has strong connections with Donegal as economic circumstances forced many Donegal people to seek employment in the factories of Glasgow. Susan Boyle, the Britain’s Got Talent phenomenon, has her antecedents in Donegal (as does Tony Blair’s mother). The Donegal Tigers are a group of young north west Donegal men who travel the world constructing tunnels. They worked in the 1940s and 1950s on the subways of New York and London. The 1990s saw them work on the Channel Tunnel between England and France, and they are currently being courted to work on the 17 billion euro expansion of the London subway network. These brave men are often the first to be called following earthquakes and building collapses.
My wife’s mother is from Donegal although she spent over 60 years of her life living in London. I visited the house that she was born in and I marvelled at how anyone could raise a family in the early 1900s in such a wilderness. Her nearest village was Frosses and her favorite joke was “Why does one side of the village not talk to the other side. The answer is that the graveyard runs along one side of the village.
The scenery of Donegal is among the most spectacular in Europe. The Slieve League cliffs are the highest sea cliffs in Europe, Mount Errigal stands majestically, and often snow covered, above Gweedore. Glenveagh National Park (from the Irish Gleann Bheatha meaning “glen of the birches”), covers over 105 square miles. Once owned by John Adair, who evicted his tenants to clear the land and not spoil his view, the estate was purchased in 1937 by the American Henry McIlhenny, of Tabasco sauce fame, who gifted the gardens and castle to the Irish nation in 1981. Today the park is home to the largest herd of red deer and the once thought to be extinct golden eagles, which were reintroduced to the park in 2000.
The park is magnificent, however my favorite aspect of the county, are the magnificent sandy beaches where you can walk for miles without meeting another soul.
(Talking of souls, I once met David Soul, of Starsky and Hutch fame, galloping a horse across Tullaghan Strand.)
If you are more inclined to surfing, there’s plenty of that too. Numerous surfing schools have mushroomed over the past few years, that, alongside the excellent camping and accommodation, have attracted visitors from all over the world who are keen to ride Irish waves.
As befits a county with such a large coastline, Donegal has excellent seafood. Restaurants that can compete with Dublin but at a more realistic price. “Tech Leo’s,” or Leo’s Tavern, in Meenalick, on the Gweedore Peninsula, is owned by the father of Enya and her Clannad siblings. The music sessions in Leo’s are legendary as is the great seafood chowder. While the views from the Ostan Gweedore hotel restaurant in Bunbeg are breathtaking as is the food. On my last visit I was enjoying local surf and turf when a propeller plane flew low over the hotel on its way to nearby Donegal airport. My waiter informed me that it was “the female pilot” taking the shortcut. Back in Bundoran, Michael McWeeney, the owner and head cook of the Marlboro House, provided me with a great meal and still had time to tell me about his adventures in San Francisco.
Not that long ago a colleague invited me to join her on an island retreat in Co. Donegal for a relaxing and therapeutic weekend. I politely declined when I discovered that I was being invited to a pilgrimage retreat known as Station Island on Lough Derg, a place where fasting, walking barefoot, and keeping continuously awake for a period of 24 hours, are the tradition.
The Pilgrimage site, which dates to the Middle Ages, is called St. Patrick’s Purgatory and is open to pilgrims of all religions. Exercises include a prayer sequence called a station, which has its roots in a Celtic form of prayer that involves physical movement accompanied by mantra. Nine stations are completed over a three-day period; five stations are made in the open air on the penitential beds, in bare feet, and four are said in the Basilica during the first night “Vigil.”
In addition to staying awake, for the first 24-hours, pilgrims have one “Lough Derg Meal” of dry toast or oatcakes and black tea or coffee on each of the three days of the Pilgrimage.
My parents made the pilgrimage every year in fulfillment of promises to God, no doubt they had included petitions for my school examination success. I’m afraid to say so but the tradition died with them. But some 30,000 pilgrims participate in the main sessions from early June through the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, August 15th, every year. It’s interesting to note, though that since the credit crunch, attendance from Ireland and England is up over 70 percent.
Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker and her actor husband Matthew Broderick are regular visitors to Donegal and are well known to the locals around the Killybegs area. They are able to escape the paparazzi and have been seen in local pubs enjoying traditional music. Broderick is a big fan of Magees, the Donegal tweed maker whose tweed suits are ideal for Irish winters and days at the local horse races on Ballintra beach.
Donegal is blessed with an abundance of very good golf clubs. Among my favorites are Ballyliffin on the Inishowen Peninsula where the Christian Brothers used to give golf lessons to the locals. County Donegal Golf Club at Murvagh is one of the longest links golf clubs in the world. The fifth hole, the Valley of Tears, is aptly named and currently possesses three of my golf balls. Golf in Donegal is unlike the expensive pastime in Dublin or Killarney. Here you can have a leisurely round of golf and without mortgaging your house.
Finally, I would like to share my jewel in the crown of Donegal. Nestled in the main street of Bundoran, in south Donegal, is Brennan’s pub. This establishment has been in the Brennan family for over 100 years and very little has changed. Nan and Patricia, the current landladies, serve the best Guinness in Ireland. Television has yet to enter Brennan’s and consequentially you are encouraged to talk to strangers. Cursing is strictly taboo and I have personally watched an inebriated and foul-mouthed man being “cut off” and politely told to leave. I have met and enjoyed the craic with people from all over the world here and as the old Irish saying goes, “There’s no tax on talk.”
This article was originally published in Irish America‘s June / July 2013 issue. ♦