At the turn of the 21st century I moved to Amsterdam and started working for an American company. It was a somewhat brave, perhaps foolhardy move. I had a job lined up. It’s just that I had never been to the Netherlands before, didn’t know a soul, couldn’t speak a word of the language. And I had nowhere to live upon arrival.
After a frenzied few weeks of house-hunting and settling in I was set. The only problem was that Christmas was looming. Being somewhat friendless at this point, I was concerned. I hadn’t booked any time off work to go to Limerick, and it appeared that I would be spending Yuletide in De Baarsjes with only a ready meal for company (my demonic cat Midnight only entered my life in the new year).
One afternoon at work pondering on my prospects I started humming ‘It’ll be lonely this Christmas’ by Elvis Presley. A colleague turned around and said ‘Will you please stop singing that, I’m alone this Christmas and that song is depressing’. My eyes lit up. My colleague was from Donegal and we got on fairly well. Seizing the moment I invited her over to my house for dinner on that fateful day.
And so began our friendship.
Approximately one year later she packed her bags and went to Australia on a one year working holiday visa. Sixteen years later she is still there – raising a family in Western Australia. We stayed in touch over the years – I’d try to meet her when she came back to Europe. I went and stayed with her on a holiday in the boiling Australian summer heat some years ago.
She has just been back to Ireland for a month. However with young children in tow, her flexibility is limited. Meaning that she was not going to be able to visit Dublin. As my mother sometimes says ‘If the mountain can’t come to Mohammed, well then Mohammed must come to the mountain.’ I was going to have to haul my carcass into action and make my way to Donegal.
Donegal is a place I have never visited. The most northerly county in the island of Ireland, when the country was partitioned in 1922, Donegal became part of the Republic while its six southerly neighbours became Northern Ireland. My friend hails from Inish Owen. A town called Carndonagh, very close to Malin Head – the most northerly point in Ireland. My weekend would be spent down south (the Republic of Ireland) but as far north on the island as it is possible to get.
I took the bus to Derry in Northern Ireland. This city is the closest you can get to Carndonagh on public transport from Dublin. My friend and her wains (Donegal word for children – I think it is a slang word of Scottish origin meaning ‘wee ones’) picked me up in Derry and across the border we drove.
I was to be spending that night in a mutual friend’s house – a house without children. But a house filled with puppies. Her dog had given birth six weeks earlier to the most adorable litter of four pups. They were gorgeous – at the point where they are starting to explore for themselves. But before they were toilet trained. Being so tiny, the fact that I was a warm mass of human flesh, meant they felt comfortable urinating on me. I took this as a sign of affection. Well they are six weeks old. What could I expect?
That evening we gathered in Mickey McClure’s bar in town and had some festive beverages. This was a very charming pub, old style – the type you’d expect to find in a country village. It was cosy and friendly. I think the barman’s dog Coco, got the smell of dog from me because when we met, she launched herself onto my lap and started lapping at my face. She pinned me to the wall as she issued her slobbering greeting. I didn’t mind. I was on holiday. When in Donegal and all that…
The next day we rose quite early. The sun was shining. We were going on a daytrip to Malin town to visit the circus. It is part of the annual Earagaill Arts Festival.
Donegal is a coastal county. It’s as incredibly beautiful as any of the counties on the west coast of Ireland, but thanks to poor infrastructure, public transport, relative isolation (and possibly because of its proximity to the North during the Troubles) its tourism industry seems less developed than that of counties Clare or Kerry. This seems to be changing somewhat. Some years ago a marketing whiz decided that the west coast of Ireland needed to be promoted as the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ with various spots on the coastline marked as reference points. Maps have been created to let tourists know which places are worth a visit. Donegal is included and this seems to have created more of a buzz about the place. And rightly so. – its coastline is stunning.
The circus in Malin was great fun – we sat on the grass eating ice cream, and watched the performers from the Raj Circus (from Rajasthan in northern India) contort themselves into wild positions. We listened to the ladies and gents from the Inishown Gospel Choir, and wowed at the Dutch mime artist. It was such a hot day I decided against going into the tent to watch the trapeze artist.
Afterwards we went to Culdaff beach – a blue flag beach (meaning it is very clean and well maintained) and I took a paddle. It was busy enough but I was thinking that if this was county Kerry it would be a lot more crowded.
That evening we were camping on the Isle of Doagh. Not actually an island, the Isle is a peninsula, accessible by a single narrow road. We ignored the ‘no camping’ signs. Because my friends are local they had obtained permission to camp from the owners. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place. We explored the caves along the coast and lit a bonfire when we returned. The smell of bonfire smoke blended well with the aroma of dog pee on my jeans, so all was good. I didn’t get to see the Famine Village on the Isle. I’ve seen similar though, so I can imagine it’s a fairly chilling reminder of 19th century Ireland.
The night in the tent was strenuous. Sleeping on a yoga mat, in a sleeping bag on the ground is quite tough. Not something I’ve done in recent decades. Needs must however.
The next day the weather had returned to the Irish norm. It was pelting down with rain. Being a sturdy lad however I decided to go visit the Carndonagh Cross in the village. It’s a 7th century stone cross. I took a picture. As I was walking away a car pulled up beside me. A gentleman stepped out and greeted me by saying:
‘Are you visiting?’
‘I am’, I replied.
‘Well if you go in to the graveyard in the church behind you, there is an equally old cross. Most people forget about that one and when I saw you I thought I’d remind you.’
I thanked him and went exploring the Church of Ireland graveyard. The cross was obvious – looking far older and more majestic than the much newer gravestones surrounding it.
I wandered in to the town centre and had a tasty chicken sandwich at the Butterbean restaurant on the Diamond (the town centre is shaped like this). After lunch I dawdled over to the Banba coffeeshop for a cup of scald. After my drink I went to the toilet. As the coffeeshop is not that large there was one cubicle for all – men/women/able bodied and not so able bodied. Being fidgety I tried to move the lever that allow people with mobility issues to get up from the throne. It didn’t move. Perhaps I needed to pull the red string to release it. So I did.
The alarm sound was piercing. It should have been obvious to me but this chord was to alert staff in case someone was in distress. Being a bit of an idiot this didn’t enter my vacant head. To the credit of the staff in the Banba coffee-shop, within seconds they knocked asking if I needed help.
I shouted no, and apologised profusely through the door. As I slunk out the back entrance, to the car park – too embarrassed to show my face front of house – I imagine my skin tone was the same colour as the red emergency chord.
That evening we had a meal in Nancy’s Barn in Ballyliffin. This is a converted cottage which has won the 2017 award for best seafood chowder. Guess what I ate? It was delicious, and the venue was very warm and welcoming.
As I ordered drinks for the group afterwards the barman asked where I was from. When I told him Limerick I was pleased to hear that he’d been to college there.
The next morning was to be my farewell to Inishowen and my friends. I will be back. Donegal is an astoundingly beautiful and friendly place.
I boarded the North-West Bus to Derry and bade farewell.
I was planning to spend the afternoon in Derry – another city I had never visited. However I think that adventure merits its own blog post tomorrow.