Donegal retakes its proper place on the map of contemporary Ireland
Cut off from the rest of the Republic, and ignored by Dublin, the county has long lived with a sense of detachment. This enormous, passionate book sets the record straight
The Poisoned Glen
The funeral procession after the Árainn Mhór disaster of 1935, when 19 returning migrant labourers died after their boat hit rocks
Barney McLaughlin, Jude Campbell, Margaret Gallagher, Jack Campbell, Mary Margaret Gallagher and James McLaughlin, whose mothers arrived in Donegal via the hiring fairs
An Historical, Environmental and Cultural Atlas of County Donegal
Sean Beattie and Jim MacLaughlin
Cork University Press
After “decades of neglect and indeed misrepresentation”, the editors of this impressive volume, Dr Seán Beattie and Dr Jim MacLaughlin, are determined to put Donegal “on the map of contemporary Ireland”.
The record needs to be set straight, because Donegal has been frequently overlooked. As a postpartition sore thumb on the body of the emerging Republic, Donegal had scant attention from the pillars of the new state. Neither CIÉ nor RTÉ television ventured far into the northwest before the late 1970s. Much of the county was left to the erratic mercies of the Swilly Bus Service and to six-counties television, whose weather maps went mysteriously blank west of Strabane. To travel to Dublin, most Donegal people must cross the Border twice.
It all reinforced a centuries-old sense of detachment and defiance that is still evident in some of these chapters. Frank Mathew is quoted here describing Donegal people over a century ago as “perpetual strangers” at home in a county “ramparted from the rest of the country . . . a fastness in which they remain stubbornly rooted”.
On the rugged western shore you must hold fast because, as a Rosses man says here to Dónal Mac Polín, “seaweed could hardly stick to the rocks”. Detachment persists, Donegal remains far removed from Dublin or London and is now even more remote from the power brokers in Berlin.
The word “atlas” derives from a practice of 17th-century publishers: they often used a representation of Atlas supporting the heavens as a frontispiece in early folios of maps. “Atlas” in the terms of this publication goes well beyond maps: it is a conspectus, or general survey, of its subject in the sense of an 18th-century encyclopaedia.
This is a passionate, accessible book of reference and compendium of a vast body of knowledge about Donegal. Not since the days of John O’Donovan, Thomas Larcom and their Ordnance Survey has anything quite this ambitious been undertaken: with 50 contributors, 90 articles and more than 600 pages, this is a mammoth enterprise.
MacLaughlin and Beattie deserve plaudits for their scholarship and for their fortitude. Not content with editorship, they have also written about a fifth of the work.
This atlas is pioneering not only in its subject matter but also in its choice of contributors. Local scholars are given parity of esteem with eminent academics. It’s a refreshing blend that must have posed many stylistic challenges. Those have been admirably met, although the depth of research and quality of expression is, inevitably, uneven at times. There is also a degree of repetition between chapters.
This is a pioneering work too in that it emerges at a time when most potential funding agencies are, in the words of the editors, collapsing all around us. Cork University Press deserves great credit for its enterprise and for the book’s remarkable production values.
Tip O’Neill, the late former speaker of the US House of Representatives, famously said that all politics is local. This work demonstrates that most of what we value in life is local too. Here a focus on a specific county allows the reader to come to terms with geology, archaeology, climate, natural history, marine life, social history, diet, art, literature, architecture, music, sport and political history. Here, too, are lively and sometimes esoteric essays that range from profiles of Daniel O’Donnell and Derek Hill to Donegal poitín, from vernacular boats to Donegal railways, lacemaking and even “Donegal’s role in the demise of the American Indian”.