Going Coastal: youthful dreams in Donegal
Our series continues with a walk back in time along the windswept shores of the Atlantic in west Donegal
Michael Harding on the beach at Carrickfinn, where he had chased girls around the sand dunes as a boy
I was looking for something but I didn’t know what. I was driving between Gweedore and Dungloe, and the sky was so blue I stopped at a filling station for breakfast and diesel. I said to a man behind the counter that I’d love to find somewhere to holiday for a few days. “I have a cousin,” he said, “who might loan you a house.”
So he made a phone call and almost by accident I ended up in Ranafast, on the edge of the ocean, the following Sunday.
As a teenager I spent some summers in the Gaeltacht. The first time I came to Ranafast I had a lovely bean an tí who spoke only Irish, and the music in her voice carved out a new space in my mind. Her name was Kitty, and she gave us homemade bread for supper with lashings of rhubarb jam.There were about seven scholars in her care and we slept in bunks and dreamed of girls in other houses.
When we went to the beach at Carrickfinn, we lusted after the girls as they changed into their bathing costumes, and we chased them around the sand dunes when we were tired of swimming.
But sometimes I would slip away from the others and stand alone on the rocks, wondering about the universe and what kind of life might lie ahead. I could never get the universe into perspective from the window of my suburban childhood bedroom in Cavan. But from the rocks on the edge of the Atlantic I could see it all.
One of my dreams was to become a writer, and when, in 1987, my first play was produced at the Peacock Theatre, I wanted to celebrate. So I put my bicycle on McGinley’s bus on O’Connell Street early one morning and headed north. The driver let me off just beyond Gortahork and I cycled around Bloody Foreland and through Gweedore and dived into the ocean at Carrickfinn. And I felt I was at home.
A refuge from depression
Even in darker days I came here for refuge. One time when I was suffering from a bad dose of depression and could no longer bear the claustrophobia of Dublin, I fled again to the coast. I found an old caravan in the dunes sitting on cement blocks, and I stayed in it for the month of August. Every evening an elderly couple drove their battered van to the end of the peninsula and stood on the sand dunes silhouetted against the dying sun. Their intimacy against the splendid backdrop of the ocean gave me hope again. When the autumn came I didn’t want to leave, so I rented a chalet on the hill where I could look out at the waves crashing on the sand all day.
There are three powerfully iconic rocks off the west Donegal coastline, called the Mic O Gorra: three pagan swimmers who were turned to stone by Colmcille. They were dark as cormorants on the distant horizon. I could almost see them come alive on summer mornings – Aodh, Tadhg and Una – ploughing the waves in search of some pagan refuge beyond the surveillance of the clergy. It gladdened my heart to imagine that any man or woman would risk so much to find their freedom, and depressed me to think they could be so fossilised in the effort.But the rocks are still there, and on the beach the white waves still roll along the sand, as they have done for millions of years.