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.
Back to the present
So again I stand on the dunes. The grass cuts my toes and the sea holly is silvery green. I chat with Michael Gillespie, a volunteer who is helping to direct traffic in a car park behind the dunes, and I speak to Sadie Gallagher, whose husband was once in a band with Michael. I inquire about people I once knew in the locality and am told what is always told: the old ones are dead and gone, the young ones turning grey. And then I head for Ranafast.
When I get there a woman is waiting for me. We speak in Irish and I tell her I once spent a summer at the Irish college, my bean an tí’s name was Kitty, and I still remember her rhubarb jam, her bread puddings and her infinite kindness.“Well,” declares the woman, “it’s a small world.”
“Why?” I wonder.
“Kitty was my aunt,” she says. “She was born and reared in this house where you will be lodging for the next week.”
A shiver goes up my spine. I have found the house by accident, but there are no accidents in life. The sound of the sea and the music of the Irish language are enveloping me as a mother envelops her child with soothing sounds, and I know I have found what I was looking for again.
Every day for a week I cycle to the beach, and each evening I cycle back to Ranafast, remembering an old woman who had been kind to me. As I step into the kitchen each evening where she spent her childhood, it feels like I am coming home.
Donegal coast: Places to see, things to do
The Donegal coastline is one of the longest in the country at more than 1,000km. Its main fishing ports include Killybegs, Green Castle and Malin Head, and there are more than 150 piers and harbours. The western region includes two Gaeltacht areas: the Rosses, which is near and in the town of Dungloe; and Gweedore. The landscape is dramatic, with the Derryveagh Mountains, the major range, and the coastline buffered at either end by Donegal Bay to the south and Lough Swilly to the north. Notable islands include Aranmore, Owey and Gola. The county has some of the most stunning beaches in Ireland, including Carrickfinn, Dunfanaghy Beach, Marble Hill and Narin Strand. The airport is to the northwest, about two miles south of the Gaeltacht village of Bunbeg. Donegal and Bundoran are two of the bigger towns in the region.
Attractions and activities
For hillwalkers, the Urris and Bluestack Mountains, the Glenveagh National Park and the Buncrana and Moville coastal walks are popular. The Inishowen peninsula has done well in recent years in marketing itself as a destination within a destination. There are some great dining options including the award-winning Harry’s Restaurant in Bridgend.
Bundoran has been a destination for families for generations, but in recent times, live music and surfing have drawn a younger crowd. There’s also an indoor waterworld and an outdoor adventure park. Dunfanaghy has an 18-hole links golf course, a forest park and heritage centre. In its workhouse visitors can see the conditions residents endured in the 19th century. Accommodation includes Ballyfin Lodge and the Sandhouse Hotel at Rossnowlagh Beach. Or try Knockalla Camping and Caravan Park near the Knockalla Mountains and Ballymastocker Beach on Fanad Peninsula. Festivals include Dylan Fest, a celebration of Bob Dylan’s music until Sunday in Moville, and Glen River Summer Festival, in Carrick in September.