The sadness of a sandwich reminded me of nuns

A picnic is just a matter of getting to some place where you can relax, and for me there is nowhere better than the cliffs of Donegal

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


I was counting apples in the fruit section of a filling station near Mullaghmore in Sligo. I have a theory that if the coffee machine hasn’t been used for a while the first cup is never good, so I hung around staring at the magazines or counting fruit until someone else came along to use the machine.

Unfortunately for me a young man in a suit arrived, filled a large latte and then, as I popped over and put a paper cup under the spout, he snapped at me. “You were waiting for me to take a coffee weren’t you?” I had to pretend I didn’t understand what he was talking about.

“Sorry about that,” the cashier said, thinking he had abused me for no reason.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I suppose you can never be too careful with young men in suits.”

I paid for the coffee, an egg sandwich and a tank of diesel and headed for Donegal, where I was going to have a little picnic, although I was worried an egg sandwich might be the wrong choice considering the hot weather.

Passing through Killybegs, that lovely port of sleeping trawlers, I had a weakness for food. The egg sandwich in the plastic bag was sweating like a baboon’s oxter, so I went into Melly’s and ordered haddock, which was so good that even two hours later, sitting on top of a hill overlooking Glencolmcille, I still couldn’t face the sandwich that had travelled all day in the jeep and then up the hill in my backpack underneath a raincoat.

A slope sliced in half

I was sitting above the ocean on a smooth, green slope that was sliced in half, leaving a gorge of black volcanic rock falling down to a white strand below, and the sadness of the little egg sandwich made me think of nuns.

In the old days, nuns used to go on holidays to Mullaghmore. I’d see them on the narrow roads, walking in threes and fours, or lined along the ditches of buttercup, dandelion, foxglove and thistle. One day I spied a very girly nun as I was test-driving my new orange Ford Escort. I slowed down and opened the window, and I noticed a brown paper bag in her hand. She blushed as if I might be about to make some very unwholesome suggestion.

“What’s in the bag?” I wondered.

“A sandwich,” she said.

“What kind?”

“Egg,” she confessed.

Not that egg sandwiches are essential for a picnic. A picnic is just a matter of getting to some place where you can relax, and for me there is nowhere better than the 300-million-year-old cliffs of Donegal.

On the cliff near Glencolmcille, the sheep were also fairly relaxed, as they sat watching me and chewing like my granny used to chew, with a kind of involved sensuality. I often talk to sheep when no one is looking, and usually they are good listeners. I asked one big fat lady sheep did she want an egg sandwich, but even she must have thought the rucksack was too sweaty because she jumped up suddenly, bent her hind legs, released her steamy urine and galloped up the hill.

Breakfast with strangers

The following morning the breakfast room in the hotel was crowded. There were no free tables, so I sat beside a young woman with black-rimmed glasses, whose husband was up at the buffet getting a hot breakfast. It’s dangerous sharing breakfast with strangers who have just showered the sleep off their bodies but whose intimacies from the night before are still in the air.

When her husband arrived with the scrambled eggs, rashers and sausages, we began chatting. They were from Northern Ireland, and said they loved walking in Donegal. He said he often walked the coast around Londonderry, and it was so nice, he said, to enjoy one’s own country. I agreed, presuming he meant Ireland.

“In fact,” he added, “we often head over from Larne to the mainland.”

“Ah, yes,” I said, “of course.”

“Of course you just can’t beat the Lake District,” he exclaimed. Clearly he was an accomplished hillwalker.

“So where are you heading today?” he inquired after a long silence.

“Actually I’m hoping to climb Slieve League,” I said.

“Wonderful,” the woman whispered, and gazed at me through her glasses for a moment.

“Make sure you take a lunch with you up there,” the man advised.

“I certainly will,” I assured him, aware that my little egg sandwich was still sitting on the passenger seat.

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