Return to the deserted village

An Irishman’s Diary: The satnav was more or less useless, there were no signs and very few houses

‘Some more turns followed and suddenly there was the beach, the pier and the ruined cottages.’

‘Some more turns followed and suddenly there was the beach, the pier and the ruined cottages.’


In 1964, the late Justin Carroll, a Trinity undergraduate at the time, contacted Fr James McDyer, with a proposal to organise an international student work camp in Glencolumbkille, Co Donegal. Student work camps were popular in Europe at the time – students volunteered their labour in return for food and accommodation. But none had been organised for a number of years in Ireland.

Fr McDyer did everything possible to help. For three weeks that summer, about 30 students, many from abroad, dug a trench for a mains water supply on the road leading out of the village, towards Malinmore. We slept on army cots in the old school house, villagers supplied tools and brought food, and we were not put off by the fact that it rained nearly every day for the three weeks. An engineering student supervised the laying of the pipes.

Fr McDyer, one of the most innovative social reformers of his generation, inspired us. He talked to us often in the evenings, we heard him say Mass in Irish and he organised a memorable céilí, with music from mountainy men in three-piece suits. When he had arrived at Glen, the community was dying partly he said because there was nothing for the girls to do: they were leaving for the UK and the boys were following. He set up the Errigal Co-operative Society; he said he would call himself a communist but he would be misunderstood. One strategy was to find ways of employing the girls, so he arranged for them to be taught to knit “Aran” sweaters. We would see the girls walking along the road chatting as they knitted the intricate patterns. It turned out that celery grew well and the Irish Sugar Company, led by another great innovator, Gen Costello, helped the co-op establish a celery canning factory. The co-op promoted tourism and this also gave local employment. He built a parish hall, and he organised the ESB to supply electricity further and further from the village.

The glens run east-west to the sea, and are separated by ridges. The great mass of Slieve League lies to the south of Glencolumbkille. To the north, there is a lower ridge. For nearly50 years I have kept vivid memories of one good day, a Sunday, when a few of us walked over the hills to the north and dropped down to the next glen to find a dramatic scene. We saw a bohereen coming down the valley leading to a rocky beach and a small pier. As we approached we were able to make out the grey ruins of a few roofless cottages above the beach and nothing else. The only sign of human habitation was a rusting pot in one fireplace. It was one of the saddest places I had ever seen. We returned over the hills into Glencolumbkille and came down behind a nicely whitewashed cottage set into the hillside with a couple of children playing – jumping on and off the roof and speaking Irish. This brightened us up.

I invited Fr McDyer to speak at the College Historical Society in Trinity. He wrote to me later apologising – his bishop had refused permission.

I went back to Glen for the first time recently, with my wife Janet, both of us wondering had I imagined the deserted village. She had heard the story so many times. Some new studies in memory show that the most frequently recalled images are among the most inaccurate – they change in each remembering.

One map showed “An Port” in approximately the right place. We drove east and north from Glen and then tried to go west, with the idea of getting around the hills which I had walked over those years before. The satnav was more or less useless, there were no signs and very few houses. The road switched direction many times, but eventually it swung west and into a more or less uninhabited valley. After a few miles, the sea came into view. Some more turns followed and suddenly there was the beach, the pier and the ruined cottages. One has been renovated and is rented out as the most remote cottage in Ireland. Two small boats were moored in the bay.

So far as I could tell, Irish is little spoken around Glencolumbkille; the celery factory has gone, but the co-op was the start of what is today Errigal Seafood; the pub where we drank late with the local Guard had closed; Mrs McNelis is one of the few still knitting wonderful sweaters by hand and these are sold at Rossan Knitwear nearby; there are hundreds of new homes, from Glen to Malinbeg, presumably mostly holiday homes; the Fr McDyer Folk Village preserves the story of a great man; I was told there is no curate based in Glencolumbkille.