Searching for the road to Glenlough

There's a song about it, so it must be somewhere, mustn't it? Martin McGinley searches for the elusive path on the south-west…

There's a song about it, so it must be somewhere, mustn't it? Martin McGinley searches for the elusive path on the south-west tip of Co Donegal

Summertime is for things long postponed. And as the sun finally threatens to break through the Donegal sky a promise made years ago somehow comes to mind. It is about a road less travelled, a journey of the imagination that summons up for company the spirits of a Welsh poet, a US artist and maybe the occasional aristocrat. And so the phone call is made to Rita Cunningham in Carrick: "What about the road to Glenlough?"

Glenlough is a tantalising prospect, but there's at least one good reason why Rita may consider she has other pressing engagements. For The Road To Glenlough is actually a powerful waltz from the playing of the master fiddler James Byrne from Glencolumbkille, An Beirneach, rather than a physical entity in the care of Donegal County Council.

The names of traditional tunes are notoriously suspect (think Upstairs In A Tent). There is, in fact, no road to Glenlough, unless you count the journey to Donegal town, Killybegs, Kilcar, Carrick, Meenaneary and then out towards Port, which is only for starters.

To give Rita credit, the prospect of four hours clambering across bog and stream doesn't bring a moment's hesitation. It's on.

By some accounts, Hy Brasil is off this south-west Donegal coast. Glenlough is not much less elusive, and you will probably need someone like Rita as your guide. Outside her home, in Carrick Upper, famous for its hospitality, Rita and her friend Teeny throw their walking sticks in the boot and we set off. We begin in time-honoured Donegal fashion with an immediate detour to Glencolumbkille for home-made soup at Father McDyer's Folk Village.

By the time we head for the little coastal gem that is Port the party is swollen to three carloads of people intrigued by the mythical road to Glenlough. It's only right that we meet James Byrne himself wheeling his bicycle along the road, a symbolic blessing for the enterprise.

We're still a couple of miles from Port when we pull up on a grassy verge looking across the lake to the old schoolhouse, which now belongs to the artists Brian and Denise Fearon. Rita, a past pupil, is back on home turf. Many of the families in this isolated area have been here for generations.

Down the years visitors have been rare enough, but Rita's father, Francie, now 88 and living in the family home nearby, is old enough to remember some notable ones from his young days. Such as the American who used to throw coins for local boys to catch in their caps.

It was in 1926 that the intriguing Rockwell Kent - artist, illustrator, writer and traveller - arrived from the US along this road with his new wife, Frances. He was looking for isolation, and got to Port, which then had three houses. "We now only sought to refine that absolute: land's end we'd reached, but there were people there; if we could only find a little house beyond mankind!"

They found exactly what they were looking for. And so did we, even if it took about an hour and a half of walking up airy mountains and past lakes. We stood close to the summit of Glenlough hill, more than 1,500 feet, and looked down a great valley to the far distance, where giant rocks fronted the Atlantic.

The afternoon was overcast, but we were lucky: at that moment the sun magically lit the little patchwork of fields close to the coast, catching the bleached stones of two ruined buildings.

One, slightly farther away, was the remains of the home of Dan and Rosie Ward; as Kent saw it, "a tiny speck of white on the somber-hued immensity of the surrounding moor". The other ruin was the home of Dan and Rosie's cow, at least until Rockwell and Frances moved in.

It's another half-hour down to the wallsteads. It is only in recent years that the roof of Dan and Rose Ward's house has caved in. The dresser is still against the wall, and on it are still a few odds and ends, including the wooden top of a churn and, gloriously, an alarm clock. Maybe it's the one Kent wrote about, which worked only when it was lying on its face.

Dan and Rose were delighted with their US visitors, whatever about their surprise at seeing their byre newly designated as a holiday home. Everything the Kents needed for their tiny room had to be carried for a mile across the heather from the closest point a horse and cart could reach.

The Kents' next address would be something of a contrast - a "wonderful apartment" on Washington Square in New York - but for now Glenlough was home. The irony was that, arguably, the byre was slumming it.

Dan Ward told them that the previous resident, almost 200 years before, was Bonnie Prince Charlie, who spent "twelve-month and a day" there with a servant, waiting for a boat to France.

But then Glenlough is full of surprises. Dan Ward, although a local man, wasn't quite the isolated shepherd he seemed either. He was known locally as the New Zealander, from time he spent at the other end of the Earth.

Kent painted some very fine work during his visit, and much of it was exhibited the following year in New York. The local guide to Glencolumbkille illustrates three powerful paintings, Dan Ward's Stack, Annie McGinley and The Shipwreck.

Looking back, Rockwell thought his visit was "four months of such happiness as, but for my loyalty to other happy times, I would call the very happiest of all my life". He wanted to return to live in Glenlough in later life, but he ran into visa problems that were resolved only when they reached the US Supreme Court, in 1958. He died in 1971, in his late 80s.

The little room he and Frances fixed up is now completely tumbledown, but in 1935 it was still fit for two more distinguished visitors, Dylan Thomas and Geoffrey Grigson. Thomas had just published 18 Poems, which was helping to make his reputation.

He was just 20, but his friends were already concerned about his drinking and his wider health, and they clearly thought a few weeks in a byre in wildest Donegal might be just the ticket.

Thomas described his destination as "a wild unlettered and unfrenchlettered country, too far from Ardara, a village you can't be too far from". But he did write several poems and some other work, including a vampire tale, during a few weeks in Glenlough. Famously, he left without paying Dan Ward, who was later sorted out from England.

The story is that the poet also ran up a slate in O'Donnell's pub in Meenaneary - quite an achievement, considering it is seven or eight miles' walk - and settled it by leaving some of his books. It seems the books were left in the attic and most likely dumped during renovations.

As Kent also experienced, in those days the wider area around Glenlough had a considerable reputation for poitín, and by all accounts Thomas got fond of it during his stay.

Controversy continues about how bad a drinker he really was. He certainly had a romantic death in New York at the age of just 39, in 1953, with drink blamed for a "severe insult to the brain".

But the current proprietor of his Donegal local in Meenaneary, Rory O'Donnell, remembers his father, Michael, saying Thomas was a quiet customer, fond of reading, who enjoyed a chat and a bottle of stout.

It turns out one of our party is Dan and Rose Ward's grand-niece Carmel Murrin, one of their closest living relations, as they had no family. And so she acts as hostess for a brief gathering inside the old wallstead, and The Road To Glenlough is played.

With the late afternoon shading into evening, the midges are hell on the way back. Maybe that's why Thomas and Grigson shouted "We are the dead" at the spot at the lake that sends echoes rolling around the mountainside.

On this trip we don't have the Olympics, the Premiership or the news. No mobiles ring. As in days gone by, we make our own entertainment. We solve the mystery of how The Road To Glenlough got its name.

Although the waltz itself was handed down to An Beirneach by his father and grandfather, Mary O'Donnell reckons it wasactually named during a music session in recent years in John Joe's bar in Kilcar.

We discover that one of our number, from Armagh, is a genuine Shaolin monk, so we discuss the drinking habits of these martial artists. We agree that Glenlough is little more than a puddle - it emerges later that the name is actually Gleann Leacha, "the glen of the wild ducks", and has nothing to do with "lake".

And, as we arrive back wearily at the gate, we further agree that, while isolation is one thing, sitting in a comfortable car on the way to a marvellous fiddle session in Glencolumbkille, to chilled bottles and draught beer, is another.

But later, over the drinks in Biddy's as the fiddles ring out, we toast the fact that Ireland still has its special hidden places. And give thanks that, for now at least, the road to Glenlough isn't a dual carriageway leading to the Dylan Thomas Holiday Villas.