Lesser Spotted Ireland: ‘Everyone who comes to Donegal falls in love with it’
A series in which Irish Times writers go off the beaten track: ‘Southwest Donegal is my favourite refuge, to rest, or be alone, or fall in love, intoxicated by the rugged energy of the landscape’
Michael Harding at St John’s Point, Dunkineely, Co Donegal. Photograph: Declan Doherty
Cyndi Graham at her weaving studio. Photograph: Declan Doherty
Bundoran is only an hour away from where I live, but I don’t stop to savour an ice-cream on the beach, or the fresh fish in Caroline’s Cafe. Instead I drive on to Killybegs, another 30 minutes up the road.
This southwest region of Donegal is my favourite refuge, to rest, or be alone, or fall in love. It’s a vast landscape of mountain and sea, where I feel I can be absorbed by wilderness.
I park on the street outside the Bay View Hotel in Killybegs and ask Holly at reception if she has a room. She does: a lovely big white room with a table to work at and a view of the harbour.
Later that evening I dine at Castle Murray House Hotel and Restaurant with an old girlfriend. I choose monkfish baked in butter with mozzarella cheese as a starter and steak as my main. The dining room is calm. There is no disturbing music, just an air of gentle hush hanging over the other tables as diners speak and eat with a kind of quiet reverence and gaze in awe at the sea and mountains beyond the window, where the evening sun is slanting its light across the face of the earth.
My friend suggests I rent an electric bike from Ireland by Bike, which she says is the best way to travel into the hidden world of southwest Donegal. The bike carries you up the hills without the slightest effort, and you can cycle as normal on flat ground, so you can see the entire area in one day. But I feel too lazy even for an electric bike. The next morning I drive to Slieve League and park near the foot of the mountain.
The viewing area is not crowded. Mostly Germans stroll around, quiet and reflective, taking pictures of the cliffs and ocean waves, of the small hawks and tiny birds, and buying postcards from a young man who plays for the Donegal minor team. Pat McShane sells ice-cream and coffee from his van.
I have lunch in Carrick and buy a beautiful handmade hat in Slieve League Crafts before heading farther west.
Figure of an angel
The figure of an angel has been carved on tombstones in Glencolmcille since the 18th century, and the image is hanging on a wall of the gift shop in the Folk Village, a cluster of seven little buildings, when I call in to say hello to Margaret Cunningham, a fine artist and musician who manages the Folk Village.
The museum consists of seven small cottages, each dressed in the style of a particular period or theme. There’s a 17th-century cottage, an 18th-century cottage, a shebeen and a fisherman’s cabin.
It’s a world of rush candle lamps, big spinning wheels, quern-stones, and farm implements from previous centuries.
I see the snout bone of a dolphin, and the gangly limbs of a whale, and a photograph of a man making a lobster pot.
“That’s my grandfather,” Margaret says. “He was friends with Rockwell Kent, the American painter who did the graphics for the first edition of Moby-Dick.”
Kent came to southwest Donegal in 1926, and made exquisite paintings of the landscape.
Dylan Thomas sobers up
Eight years later Dylan Thomas came to the same cottage. Or at least he was dragged away from London to chill out, after the intoxicating success of his first book of poems. And intoxicated he probably was, when Geoffrey Grigson stuffed him on to the train in Dublin heading for Killybegs, simply because Killybegs was the most remote place he could drag him to, in order to sober him up.
The two men landed in Glenlough, a remote valley leaning into the ocean, where they rented a small cottage for a short holiday.
They fished the lake, walked the cliffs, looked out to sea and read books until Grigson decided to leave. Thomas at that stage was in love with solitude, and remained on his own, walking the hills, drinking poitín and falling into depression until he eventually fled to Belfast on a bus, no longer able to tolerate his own company.
Kent, the previous occupant of the cottage, was more engaged with the people around him. He even fell in love with a local woman, Annie McGinley, whom he painted as she lay reading a book on a headland near Port.
Donegal is that kind of place. There is a rugged energy in the landscape that can push a person to the edge of their own psyche: either, like the poet, you fall in love with solitude until you’re no longer able to tolerate your own company; or, like the painter, you are driven by the overwhelming beauty of nature to fall in love every day you wake up.
I say this to my old girlfriend when we meet again at Kitty Kelly’s Restaurant outside Killybegs that night, where we have a superb meal of chowder followed by moussaka with Donegal lamb.
I look her in the eye, as if I might fall in love with her all over again.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “The painter was in love with Donegal, not the woman. When you walk along craggy cliffs that were formed millions of years ago, and you feel their presence beneath you, it’s difficult not to fall in love. Everyone who comes to Donegal falls in love with Donegal. Dylan Thomas didn’t, maybe because he wasn’t capable of love.”
“You might be right,” I say, and we have an almond tart for dessert and go our separate ways.
The following morning I drive out to St John’s Point near Dunkineely, to meet a man at the lighthouse, and I stop by a roadside shop, where the weaver Cyndi Graham creates her work.
St John’s Point is one of the longest peninsulas in the country, a paradise of isolation, with the sea on both sides, and haunted by beautiful townland names: the Turf Port, the Lobster Rock, the Brown Hill, the High Nose, Tail of Acre, the Winnie Mills and the Giant Stones.
“I was reared here,” Cyndi says as she looks out the window at two horses in a meadow of wild grass behind her workshop. “Daddy was a weaver. And my mother made dresses. So that’s where I got a love for the cloth.”
Her father went to work with Magees of Donegal as a young man, where he was taught the craft. He bought a loom, but there was no money in it, so eventually he went off to fish and the loom was abandoned in a shed, where it fell apart.
“It was in the shed for donkeys’ years,” Cyndi says, “and it was in bits but we put it back together.”
“I saw you weaving on You Tube,” I say.
She laughs and then gets behind the loom and begins to work.
“This loom goes back to 1890,” she says. “And it has a flying shuttle. That was the system introduced in the 1730s and which revolutionised the loom. But around here they were weaving even as far back as the 12th century.”
The loom in motion makes a beautiful sound. I could sit watching her for hours. The clank and swing and clop of it makes me think of horses pulling drays of textile on cobbled streets in ancient days.
She shows me the four frames and how every strand is threaded through in a particular sequence and how she threads each single strand one at a time.
“You have to be utterly focused,” she says. “You even forget to eat sometimes. But it balances well with horses. I head out afterwards, riding, and then I’m mucking out a stable. The horses and the weaving sit well beside each other.”
To the lighthouse
I head for the lighthouse to see two houses that will soon be for rent to holiday-makers who want to sit in the bracing wind of the wild Atlantic at the end of the road.
In the old lighthouse dwellings, now meticulously restored, I imagine I can hear the creak of laced boots, as if the lighthouse men are still keeping their vigil over the uneasy sea around me.
As they say around here, “If you want to go farther than the Lighthouse you have to take a boat.”
This is certainly the spot where the Wild Atlantic Way ends and the ocean begins: that incredible muscle of power flexing through the waves as it follows the moon; where poets meet their demons and ordinary folk awaken every day to the wilder sounds of love, in the cawing of the birds.
- For inspiration for a Lesser Spotted Irish break, visit discoverireland.ie
Bay View Hotel, in the middle of Killybegs, has a leisure centre. Rooms about €100 per night for two people sharing. bayviewhotel.info
More on Glencolmcille Folk Village at glenfolkvillage.com
At Castle Murray House Hotel and Restaurant, a two-course dinner starts from €39. Double room bed and breakfast with one dinner from €218. The views are superb. castlemurray.com
Kitty Kelly’s a la carte menu has main courses from €16.50. It is wheelchair-friendly and has safe off-road parking. kittykellys.com