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Michael Harding: In my teens I lost a girlfriend, and I cried my eyes out like boys were not supposed to do

Bundoran is where I go to encounter the ghosts of the past. I can never forget my donkey ride on the beach, my mother by my side, when I was six

I love Bundoran, in Co Donegal, especially walking around the cliffs as far as Tullan strand, where surfers embrace the waves. I can never forget the donkey ride I had on the beach, with my mother by my side, when I was six years old. She too had enjoyed the donkey rides when she was young. Of course it wasn’t the same donkey; it was Bundoran’s enduring magic that she wanted to share.

Her own mother used to take a house every summer for two weeks. One week with her daughters and one week with her sons. They came on a train from Cavan by way of Clones and Enniskillen and bathed in the sea or in the Thrupenny Pool and ate ice cream and boiled sweets and took rides on donkeys.

I often wonder just how many people have come to promenade along the pathways of Bundoran over the decades, since the trains arrived in the 19th century and the town established itself as a holiday resort. People from across Ulster discussing various coronations, wars, famines and peace agreements that shaped Europe; staring at the same rocks and sandy beaches and listening to the same gulls’ cry.

What changed from one generation to the next was Europe. What remained the same was the far-flung sunlight across the bay, the flap of the ocean on Tullan strand, and the clack of golf balls along the elegant lawns around the Great Northern Hotel. The golfing lawns stretch to the rim of the cliff, and on the adjacent pathway there are benches where tired folk can sit and reflect.

Even I have found refuge on those benches occasionally, when I have been depressed or defeated by small things. In my teens I lost a girlfriend, and I cried my eyes out like boys were not supposed to do. And on the day my Leaving Certificate results arrived I realised I would never be a nuclear physicist or a professor of literature.

It’s not just my own youthful ghost that I find haunting the cliffs. I imagine women in Victorian dresses and maids pushing prams and nuns enfolded in yards of black serge with white starch veils, all enjoying the same sunlight falling on the same white waves. I imagine the occasional maid taking a rest on one of those benches to dream up her future, or just to rock the pram.

I imagine a cluster of nuns idling away the morning, wondering about the next life, as they finger their beads. There is even a Nuns’ Pool at the far end of town, a secluded swimming area where the sisters may have once policed their orphans in that long ago unhappy Ireland.

There are few enough nuns or domestic maids promenading anywhere nowadays, but the human heart remains the same. Today the coffee shops and the beaches are full of surfers from across the globe, who come to enjoy the same waves and talk about the same things.

One day recently I was sitting on a bench close to the golf links when suddenly a stranger sat down beside me. A big rugged man with an unruly beard and a grey pony tail.

“You look worse in real life than on television,” he declared as he sat.

“And you look like you had a late night,” I countered.

“We were dancing,” he said.

He pointed down the pathway, and I saw a little woman, some distance off, carrying two choc ices towards us.

“I told him to say hello to you,” she said when she arrived.

“We took the train to Sligo because the car was shook. And then we got the bus,” she said.

Beyond where we sat golfers were teeing up their balls and clattering them into the distance.

“The husband is like yourself,” she added, “he’s a bit fragile; he had emergency surgery on the heart last year. I’m always telling him he should take up golf.”

“I’d prefer jiving,” he muttered. “We come to Bundoran for the country-music weekends.”

“So we were at Jimmy Buckley last night,” she added, licking the end of her choc ice and smiling.

And when they were gone my own mother returned. I imagined her as a little girl running towards the waves, untroubled by the prospect of adulthood, the mysteries of childbirth or the grief of widowhood. That was all before her in the summer of 1922; when she was six years old on the back of a donkey, as carefree and happy as any child in the town of Bundoran.