I was driving across the bog towards Letterkenny last week when my audio book stopped playing. The mountain was blocking the wifi signal and I was adrift from modernity until I came closer to Letterkenny.
The wind battered my car as I circled the grey slate stone of Errigal and followed the bending road through the rusty brown bogs. All I could think of was Creeslough and the explosion that ripped 10 beautiful souls out of this world.
In the old days people made the journey out of west Donegal by foot, sometimes walking hand in hand with emigrating children. But they could only walk so far; to a little bridge, known as the Bridge of Tears, where they would embrace and hug and bid farewell as poverty divided them; the parents heading back to their cottages and the children facing for Derry and then New York.
The phrase that kept ringing in my ears was one that a priest had culled from the lyrics of a famous song to pinpoint the true nature of his community
The Bridge of Tears is not far from Creeslough and it made me think again of the 10 good souls who had crossed another sort of bridge, but who didn’t have a chance to bid anyone farewell.
I drove on with Errigal now behind me and the back of Muckish to my left. From a high drone my car would have looked like a speck of dust in the vast landscape of glistening rocks and it struck me that these mountains are in fact the essence of Donegal; their iconic presence is a silent witness to time itself across millions of years.
Nearer to Letterkenny my audio book came back to life, and my spirits rose as I anticipated a normal day despite the grief of Creeslough in the air.
I was looking for a pair of shoes on the clearance wrack of a department store when I heard a man beside me looking for a hat.
“I have a lot of caps,” the shop assistant said.
“No,” the customer insisted, “I want a hat. I’m fed up with caps.” But the shop assistant was apologetic. They didn’t have hats in stock.
The customer was frustrated but behind his quiet desperation I could feel he too was grieving. So I approached him and suggested we go as a team down the street to a charity shop, where he found the soft felt hat of his dreams and I picked up a tie.
Then I suggested coffee.
Myself and the man with the new hat finished our coffees, but we never mentioned the explosion
We spoke about the weather and the price of electricity, about physical ailments and the dangers of staying too long indoors during winter.
We spoke of everything and nothing, because neither of us mentioned Creeslough. But I could feel the shadow beside us, like a hole in the universe. Something so big that it was impossible to talk about.
Of course we had seen the images on television, and heard the prayers from the churches, and listened to broken hearted folk on local radio stations. The phrase that kept ringing in my ears was one that a priest had culled from the lyrics of a famous song to pinpoint the true nature of his community.
“Our hearts are like our mountains, in the hills of Donegal.”
And I remember hearing a firefighter on the radio talking about his uncle who stopped for a snack and was eating it in his car across the road when the explosion happened; blowing in the windows of the car he was sitting in. Hundreds of such eyewitness accounts were circulating on radio and television.
But stories fail when it comes to tragedy, because tragedy of its nature is unfinished. The sudden devastation of life is the one thing that silences every storyteller.
And so it will be with Creeslough. There will always be 10 stories that remain unfinished. And perhaps that beautiful place will be for a while associated with devastation.
But in the longer term the enduring story will be about the force of love and compassion that surfaced so spontaneously in the hearts and hands and voices of a people who can never be broken because they hold each other with such searing and unconditional love.
Myself and the man with the new hat finished our coffees, but we never mentioned the explosion. We had nothing remarkable to say. And there was nothing remarkable about either of us; two elderly men chatting on a public bench on Main Street.
That evening I returned to the coast, through the bogs and mountains, past the turn for the Bridge of Tears, as Errigal towered above me in consoling silence and the grandeur of twilight; like the beating heart of Donegal.