The view from Fanad Lighthouse fills us with a sense of our own mortality

‘In a curious way this wilderness feels like home,’ the General said, and I said nothing, though I understood what he meant

Sometimes I leave RTÉ Radio playing while I’m driving. Although it irritates the General.

“Can’t you play something civilised,” he pleads, and as soon as I switch to BBC Radio 4 he is happy.

I went to Fanad Lighthouse with him recently, because I thought a weekend away might do him good. But by the time we reached Donegal town he was surveying the world like he owned it.

“Look at this traffic,” he whined in Ballybofey, as we crawled behind a series of huge trucks.


“This shouldn’t be allowed,” he declared. “Permitting heavy traffic through a town is a disgrace.”

“You’re beginning to sound like you’re the county manager,” I hissed.

He eyed me from beneath his bushy brows with the scowl of a silver backed gorilla that has been poked. Then he muttered under his breath. “There was a time, dear boy, a time, when my people owned half of Donegal!”

Fanad Lighthouse is a magnificent granite structure in dazzling white and stands out against a blue backdrop of ocean; not unlike a Tibetan monastery in good weather.

“Ah yes,” the General said, “it’s all so familiar.”

Unable to contain his excitement, the General dashed back down to the perimeter wall shouting “I’ve seen whales!” with such excitement that nearby tourists ran to join him, listening as he pointed in all directions

We unpacked a few basic items of food into the fridge and plonked our suitcases in separate bedrooms, then walked around the building on the outside.

I was standing with the lighthouse to my back, gazing at Malin Head. He was at the edge of the cliff with binoculars. The lighthouse wall shielded me from the wind but the General was wallowing in it. Eventually he dashed up to where I stood and said: “I will require your telephone!”

As if he might have seen a French gun ship on the horizon and wanted to alert the royal navy. I told him I had no signal.

“I just want to google what species of wildlife might be out there,” he explained.

And unable to contain his excitement he dashed back down to the perimeter wall shouting “I’ve seen whales!” with such excitement that nearby tourists ran to join him, listening as he pointed in all directions.

“Over there!” he shouted. “No, over here!”

The tourists screened their eyes with their hands in the hope of seeing a minke whale or dolphin. But none appeared, the crowd dissipated and the General marched back to where I was standing.

“We shall end up on Tory island if that wind gets much worse. Let’s get inside.”

Attached to the lighthouse are living quarters available for rent and the entire building stands on a promontory that offers exquisite views of the coast. Later that afternoon a tour guide brought us to the top of a spiral staircase where the lighthouse lens is situated and told us about a ship that sunk in 1917 after hitting German mines.

“It was carrying hundreds of gold bars to finance the Americans if they would but join the war.”

“And who owned the gold?” the General wondered.

“The British,” the guide explained. “Hundreds of gold bars were lost but most of them were recovered; although there’s about two dozen still down there.”

That evening we sipped red Bordeaux and ate Indian food from plastic containers.

“To think of all that gold,” the General mused, “just beyond our fingertips.”

“It’s not the gold I think of when I look out,” I remarked. “It’s the emigrants.”

“What emigrants?” he wondered.

I explained that some folk heading for America in the 19th century travelled from Derry.

They would stay on deck as the ship left harbour and journeyed through Lough Foyle and then around Fanad into the Atlantic. Their last glimpse of Ireland would have been a lighthouse on Inishtrahull island just north of Malin Head. When that light faded completely the poor emigrants fell silent; only then realising the terrible reality of leaving their homeland.

By the time we finished the chicken korma and emptied a bottle of Bordeaux, he wanted to go outside and look for whales again. So out we went in darkness and watched the light above us reaching into the black swell.

“In a curious way this wilderness feels like home,” the General said, and I said nothing, though I understood what he meant.

Because sometimes the most remote locations draw our attention not because of their beauty, but because they fill us with a sense of our own mortality and ultimate destiny. We stood in silence, our backs to the lighthouse and our eyes on the indifferent sea. Then the General spoke calmly.

“It’s time we opened that other bottle of wine.”