Full force Gael – An Irishman’s Diary about Myles na gCopaleen and Donegal

The Slí na gCopaleen, as it’s called, starts on Friday in the village of Derrybeg

The Slí na gCopaleen, as it’s called, starts on Friday in the village of Derrybeg


In the original Irish, Gort a’ Choirce was just a field of oats, literally. But the Donegal village that has since grown up where the cereal used to be is one of those places whose name acquired a humorous quality when anglicised. Hence its immortalisation in the intro of Christy Moore’s Lisdoonvarna, where it takes its place in a list of Hibernian metropolises, great and small: “How’s it goin’ there/Everybody/From Cork/New York/Dundalk/Gortahork and Glenamaddy?”

The village’s fame does not end there, however. Gortahork’s influence may also lurk behind the writings of Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, especially the latter’s comic novel, An Béal Bocht.

Because although that was inspired – or provoked – by the Blasket school of literature, it was informed by the author’s experiences in the Donegal Gaeltacht, especially the “three parishes” of Cloughaneely, the Rosses, and Gweedore.

Being born in nearby Strabane and retaining relatives there all his life, the real-life Brian O’Nolan and his family – Irish speakers at home – had made annual trips to Donegal since his teenage years. And although he himself was never one to romanticise anything, at least in writing, the family’s affection for the place can be seen in the memoirs of his brother Ciarán (as quoted in Anthony Cronin’s No Laughing Matter).

When approaching the Irish-speaking part of Donegal, Ciarán O’Nolan recalled, “my heart would rise and I would be looking around me, grinning foolishly and trying to guess was I in the Gaeltacht yet, where the women would be more comely, the men more manly, the houses more beautiful, the apples redder and the countryside nicer than the countryside in any other place”.

The O’Nolans witnessed the last of a vanishing civilisation in 1920s Donegal, where the women still wore red petticoats and the men waistcoats, with jackets made from sheepskin.  But side by side with the traditional ways, so charming to visitors, there was deep poverty.

Ciarán also recalled an unforgettable encounter the brothers had once with an old, one-legged woman who lived in a thatched mud cabin in a bog.  They had thought the place too decrepit even for animals, but peered into its smoky darkness one day to hear her singing.

Sometime later, they saw her on the road, moving in giant hops on her solitary leg, and stopping to rest occasionally on a bank or hedgerow. In this way, they were told, she made the two-mile journey to Mass every Sunday. She had never owned or learned to use a crutch. Such bleak real-life scenarios underlie the hilariously exaggerated misery of An Béal Bocht, which was not so much a satire on the Blasket school as on the hypocrisy of some of its urban readership, who enjoyed the picturesque poverty of the Gaeltacht areas from a safe distance.

In any case, Brian O’Nolan’s Donegal experiences, good and bad, helped create a comic masterpiece, the only novel he wrote as Myles, and one that arguably (as Cronin has said) transcends its immediate subject to become a Beckettian satire on the human condition in general.

The family trips apart, O’Nolan also made two notable pilgrimages to Donegal during his student days, cycling all the way to the Gaeltacht for camping trips, during at least one of which it rained all the time. And it’s this quintessentially O’Nolanesque combination of rain, bicycles, and the Irish language that a now nearly-annual weekend in Gortahork celebrates.

The inaugural event was in May 2014. The second edition happens this weekend, when it will also open the season on commemorations of O’Nolan’s death, 50 years ago on April Fool’s Day.

The Slí na gCopaleen, as it’s called, starts on Friday in the village of Derrybeg, where An Gailearaí will host a career retrospective of the works of O’Nolan’s last surviving sibling, his artist brother Micheál.

Then it’ll be back to downtown Gortahork, which hosts most of the programme. Events include a talk by Breandán Ó Conaire on the O’Nolans’ connections with the Gaeltacht, and an advance screening of a new documentary on Brian. But of course there will also be a bicycle trip, retracing the originals, along the eponymous Na gCopaleen Way.

Naturally, the organisers say they’re “praying for rain”. And by scheduling an event for February in Donegal, they’ve certainly maximised their chances. Even if the treacherous Irish weather does its worst, however, and turns clement, all will not be lost. Most of the weekend is indoors, in places with bars. Sunshine will not be allowed to ruin it.