Through Thick and Thin in Donegal

storyAlthough I had travelled a fair bit around Ireland over the years, I’d never spent more than a day in Donegal. I had a sense that the region would have a real feeling of remoteness, and so I rented a small house in the tiny village of Carrickfinn above Innishfree Bay. As my wife Linda and I drove out the narrow peninsula in search of our bungalow, we discovered we were not to be nearly as “remote” as I would have expected, passing a small but ultra-modern airport with a billboard boasting several daily nonstop flights to Dublin.

Only a year before, we had spent some time in County Sligo where I was on the search of “Thin Places” as research for a novel I was writing. I was on a similar quest here in County Donegal, hoping to experience those exotic locations where there is said to be only a thin space between the physical and spiritual world. From past experience, I knew that finding such places had less to do with maps and historical significance, and more to do with quixotic personal connections and timing. But I had my list: Glenveagh Forest, The Poisoned Glen, Maghera Caves, Slieve League and, of course, the legendary Mount Errigal, looming in the window of our abode, often poking up into a dense cloud that it wore as a kind of ethereal hat.

Still trying to shrug off the fuzziness of the overnight transatlantic flight, we decided to save Errigal for later in the week. We did drive past it, however, on our way to Glenveagh National Park where we made an easy trek to both the castle there and some strangely near-tropical gardens carved out of a pocket of land in the midst of a dramatically stark – and yes – remote chunk of wilderness. Realizing the day was turning into something less than a true spiritual quest, we opted to find nourishment at Leo’s Tavern in nearby Meenaleck. The inn is run by the uncle of pop singer Enya, who flourished in the heyday of New Age music with her haunting and lovely version of Celtic music. The pub walls were festooned with images of her and the band Clannad, with gold records to boot.

Well rested the next day, we ventured south from our home in what is known as the Rosses. We passed through Dungloe, Maas and Glenties.

Glenties welcomes you with a sign stating that it is a “Prolific Winner of the National Tidy Towns Award.” The sign made me wonder what they do to litter bugs in such a well-ordered village, but also what the competition is like to win such an award. Would a town “cheat” in some clever Irish way, or perhaps try to scandalize the competition with trashy posts on Facebook? Or was it all above board, and well…tidy?

Dungloe’s claim to fame is that it was home of Daniel O’Donnell, and there is a museum there in his honour. Wondering out loud who this Daniel was, my Irish landlord later informed me he was a very popular sort of  “country western” singer and that he’d “sold more records than the Rolling Stones.” I smiled at the potentially exaggerated notion, promised to listen to his music on YouTube and had a sudden vision of the Rolling Stones hearing about this whopper and showing up at the museum to rudely refute the statement and then possibly later that night trashing their rooms at some local bed and breakfast in nearby Glenties.

Further south we made our way through Killybegs where we had bought groceries on our way to Carrickfinn. Irish town names often struck me as humorous. Who in their right mind would actually name a town Killybegs or Balleybofey, Gortahork or Gillygooly? As far as I can figure, these “modern names” are merely the English corruptions of the Gaelic/Irish original names. They still have a mellifluous ring to them but clearly, in the murky misbegotten history of British domination, some fool aristocrat saw a fishing village with the name, Na Caella Beaga and said, “We can’t possibly pronounce that, so we’ll just call this place Killybegs.”

Hence Leiter Ceanainn becomes something curiously anglicized like Letterkenny, Min an Aoire becomes Meenaneary, and An Bun Beag becomes Bunbeg. And so it goes.

Much of rural Donegal is considered to be Gaeltacht – districts where the Irish Gaelic language and culture are still strong. In the coastal towns and hill villages of Donegal the musicality of the language can be heard in the announcers on the radio and even, sometimes, in the voices of men drinking an afternoon Guinness in a pub like Bonners Bar in Mullaghduff near Annagry, where Linda and I dropped in for a pint.

Bonners is a tiny, ancient stone pub, where six older gentlemen were watching some sort of afternoon soap opera when we arrived. They stopped laughing when we came in and pretended they weren’t engrossed in the show, but as soon as I grabbed our beverages and retreated to a quiet corner, they began laughing and chatting as they watched the telly. Our quiet nook was lined with aging, and somewhat mildewed books. One that caught my eye was a 200 page volume of jokes involving drinking and drunks. While it was undoubtedly of little real cultural significance, it did have a number of really funny jokes about men who imbibe too much, my favourite one beginning with: “What did the drunk say to the man doing push-ups in the park?” But you’ll have to look it up yourself for the punch-line.

South of Glenties and Adara there is a poorly marked turn-off that leads to a wide, windswept beach. Most everything – as I soon discovered – was windswept in Donegal in the spring. Here we found the Maghera Caves. Fortunately, the tide was low and the rain had relented, so we walked through the dunes and out onto the flat hard beach. We were alone with the sea, sand, wind and massive rock face of the hill above us as we tucked into one of the caves. It reminded me of Tom Hank’s home during his exile in Castaway. It felt like one of those “Thin Places” most certainly, a sanctuary for the spirits of the sea and the distant past. Undoubtedly, this place had also been a refuge for shipwrecked sailors or possibly even a fire-warmed home for ancient families. Looking out at the stormy sea from the cave, I was transported briefly back into a world before humans occupied this coast and, from there, found myself drifting off to a possible future where human footprints were gone, but where sea and wind and wave would still make the daily rules.

Slieve League rises 601 metres directly out of the sea, which I suppose does not sound that grand for a mountain. But these are the highest sea cliffs in Ireland – nearly three times the height of the famous Cliffs of Moher – and possibly all of Europe. Whatever its notoriety, it is one hell of a chunk of rock and a long way down. We mistook a sheep gate for a roadblock to keep out auto traffic and thus walked several blustery kilometres along a narrow but paved path with cheeks turning red and eyes watering, only to discover yet another parking lot with several cars whose drivers knew it was okay to open and close the gate of their own volition. Taking in the grand sights from this remote magnificent outcropping, we turned back for several more damp blustery kilometers. We were thinking we were somehow better than those who had simply driven to the perch, only to look up above us on the mountainside and realize that there were “real” hikers with back packs slogging along on a ledge much higher than ours and more narrow, reminding me that we could still legitimately be labelled “tourists” rather than adventurers or pilgrims.

Discovering that our coffee was still warm in its insulated mug back in the car, I thought of those headbanded and load-laden hikers hefting against that headwind and admitted that being a tourist had its perks, even here a few kilometres from what felt like the ends of the earth.

On our return trip, leaving Slieve League to make the turn back to Killybegs in the small town of Kilcar (originally Cill Charthaigh), I made a wrong turn that would take us even farther afield to Malin Beg. Some local resident had twisted the Killybegs sign around to send tourists like us off to get lost in the even more distant wilds of Glencolmcille. It was there that American painter Rockwell Kent had spent a year painting soon-to-be-famous stark coastal landscapes and “found peaks whose summits reached so near to God.” Curiously, following in his footsteps was the young Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who, in a brave effort to remove himself from urban London decadence and drink, made his way to a pub in this most westerly part of Donegal and rented the converted cowshed where Kent had previously lived. Apparently, the isolation and endless rain took its toll on the poet and drove him to near madness as he was in his own words, “ten miles from the nearest human being… and lonely as Christ.” He did write a few good poems there, however, and returned from his self-exile perhaps a bit less idealistic but wiser.

Fortunately for us, I soon realized the mistaken turn taking us to Kent and Thomas’s lonely peninsula. I turned the car around and headed us towards Carrickfinn wondering at the intent behind the mischievous sign manipulation. Good drunken fun – or malevolent intent? I would never know. But since every soul I had ever met in Ireland had been kind to me, sometimes offering up free advice that would involve several entertaining and lengthy anecdotes about aunts and uncles, I decided to not make too much of one small prank.

Maps tend to lure me to destinations and that is usually a good thing. Forget about GPS and TomToms and Navigon. Sometimes you see the name of a place on a map and it just pulls you there like a magnet. And so it was that we were lured to the land of Gweedore, down to Bunbeg Harbour and on to the wide beaches behind Derrybeg, north to the “Bloody Foreland” which only refers to the blood colour of the rocky hills and nothing horrific. Beyond was Dunfanaghy, another tidy and most civilized place, but nearby Horn Head had that mildly euphoric Jurassic feel that can transport you back a millennia or more.

In search of Wi-Fi, we ended up back at the airport one day and I was reminded of how wonderful a truly small airport can be. Between flights, this one seemed like a small kind of sanctuary. A sign inside said, “Welcome to Ireland’s Friendliest Airport,” which seemed boundlessly charming. While wondering how such a thing could be judged, we were in fact greeted by a woman working there who offered to help us get our internet connection. A poster inside read “24 Euros One Way to Dublin,” and noted that it was only a 40 minute flight. I daydreamed about what it could be like to live down the road from here on the waters of Innishfree Bay and commuting to the bustling capital of Ireland for work, then whisking off back to these shores by evening.

We were waiting for good weather to hike Mount Errigal but it was not to be. So, armed with a thoroughly unreliable hiking guide to Ireland, some packed sandwiches and the necessary misguided optimism, we took the inland turn at Gweedore and parked at the foot of iconic mountain, the tallest peak in Donegal. A single ominous cloud shrouded the top of the mountain as we tried to find the trail that went upward as the book so indicated. Of trails, there were many, all of them through mucky bog that we were ill prepared for. We quickly discovered that a mountain is one thing – a peat bog is something else entirely.

If you are ever in need of something to foment a good old-fashioned marital argument, I suggest you take your spouse to an Irish bog for a good hike. My guess is that it would work most any time of the year.

It was drizzling and windy and we were mucky-wet to our knees before we found our way to a patch of dryer solid land and loose stones. By then the cloud had descended and we had been swallowed by it. In the process, we had also become somewhat lost – not being able to look anywhere beyond a few meters to get our bearings. We soon realized we had walked upward, but sidled off onto a hill away from the destination peak.

Alas, we stayed put, finished with our harsh words as the cloud – recognizing that it had done its roguish duty – lifted above us and suddenly we could see far and wide; south to the Poisoned Glen and further on to the steep cliffs of the Derryveagh Mountains. We could now see that we had strayed from the proper upward path and with only a modicum of ill-words against Mother Nature, scrambled back down into the bog and across a gully to find an almost-proper path up the mountain.

So why exactly were we wanting to go to the peak of this stark and foreboding mountain? Well, I was pretty sure it was one of those “Thin Places” I was looking for. It was a gloomy day and we seemed to be the only hikers up to the task. And then, halfway up the slopes, I had stopped feeling like a tourist. Instead, I felt small and vulnerable, surrounded again by clouds, buffeted by winds, feeling cold and damp, and having made reasonable headway in repairing my marriage after the bog of despair, one which we’d need to pass through again if we were to find our way back to the car and civilization. But I did truly feel the presence of … well, something much larger and grander than the world that I knew.

It’s hard to find the proper verb here, so you’ll have to forgive me. We started out walking, for sure, and then we were slogging, shoes being sucked off us by bog muck and water. Then we were finally hiking upward and, as the trail grew steeper, scrambling upward. Ultimately, however, we found ourselves crawling towards the dark heavens. Climbing would be too dignified to apply, but we were working hands and feet together, going higher and higher until we found a bare windy perch where we simply clung to the rocks as we watched rain clouds from the coast bearing down on us.

We were breathing hard and the wind was doing its best to unhinge us from the face of the mountain; we knew it was time to descend back into our more familiar world. That dark cloud lowered upon us again as we let gravity guide us wherever it wanted, sure that we’d at least end up at the road in the centre of the valley. And, as it turned out, gravity was a reasonable guide, and cheaper than a bus tour.

We mucked it to the road and then east to our waiting rental car. Had we had our experience of a “Thin Place?” It’s hard to know. But I would say the challenge took us out of our comfort zone, put us briefly – but dramatically – at the whims of the mountain and the weather. We lost our bearings more than once, and that is often necessary for a spiritual encounter. And we found our way back to some form of normalcy. That’s probably about as good as a pilgrimage gets.

Returning to our village of Carrickfinn, we stopped off in Anagry at the recommended Caisleain Oir (Golden Castle) Hotel pub for an also-recommended pint of Guinness as we watched the sun come out across the bay. The late-afternoon orb cast its coppery light on the steep slopes of the quartzite mountain that had taken us into the clouds.

Story by Lesley Choyce