Friday 24th July 2009, Rossbeg, County Donegal
The rain was still falling this morning and the campsite looked like an extension of the lake, the grass waterlogged and the concrete pathways under water. Then, amazingly, the sun came out as we arrived in the neighbouring little town of Ballyshannon with its steep main street and small independent shops. We even discovered a little shop offering internet access to upload another blog though it hurt wasting the sunshine indoors.
Generally, Ireland is a country of small functional towns serving the scattered rural community for many miles around and most have little to hold the interest of visitors. These little towns have often been built up around a central triangle with three streets leading off, each with a pub, a guest house or hotel. The town centre usually has a statue of a 19th century benefactor or drinking fountain. They are however full of bustle, and colourful with their brightly painted, hand-lettered shop-fronts and their flowerbeds.
Donegal is the county town of this coastal area of north-west Ireland. The border with Ulster almost cuts the area off from the rest of Ireland connected only by a narrow strip along the western coast. Donegal must have been a particularly difficult place for ordinary people to live during the worst of the political and religious turmoil in Ulster and along its borders.
As we drove up into the centre of Donegal we encountered several army vehicles lining the roadside with a dozen or so soldiers armed with repeat rifles! This was serious business and we were completely taken aback. We were hustled through by the soldiers, out of the main centre, before we could get exciting photos. Army activity seemed to be centred on the main hotel but what they were doing we never discovered as by the time we'd parked and returned they were piling back into their Landrovers and driving off.
The masters of Donegal until 1607 were the O'Donnell clan. The town has the remains of an interesting castle just off the centre and the remains of a Franciscan friary, founded by them in the 15th century, down near the harbour at the bottom of the town. According to an unidentified opinion poll, the town of Donegal has been voted the 6th most delightful place in the world in which to live! It's a pleasant place but pass me a pinch of salt somebody.
Continuing to Killybegs, a busy little coastal town overlooking Donegal Bay and Ireland's main fishing port, we discovered a plaque commemorating the deaths from starvation of the republican hunger strikers held in captivity in 1981.
Ireland may be a tiny country but if all its claims are to be believed it has more superlatives than the rest of Europe put together. Amongst them, it claims to have the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
At Bunglass, on the stunning Donegal coast, we drove steeply upwards towards the cliffs until Modestine refused to go any further. Leaving her puffing and steaming we struggled on up for a mile or so to emerge onto the cliff-top with stunning views across the bay, distant mountains on the far side showing as blue shadows on the horizon. We were a mere 300 metres above the sea but from here a track lead on around the bay to the awesome heights of Slieve League, 601 metres (1,972 ft) high. The wind cut in from the sea but the sun was shining making climbing perfectly comfortable, until we looked out to sea to discover dark rain clouds sweeping in shedding a haze of rain over the sea as it approached. We were lucky, it reached us just as we returned to Modestine.
Driving back inland and heading northwards along an empty country road across the interminable peat bog we climbed until we reached the top of the Glenglesh Pass and found ourselves looking down on a textbook example of a glaciated valley, wide and smooth sided at the base of the surrounding mountains, their tops, above the level of the ice, rugged and bare. This was perhaps even more impressive than Slieve League.
Saturday 25th July 2009, Clonmany, County Donegal
In some ways Ireland is one of the most difficult countries we have visited to write about with boundless enthusiasm. Usually we are bowled-over by the different, fascinating glimpses of we get of what makes a country tick - the people we meet, the scenery, history, geography, art and culture. In rural Ireland I am sometimes hard pressed to find new and interesting things to write about. Its scenery is sublime, there is no doubt about that. But stunning as it is to begin with, even that loses some of its impact after a while. Ian described Ireland as "the dumb blonde of Europe", beautiful to look at, captivating to begin with, but otherwise rather shallow, bland and uninspiring. I suppose we should have been warned when we discovered that the whole of Ireland, north and south, boasts only two entries on the UNESCO World Heritage list - the Giant's Causeway and a prehistoric site in the Boyne Valley. In Portugal and Spain recently we were falling over such listed sites at every turn and it has been similar throughout our travels.
Today we decided we were bored at the thought of spending yet another day cooped up in Modestine admiring the bogs, headlands, mountains, rivers and rocks through a rainy windscreen as we toured the winding coastal lanes of Donegal, with possibly the most outstanding scenery to be found in Ireland. The sun was shining as we abandoned the coast and headed inland towards the border with Northern Ireland. Along the way we chanced on a restored water mill used for grinding oats, maize and barley. There was also a flax mill which we found particularly interesting, remembering geography lessons from primary school where we were taught of the importance to Britain of the Irish linen industry. The museum was completely free yet Modestine stood alone in the car park. The staff were so friendly and happily answered all our questions. We were left to explore the mills at our own pace and the video and exhibition signs were really excellent.
In England in recent years we have noticed fields of blue flowers, linseed, grown we assume as animal fodder. We'd never realised that linseed and flax are the same plant and it is the fibres in the stems that are extracted, combed and spun into linen thread. It is then woven into linen cloth, washed repeatedly and stretched out in the sun to be bleached white. The damp climate of Ireland is perfect for growing flax and the linen produced here has always been considered the finest in the world. It is no longer produced but was a particularly profitable crop during the two world wars when Ireland received very heavy subsidies from England to increase manufacture. It was used extensively for army uniforms, covering the fuselages of aircraft, making cords for parachutes, sails for boats and much more. In addition, Irish linen was used for quality bedding and household linen as well as sacking and lesser items. Eventually though, synthetic materials made linen too expensive to produce and the industry declined. By the end of the 1950s it was finished.
The huge iron wheel to run the mill machinery was turned by water flowing along a shallow leat from the river to pour into buckets fixed to the paddles of the wheel. The weight rotated the wheel, its central drive shaft turning a variety of other machinery within the mill by means of drive belts and cogwheels. Thus beaters and flails would process the flax, removing the coarse outer stem; or a millstone would remove the husks from the oats and grind them into meal. The wheels could also operate lifting gear for transferring filled sacks around the mill. The video offered an insight into a rural way of life in Ireland that has now virtually disappeared.
Letterkenny is the main town for all this isolated corner of Donegal, almost cut off from the rest of Ireland by its proximity to Northern Ireland. We stopped to investigate and found it more interesting than our guidebook would have us believe. In common with almost everywhere in Ireland the buildings are relatively recent dating mainly from the 19th century. Some, usually banks, are quite handsome buildings. The neo-gothic cathedral dated from 1891. It is an attractive building, particularly inside with its painted ceiling and German stained glass windows. The main street leads steeply uphill, lined with independent shops. On the outskirts are the chain stores such as Lidl, Marks and Spencer and Macdonalds, thus leaving the centre looking relatively unchanged. In the centre too stands a statue of children commemorating them being sold by their parents at the hiring fairs to work on farms in the surrounding area. Accounts in the museum indicated theirs lives were very hard and they were often maltreated. The practice of hiring seasonal labour at fairs continued up until the 1950s – though presumably not children at that date.
At the top of the town we discovered the museum. Unfortunately we only had about thirty minutes until closing time. It offered much information in photos, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia about the political background of this particularly troubled area of Ireland. Until Irish independence in 1922 all this area had been part of Ulster but under partition it found itself part of Southern Ireland. There was material too on Ireland's role during the First World War and its neutrality during the Second World War. Although neutral, it did permit Britain to fly over its airspace across the narrow neck of land that separates Ulster from the west coast and welcomed the additional employment possibilities opened up to them by England and her "problem" with Hitler.
There are no campsites at all near Letterkenny. The lady in the museum suggested the car park of Aldi, a usual place for camping cars she assured us. However, we do need electricity and preferably a loo and showers, so pressed on north. We've found a rather strange, and as usual, overpriced little site amongst the dunes to the south-west of Malin Head. There are no wash basins and only one sink for cleaning not only dishes but hands and teeth. So if you use the loo you have to wait for the grease, egg and beans to be washed off someone's plates before you can rinse your hands! On the other hand, the washing of socks in the communal sink is strictly prohibited. The different permutations of campsites are endless. Four years on and we never cease to be amazed – and frequently dismayed.
We feel we have to visit Malin Head. It's part of being British. Every day it's mentioned on the shipping forecast yet we've never really looked at a map of the British Isles to see exactly where it is. Just off the Norwegian coast near Haugesund we've spotted the islands of North and South Uitsera; German Bight we took in on our travels around the Baltic; Tyne, Dogger, Fisher and Biscay we've sailed across; Dover we've visited while Plymouth and the Scilies are near to home; Trafalgar (now Fitzroy), lies off the Spanish coast and Finisterre is at the tip of Britanny, both of which we've visted. Forth and Cromarty we'll certainly make a point of visiting when we tour Scotland, so naturally we cannot pass by without calling in on Malin Head. Regrettably though, Modestine will have to bow out gracefully on Faeroes, Rockall and South East Iceland unless we discover a button we've overlooked somewhere that enables her to fly.
Monday 27th July 2009, Ballycastle, County Antrim – or Moyle, we've given up trying to puzzle out the various Irish boundaries
Yesterday started with a visit to a pretty waterfall cascading through woodland a short walk up beside a mountain stream.
We then continued to the pretty waterside town of Malin. It's more of a village really, built around a triangle of green velvet that consistently wins the Irish prize for the best kept village lawn. Similar to hundreds across all of Ireland Malin was set up as a plantation town by the British back in the 17th century.
Winding lanes between bare, scree-covered hillsides where only heather and harebells flourished brought us eventually to Malin Head at the most extreme Northern tip of Ireland. The wind whistled continuously across the headland though mercifully the rain held off as we clambered around the rocks, staring with eyes streaming wet from the wind along the cliffs and down to the sea, surging in white breakers on the rocks below. On the top of the headland stands a tower, erected by the English during the wars with Napoleon. It has since been used as a Marconi telegraphic signalling station for shipping by Lloyds of London and was later requisitioned by the military during both World Wars. For many years too, Malin Head has been, and still is used to provide weather reports for the shipping forecast. Below, laid out in pebbles on the rocks is the word Eire, as the Irish Republic was named during WW2. It was intended to warn German bomber planes that they were flying over Ireland, which remained neutral during the war, and that they should fly a few miles to the east before dropping their load onto the residents of Londonderry and the rest of Northern Ireland. In reality I cannot see what use the sign served as planes would surely not be approaching from the north-west if flying out from Germany – seems a bit Irish to me. The rest of the headland has an awesome beauty. Apart from the ground-hugging colourful plants and flowers there are cattle and sheep grazing and tiny, low, white cottages with black slate roofs nestling in the folds of the cliffs anywhere that they can find shelter, and down around sandy coves further round the headland.
We moved on to the small seaside resort of Moville, a plantation town set up by the ancestors of Field Marshal Montgomery. Once the violent rain shower eased we investigated its two small streets of a few shops and a 19th century granite church that looked quite as ugly as anything we've seen in France, Europe's master-builders of ugly modern ecclesiastical architecture. There were attractive cliff-top gardens but in the children's playground we were taken aback to find a notice banning ball games, alcohol and the carrying of guns and stilettos! We decided to wait to play on the swings and see-saw 'til we got back home. Apart from a few typical seaside guest houses Moville is used mainly as a ferry crossing point across the entrance to Lough Foyle, carrying passengers almost directly to Coleraine, avoiding the drive right around the lough via Londonderry.