By Rowan Sylva
Donegal, the far north west of Ireland, is a country as lashed by the waves of history as it is by the winds of the Atlantic that carved the coastline into its high cliffs and long tidal inlets. Recently we were lucky to travel in that land, once thought by Medieval Christian scholars to be the ends of the Earth. Geologically as well as culturally Donegal is close to Scotland. The people say “aye” and the wet mountainous region of the Scottish highlands finds its most westerly extension in Donegal, ending in the cliffs of Slieve League that are among the highest in Europe. Coming from the deep forests of Germany what struck me about the landscape, and indeed much of Ireland, was its bleakness. It is a land of high hills, coated in black mud, red heather, yellow grass, lichen spattered rocks and deep blue tarns. Few trees grow here and those that do are wind swept, gnarled and twisted.
Everywhere the land is dotted with old stone ruins, the houses of shepherds and fisherman who built without motor, or walls that demarcate long forgotten boundaries and provide some relief from the sharp wind. The locals tell different stories to explain this ghost ridden landscape. Some say it was the potato famine that emptied the land of its people. To others these ruins are reminders of the great exodus of the twentieth century when the young bordered boats bound for Boston, New York or Sydney. Whole generations emigrated from Donegal and left a country of sad old men and women. There is a cairn near here, an old Derry man tells us, and each rock in the cairn was placed by one of those that left, a last reminder of their life before they voyaged across the ocean never to return. There are those who view the abandoned landscape as a testament to more recent change. “There is nothing to hold the young people here” seems to be a common refrain of the people. Whatever the reason one thing is certain these bleak hills are a hard place to eke out a living, and one has to go back a long way to the days of the proud Gaelic King, O Donnel, to find a time when Donegal was prosperous. As one local put it, all the farmers can do, “is burn the heather to grow a sour, yellow grass for the sheep to eat.”
Politically Donegal has changed radically in the last twenty years. For much of the twentieth century it was cut off from most of the neighbouring counties by a closed border with Northern Ireland, while the IRA used it as a base from which to launch operations; the county still votes for leftist Sinn Fein candidates. This political and geographic isolation has shaped the modern county. But now that the borders are open, tourism provides a growing industry and many of the old ruins are being torn down and replaced by shining new holiday homes for rich foreigners who live there for two weeks in the year. The demand for land pushes up the prices, many choose to sell, and the land leaves local hands. One of our friends is adamant that these houses will also one day be ruins. A woman drives us past a stretch of windswept beach. The travelers, the irish gipsies used to come here, she tells us, but the council built walls to keep them out, and they come no longer.
Despite the centuries of entrenched Christianity, there is a pagan feeling here. At a pub two centuries old, the bar girl shows us how horseshoes were built into the wall to give the building good luck. Another local talks excitedly about a book he has read that documents the stone sculptures that dot the landscape and the neighbouring islands. These sculptures, that have an upright stone placed in a shallow stone bowl, are thought to have been constructed as curses against the Christian missionaries that first came to this land. Our friend from Derry tells us a story about a priest that cuts down the fairy tree. The priest dies of an illness.
Along the coast of Donegal, placed on the most outward pointing fingers of land, are the signal towers. The locals do not agree on exactly when or why they were built. Some say it was to warn against the attacking French during the Napoleonic Wars, some say to warn against the Spanish Armada. Everybody, however, agrees on their purpose. A fire would be lit at the top of the tower. The light or smoke would be seen from the next tower, and the signal would be carried swiftly around the coast. Their remnants are now home to ravens which pray on dying lambs.
Inland, Donegal has one of the largest national parks in Ireland – Glenveagh. The national park was first created as a hunting estate by John Aidar who claimed infamy by throwing 244 tenants off the land. He died before his dream of a grand hunting estate could be completed, but the work was finished by his widow. Now, thanks to John Aidar’s ruthlessness, Glenveagh is a nature reserve, home to Ireland’s largest heard of red deer, and the once extinct in the wild, golden eagle.
During our journeys in Donegal we were, as the locals constantly reminded us, “lucky with the weather.” The sun shone during the day turning me red, and speckling Daniela with freckles, while during the night the stars blazed unusually bright. But on our last day as we hiked Horn Head, in the far north, the fog rolled up from the sea. Dense and thick, it cloaked the landscape, pouring through the stone ruins and marshy valleys. It gave the land a mysterious and beautiful quality, but it bought with it a ghostly chill that our warm clothes could not repel.
As we hitched homeward to catch our bus from Letterkenny we are picked up by an old man, perhaps he is in his eighties. He was a pharmacist. We ask him how life was for him in the old time. And he recalls a time when no one owned cars, and buses were rare enough. If you wanted to get to the next town you had to walk or catch a lift in a cart. The only time he becomes emotional is when we ask him about religion. “No one tells me what to do anymore,” he says, his voice tense, “no one tells me what to do anymore.”