- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

COUNTY DONEGAL, Ireland — Ireland’s northernmost county, Donegal, feels like a world apart, not only because of its rustic scenery of mountains, lakes, verdant valleys and dramatic marine cliffs plunging into the sea, but because of the very “Irishness” of it.

It is what bike-tours guide Johnny Daly calls the “real Ireland” and Tourism Ireland representative Kathryn Hayes fondly describes as “one last, remote place in Ireland that is typical of what Ireland was, what we dream of what Ireland is like.”

One-third of Donegal is a Gaeltacht, a region where the Irish language is preserved and is, in fact, spoken in everyday life. We soon get used to seeing signs in both Gaelic and English and hearing both languages spoken, sometimes in the same conversation.

Our guide for the first few days is Sean Mullan of Walking and Talking in Ireland, who takes us on abbreviated versions of the extended hikes on his Donegal itinerary and, with the Irish gift for conversation, helps us absorb history and culture without ever sounding like a guide with a script.

The first place he takes us is Glenveagh National Park, almost 25,000 acres of mountains, hills, moors, lakes and gardens, plus one imposing 19th-century country mansion built to look like a castle on the bank of Loch (lake) Veagh. Its decor — sculpted stags’ head in the entry hall, Indian cloth covering the walls in another hall, Gordon tartan on the music-room walls, a Turkish chandelier, and Venetian chandeliers designed to look like glass chains — is as idiosyncratic as its owners.

Leading us through is the delightful Maureen McGee, who has the timing of a practiced entertainer as she tells us stories about the castle’s owners — the first was a one-time “tenants rights” politician who evicted all of his own tenants — and guests, most notably Greta Garbo.

In the dining room, Ms. McGee points out a 2-gallon whiskey decanter, which was kept filled to the brim, topped off every day. “I think they liked it,” she says of the owners. Pause. “Or the butler liked it.”

On the other side of the room is a painting, signed by Prince Albert, of Queen Victoria “and her lifelong companion (long pause) John Brown.”

We’re having what the Irish call a “soft” day, misty and occasionally drizzling, as we stroll with Sean through the castle’s abundant gardens and into the hills behind them, singing about the “Wild Mountain Thyme” and how we’ll “play the wild rover no more … no, nay, never, no more … ”

Anne Campbell, our hostess at Ardeen, a 19th-century country-house B&B; in Ramelton on Lough Swilly, welcomes us in late afternoon with a warm smile, a crackling fire and a pot of tea, served with homemade biscuits and blackberry jam she made from her own berries. I will sleep under a white flower-and-diamond-design bedspread that she knitted herself, and another in our party has two beds covered with quilts Mrs. Campbell sewed.

Ramelton is a 17th-century village that is a good base for Sean’s weeklong excursions into the surrounding headlands, highlands, beaches and forests. We are staying overnight only, but he introduces us to some of the places in town where he takes his walkers.

Not far from Ardeen, we ensconce ourselves in the cozy downstairs pub of the Bridge Bar Seafood Restaurant, where bright band posters cover most of the walls, evidence that rock guitars and drum kits are popular in the land of the fiddle and uilleann pipe. After a convivial dinner upstairs, we drop in at another local pub for more conversation and easy laughter.

Barry Hogan, our driver, and Sean are full of stories as we ride southwest in the van the following morning under overcast skies. We sing pub songs, ask questions and learn more about Irish life, history and folklore. We might call this part of the journey Driving and Talking in Ireland.

Some of my earlier impressions begin to gel as we pass through farmland, towns and villages, and I jot them in my notebook: lots of lace curtains; unexpectedly bright colors — Kelly green, deep purple, cobalt blue, mustard yellow — on buildings; fuchsia as lush as bougainvillea in Mexico; hydrangeas an intense magenta-red I have never seen at home; red ivy on walls.

On a hilly, winding part of the road, we pass a small yellow cottage sitting just a few feet away from the ruins of a one-room stone building, and I wonder why, with so much land surrounding them, the two are so close. The crumbling stone structure probably is the homeowner’s “ancestral home, from the famine times,” Barry explains. Not for the first time, I’m brought up by how history lives side by side with daily life.

A brief shopping stop in Donegal Town, on the southwestern shore, has us photographing the ruins of a 15th-century Franciscan friary where tombstones, crumbling walls and tall Celtic crosses are silhouetted against a sky that has turned gloriously blue.

Soon we are on the road again, following a coastal route that takes us through hilly Killybegs, touted as “Ireland’s premier fishing port” for both commercial and recreational anglers. The road prompts Barry to comment that a coastal drive in Ireland involves more water views than almost anywhere else. “Literally,” he says, “every peninsula has finger roads around it and along it. When you say you’re driving the coast, you’re really driving the coast, for miles and miles,” not just traveling highways that go near the shore.

Our next stop is Slieve League, a mountain with the highest marine cliffs in Europe, which drop 1,972 feet into the Atlantic. League translates as gray (slieve as mountain or peak), but the cliffs change color and mood constantly as the clouds and sun play hide and seek.

Sean’s next stop for us is nearby Glencolmcille, a small community where traditional Irish culture is well-preserved in daily life and through the Folk Village Museum and Oideas Gael, an organization founded in 1984 that teaches the Irish language and provides cultural activities in dance, archaeology, music and art.

“You don’t just pass through” Glencolmcille, Sean tells us en route. “It’s sort of at the end of the world, like being on an island. After you’ve been there a few days, you feel completely removed from the world.”

The area is named after St. Colmcille, a monk credited with many fantastical deeds, including driving demons out of the valley, but also with the real feat of spreading Christianity and learning to the wider world through the monastic communities he founded and the monks who fanned out from them. His name means “Dove (colm) of the Church (cille)” and our afternoon hike will include part of a 15-station pilgrimage route, Turas Cholmcille still walked through the valley and hills.

First, though, we come face to face with the memory of a beloved man Sean calls “the rad priest,” the Rev. James McDyer, who arrived in Glencolmcille in 1951 to find a community with no jobs, electricity or public water supply and set about making changes first and asking permission later. His picture hangs by the fireplace in a tableau of an old-style cottage interior in the Folk Village Museum, which he helped found.

Our first stop on the pilgrimage route is the graveyard of the church of St. Columba — just one variation on Colmcille’s name — where Sean shows us a deep stone-lined hole that was discovered in 1842. A guidebook says local people think monks used it to hide from viking invaders.

The tombstone of Madge O’Byrne (born in nearby Malinbeg in 1852; died in Indianapolis in 1886) tells of the grief countless emigrants no doubt felt over the centuries:

She wished not death in strange lands

Nor grave neath foreign skies

But home she came that kindred hands

Might place her where she lies.

She loved the land that gave her birth

As but the pure can love

Her prayer a grave in Irish earth

My soul to God above.

The 15th station on the pilgrimage — we arrive by car and park a short distance away — is on the property of Francis Gillespie, who comes to the front door and smiles silently as we open his gate and walk within yards of his home and his fenced cows to get to the station, a collection of several ancient carved stones and the crumbled walls of a one-room stone building where Colmcille is reputed to have lived for a while, sleeping on a stone slab.

We have more comfortable accommodations, at Millstone bed-and-breakfast, where owner Geraldine Byrne’s daughter, still in her school uniform, serves us tea in the guest parlor.

Johnny Daly, our guide from Irish Cycling Safaris, joins us for dinner in Kilcar, followed by music, singing and more laughter at Biddy’s Crossroads Bar, a 120-year-old family-owned pub in Glencolmcille where the owner is also the local postmistress. We are all fast friends by the end of the night.

The scenery is bucolic and the weather cool but cooperative as we set out next morning on Trek 720 hybrids along a route of rough country roads that is mostly flat, with one long, gradual hill leading to what Johnny calls a “delicious” mile-long downhill.

He’s right; the descent is spectacular, as are the beach and caves at Maghera, reached by a short foot trail at the bottom. We round a corner and are surprised by soft dunes and waving grasses backed by the rock-strewn green hills that were hiding them. The tides have left geometric patterns on the wide white-sand beach, interrupted by horses’ hoof prints. Closer to the water, the hills reveal solid rock, into which the water has carved shallow caves.

We have several more stops to make before heading home — including Nancy’s Bar in nearby Ardara, where one in our group satisfies her trip-long goal of lunching on Guinness and raw oysters and a wedding party serenades us with joyous horn blasts while riding several times around town — but our hiking and cycling adventures are finished.

We will visit W.B. Yeats’ grave in Drumcliffe, County Sligo, and spend a day shopping in Dublin and then sadly bid “Slan go foill,” “goodbye for now,” to Ireland.


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