Five months has been a long time to be away from home. Somehow, County Donegal, Ireland, seemed the perfect location for the trip’s coda.
I drove across the invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the rain. At Letterkenny I turned north onto the Wild Atlantic Way toward Fanad Head at the tip of the peninsula. The Wild Atlantic Way is a fifteen-hundred-mile scenic route on the west coast of Ireland, stretching from County Cork in the south to County Donegal in the north.
In Portsalon I stopped for a warm bowl of potato-and-leek soup in a pub facing Lough Swilly, the rain beating against the bay window, a turf fire glowing on the hearth. Lough Swilly is a sea inlet, one of three glacial fjords in Ireland. It’s protected by the Fanad Head lighthouse, built in 1817 following the wreck of HMS Saldanha and the loss of every life on board except the parrot’s.
South, on the other side of the peninsula, I found my b&b near the small town of Milford. Perched on a hill, it overlooks Bunlin Bay and the surrounding moor. The owners, Damian and Chris, and their two rambunctious dogs, Frodo and Ralphy, checked me in. Then the fun started.
Damian and Chris are traditional (trad) Irish musicians. They invited me to accompany them in the evening to a pub in Milford to hear them play.
Irish trad or folk music developed for dancing at celebrations, such as weddings and holidays. Tunes are classified, according to tempo, as various forms of reels, hornpipes and jigs. Commonly played instruments are flutes, whistles, fiddles, guitars, bagpipes, accordions, banjos, mandolins, harps and bodhráns. “Old-time” or “old-timey” music in the U.S., such as was featured in the movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, derived from the folk music of Ireland, Scotland and England.
Chris explained that tunes are usually played three times through and coupled nonstop in sets with two other tunes. With a wink or a nod, the musicians follow each other through the transitions between tunes. There is no improvisation or soloing as in jazz and blues. The musicians play simultaneously and furiously throughout. From Last Night’s Fun, a book Damian gave me about trad music: “It is a music of driving, relentless rhythm that teeters on the edge of falling over itself; it seems to almost overtake itself, yet reins in at the brink.”
Before the pub session, Damien and Chris recommended I have dinner at the Old Glen Bar & Restaurant. Damien’s directions went something like this: “Look for the bicycle. When you get to the Y in the road, go straight. Turn right at the third sheep.” At least that’s what I heard.
I headed across the upland bog just as the sun finally emerged for the first time in days. After miles of heather, gorse, stone walls and sheep, I found it. Stepping inside the Old Glen felt like stepping back in time. A low ceiling, a sloping flagstone floor, an ancient bar, a smoky peat fire on the hearth. Old-timers savored their pints in the corner. I was escorted to a room in the back, a former barn, which was updated with light wood and trendy lamps. The grilled sea-trout was delicious.
My hosts drove me into Milford to the session at the Traveller’s Inn and invited me to join them at the table reserved for musicians. Three others showed up, two flute players and a guitarist. One of the flute players sang and doubled on mandolin. Turns out he had once played at the Dublin Irish Festival in Ohio!
They played for a couple of hours, taking turns suggesting tunes. A small crowd listened attentively, tapping their feet. Some young girls step-danced. Damien is hoping to build an audience and an appreciation for trad music by playing every Wednesday evening at the inn.
Most of the tunes were unrecognizable to me, although one sounded like “On Raglin Road,” which Van Morrison recorded with the Chieftains. Chris told me it was the same “air” but a different song (perhaps “The Dawning Of The Day”). Borrowing or modifying traditional tunes and substituting lyrics is common in folk music on both sides of the ocean.
The musicians’ table was next to the door to the restrooms, which banged shut constantly throughout the playing. I kidded Damien and Chris that, instead of touring the coast tomorrow, I was going to spend my day installing a hydraulic door closer. We got back to the b&b late. Chris asked what time I wanted breakfast in the morning. I said, “How about noon?”
County Donegal is part of the Republic of Ireland, although its physical connection to the rest of the country is a skinny five-mile-wide isthmus. In contrast, it shares a long border with three of Northern Ireland’s six counties. Thus, it is isolated both politically and geographically.
The partition of Ireland in 1921 separated the island into two distinct territories: Northern Ireland (now part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland (now independent). This division cut Donegal off from the city of Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland, its former main port and financial center. The political border, combined with forty years’ worth of spillover Troubles from next door, sent Donegal’s economy into decline.
However, the years of isolation may be the reason Donegal’s residents have been able to protect their distinctive identity. Donegal has Ireland’s greatest number of Gaelic speakers. Gaelic is the language of instruction in the schools. Now, Donegal’s cultural identity, combined with its unique trad-music style and rugged natural beauty, is beginning to draw tourists and boost the economy.
After a breakfast of coffee, porridge and fresh fruit, Chris sent me on my way with a packet of homemade scones and muffins. I drove west toward Glenveagh National Park. Sunny rolling meadows gave way to bleak and beautiful moorland. Rocks littered the fields. Turf was stacked in piles along the road, drying.
Glenveagh is the second largest national park in Ireland, covering forty-thousand acres of mountains and glens. Glenveagh Castle, nestled among its pines and birches, commands a view of Lough Veagh. The park is home to the largest herd of red deer in Ireland.
The estate was originally established by John Adair, a man forever reviled in Donegal. In 1861 he and a police force evicted two-hundred-forty-four of his tenants. Journalists reported emotional scenes as families were dragged from their homes. Many were left without shelter. Some ended up in the Letterkenny workhouse. Most emigrated to Australia. All these lives disrupted to clear twelve-thousand acres for Adair’s pleasure.
I parked at the visitor center and decided to walk the two-and-a-half miles to the castle instead of taking the shuttle bus. Bad decision. Halfway there, fierce winds stopped me in my tracks, drenching me with rain and pelting me with hail. Soaked to the skin, I recovered in the castle’s tea room, then took the guided tour.
Adair’s castle eventually passed to others, who occasionally redecorated and more fully developed its extensive gardens. The last private owner was Henry Plumer McIlhenny, an American philanthropist and chairman of the Philadelphia Art Museum. (His ancestors had come from Milford.) During his time at Glenveagh, Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo vacationed at the estate. A copy of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace lies on a nightstand to remind visitors it was written in the castle. McIlhenny sold the bulk of the estate to Ireland in 1974 in order to set up the national park.
I continued the drive west past Mount Errigal, a bald pinkish mountain rising from the moor. At nearly twenty-five-hundred feet, it is the tallest peak in Donegal and the steepest of the Seven Sisters. I reached overdeveloped An Bun Beag on the west coast, then followed the Wild Atlantic Way north and east along the coast, stopping for photos and ducking more rain. The landscape of Donegal’s jagged northern coastline rivals the more famous and popular areas of Ireland. I passed very few cars while exploring the wild peninsulas and windswept cliffs.
In the late afternoon I rushed to the nearby town of Kerrykeel for dinner at Ripples, this time a grilled sea-bass served whole. I rushed so that I could go to Letterkenny with Chris and Damian for more music. “Tonight, it’s a gig, not a session,” Damian said.
Another musician, carrying a guitar and an accordion, met us on the street in front of the Central Bar. He gave me the nod. While in Northern Ireland, I noticed a nodding movement Irish men make with their heads when acknowledging someone on the street. It’s a slight sideways, left to right movement, with a quick tilt of the chin at the end. In America, it’s a gesture one might make after a small disappointment, perhaps accompanied by a clicking of the tongue, as if to say, “Oh, well.” I thought it meant disapproval or despair. Turns out, it is a greeting.
Inside the pub, many patrons were closely monitoring the outcome of horse races on TV. The Irish love horses, horseracing and betting on horseracing so much, they have a TV channel dedicated to it.
I joined Damian, Chris and their fellow musician at the reserved table next to the roaring hearth. After setting up, they galloped into their set list, competing with the race calls. What a pleasure to watch them up close! Damian rapidly strums the rhythm in an open D tuning, his chord fingers moving fluidly up and down the guitar’s neck, hammering and bending notes, occasionally ringing harmonic. Sometimes he plays solo, an “old-timey” tune or a jazz variation.
Chris’s fingers seem to move even faster, fluttering over the holes of the flute, nearly invisible like the wings of a hummingbird. Damian is in awe of Chris’s memory of dozens of tunes, which she seems to be able to recall and play at the merest suggestion. Like other areas of Ireland, Donegal has a distinctive musical sound. Donegal artists Altan, Clannad and Enya have had international success with traditional-inspired music.
At the end of the evening, one of the bartenders informed that he would be playing the spoons on the final tune. He positioned his chair in front for all of the bar patrons to see and rehearsed with a flourish, rattling spoons from the kitchen between his open hand and his knee. The musicians launched into the tune and the spoons resonated like castanets.
But something was amiss. The bartender was obviously and obliviously out of synch. The tempo of his spoons rose and fell, now slower, now faster than the band. He clattered away, lost in reverie, occasionally pausing while he gathered his grip, then setting off again on his own path, dancing to a different drummer. Throughout, Damian, Chris and the guitar player stayed the course. On the way home, I asked the obvious question. “Yes, he does this every time,” Chris said. “We’ve got to ask the manager to bar him from playing with us.”
During the break, Damien had handed me his Martin to play. I struggled through small fragments of “Blackbird,” “Here Comes The Sun” and “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” embarrassed by my rustiness. I may as well have played the spoons.
The day dawned bright, so I continued my exploration of the coast. I returned to the lighthouse at Fanad Head, then back to Dunfanaghy for lunch at Muck & Muffin. Drove the mountainous single-lane Horn Head route and stopped to visit the WWII lookout post with its commanding view of the North Atlantic. Back in Dunfanaghy, I toured the Workhouse Museum.
The Dunfanaghy workhouse opened in 1845 to take in the poor in northern Donegal, their numbers increased by famine and the land clearances. British authorities at the time thought poverty stemmed from laziness, so workhouse conditions were made intentionally hard. Many of the Irish from Donegal were shipped to Australia as indentured servants.
Damian and Chris had invited me to a community event, the announcement and celebration of Milford’s inclusion on a scenic spur-trail of the Donegal Cycle Route. The route leads cyclists through the diverse landscapes of Donegal, “from the hedgerow-lined roads of agricultural lowlands to the exposed roads of upland bogs, from coastal-cliff views to mountain vistas, from sea loughs to lakes, and from bustling towns to tranquil villages.” There are several side trails along the route, including, now, the Bunlin Way Loop at Milford.
When I arrived at the community center, the speakers had finished and a large crowd of area residents were socializing and grazing on steamed mussels, harvested from the bay across the road. “You missed the boring part,” Chris whispered. She, Damian and three others, a guitarist, a flute player and a bagpiper, were providing background music.
After a tune, the master of ceremonies hushed the crowd. “It’s time for something special,” he said. He looked nervously, imploringly at an older gentleman near the bar. “Will you share something with us?”
The white-haired man appeared to be in his seventies, perhaps older. He stood proudly, somewhat stiffly. If you were casting the part of a kindly Irish grandfather, this would be your man. He hesitated and the crowd waited.
I was expecting him to step forward and share some local history or perhaps tell a story. Maybe he was the fisherman who pulled the mussels from the bay. Perhaps he was a cyclist who once rode in the Tour de France. Maybe he would speak Gaelic.
Instead, he opened his mouth and sang in a sweet and clear and wondrous voice that belied his years.
Sean-nós (“in the old style”) is a form of traditional Irish singing. Solo. Unamplified. Unaccompanied by instruments.
The room was as quiet as a church, the crowd rapt. The song had several verses, full of local references. To me, the words didn’t matter. His undying love for his homeland, Donegal, was clear from the passion in his voice. Later I learned the lyrics had been written by his uncle in 1919 and set to a traditional air.
I could sense the pride and admiration of the others in the room for his craft, an art form that is on the wane. At the conclusion of the song, the room burst into applause and the man smiled sheepishly. I talked to Damian about it later. A seasoned musician, he admitted to being swept away by the moment as well.
One of the goals of my traveling is to peel back the touristic veneer, connect with people outside the travel industry and experience authentic culture. I was likely the only non-local in the room when this village elder chose to share his music and his love for his community. The moment was pure and honest, unexpected and magic.
I was fortunate to be there. I was ready to go home.