Saturday, June 19, 2004

Faring well in Sweet Donegal

DONEGAL, IRELAND: Isn't it funny how you forget the best parts of your own backyard?

This week I flew up to Gweedore in Donegal, the north-west of this home country of mine. The reason was to drive a few Mercedes-Benz vans. But the most important result was to find again the beauty of a part of Ireland to where I'd not been for about 25 years.

I was also reminded of the importance of the 'local hero' in his own place. But that's for another piece.

Donegal has one of Ireland's largest 'Gaeltacht' areas, parts of the country where Irish is spoken as a first and daily language. It is a language which today I would like to have more than the 'cupla focail' that I can still use, but the requirement in my schooldays that it be a compulsory subject meant that I - and most of those of my generation - wanted nothing more to do with it when we left school.

It is a fact that, though in second level school I had an average of 13 hours of Irish classes a week and just two hours of French, I can today converse in French when necessary but would be unable to do the same in Gaelic. A sad reflection on a dictatorial educational programme that is today generally accepted to have failed in its purpose.

A bit like the 'fish on Friday' requirement when growing up as Catholic that left an island nation as a very poor eater of fish when that particular piece of religious dictatorial policy was finally dumped.

Donegal Irish is a bastion of a language that began in Central Europe with the Celts three thousand years ago and became the predominant tongue of what we call The Continent and the two large islands off it. Us and what is now Britain. Then the Roman Empire happened and pushed the Celtic language out to unconquered extremities like Scotland and Ireland.

(I recently visited a part of Hadrian's Wall in England, for the second time seeing how the Romans finally had to build a defence against the peoples they were trying to subjugate - the Scots who fought back. It seemed so puny ... but then, the Romans didn't have the war toys that George Bush plays with. Some things never change: there was the Berlin Wall ... and now look at this security wall the Israelis are building to keep Palestinians out. Are walls a precursor of failure?)

Subsequently, Anglo-Norman 'visitors' established an amalgam of the Germanic-based Old English and the French of the English nobility to be the language of what was to become first the Norman and later the Anglo-Irish nobility of Ireland. Eventually it developed its own 'Hiberno-English' pattern, mingling Gaelic grammatical construction and idiom with English in a unique pattern which has given many Irish writers in the English language their own particular way of saying things.

Me included. As a writer, I have always felt that the best legacy the English left us when we finally forced them to go was their language, which is probably the most flexible in the world for verbal and written communication.

But, back to Donegal. There's a very gentle wildness about the place. Beyond the houses that stretch the village areas far outside the kind of tightness that you'd see in Germany, for instance, there is mountain bogland, much of it still individually harvested by local people for their own winter fuel. The slices of the 'slean' spades used for this work are clearly visible in many cutaway edges. And tidy spreads of the sods wait for their share of the unpredictable summer sunshine to prepare them for collection in September.

There is mountain, not massive or dramatic but soft in the Irish style with the occasional unexpected needle of hard rock to pierce the cloud that spins in from beyond the disputed chunk of Atlantic Ireland that is Rockall.

Embedded memory is rekindled by the Famine Museum in the small former Workhouse of Dunfanaghy, a relict of a failed project to deal with a kind of poverty which we can no longer even imagine in the Ireland of the 21st century. Today's toffee/apple cake on sale in the museum's Coffee Shop is perhaps incongruous to that memory but nevertheless delicious. Just in case we have already forgotten, two pieces of stained glass in the doorway on the way out jolt us to thought again.

The castle that is the centre of the Glenveagh National Park is perched on an outcrop above a lake and has a fascinating history of tenant eviction and relatively modern involvement with the celluloid likes of Greta Garbo and the commercial invention of the gas meter. And it has what is quite possibly the only air-conditioned open-sided bus shelter in the world?

But it was the early-morning walk out from my hotel in Bunbeg that is likely to be my abiding memory of a short 24 hours in Donegal.

The scenery changed every minute or so with the shifts in light and morning-rising. The air was the freshest I've breathed for a long time, as the nearest pollution was probably across the arctic in Anchorage. And even at 6.10am somebody had been out before me, because along the sand at the water's edge were imprints of bare feet, both human and canine.

I'll stop here. Because there are things about Donegal that deserve their own pieces. And I'll be going back there in a much sooner time than a quarter of a century to experience more of them properly.

It is time that I revisited my own country again. All of it.

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