Ireland Revisited, Part 12
On the Famine Trail in Search of Ancestral Roots
Part 12: Donegal
Departing Strokestown at mid-day, we headed north through Sligo, by the churchyard grave of the great Irish writer W. B. Yeats, through the coldwater surfing/beach resort of Bundoran, and on to Donegal, a coastal town noted for its hand-woven tweeds. We stayed at the Abbey Hotel, overlooking a small stream that wild swans paddled about on. The 49-room hotel is a down-at-the-heels accommodation that is conveniently smack in the middle of the Diamond, a sort of town square that is touristy and jammed with traffic. A short walk away is an ancient castle and abbey.
Donegal (pop. 2,200) got its start as a Viking fort in 850 (the Gaelic "dun na nGall" translates to "fort of the foreigners") and was the stronghold of the O'Donnell clan until the early 1600s, when it was taken over by the British Crown. It is the home of the famous Donegal tweed, which is made locally in a cottage weaving industry dominated by men. It is the anchor of the sparsely inhabited, rugged coastline of northwest Ireland that is swept by Atlantic gales.
After an inexpensive but good dinner of traditional fish and chips (Donegal is perhaps more influenced by English tastes than is Southwest Ireland due to its proximity to Northern Ireland), we went to Quinn's, a pub off the Diamond for an evening of traditional Irish music. The dark, basement pub caters to
|Betty in Donegal|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
The political atmosphere in Donegal seemed to be charged, due to the previous week's murder by the IRA of two policemen in the village of Lurgan in nearby Northern Ireland and the predictable fear of retaliation. One American at Quinn's asked that the "Rising of the Moon" be sung. But the duo politely ignored the request for what has become the anthem of those who sympathize with the IRA from a safe distance. The song celebrates the Easter Rising of the Irish against the English in 1916.
A chronology of Donegal's history that appears in tourist brochures notes that the area was very badly affected by the Great Famine. It includes mention that in 1861 John George Adair evicted tenants from his Glenveagh Estate and 150 of them walked across the country to Dublin to take a ship to Australia; the estate was bought by the government a century later and turned into a National Park. The chronology also mentions that another local landowner, the Earl of Leitrim, was killed in 1878 and that when Ulster was partitioned in 1921, Donegal was left with a 140 kilometer-border with Northern Ireland and only a 9 kilometer-border with the Free State.
An editorial in The Kerryman, a newspaper serving Co. Kerry to the South, belied the notion that the murderous acts of the IRA are winked at in the Republic of Ireland: "The murders display once more - if any further display is required - Sinn Fein's cruel double-speak for what it is, a complete and utter sham and deception. . .The appalling travesty on Monday in Lurgan proved clearly the IRA leopard will not change it spots. Fed on a diet of blood-letting, murder, misery and mayhem over the past 26 years or so, the IRA 'machine' still retains an appetite for inflicting pain and destruction on a people whose only wish is to live in peace and justice with their neighbors. . ."
The June 20 editorial went on to urge, in sulfurous language not often seen in U.S. newspaper editorials, that British and Irish political leaders close ranks against terrorism's threat to the reconciliation talks underway over the status of Northern Ireland.
Tuesday, June 24, 1997 - In Donegal, - Lewis -
After a leisurely breakfast of Irish bacon in the hotel, which includes the morning meal in the price of an adequate room, we cashed in some American Express Checks at one of the nearby banks. The exchange rate had turned favorable for dollars overnight due to a small change in interest rates. Signs in banks, major hotels and other businesses catering to tourists in Ireland (as well as in other European countries we've visited) post the daily exchange rates for the local currency versus the dollar and a half-dozen or so other currencies. Fresh Irish Pounds in hand, I headed off for the Donegal Golf Club while Betty shopped the town's woolen goods stores.
The golf course was quite good, with excellent, large greens. With 6,712 meters off the championship tees and 6,249 meters off the whites, it has a par of 73, the first course above the customary par 72 I've played. It is said to be one of the longest courses in Europe and it is rated No. 11 among the top 50 British and Irish Courses. Each hole has a name as well as a number, i.e. "Valley of Tears, Fairy Rath, Hare's Croft, Bogey Hill."
The seaside links offers splendid views of the bay, the ocean, the broad beach and surrounding hills as green as green can only be in the Emerald Isle. The fee was only 15 Pounds (about $22), an incredibly cheap price for a course of such high quality. A family membership is only 300 Pounds a year, approximately one-tenth of the charges for comparable memberships in the U.S. I wore a beat-up souvenir visor from the Masters Tournament that Casey and I had attended in 1994 and it was a sure conversation starter. I lost several balls in the calf-high rough of meadow grass and my score showed it. After 16 holes, with no let-up of a hard, blowing rain in sight and increasingly tired from pulling a "caddy cart" through tall and wet grass, I decided to stop and call it a day, and a wet one at that. My incomplete score stood at 88. I enjoyed a Guinness and snack of sliced salmon in the clubhouse and then headed back to town.
The rain continued the rest of the day, overcoming my interest in driving 30 minutes or so to Ballyshannon that evening. I had thought about attending a performance of a dance marking the Great Famine; it was the only advertised anything dealing with the Famine that we saw. Dinner was burgers, fries and French wine at a nearby restaurant, where we met a young woman native to the area who was home on holiday from working in Philadelphia. She said she was one of 5,000 lucky Irish who had won a U.S. work permit "green card" in the annual lottery. We talked about Elvis and Graceland.
Many young people we visited with aspired to work in America, the land of opportunity. But due to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization laws that sadly disadvantage the Irish compared to the prolific Asians and Latin Americans, it is difficult for the Irish to get work permits. A young bartender in the hotel pub told me he had spent a year at a small, black college in Tuscaloosa, Ala., (Stillman) as part of a program sponsored by American churches to promote peace and international understanding. He said he would marry an American girl in two weeks, but was still prepared for a wait of up to two years to get his green card. He wants to work in the U.S. South or West, the first Irish citizen I've talked to who wasn't star-crazed with desire to live and work in New York City.