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Ancestral Homes – Alex McDonnell finds ancestors old and new on Aisling’s latest trip to our homes in Donegal and Derry.

We discovered there is such a thing as sunshine in Donegal. It lasted a whole week and nine of us were there to bear witness to this unprecedented event. While the skyways of Europe were emptied of planes afraid of a wee bit of volcanic ash, we crossed over to Dublin on the ferry.

The ferry companies were making hay in this sunshine unclouded by invisible dust particles and scalped us almost £100 per head for the privilege. It was the same old Ullyses though, no gold handrails on the stairs from the car deck or goose-feather down on the bunks, nor did we travel via the Mediterranean or the Caribbean and we had to buy our own breakfast in the morning. Bleary eyed and lighter of pocket we headed out of Dublin on the road to Sligo, which is now a super highway for much of the way. Collins café wasn’t open this week so we got off at Kinnegad and circled back to the old N4 to look for Mother Hubbards, still there and still providing the best and brightest commercially available breakfast on the planet (if you like a fry-up that is) with plenty of refills of tea and coffee, all the extra bread and butter you could want and no volcanic premiums.

Joe was only coming with us as far as Boyle in Co. Roscommon where his sister had recently settled to be nearer to their mother. She was waiting for us on the side of the road at the turnoff for Boyle and kept up a running monologue with us while Joe changed transport, getting from our van to her car without a word passing between them. We were to have dropped another man off in Sligo but he pulled out at the last minute having fallen off the wagon after months off the drink. Maybe it was strategic and he was feeling nervous about heading home for a full week in his home town. The last time he was there he had a run in with his brother, which was traumatic to say the least and he was only in the town two days, staying with us out on the coast the rest of the week. He had been determined to go back for the full week this time and maybe he put himself under too much pressure.

Everyone arrived at our office on time and ready to go on the evening we left London except for Tony. We heard reports during the week that he was up to his old tricks dancing in front of the traffic, which could only mean that he was back on the drink. He hadn’t turned up at John’s drop-in at Cricklewood the last Saturday either and this was also a bad sign. We waited as long as we could and headed down to Arlington House to pick up Ian, who was standing by in case of a drop-out. Five minutes after picking Ian up I was turning into Parkway on our way out to the A1 when Tony walked by, John jumped out and chucked him into the van before the lights changed. ‘Jesus, Tony where were you? You nearly missed the bus’ said John. ‘Sure I was just on my way to meet you at Arlington House’. An hour late at the wrong address! But we had an extra man, someone will be sleeping on the couch and I guess it will be Tony.

We arrived at Cloughy Cottage high above the beach at Fintra looking down on Donegal Bay and the local GAA pitch and across to Ben Bulben and, according to John, the Nephin mountains and Blacksod Bay in Mayo. Being a Mayo man John is always looking out for landmarks of home when we arrive. Ian had been here with us before but it was a new experience for the others who were predictably amazed as we all had been, knocked out by the view, the first time we saw it. We sorted out the sleeping arrangements pretty quick and some of the men got their heads down and some of us went in search of other attractions. Sleibh League is the highest cliff walk in Europe and is always a favourite destination for us. The road up there is as twisty and turny as ever but the death defying plunges off the cliffs are no longer as frightening as they once were since the road has been vastly improved, unfortunately taking with it a lot of what made the experience so exhilarating. It is still a magnificent spectacle and according to the maps up there you can see the coast of Mayo.

There were festivals going on all over Donegal that week and the Blues and Bluegrass festival in Glencar looked interesting. Glencar is a tiny village on the coast road between Fintra and Carrick. By the time we got there on Saturday evening it was after nine and we expected the place to be hopping. A couple of kids stood outside the chipper and a dog roamed the empty street. A few folks were smoking outside the four pubs and we looked in to see was there anyone playing any old time tunes. Nothing seemed to be going on. Up at the village hall Henry McCullough (one time guitarist with Joe Cocker’s Grease Band and with Paul McCartney’s Wings) was playing but it was sold out. Coming out of the hall down the deserted street I listened in at the window of the hall and could hear some twanging strings but not well enough. John came past all excited,

‘Did you see it….did you see it?’

‘No John, couldn’t even hear it’ I said.

‘No the comet!’ he said.

’What comet?’ I asked.

‘Up there’ John said pointing to the now dark and empty sky.

As I was trying to get a free blast of Henry a massive fireball had streaked across the sky. It was hard to believe something so extraordinary could happen high above such a quiet town. The kids in the chipper and the smoking blokes paid no attention. The dog was barking but there was nothing in the papers about it either so maybe it is a common occurrence.

We settled down in one of the pubs where someone was setting up some mikes and amps and stuff and we had a drink. There were a few people in the bar and me and Sean had a couple of games of pool with the local hustlers and amazingly beat them twice. By now it was about 11.00pm, closing time and the singer was just tuning up and he sounded good and more than a bit familiar. An hour or so later in the evening I realised that the singer was Paul Buckley an old friend of my brother from Leeds and we swapped contact details. Eventually in the early hours of the morning the pub started to fill up as the audience from the community hall came in. We were nodding off at this stage and headed for home on the winding road to Fintra with the moon shining silver on the bay wondering how country folk go out so late and get up so early.

Jim came with us to Donegal a few years ago and had since died. We found out about it in the most extraordinary way. Jim had moved from Arlington House to a care home in Weston-Super-Mare a year or so ago and John and I asked regularly if there was any news of him when we made our weekly visits to the hostel but as there was none we assumed things were ok with Jim. One morning John was having breakfast at home and his wife was reading the Law Journal when she commented on an Irish name in the classified section. ‘Do you know anyone by that name John?’ she asked and John said that was Jims name and he was now living in Weston-Super-Mare. ‘Well this man was in Weston but he has died and a solicitor is trying to find his family’. John contacted the solicitor and gave him the contact details for Jim’s sister Joan in Donegal. It seems that he had left quite a bit of money, having not much to spend it on in later years when he became pretty much a recluse in the Big House. The one time he came to Ireland with us we took him out to see his sister near Carrick and they stood looking at each other for what seemed like hours. Jim was 17 the last time they met and now he was an old man. We called up to Joan’s house again and commiserated with her on Jim’s death, she seemed glad to talk and we chatted about the weather and the state of the country for a while.

Paddy has lived in the same private rented flat in Kilburn for 37 years and we are trying to persuade him to move into sheltered housing but he is almost stuck to the mattress he has been there so long and finds it difficult to think of moving. He came to Cork with us last year and he has since been in touch with his brother in Monaghan and was planning to visit for one of the days we were over. In the event we took him there on the Sunday after we arrived and he stayed the whole week and so there was a bed free for Tony.

Tony is a well known figure around parts of North London where he has been on the homeless circuit for years. A Jeckyl and Hyde alcoholic who becomes like a malevolent little sprite when he’s drunk dancing in the street and generally annoying people, he was the first person in London to receive an ASBO and made regular visits to prison on public nuisance charges. Then one day he got hit by a bus and his skull was shattered. He spent months in hospital and had several operations to piece his head back together. Since then he has been (almost) a changed man and apart from the odd breakout he has been alcohol free and has managed to keep a place in a hostel. His life has been (almost) normalised thanks to his near death experience.

On one occasion about ten years ago Tony came with us on a trip and he was so disruptive we have had to bar him from future trips. Since his accident we have kept in touch through John’s drop-in and he calls up to the office now and then to pick up any clothing we may have and to call his family in Derry. Over the years that was as close as Tony’s family were willing to get to him but recently it was looking like the change in Tony was becoming permanent and we decided to take him with us to see how it would work out. Tony was as good as gold during the trip apart from one incident. He had gone down into Killybegs with Sean on the bank holiday Monday, where they were having a bit of a festival. Later, myself and John went into town to get a few things and parked up along the quay and walked around enjoying the festivities. A truck was parked across the square acting as a makeshift stage and an extremely young and accomplished band were knocking out sixties rock numbers with a great deal of confidence and attitude.

The Bay Hotel were having an indoor boot sale and as both John and I are suckers for such things we went into the hotel and upstairs to the ballroom to have a look at the stalls, finding little to excite us except for a couple of home made apple tarts we left pretty quick to go down to watch the last few numbers of the junior rockers. Just outside the hall at the top of the stairs Tony and Sean were looking up at us sheepishly, Tony with an almost empty pint of lager in his hand. No sooner did we see him than he launched into defensive mode. ‘Youse ones don’t know what it’s like….I need a drink with all the pressure I’m under…’ One drink and Tony was working himself up into a rage, we could see his eyes glaze over. Anytime now Mr. Hyde would take charge and he would be doing his crazy dance on the stage with the band. John took him outside to talk with him while I went and did some shopping, by the time I came back Tony had calmed down and we took him back to the house. He took himself off to bed early and in the morning he was right as rain and didn’t touch a drop of drink for the rest of the week and was in fine spirits – the pressure all gone.

Sean is also from Derry and is a hard drinking man. Like Tony, he is still only in his early 40’s but had been sinking into the hard drinking schools and homeless hostel culture that had done for so many of the older generation and which had killed his own brother and driven another one crazy. His family had also kept a distance as had Tony’s with him, as there was little chance of any useful engagement with him while he was in the throes of alcohol addiction. For this trip Sean had reduced his drinking and was drinking very little (for him) by the time we arrived in Donegal.

It was time for Sean to visit his sister in north Donegal but he had two things on his mind to do and visiting the sister it seems was not the main priority. One was to get some dilisk, the edible seaweed and the other was to visit Bloody Foreland. We had arranged to meet Sean’s sister near her home and she turned up pleasantly surprised to find Sean looking so well. We left them together and drove on up the coast to take in the splendours of Donegal in the sunshine. We wound around the coast hugging the shoreline and drove inland towards Mount Errigal and down through the Derryveagh national park. The countryside is stunning on any given day but on crystal clear days like these you need to make the most of the opportunity. On previous trips we have been lucky to occasionally catch a glimpse of Errigal but this was the first time we had seen Donegal’s highest mountain from ground to summit.

On the following day we had arranged to meet Sean at Letterkenny on our way to Derry where we waited for an hour with no sign of him or no answer from his phone and so we had to head off without him. Sean eventually called John’s mobile and we arranged to meet him at the bus station in Derry. In Derry Tony took us on a tour of the remains of the Bogside. There were a couple of murals I hadn’t seen before and we visited the Bloody Sunday memorial with Tony keeping up a running commentary. Later at the bus station there was no sign of Sean at the appointed time and still no answer from his phone so we rang his sister to say we would be waiting in a café across from the station if he called her to get in touch. After 20 minutes waiting in the café I realized Sean would have money in his pocket from the sister and I would be better off looking in the pubs. Sure enough there he was sitting up at the bar of a pub by the station draining a pint with another being set up for him as I walked in the door. I signaled to the barman to forget the pint and grabbed Sean by the arm.

‘The lads are all waiting for you over the road Sean’.

‘I was a wee bit early so I came in for a pint. What’s wrong with that?’

‘We’ve been sitting like eejits while you’re ordering more pints that’s what’

‘Sure the lads will understand, they all like a drink themselves.’

‘That’s right and they’re not getting any while you’re in here’.

We finished our tour of Derry with a walk along the walls. It’s the only way to see the historic city and it’s surprising how small it seems and how well defended it was. Derry is lopsided, sometimes nicknamed ‘schizophrenic city’. Although the town is majority Catholic by a mile there was always Protestant rule due to Catholic disenfranchisement and gerrymandering. Even after Catholic emancipation the ascendency remained. A few years ago we visited the city museum where there is a whole floor devoted to the siege of Derry and the apprentice boys with models, plans, maps, films and reconstructions. Of the Catholic history only a wall frieze with dates printed in black to show any history from the battle of the Bogside to Bloody Sunday, Bernadette Devlin’s election to parliament and all that passed during three decades of war and trouble. Tourists from Britain, America and the continent probably can’t understand why there is nothing from recent history, of the images they have watched on the news for years. I could never figure out what was so heroic about the apprentice boys anyway, keeping the gates closed and starving the whole city when Lundy, the man who opened the gates and saved everyone’s lives was such a pariah. It makes your head hurt trying to make sense of it all. Luckily Sean and Tony, our two Derry men are remarkably free of any bitterness or sectarianism, although growing up in such an environment may well have deeply affected them as they have both lived lives of homelessness and alcoholism for much of their adulthood.

We dropped Tony off at his sister’s place that afternoon and she waved goodbye to us with a look of shock on her face after coming face to face with Tony after 20-odd years. Sean was relieved and delighted with himself as his sister had said that he could come back any time as long as he behaved himself. I only hoped Tony would keep his feet still for the next 24 hours. Sean was still itching to see Bloody Foreland. I asked did he go for a walk on the beach near his sister’s house and he said that he spent the whole evening and most of the morning walking and talking with his long estranged sister on the strand by her house. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you’ve seen all the there is to see of Bloody Foreland’. ‘Jesus, why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought it would be all red’. ‘The sister says the best place for Dilisk is at Muckish Head , do you know where that is?’ Funnily enough that’s where we were headed.

There is a secret beach on the coast road on the way to Carrick where we often see lads surfing and have intended to stop for a look around. Just to the side of the beach is a stony finger sticking out into the ocean where the surf breaks on the rocks. Apparently this is the best place in Ireland for Dilisk. The season was not for a few weeks yet and there was no sign of any, even if we knew what we were looking for. It was a bracing and beautiful spot and searching for the elusive seaweed provided us with the excuse to explore this razor edge of the wild Donegal coast. Eventually we bought some dried stuff for Sean in a shop and he was happy.

We were all happy this week and everyone made it home to see their family. On one of our last days we took Ian to visit his aunt and uncle in Co. Tyrone and while he was being fed tea and sandwiches and catching up on family news we headed out to find the ancient remains of our northern ancestors. There is a very important group of stone circles at Beaghmore which show signs of an ancient civilization who worshipped or studied the stars and it may be a burial site, whatever it is it is vast and complex and like most of these ancient sites is on an elevated plain with a vantage point looking out over all the local area. We met some Americans there who were touring Ireland, criss-crossing the country as the whim took them. They were making for the Giants Causeway but John persuaded them that they must visit some passage graves in Sligo first, making them sound more impressive than the pyramids. They drove off looking excited and I hoped they weren’t disappointed when they eventually got there and found they had another days drive back to Antrim. John didn’t send them off on a wild goose chase, it was just his infectious love for all our ancient heritage spilling out and they may have been well impressed by the grassed over stones but it did remind me of how the naivety of American visitors is sometimes exploited in Ireland.
I was waiting for a bus some years ago at College Green in Dublin. There was one already at the stop, a 46a going to Dun Laoghaire, with the engine running and the driver reading a newspaper. The routine was that you didn’t board the bus while the driver was reading his newspaper. An elderly American couple asked if he was going to Dun Laoghaire but he shook his head. They asked then where they could get a bus to Dun Laoghaire and he just shrugged still reading his paper. They eventually asked if they could get a subway to Dun Laoghaire and he pointed across the road to the railings around the staircase going down to the underground toilet. I intervened at this stage and told them that this bus and our taciturn driver would be leaving for Dun Laoghaire in a few minutes. They looked confused as well they might.

We chatted while we waited for the driver to finish his paper and I found out that they had both grown up in Philadelphia of Irish parents and they had saved up till their retirement to visit the land their parents never returned to but that they always talked of as home. American visitors get a bad press in Ireland and I suppose they look a bit ridiculous in their bright green golfing gear getting off huge touring buses in Killarney or Bunratty castle but they are fed all this blarney and then criticized for going along with it. It’s a dirty trick really. We sometimes get similar treatment and the distinct impression that once you have left the country you are not necessarily Irish any more, certainly not your children or grandchildren.

We had more heritage to check out that day and we took a diversion on the way back to Donegal over the top of Lough Erne to see the two little fellers known as Janus and Lusty Man. They stand in the graveyard under a striped canopy which would look more at home on a beach than in this overgrown cemetery, looking a bit like a royal encampment befitting their stony status as ambassadors from our ancient past. I’ve said before in an earlier report how like our popular idea of aliens they really are with their wide eyes and foreheads and pointed chins. We noticed this time that coins had been left in a slot on the head of Janus and all over a flat gravestone nearby, currencies from all around the world (and the universe) paying homage to the pair in the hope of good fortune. We left a few bob ourselves. Just in case.

Eventually Friday came around and we had to leave Fintra, leaving Cloughy cottages as they were when we found them and headed for Dublin. Tony had hitched his way back from Derry the night before. We stopped to pick up Paddy at Bundoran outside O’Neill’s pub, festooned as always with green and gold. Paddy arrived promptly with his brother, about twice as wide as Paddy himself, after a healthy outdoor life on the family farm. Paddy had worried that he wouldn’t be accepted by his brother and family but in the end he had stayed the whole week and would be welcome back any time. We picked up Joe again outside Boyle and his sister this time gave him a tearful farewell. Things were looking up for all our lads on this trip. We spent the night at the North Star Hotel in Dublin and were on the road to the docks for the Swift ferry early on Saturday morning. As always, the road back to London seems to get longer every time.