Remembering the Emerald Isle

A story I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen in 2003


“There’s nothing ‘ere,” says Mary O’Donnell of Cashel, “Just a bunch of focken rocks!”

Rocks are plentiful in this corner of County Donegal. My partner and I ventured out to the Slieve League Peninsula seeking something edgier than the package tours and relentless greenery of southwestern Ireland.

The name, Slieve League, we learned, has nothing to do with any kind of league: It’s simply the Anglicised version of the Irish, Sliabh Liag, which means, Mountain of Flagstones.

We found mountains: the highest sea cliffs in Europe, according to the locals. Paddy Byrne, who took us out in his boat to view the cliffs, had a conspiracy theory. The Slieve League Cliffs are rarely written up, while, further south, the Cliffs of Moher are touted as being the highest in Europe. Moher is much closer to Killarney, where the big money’s been invested in hotels and tour buses.

“Know what I mean?” said Paddy, mysteriously. “I’m sure of it. I brought the altimeter last time I was up.”

(A little post-trip research confirmed Paddy’s claims: Slieve League Mountain peaks at 595 metres and Moher reaches only 215 metres. Yet, a number of unofficial websites claim that the Cliffs of Moher are the highest sea cliffs in Europe.)

Paddy had a lot of stories. While he trolled in to give us a closer look at the patterns on the rocks, he talked our ears off. Just three weeks ago a Polish guy broke his leg at the cliffs and had to be rescued by helicopter. Everyone in a boat was in contact with the coast guard, searching for the wounded man.

Then there was the Belgian couple, a few years back. They parked their car at a pub in Carrick and set off along the top of the cliffs. The pubsters saw the car sitting there a long time and called the garda who notified the coast guard. Boaters were searching the cliffs, high and low. The garda informed local residents, giving out the car description and license plate. Not a trace of the two.

“One day,” Paddy continued, “the garda walked into a pub in Glencolmcille and showed the photo to a man and woman drinking there. The man said, ‘Oh yes, that’s my car. It was running a bit rough, so we left it behind. We’ve had a grand time in the pubs ever since.’”

Paddy had walked the length of the cliffs – he’d even crossed the infamous One Man’s Pass. He pointed up to it and our necks bent painfully. “Never again,” said he.

We heard this echoed by most of the strapping young locals, who’d try anything once. The Pass is a strenuous walk northwest from the village of Bunglass. The cliffs narrow to a width of less than a metre, straddling a sheer drop on both sides. Many daredevils cross on their hands and knees. On a windy day you’ll get blown off; on a foggy day, you might step off.

There’d been some windy weather prior to our arrival, and some sheep had blown off the cliffs. We found a dead sheep on the coast near Malinbeg. Looking up, we could see the survivors peacefully grazing the upper reaches of turf, standing almost vertical. They must have suction cups on their hooves.

Paddy had sheep stories for us too. “Quite an appetite, the sheep have. I knew a guy, spent a thousand punts, doing up his garden fancy-like. Then these three blokes, walking home from the pub, picked up a sheep and dumped it in the garden, for a joke. By morning there wasn’t a plant left standing.”

Most sheep wander freely all summer; at night they sit on the roads to absorb the heat from the pavement. “Imagine driving in the dark and having to dodge all those sheep,” said Paddy.

We were relieved not to have to contend with County Donegal’s narrow, winding roads. We’d opted to forgo the convenience of a car, to force ourselves to be more active on this holiday. For the most part, this worked. Bus Eireann has a convenient route from Donegal Town to the end of the peninsula. We spent hours on foot, taking in the country air with its mix of sea salt, peat smoke, and sheep dung.

We relied on the occasional taxi, though sometimes we had to wait a long time for a pickup. One driver, who we called “Heathcliff,” grunted as he drove us from Cashel to Malinbeg. Halfway there he decided this trip warranted a little clarity of vision. He pulled out an enormous pair of bottle-bottom glasses and affixed them loosely to his face, then floored the gas pedal and got us to Malinbeg in no time.

Our next daytrip was a tad remote for taxis. Fortunately we met a car-toting tourist at our guesthouse, who was also planning to visit the “famine village” of Port. Few visitors make the trip along miles of deserted mountain back roads. Port is a ghost town whose residents died during the Great Famine of the mid 1800’s. The survivors moved away. We found a collection of crumbling stone houses set against a stark coastal backdrop. For hours we scrambled up and down the hills, staring at the sun-bleached ruins. My partner was overcome by melancholy and decided she must have suffered the famine here in a previous lifetime.

There was one fixed-up house, a smattering of sheep, an anchor, and some fishing nets. The village was rumoured to have a present-day inhabitant, but we didn’t see anyone.

In the water we noticed a phallic-shaped rock. We’d heard that this was the tail of the Devil, still visible after St. Colmcille banished him into the sea. In front of the Devil was another rock, with words spray-painted, “No tax, no tax, ha ha ha,” a paean to modern-day devilry.

We saw a young man in the distance, approaching from the mountain to the west. He was a young backpacker. He introduced himself as Voldemar and said he was from Holland. He’d been travelling alone, sleeping in the wilds, pitching his tent in the most remote corners of the peninsula. He had a pack full of lentils and pasta. Every night he filtered water from mountain streams and cooked a rehydrated feast on his camp stove.

I asked if I could lift his pack. It was as heavy as a house.

“Well,” he admitted, “I’m carrying some rocks.” He opened his pack and showed us a collection of rather ordinary stones, which he had just hauled over the mountain. “You see, we have no rocks in Holland.”

Some of us travel to learn about history and culture. Some of us go for scenery, lush green landscapes. Some of us travel, especially to the Slieve League Peninsula, for the rocks.


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2 responses to “Remembering the Emerald Isle

  1. Maureen Dyer Ickrath

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Remembering the Emerald Isles but I’d like to give you a little more information about the area. My great great grandmother, Annie (called Nancy) McGinley lived in Port, in the house that has been recently refurbished. It’s the furthest from the sea. The other two houses were owned by relatives. The one nearest to the sea was owned by Nancy’s uncle, Denis McGinley. The house was still in use the the mid 1950’s when another, Annie McGinley, Denis’s niece from Carrick used to visit. The year was 1926. My mother, Kathleen Gallagher Norris, was living there at the time in a place called Faugher, near Cashel (where the church and pubs are located) That Annie McGinley fell in love with a visiting American artist that year, Rockwell Kent. Kent was reeling from criticisim from political critics and had been accused of being a Communist because of his Socialistic leanings. He went to this remote part of Ireland in search of a little peace. He painted this young woman and the result is the painting “Annie McGinley”. Google it. It’s beautiful and the location of the resting beauty is a place where you have been. It’s on the plateau above the stone cottages looking out over the sharp outcroppings. When my mother lived in Glen in 1926 she would visit her cousin Denis who lived in the first house by the sea while her Uncle James McGinley fished. I think it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

  2. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The story, and the reply. I am a Donegal man (Although Im not too fond of sheep), and until last year I did not even know that Port existed!! Imagine my surprise. Long story short…I climbed up on those cliffs while recovering from an biking accident. I was sort of wondering what my next career move would be…hence the long day trip from Letterkenny. My mood was downbeat owing to the accident and the recession and what have you. Anyway…up on that cliff between Port and Glenlough…I had a moment. I’m now writing a book called The Paris Method, which is about a type of meditation I developed up there. Paris…Perspective…Attitude…Reflection…Inspiration…Spirituality.

    Ive also created a blog of the same name, which incorporates a travel blog. Im putting the finishing touches to my piece on Port and Glenlough, which is why I found this page. Glad I did.

    p.s. Julia, come back soon.


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