I took a trip this week to the Donegal coast, about as far as you can get from here by road. My purpose was to attend a workshop but I added a couple of days to make a little break for myself, a rare chance in these times. I was first in Donegal over a quarter of a century ago with a pal who had access to a family holiday home on an island from which her forebears sprang. The house was small, and sat on top of a rock overlooking a wide beach. Back then I lived in the city and haunted its dark parts. I was permanently unhappy, struggling with it since my early teens. This trip into the northern light was a rare experience. Perhaps that’s why my friend invited me. That year the whole country was frozen over and the drive through the north was a wonderland of crystal trees and pristine white fields. Reaching Donegal town in early afternoon, a Garda crinkled his faded blue eyes at us and told us we’d not be going over the mountains that night. But we went anyway, creeping up the county and then skating the Toyota Starlet down the other side.
On arriving we were both overcome with the flu and with that and the freeze, our five days were spent doing jigsaws, taking short walks and drinking the whiskey we inviegled from the owner of the only pub we could reach on foot. Ireland was a small country back then. My friend had previously been banned from the house for taking a gang of pals out on a wealthy relative’s speed boat, inadvisedly kept unsecured. That night-time party trip up and down the coast with a boombox onboard, 80s pop music rising and falling, and rising and falling, as they zipped about, reached the ears of the cottages onshore, and was duly noted and reported back. So it was inevitable that the details of our alcoholic consumption would reach Dublin even before we dropped back the keys. It was just as well we were too much under the weather get into any trouble.
It helped that the weather itself was stunning despite the freeze. I remember one morning waking up, still smothering with the cold. I fetched myself a big mug of tea and a plate of toast and settled back, be-hatted, under my duvet. The blue sky outside the single glazed windows you could’ve cracked with a spoon and the freezing room was filled with light. And right there in that moment, so long ago now, everything was just right. I had everything I needed and it was enough.
It took longer than that to change my course but as I walked the beach this time I realised that visit was the start of something and I was grateful. Those moments have begun to accumulate.
Much of west Donegal looks like its been splattered with the vomit of a God who has ingested too many bungalows after a heap of pints of but I was pleased to see that the island still remains just about recognisable – its one narrow road still only has room for one car, the beach is still empty and even the tiny house we stayed in is unaltered, though it has since changed hands. I walked the wide beach and, when the rain moved in, as it does, I left, driving carefully on the narrow track. I stopped in a passing place to take a photo. A car coming towards me pulled in, nose to nose with my car, to allow another to pass. A man peered out at me. And I peered back. And I knew him from home. He was the first person I talked to when I was considering taking the leap back to college – another huge change for me – and he was my adviser on my final theses. I knew he had retired and moved to Donegal but to another part, far from this island. It was pure chance that he and his partner were out for a day trip, the first time in over a year. We chatted for a bit, both happy and stunned. Ireland is still small I suppose but though I try to rationalize the encounter it was hard not to think as I drove away that, yet again, everything was in its rightful place.
After I had finished my workshop, I went in search of an even more remote beach purely because it had the same name as the big beach at home. I found it at the end of a long winding track clinging to mountains and cliffs and bog. And it was unfamiliar and familiar too and I walked it and was happy. And then I turned the car around and came home for real.