Make your own free website on
[ Previous chapter | Contents | Next chapter ]

We First Meet the Storm in Donegal

We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast on a hill overlooking the bay. Our hostess was a 72-year-old who kept the place open because she needed the stimulation: "Otherwise, I'd dry up."

There were three other guests: a Peter Lorrie look-alike, and an Austrian couple in their late fifties. Our Mr. Lorrie had nothing to say at breakfast; he only nodded politely and gave his attention to his cornflakes.

The Austrian couple, on the other hand, were very social. They had been to the dance the night before and had plenty to say about it. "We only stayed until three," the wife said, "but you could see they were not ready to stop dancing." They both looked in good condition: she tall, strong and blonde; he round and solid like a walking medicine ball. His eyeglasses and head were also round. His face was flushed, and his hair blond and close-cropped. He didn't say anything, except a "Ja!" or a chuckle as his wife spoke of the dance, and smiled like Teddy Roosevelt.

"Did they do any traditional Irish dances?" Mywatt asked.

"Well, I don't think you could call it traditional," the woman said, smiling, and gave us to understand that everyone seemed to be dancing to please themselves.

"Did you dance?"

Yes, they had, but after a while it was easier just to sit and watch. "It was a big hall, and empty except for rows of benches against the walls. It was scheduled to begin at 10, but the band did not begin setting up until 10:30, and after that the people started to arrive.

"Whole familes were there. Mothers brought their babies, and the children were seated by the walls, watching the dancing, listening to the music. It was a real community event."

Our hostess arrived at that point to ask if we wanted the entire Irish breakfast - a "fry" of eggs, tomato, bacon, and ham, preceded by corn flakes, and accompanied by toast, juice, and tea. She acknowledged each of our replies with an asthmatic gasp that unexpectedly reminded me of my grandmother, who used to gasp in the same conversational manner. In fact, throughout Ireland - and France, for that matter - nearly everyone, young and old, gasps in this way. It is not an expression of astonishment or respiratory difficulty: it is simply a type of audible nod, an acknowledgment that what you've said has been heard.

A Word About Maps

There are ordinance maps of Ireland, and they pinpoint every rock and tree in the island. They are probably the only maps that show the roads as they actually run. All the other maps - the sort we are all used to - road maps, regular maps - are generally correct, although a lot of detail is always left out.

Once, in California, when Mywatt and I wanted to cut inland from the redwoods on the northern coast, we found a road on the map that ran straight as an arrow to our destination. After a few miles it became clear that the road would take us over some quite beautiful mountains. However, once we started the climb, it also became clear that the road was not straight at all. It continually twisted back on itself as it snaked up one side and down the other side of the mountain. What looked on the map to be a 30- or 45-minute shortcut was in reality a two- or three-hour rollercoaster. I am willing to swear that there were not fifty feet of straight road in the entire stretch. At one point we had to stop and lean over the guard rail for a while.

It would have been useless to protest that the road was straight on the map. We were incontrovertably on the right road - there was no other, and the route number was correct. The mapmaker made a choice when he drew that road: he knew that if he put in all those tight curves, he would end as a hopeless lunatic, and so he decided that the curves were details necessarily lost on a map of that scale.

Ireland is that way all over. You look at the map, and say, "All we have to do is get on that road there and it will be a straight shot to -" to wherever you're going. So you get on that road there, and everything is lovely for several miles until you hit a pair of curves to the south. "Okay," you say, "this is just one of the details necessarily lost on a map of that scale." But you continue heading south instead of west, and begin to wonder if you're on the right road. But there is and was no other road. Now you have two choices: turn back or keep going.

Take my advice and keep going, even if you are going the wrong way. You might as well see something new. After all, you're on vacation.

What happens next is that you arrive at a crossroads, where ten arrows point in various directions. There is no one behind you, so you can take your time to read them. You remember that the white ones show the distances in kilometers and the green ones in miles - or is the other way around? But it's academic, anyway, because there's no arrow pointing to where you want to go. So you pull out the map. According to the arrow, you are 15 somethings from Killkenny. The map tells you nothing, but you see that Killkenny is east. So you turn right, which makes sense anyway. As you pull past the signpost, you see an arrow for your destination pointing into the field between the roads, but it bends downward, indicating a prickly bush.

This same experience repeats itself six times, and Killkenny - which is still only 15 somethings away - begins to seem like some sort of octopus waiting to grab you at every turn. Soon you are ready to kill Kenny yourself.


But you don't kill Kenny or anyone else, of course, because wherever you go, you see beauty.

The moral of the story is not to go armed with the most accurate maps and to efficiently shoot from one point to another. In fact, it is a mistake - a mistake we made - to drive too much. It's better to aim for an easily attainable goal and then be prepared not to achieve it. Why should you break your neck to go somewhere beautiful when you are already in a lovely place?

And so it happened that we found ourselves in Gartan, near the Colmcille Heritage Center, and located ourselves on the map. We'd finally escaped the vortex called Killkenny, and were heading west at last.

But I said, "Do you mind if we pull in here? I've been wondering who this Colmcille was."

We pulled into the newly-paved drive. It took us through a park - all tall trees and green green lawns - and gently descended to the pebbled shore of a lake.

There was nothing else around - no summer cottages, no motorboats, no pier. Now the trees allowed a view of the mountains in the background. It was an entirely peaceful place.

There was nothing else around, except the Center itself, a small two-story building constructed of gray stone. At the back of the building was a cylindrical tower whose proportions were pleasing, and called to mind the ancient stone towers scattered across Ireland.

We walked around a bit before entering the Center.

Although Ireland is full of saints, Colmcille (or Columba, as he is known abroad) is one of the more historically significant ones. He lived in the early sixth century, and was very active in both religion and politics. He founded several monasteries in Ireland, and was a strong influence in a few cases of disputed crowns.

But after his involvement in a famous battle near the strangely-shaped mountain Ben Bulben, a battle in which thousands died, Colmcille accepted voluntary exile, and moved to Iona in Scotland. Here he continued his work on both lines, and was again a deciding voice in a case of a disputed crown.

Colmcille was also known as a poet and visionary, and some of his visions are briefly described in the Center's exhibit. They reminded me of Casteneda, although Colmcille's experiences seem purer and finer.

The man left two important heritages. The first is the product of his monasteries' scriptoriums: they created four of the earliest and best of Ireland's illuminated manuscripts, including the famous Book of Kells.

The second heritage is that of the rechristianization of Europe after the Dark Ages. Ireland had preserved much of the learning, and much of the intellectual and spiritual traditions of western civilization. During the Dark Ages, many people went to Ireland to learn Greek, Latin, and other elements of a classic education.

After the Dark Ages, Colmcille's followers moved across Europe, and set up monasteries and universities that are still justly famous: Lindisfarne, Annegrey, Fontaine, Soissons, Aachen, Cologne, Nurnberg, Gallen, Bobbio, Taranto, Luxeuil, Peronne, Reichnau, Salzburg, Preising. These were a stimulant to European culture, and fed the revival of learning that preceded the Renaissance.

The Voodoo Altar

Our first accidental find had been so rewarding, we were quite ready to take another turn-off to see what the "Rock of Doon" could be. A few miles after Gartan and its Colmcille Heritage Center, we saw a sign that pointed out the aforesaid Rock, and explained that it was the place in which the Donegal kings were invested.

The parking lot lay in a little dell. We saw, directly ahead of us, a tea room (not yet open), a well, and a scrubby pine tree. Beyond lay other trees and knolls. From each of the two sides of the parking lot rose an unmarked path. We took the path on the right. It led us on a pleasant walk among bushes, trees, and tall grass until suddenly the view opened at the crest of a hill. From there we could see an enormous valley that stretched to the horizon in either direction, to the hill opposite, and to another valley beyond. The valleys and hills were completely covered with green green plant life, and there was no sign of human life: no houses, no curling wisp of smoke, no factories or refineries; not even horses, sheep, or dogs.

But though it was beautiful, it didn't seem like a place in which a king would be crowned. There were plenty of rocks, too, but not one that could conceivably be dignified as the "Rock of Doon."

There was, however, a small stone altar built into a niche in a boulder. It was roughly made, but had the essential feature of being flat on top, and this top was covered with various small votive offerings.

There were a number of Irish coins, in case the deity happened to be in those parts and in need of loose change.

There were also tiny statues, religious medals, and holy cards. Petitions were scribbled on the backs of the holy cards: "Dear Lord, help me with my school examinations," and "Help me to be good." There were also cards that outlined the ritual involved:

One was to fill six bottles with water from the holy well in the parking lot, carry the bottles to the altar, say some Hail Marys for Father so-and-so who found the well, then pour out two of the bottles. Next, say three Hail Marys for another priest who blessed the well, and pour out two more bottles. After another three for the man who built the shelter over the well, dump out the last two bottles, and you have your wish. All this must be done barefoot, of course.

When we returned to the parking lot there was a woman just beginning to fill her bottles. She was on her knees, and the strong green of the lawn led the eye irresistibly to her big, white feet. The scene was not humorous; it was tragic. It struck me, though I cannot say why, that she was asking for improved health - her own or someone else's - barefoot in the woods on this cold day.

We climbed the other path, and found a huge flat rock that commanded a view of several valleys. It did seem a likely place to be crowned, and we stood a while imagining how it could have been, until rain came up and sent us to the car.

The Mountains of Donegal

It was not a heavy rain, but it was rain. It was an August day, but it was cold. We weren't ready for the cold: Milan in August was laid low by a heavy humid heat, and the Herald Tribune had given Dublin's temperature as just a few degrees cooler than Milan. So we didn't have enough warm clothes.

Virtually everyone who had anything to say about where we should go recommended Donegal. I would do the same now. Even in the cold and rain it's beautiful. Aside from the natural beauty that I will not bore you by describing, there are thatched cottages and ruined, roofless churches. We saw an enormous, old tree growing out of the center of an abandoned, roofless house. It was already taller than the house.

As we descended the coast, getting nearer our destination, the sky became darker and darker, the wind stronger, the rain heavier, and everything colder.

All of that intensified the experience of crossing the mountains at the Glengesh Pass. It was a magnificient scene - the mountains, the clouds, the powerful winds - the sort of experience that reveals the utter indifference of nature toward mankind. Compared with the forces in nature, human beings are toys.

We descended the pass, always coming closer to the rocky coast, and finally stopped in Glencolmcille. It took us a bit of hunting to find a place to stay, but as we wandered, we came upon a sign advertising "Glenard Knitwear." It turned out to be a room in someone's house, in which they'd piled a good quantity of woolen goods - sweaters, hats, socks. And these were not funky, bulky sweaters like your Aunt Tilly makes: they were well-made, good-looking, in many styles, and, above all, they were warm.

Soon we were swathed in wool, and the storm began to seem more romantic and less inconvenient. In fact, after dinner, we drove out on a road that dead-ended high above a cove, where we drank Irish whiskey and watched the storm drive the waves through the openings in the rocks.

I don't think I've even seen waves that high. It would have been impossible to survive in the water of that cove. The coldness of the water would matter very little, though, because the waves would sweep you up and flatten you against the rock walls before you had time to shiver.

The wind never stopped shaking our car. A little more force would have flipped us, or blown us across the road. Behind and above us stood the mountain Slieve League - a mountain we never saw, because heavy, compact, white clouds had closed in the mountain on every side. We saw something of the mountain's huge base, but that was all.

A closer view wouldn't have yielded much more, as we found out when we picked up a girl from Berlin who was hitchhiking in the downpour. She tried to climb Slieve League, but once she entered the cloud there was nothing to see. She soaked the back seat with the runoff from her rain gear, but better that the seat be soaked than she stand in the rain.

After we dropped her off, we drove a little bit more in the rain, just to look around. Aside from the location, and the rocky shore, the most interesting thing about Glencolmcille are the stone-age relics. There are a number of port-dolmens, or standing stones arranged as doorways. There is also a megalithic tomb, whatever that may be. We didn't see either, since the interest was not strong enough to draw us into the rain. But even from the car we could see a few of the stones that were once sacred objects in a old pagan religion, that are now used as stations in a pilgrimage devoted to Colmcille.

"Glencolmcille," as you might have guessed, means "glen of Colmcille," and he established a church in this area. "Colmcille" means "dove of the church," which is why he is called Columba, or dove, outside Ireland.

It was mainly here that I was struck by the fact that one could make a trip of Ireland that concentrated solely on the remnants of the stone age that can be easily seen. There is much that is unexplained, and perhaps unexplainable, since we lack the context of the stone-age cultures and religions.

From our bedroom window we watched the wild sea, whipped up by what our hostess told us was "the tail-end of a hurricane that blew up here on the Gulf Stream." Little did we know, warm and woolen-clothed as we were, how well we were to know that storm.

[ Contents | Next chapter ]