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ANN SHANNON: Do you know why the roads are so narrow?
Ann Shannon is a guide at Donegal Castle. I’d pulled up to our appointment a bit frazzled. The tires on the left side of the car were scuffed up from repeated run-ins with hedges and curbs as I drove the long distance from Dublin to Donegal.
ANN: It goes back to the old custom. The Irish word for road is “bóthar’’ and it comes from the word for cow, which is “bó.” And the old laws of Ireland, the Brehon Laws, stated that the roads were to be the width of two cows wide. So there you go, some of them are still the width of two cows wide.
BRENDAN: And my car is the width of four cows.
ANN: [laughs] Well, there you go. That’s where you get a bicycle.
Now I understood why my friend at the car rental counter was willing to part with a big sedan—the roads are too small for them so everybody wants to drive compacts. He hadn’t yielded to my charm offensive after all—instead, he’d gotten revenge for my cheekiness.
Relieved to no longer be driving a huge car on the wrong—I mean “opposite” side of a teeny cow path—I strolled with Ann around the grounds of Donegal Castle, which sits in the middle of Donegal town.
And to be honest, it’s pretty modest as castles go. Just a three-story building with one, long roofless wing, but I wasn’t visiting it for architectural reasons.
ANN: We’re in Donegal Castle, which was a castle owned and built by the O’Donnell clan in the 1470s. Now the O’Donnells came to power around the year 1200 and they built several castles in Donegal. Some of them for defense, this one here was built essentially for defense. And that is shown in the width of the walls, which when you go inside are about three yards wide.
BRENDAN: Can I interrupt you right there? So my grandmother’s name was O’Donnell, Francis O’Donnell. When I was little, we came here, and like, in my head, I was like, “Oh, this is where long ago my ancestors lived!” That’s probably not true, is it?
ANN: Well, let’s say at every corner, every juncture, in Donegal there’s an O’Donnell. So there’s a lot of them. They are a huge big name here.
Ann wasn’t lying. During my time in Donegal, I would encounter O’Donnell pubs. O’Donnell solicitors. O’Donnell construction firms, and, perhaps my favorite O’Donnell enterprise, O’Donnell Mature Cheese and Red Onion crisps. That’s right: potato chips flavored with onions and aged cheddar cheese! Now I don’t know what the Gaelic word for “umami’ is (maybe “O’mami”?) but these chips had it. When I’d eat them, I’d think maybe these really are my people!
And my relationship to the O’Donells also explained why we visited here when I was nine years old, even though Donegal back then in the ’80s wasn’t exactly a tourist destination. If anything, it was considered a little perilous at its time because of its proximity to Northern Ireland. Donegal is in Ulster province, an area colonized by the British in what is known as “The Plantation of Ulster.’” It’s called “the plantation” because in 1609 the U.K. began planting people there. Mostly from Scotland and northern England.
ANN: And at this time in history, most of them were of the newly reformed Protestant religion. So the plantation of Ulster going back to that time is the basis of so many problems that this island has had.
BRENDAN: They basically tried to weave in some British Protestant folks and . . .
ANN: . . . make it a little England! That’s what they were trying to do, make it a little England, but it really wasn’t. It wasn’t a success. Colonization was not a success.
Now if this seems like a heavy topic to bring up in an episode of a travel podcast, I included it because it emerged, unprompted, within the first 10 minutes of my chatting with Ann. And that’s because, as I would discover, the history lives right under the surface around these parts.
In fact, it came up again later that same day when I met up with Niamh Coughlin, a local historian.
NIAMH COUGHLIN: We’re sitting on what’s known as “The Diamond,” which is the central area here of the town. The Diamond is a particular term that you’ll only hear in Ulster, in the northern half of Ireland. And it stems from plantation times when the English came and colonized here. And this is what’s known as a planned town. So it has a central area of commerce with streets radiating off. And this was used as a marketplace from the 1600s on.
Niamh and I sit in the diamond and look on as tourists scutter to and fro between shops. Local girls sit on a bench nearby and giggle. We are sitting in the heart of Donegal town.
BRENDAN: The region is also considered Donegal and then there’s a town called Donegal, what is their relationship?
NIAMH: It’s not the county town and it’s not the main town, but it would certainly be, as far as tourism is concerned, it would be, I think, certainly the most visited town. As you can see, it’s very picturesque and it has a castle slap bang in the center as well, which is a draw.
BRENDAN: The tourists love a castle.
NIAMH: Well, everyone loves a castle—who doesn’t?
BRENDAN: I came here once when when I was nine. My father took four of his sisters. So it was my aunts, my father, my mother, me, and my sister. And by the time we got to Donegal, they were calling it the ADC tour: “Another Damn Castle.”
NIAMH: That’s good.
BRENDAN: So they were like, show us the pub and we’ll join you after.
NIAMH: Brilliant. I like that.
Niamh and I decided to take a walk through the village.
BRENDAN: How many pubs are in this town?
NIAMH: Too many to mention.
BRENDAN: Yeah, I’ve seen like half a dozen right in front of me.
NIAMH: Yeah. We’re well served with drinking establishments, that’s for sure.
We wander past the Old World department store in the center of town.
NIAMH: It has McGee’s, which is a draw and brings people from out of town.
BRENDAN: McGee’s is the . . . ?
NIAMH: It’s the store here that would’ve been established in the 1880s, buying and selling and trading and ultimately manufacturing, Donegal cloth, sometimes known as Donegal tweed. And it’s a beautiful department store nowadays and, you know, draws people from all over the country, really.
We wander past a statue of my old “ancestor,” Red O’Donnell.
NIAMH: This is Red Hugh the First. I think there’s a little bit of artistic license taken in the depiction here, but I think he’s got a certain charm, a certain je ne sais quoi. I come and visit him every day and say hello.
BRENDAN: You do?!
NIAMH: Yeah, I do. And he never contradicts me. He never talks back. He’s a perfect gentleman. I’m very fond of him. [laughs]
And we arrive at what looks to be an ADC, but is something different.
NIAMH: So now we’re approaching what’s known as Donegal Abbey founded in 1474 by the O’Donnells.
BRENDAN: Who else?
NIAMH: [They founded it] as a Franciscan abbey. When you’re wealthy and powerful as an O’Donnell king would’ve been, it’s a great way to show your wealth and privilege would’ve been to establish a religious order.
BRENDAN: So I own this is what you’re saying?
NIAMH: Yeah. [Laughs] It’s all yours.
BRENDAN: Excellent. I mean, it looks like it needs little work. So we’re basically on this little edge the bay, lip of the bay, looking out on wooded islands.
NIAMH: It’s also the ruins of a 15th-century abbey. This would’ve been a very important seat of religious learning, religious education in the 1500s. It was a Franciscan friary and the Franciscans follow the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi.
BRENDAN: Remember my middle name is Francis. My grandmother’s first name was Frances, and my father’s name is Francis. I think I see how this got started.
NIAMH: And part of those beliefs would be a quiet life of poverty and contemplation.
BRENDAN: A quiet life of poverty and contemplation. Hmm, that also sounds familiar.
NIAMH: And I have to say, if I’m gonna spend my days in quiet contemplation, I can’t really think of anywhere nicer. Isn’t that glorious? Look at that.
BRENDAN: The view is stunning. It’s like the water looks like silver. The clouds are dramatic.
NIAMH: Yeah. It’s lovely. As you say, you’re looking across at wooded islands. It’s gorgeous.
Part Two: Sea
PADDY BYRNE: We had a lot of dolphins on the last tour, guys. We had quite a few.
TOURIST ON BOAT: So you think we’ll see them?
PADDY: I’ve feel very, very positive yeah, very positive. Now we’ve seen them on the last trip cause we’ve seen them all day. So hopefully you’ll get a chance as well.
The next morning, I’m up early and on a boat heading out to Shliabh Liag, spelled entirely different than it sounds. Shliabh Liag is a Gaelic word which means mountain of stone pillars. But the name is also shorthand for the mountain’s dramatic cliffs. Visitors can take a hike and view them from above. Or they can stay seated and view them from the sea.
Paddy Byrne is the skipper who leads tours around here. Picture Irish Yosemite Sam—except a doo rag instead of a cowboy hat, and a brogue instead of a southern accent.
BRENDAN: How long have you been doing these tours?
PADDY: I’ve been doing these tours since 1995 in various ships. I started off with a fishing boat, a 21-foot salmon pot. We were working, fishing the salmon. And when the season closed, the guy that owned the boat decided he would leave it in the harbor for a while—they’d no way to transport it. So I asked him, could I take it out for a spin? And he said, no problem. So there was a couple of guys on the pier and they said, will you take us fishing? So I took them fishing.
When I got back in, somebody else wanted to see the cliffs, so I took them into the cliffs. And for the rest of that summer, I took them in and out on the boat. And I says geez, you know, this could be fun.
We make our way through the dark Atlantic ocean. Shliabh Liag’s 2,000-foot cliffs loom above. The green background one grows accustomed with while traveling by land in Ireland is soon replaced by dark blue water and milk chocolate–colored rocks jutting from the sea like sculptures. The edge of the coast is jagged like the edge of shattered crockery. Paddy cuts the boat and tells us a story, his arm outstretched towards the cliffs
PADDY: In the old days, the women would climb down the cliffs behind there. They’d gather any wreckage washing up on the shores over here, and they would haul it back up the cliff again. They would carry the wreckage up with them.
BRENDAN: In case you didn’t get that, he’s saying local women would carry usable ship wreckage they found on the shores here all the way up the edges of the cliff.
PADDY: People are often horrified to find the woman done it. Where were the men? The men would do important stuff. The men would’ve been reading newspapers and drinking beer. They’d be drinking Guinness. But they’d be doing it in England or Scotland. They wouldn’t be at home. They would hire themselves as farm laborers, working for peanuts. And they would move off then into England and Scotland. They were maybe digging railway tracks, digging canals, tunnels, whatever work was available.
PADDY: So they would work away in England until maybe April, May. Come back home, meet the new family member, probably create another one. They would start to leave the homestead self-sufficient again for another year. And that was the cycle they had. [People would ask] “How long was Jimmy away?” “Ah, Jimmy was away 15 years.” “How do you know that?” “He’s got 15 fine children.” Every year he came home, he met the new one. It was a wild time.
BRENDAN: I was learning the past is never too far away in Ireland. I could imagine these women hauling shipwrecked treasure up the steep cliffs and raising a gaggle of children on their own, because I’d grown up with the same sort of strong women. My grandmother Frannie. My aunts Margaret, Catherine, Nan, and Jeanie. All independent and determined whether they are with a man or not. Doing what had to be done.
Paddy brought us round a bend and threaded two hulking rocks sticking from the ocean. He idled the boat and then looked up with pride.
PADDY: Isn’t our highest point here, 1,972 feet, which is just less than 600 meters. We have a little cliff down the west coast of Ireland called the Cliffs of Moher. We call them the Cliffs of Less ’cause ours are almost three times higher in our respect.
The other ones are nice and regimental. They looked like they were built with a square and a plum. These look like something I would’ve built. A lot of things I built is falling down. But no, it’s beautiful. It really is.
Part Three: Country
The Wild Atlantic Way is a 1,500-mile tourist trail along the West Coast of Ireland. It was invented in 2014 to attract travelers, and it’s worked. And as you drive along it and look upon the snarling ocean and the miles of naked hills—you can kinda get how hard life must have been here before modern technology and the global economy arrived.
I took a detour from it and visited Glenties—the town my most recent ancestors hailed from. It was early in the morning and the town was quiet. When I found the local historical society it was temporarily shut down. If I wanted to get a better sense of the world my grandmother’s family had left behind I would need to go someplace else.
GLENCOLM AUDIO TOUR: I think this is God’s own frame. Uh, of course, naturally as both by, as a Donegal man and biased, but you’ll get beauty like this, uh, comparably, beauty, any, and any country in air an Ireland. But, um, I think it’s a beauty, a beauty of God.
Glencolmclille Folk Village sits on the crook of Glen Bay beach—it’s a clutch of thatched cottages on a hilltop. Founded in 1967 by the man you just heard, Father McDyer, the village is a replica of the impoverished rural community McDyer found when he was assigned to this region by the church in 1951.
AUDIO TOUR: When Father James first arrived in the parish, there was no electricity in people’s houses, no piped water, no parish hall, no industry or economic infrastructure in the area. He said about getting recognition and grant aid from the people whom he’d like to. The bureaucratic authorities.
After he modernized the local village he undertook an act of karmic jiujitsu: He created a replica of the premodern village he’d first encountered—and he did it to give employment to that very community.
I toured it with the woman in charge Margaret Cunningham. It’s a funny little place. When you walk into the first cottage you encounter a life-size replica of Father McDyer.
BRENDAN: I, um, was already frightened by that guy in there.
MARGARET CUNNINGHAM: Yes. That’s a replica of Father James McDyer, who founded the museum. I’m sure you would’ve picked up a few bits and pieces about him throughout the place.
BRENDAN: It’s startling though, that. Have you ever been spooked by that mannequin?
MARGARET: Yes. And every single visitor is. And I think the funniest thing I’ve ever seen was the smallest man in the parish carry carrying him through the grounds. We putting a fresh coat of boot polishing in his hair, but it was really funny. Somebody was driving over the road and see this really tiny man, he’s about four foot nothing, carrying that huge statue. And it was just the funniest—he looks a bit like Ronald Reagan.
Each little cottage in the village is filled with artifacts that tell the story of Ireland. There’s a a replica of a town store with old Guinness beer bottles, and a fisherman’s cottage, and a famine pot, the cauldron where food scraps were accumulated and boiled into soup during hard times. It all felt a bit like a movie set and apparently that wasn’t a coincidence.
MARGARET: When we were small, somebody was musing the fact that Liam Neeson might play Father McDyer in a movie. So what happened only last March? Who came here to be in a movie in that particular cottage? Only Liam! Liam Neeson. Do you wanna take a look at it?
BRENDAN: But what was he doing here? What was the movie?
MARGARET: It was an action movie called In the Land of the Saints and the Sinners.
BRENDAN: And he was using this as a part of the set?
MARGARET: Yeah. This was the set it’s called Farnborough Cottage. And if you walk around—this movie was based in the ’70s so we fell out wonderful props and artifacts from the ’70s. Yeah. Because this house went to the ’60s when the museum opened in ’67. But then everything in it, we brought it up to this ’70s. It’s funny the way a Hollywood movie made us kinda revamp back into a proper home feeling.
BRENDAN: And also Liam Neeson’s not a bad-looking guy.
MARGARET: He’s not a bad looking guy. I got to meet him and when I was leaving, he says, “Do you not wanna photograph?” Of course I do!
Margaret is not an actor herself, but she is right out of central casting: beaming, confident, game. I felt a kinship to her immediately.
BRENDAN: So what are some three things I should remember or take away with me when I’m here in Donegal?
MARGARET: Well, I think for us in particular, the location, the scenery, the beauty, the culture, the craft, you know, the fact that that is lived on—and I hope you get to hear some of the music. The music, the people, and the crafts.
BRENDAN: What are the people like in Donegal? What differentiates them from other parts of Ireland?
MARGARET: I think—what I’ve heard before is that, because we’re so cut off, a lot of our way of life and kinda humor and culture was kept because it wasn’t infiltrated as much in other ways. And people tend to like our accents. Do you like our [accents]?
BRENDAN: Your accent’s pretty damn charming. I’ll give you that.
MARGARET: Yours isn’t so bad either! [laughs] It’s been really nice talking to you, Brendan. I really appreciate you coming here because, for a long time, we were sort of forgotten, but not anymore!
My last night in Donegal, I stayed in the town of Ardara, about 40 minutes north Glencolmclille near another inlet. For dinner I had fish, chips—and a glass of wine. I’m still my mother’s son, after all. After I ate, I strolled down the main street and poked my head into a local pub.
There was a small room with a bar that opened out into a longer room, which was filled with musicians performing songs. They weren’t a distinct band but instead locals who showed up with their instruments and were taking turns performing. There was a handsome silver-haired man with a flute. A lady with spectacles on a string around her neck playing fiddle. All around them a crowd gathered round holding pints of beer.
I took at seat at the bar and, next to me, three men in their 20s were talking excitedly. After ordering a drink and taking in the music for a bit, I started to have an uncanny valley kind of experience. The guys I was sitting next to, they looked a lot like younger me. I felt a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge looking back on myself with the Ghost of Christmas Past. In fact, had it not been for my hipster tote bag with a microphone peeking out of it, I could have passed for one of their older brothers.
Perhaps it wasn’t the fact that I didn’t identify with my Irish heritage that kept me away from Ireland so long, but the opposite: It felt too familiar. These faces, these smiles, the outgoing nature of everyone I’d met. It was reminiscent of my father’s family and many of my schoolmates growing up.
On the other hand, my Croatian family was kind of exotic to me, something to learn about and explore.
When I travel I’m usually looking for a vibe shift. Something new to sink my teeth into. And Croatia fit the brief. Ireland, I guess I assumed would fall short. But the past couple of days taking in the history of Donegal and its physical grandeur, there was depth to it that I hadn’t anticipated.
And then a funny thing happened.
A young boy passed by wearing a Ronaldo soccer jersey. It reminded me of the little kids in Croatia who run around the cafés at night as their parents sip beer and take in performances of klapa and other local folk music.
And I remember sitting there, too, and feeling at home.
And for a moment I felt like less of a stranger to my own self. For a moment I felt whole.