The Travels of a Journalist—3 AN IRISH ESCAPADE IN GLENCOLUMBKILLE
Posted on December 19th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2010

I created adventure out of my global peregrinations even after I turned 50.  I was thinking as if I were a man of half that age when I got engrossed in jogging along the towpaths of the canals of London, the alleys of Tianjin, the footpaths of Happawana or around the golf course in Moorhead, where I live.  

My sense of adventure and my proclivity to explore in relative solitude put me in a situation of unexpected danger during a two-week tour of Ireland involving some 1,262 km of travel in July 1990.

After a 225-km coach-ride northwest from Dublin, we””‚a group of American egghead-types cobbled together by an American journalism professor from Chico State””‚arrived in Sligo July 1 to experience and savor the environs where poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) spent his childhood. Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 for his “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”. 

We spent three nights in Sligo, Ireland’s smallest city with a current population of 17,900, at the Sligo Park Hotel. Although well known for its abundance of shellfish and Yeats, Sligo’s population has remained stagnant, perhaps declined by a 100 or so, over the last 20 years.

On the first night, tour leader John Sutthof enticed our ragtag tour group to converge for postprandial coffee and conversation. We introduced ourselves to one another 

 Yeats-mania

The next morning, we earnestly ventured into exploring Yeats’ country further. We saw the Lake Isle of Innisfree that Yeats immortalized in the lines:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

I experienced the crowning point of the day’s exploration when I had the thrill of reading the epitaph on Yeats’ grave at Drumcliff. Yeats “leaves the world of reason and embraces the spiritual world of eternity” in one of his last poems “Under Ben Bulben.” The sixth verse of this poem ends with his famous epitaph.

   Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Risky Escapade

I had reason to mull over Yeats’s epitaph””‚ “cast a cold eye on life, on death”””‚the very next day (July 3) when our tour group took a day trip to Donegal town, 53 km northeast of Sligo, to see what remained of the Donegal Castle, the stronghold of the powerful O’Donnell clan, built on a bend of the River Eske. (The castle was fully restored in the late “ƒ”¹…”90s.). We also saw the friary where the Four Masters of the Franciscan Order completed their epic Annals in the 17th century.

Just before noon, Sutthof  offered those of us who wanted to explore more of the Gaeltacht””‚the Irish-speaking region of Ireland””‚a bonus tour to Glencolumbkille, 55 km west of Donegal town along a frog-shaped peninsula. I jumped at the offer together with a few others. We took off to this remote village of 734 people passing through places bearing amusing names like Rossylongan, Dunkineely, Killybegs and Carrick.

In Glencolumbkille (the valley of Saint Columba), our instant inclination was to walk to the scenic beach before repairing to the cafeteria in Father McDyer’s  Folk Village Museum for lunch. Sutthof decided that we could do our own thing until 2.15 p.m., when the coach would leave back to Donegal to pick up the rest of the group at Abby Hotel and return to Sligo for the night.

Tucked against a rocky hillside, the folk museum is a composite of cottages grouped to form a traditional, tiny, village (clachan). The thick, thatched roofs of the cottages””‚each a replica of the living quarters of locals over three successive centuries””‚are tied down with heavy rope and anchored with stones, securing them from the harsh Atlantic winds. Period furniture and utensils adorn each little home.

It turned out that while I was exploring the hills behind the museum meticulously keeping track of time, Sutthof and the group had departed the village. So, when I returned to the coach stop at the stipulated time, there was no sign of the coach.

With no cell phones at our disposal those days, the only recourse I had was to leave a landline message for Sutthof with Abby Hotel in Donegal. Then my spirit of adventure egged me on to try hitchhiking all the way back to Donegal town.

In retrospect, this 54 km hitchhiking ride turned out to be a very risky adventure. I made it to Donegal early evening in five stages. First, I received a ride from a local woman, who deposited me at the village junction. Second, a local man dropped me in Carrick (Gaelic for “rock”) on R263.

Carrick was and still is a small but busy village, To the southwest of the village lies the fishing village of Teelin, once the main fishing port in Ireland, a place where beauty erupts from the clash of land and sea. (Quote from a native)

Third, a touring German couple took me up to Killybegs (population 1.280), Ireland’s premier fishing port, where one can see the country’s largest fleet of trawlers.

Fourth, a couple of Gaelic-speaking youngsters took me on a “wild” ride and dropped me off at Mountcharles. It was this ride that engendered me to mull over Yeats’s epitaph and think of my rebecoming. The youngsters, who couldn’t communicate with me in English, seemed to enjoy driving on byways at breakneck speeds to infuse fear in me either intentionally or unintentionally. All I know is that they confused my map reading by not sticking to R256 all the way and not explaining to me their actions. I was immensely relieved when they dropped me off without harming me to get my money.

FIGURE 1

From Glencolumbkille to Donegal: The Hitchhiked Trail

[Control click on the hyperlink below to view the customized satellite map extracted from Google Maps. A=Glencolumbkille. B=Carrick. C=Killybegs.  D=Mountcharles. E=Donegal Town]

fig1

Fifth, a local man picked me up at Mountcharles, a place named after Charles Conyngham, an ancestor of Lord Mountcharles, and took me to Donegal, where a message from Sutthof was awaiting me at Abby Hotel.

Sutthof was apologetic about the agony he had put me through, and took me for dinner at the Atlantic CafƒÆ’†’©. Jim Wilson, our bus driver, returned to Donegal with Sutthof’s wife Barbara to pick up the two of us.  It was almost 10 p.m. when we got back to Sligo Park Hotel.

The next day, on our way to Galway, driver Wilson handed me the coach’s public address system to recount my Glencolumbkille adventure. I put the following rhetorical question to the members of our tour group: How could you not notice the absence of the only colored Asian in the group when the coach left Glencolumbkille a few minutes before the stipulated departure time? No one volunteered a reply.

The rest of the tour of Ireland included stopovers in Galway (two nights), Limerick (one night), Killarney (three nights), Cork (one night), Kilkenny (one night) and Wesford (one night) before the group went their separate ways in Dublin.

Next: More of Ireland and its capital

[The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.]

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