On a Clear Night You Can See the Northern Lights

Sunday, 21 September 2003
Glencolmcille, Co. Donegal – Malin, Co. Donegal

As always, we were up early. Carrying luggage out to the car, I passed the landlady in the hall, and she said “You’re up early!” rather disapprovingly, which made me laugh.

On our way north, we stopped in Ardara, which is, the D-K Guide Book says, “… the weaving capital of Donegal and it has a proliferation of shops selling locally made tweeds and hand-knitted sweaters.” I’d wanted to buy a Donegal sweater for Jesse, and it was here that I did so (I’d purchased an Aran sweater for myself earlier in the trip).

We were headed, ultimately, for the Inishowen Peninsula, still in Donegal, where we were to stay in the village of Malin, the closest place to Malin Head, which is the most northerly point on the island. But first—the Giant’s Causeway, which is in the north of Ireland. Donegal, of course, is very much in the north of Ireland, but it’s a part of the Republic. The Giant’s Causeway is in Northern Ireland, and we were going to drive through two of the six Irish counties over which Great Britain claims sovereignty.

Taken outside Letterkenny on the way to Derry. This is Lough Swilly—really a sea inlet.

Taken outside Letterkenny on the way to Derry. This is Lough Swilly—really a sea inlet.

Everything changes in the North … Most importantly, we could not use our cash there, as England has yet to accept the euro (don’t get me started!). We passed through Derry (Londonderry on your map, though no Irishman would call it thus), and then Coleraine, taking main highways, rather than scenic ones, so as not to linger.

Once we got to the site, we had to pay to get into the parking lot (a common—and to my mind, convenient—way that entrance fees are handled on the island): five pounds. We didn’t have pounds, of course; the attendant, when pressed, would take euro, but the price increased by about one-third, to 10 euro. This was the first of several minor annoyances, all related to the pound-versus-euro issue, which soon had Gerry growling crossly, “Get me back to the Republic!”—after all, we were still on the island of Ireland, and many of the tourists here were Irish and/or European. Yet the venue still holds strictly to its pounds sterling policy.

It had been raining—not heavily—off and on all day. When we got out of the car, it was raining and cold, so we put our coats on and headed off to the unusual geologic formation known as the Giant’s Causeway. The official guidebook says, “It is composed of thousands of strangely symmetrical basalt columns which jut out of the sea” on the northern shore of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. “… The Causeway is a product of the volcanic activity which altered the face of Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland many millions of years ago.” Most of the columns are hexagonal, and are about twelve inches across; it is a purely weird sight, I tell you.

It’s tricky walking. Here I was picking my way down to the water’s edge.

It’s tricky walking. Here I was picking my way down to the water’s edge.

It was very wet and misty, as you can see.

It was very wet and misty, as you can see. Click to enlarge.

Pretty astonishing! Giant’s Causeway, 2003.

Pretty astonishing! Giant’s Causeway, 2003.

The name Giant’s Causeway comes from an old Irish legend about a giant, Finn MacCool, who laid the causeway to provide a path across the sea to his girlfriend, who lived on the island of Staffa in Scotland—and, in fact, similar basalt columns are found there. I tried to research Finn MacCool online, and it seems that the character has basis in fact: “Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhail) is a semimythical character said to have been the greatest leader of the Fianna, the military elite of ancient Ireland responsible for guarding the High King. The Fianna were founded in 300 BC by the High King Fiachadh (fee-a-kuh). Until Finn MacCool implemented a code of honor among them, the Fianna were an unruly band. Finn challenged the Fianna to become champions of the people and to make of themselves models of chivalry and justice. Some argue that the tales of the Fianna are the basis of the legends of the Knights of the Round Table.” (The website I took this information from is no longer found, sadly.)

At the top of the path, Gerry stopped. It was a long, loooong walk, all downhill, disappearing around a bend at the bottom of the cliffs. “Are you sure you want to climb back up?” he asked me. But yes, I did want to see the Giant’s Causeway, and on our way down we were passed by shuttle buses, and were thus comforted that there was, in fact, a way back up.

I definitely thought it was worth it.

I definitely thought it was worth it.

The sight was worth it, although it was swarming with people, one of the busiest places we’d been on the trip. I took lots of pictures, and, when we were ready, lined up with others for the shuttle bus … but when it arrived, I learned that my money wouldn’t work. The trip was just 60 pence, a pittance, but no euro were accepted. Dagnabbit! The official Giant’s Causeway Web site says that they get over 500,000 visitors a year—and I find it astounding that the euro is not welcome there.

I’m calling for a boycott! 🙂

So guess what—I saw the Giant’s Causeway, and unlike the thousands of tourists who see it annually, I walked all the way down, and all the way back up. (Yes, it took me some time to quit panting, and Gerry did laugh at me—he also carried my very heavy camera—but I don’t care because I did it.) My only disappointment is that they don’t sell T-shirts that proclaim “I saw the Giant’s Causeway on foot”—purchasable in the gift shop for 20 pounds sterling, of course (or with Visa, the international currency)!

After that adventure, we high-tailed it back to the Republic, backtracking over the route we’d recently come. Our destination: the Inishowen Peninsula, ancestral home of the O’Doherty clan, and the eastern-most part of County Donegal. Once again a distinctly different terrain, Inishowen is the largest peninsula in the north (twenty-six miles in length, and at its widest twenty-six miles too), and is surrounded by the sea on three sides.

On the Inishowen Peninsula, 2003.

On the Inishowen Peninsula, 2003.

There’s no good way to get to Inishowen, really, without driving through Northern Ireland (which has, by the way, a very distinctive accent, as does each region in Ireland). Today one barely registers the change in country—there’s no elaborate border crossing, which might surprise some of you—but I suspect that some years ago that was not the case, given its proximity to Derry, which has been at times a hotbed of sectarian infighting.

Inishowen Peninsula, 2003. Spectacular view from that house, no?

Inishowen Peninsula, 2003. Spectacular view from that house, no?

We were going to Malin, which is just seven miles from Malin Head, the most northerly point of the island of Ireland. Malin is a seventeenth-century plantation village (like the Israelis who persist in building towns in territory not truly their own in the hopes of taking it over through sheer numbers, the English “planted” thousands of their countrymen in Ireland—and they very nearly did succeed in taking it over). An interesting feature of the approach to the town is the bridge with its ten arches spanning Trawbreaga Bay, upon which the village sits. It is the second largest stone bridge in Ireland!

Ten arches, built in 1758: the bridge at Malin, 2003.

Ten arches, built in 1758: the bridge at Malin, 2003.

The original triangular village green is still intact, planted with limes, sycamore and cherries, and recently with oaks to commemorate the O’Doherty clan. We were booked into the Malin Hotel, which sits right on that delightful village green. There’s only ten rooms in the hotel (I just looked that up!), but when we arrived there, the bar and restaurants (there were at least two) were packed with locals enjoying their Sunday lunch (kinda like the Cracker Barrel in Murfreesboro at noon on a Sunday).

I loved this place!

I loved this place!

The Malin Hotel was definitely my favorite hostelry on the entire trip—everything matched (without looking like it’d had the heavy hand of an interior designer), and on every wall there were beautiful works of art by contemporary Irish artists. I’d been searching during the whole trip for a nice print to splurge on, but all I’d seen in the gift shops on “the tourist trail” was this stuff by a Philip Gray, Ireland’s answer to Thomas Kinkade—very over-the-top, idealized and saccharine, and they weren’t even good-quality prints. Finally, here in this tiny hotel was a veritable treasure trove of exactly what I was looking for! After a few enquiries, I learned that the owners bought most of their pieces in Belfast (pronounce this, please, with the accent on the second syllable: “bell-FAST”), and we weren’t going there.

There is a happy ending to this story, but you’ll have to wait for it. 🙂

Now here we were in a lovely hotel on a Sunday afternoon, just in time for the football match—Manchester United versus Arsenal—so you can imagine what happened next: I left Gerry ensconced in the bar watching the game, while I went off in search of Malin Head, snapping photos all the way. Although it was overcast, the sun was breaking through in spots and it had stopped raining—a beautiful day after all! And Malin Head was inspiring.

On the road to Malin Head, 2003.

On the road to Malin Head, 2003.

Getting closer. See the road?

Getting closer. See the road? Don’t forget, you can click on any photo to enlarge it.

And then, there it was.

And then, there it was: the North Sea.

This was what it looked like everywhere. The flora of Malin Head, closeup.

This was what it looked like everywhere. The flora of Malin Head, closeup.

After that, I went in search of a seventh-century cross in the neighboring town of Carndonough, but I never did find it. (There’s a happy ending to this story too.)

By the time I returned to the hotel, the game was just ending (for those of you who follow soccer, this was the game during which there was so much unsportsmanlike conduct that two of Arsenal’s players have just been suspended for three and four games respectively, and four others fined; the events of this match were discussed on radio and television for the rest of my stay in the country), and it was dinnertime. We ate in the bar, which was still packed with local residents (for once I believe I might have been the only American on the premises!). The accents on Inishowen are very much a Northern Ireland accent, which is very thick and Scottish-sounding when they are speaking English; many in that bar, though, were speaking Irish. Most of the time I could barely understand what was being said.

Later we watched a documentary television show on the Celts, which raised interesting questions regarding how they came to give their language and craft to Ireland, how that culture came to dominate the landscape, although there were certainly plenty of other influences. The program basically asked why we automatically think Celtic when we think Ireland. And the whole thing was in Irish (Gaelic), with English subtitles. There’s a treat for you.

OK, OK, that’s enough for one day! But before I go, I have to leave you with the following, which I found whilst trying to locate a succinct explanation of the origins of the Gaelic language, a language that, written, looks absolutely nothing like what it sounds like (example: would you have guessed that the word taoiseach—meaning prime minister, as in “Bernie Ahern, at forty-five, is the youngest Taoiseach Ireland has had”—would be pronounced TEE-shock? Neither would I).

I found nothing succinct, but I did find this, entitled “What is a Celt and who are the Glasgow Celtics?” which made me laugh out loud:

The people who made up the various tribes of concern were called ‘Galli’ by the Romans and ‘Galatai’ or ‘Keltoi’ by the Greeks, terms meaning barbarian. It is from the Greek ‘Keltoi’ that Celt is derived. Since no soft ‘c’ exists in Greek, Celt and Celtic and all permutations should be pronounced with a hard ‘k’ sound. It is interesting to note that when the British Empire was distinguishing itself as better and separate from the rest of humanity, it was decided that British Latin should have different pronunciation from other spoken Latin. Therefore, one of these distinguishing pronunciational differences was to make many of the previously hard ‘k’ sounds move to a soft ‘s’ sound, hence the Glasgow and Boston Celtics. It is the view of many today that this soft ‘c’ pronunciation should be reserved for sports teams since there is obviously nothing to link them with the original noble savagery and furor associated with the Celts.

Tomorrow: the tale of the stealth sheep, mentioned earlier and for which I know you have been waiting with ’bated breath!

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