Exploring Inishowen

6 October 2015, Tuesday
The breakfast room at the Redcastle is spectacular—it sits right on the water and that wall of the room is almost entirely glass. Every morning we were there, I was fascinated by the rising sun and the views of Lough Foyle, either misty or clear. Stunning. (Though occasionally too much—on the sunny days, you might find yourself squinting.)

Watching the sun come up from the Redcastle dining room on the 6th October.

Watching the sun come up from the Redcastle dining room on the 6th October.

The breakfast room is always an interesting point of comparison from one hotel to another; we’d explored every dining option at the Portmarnock, so this was a new adventure. Different brands of white and black pudding, for example. And you could order trout or omelets from the kitchen.

Last time we were on InishowenInis Eoghain (Eoghain’s Island)—we just spent one night, and didn’t have a lot of time to really explore. I wasn’t going to let this opportunity lapse a second time. I’d done my research, and I had a list. 🙂 We had a few days to see it all. Maybe.

So off we went, driving a couple miles north up the coast to Moville. Dropped into a bookstore and picked up a map and a guidebook about the Wild Atlantic Way. (It’s a tourism thing.)

The R238 runs through Moville.

The R238 runs through Moville.

“[Moville’s] most attractive feature,” Wikipedia tells us, “is its handsome Green, a large seaside park in the Victorian style which features bandstands, walking trails, playgrounds, a coastal footpath and sweeping views east across the waters of the lough to Northern Ireland.”

Looking north from the green in Moville.

Looking north from the green in Moville.

We walked down to the green, in fact, though we didn’t go further. We were on our way to Malin Head. When we’d been here in 2003, I’d left Gerry watching a soccer game and gone off on my own to find the head—the most northerly point on the island of Ireland. (Oh, sure, the west coast of Scotland is up there. And the Faroe Islands, and Iceland and Greenland, before you get to the polar ice cap … but still.) But this was before GPS, even, really, before Google Maps. Certainly before the Wild Atlantic Way and the Inishowen 100, which between them have signposted every single little thing.

It would have been nice to have had one of these twelve years ago. :)

It would have been nice to have had one of these twelve years ago. 🙂

What I’m saying is, I didn’t actually find it in 2003. I drove along the northern coastline (the R242), though. 🙂

The terminology doesn’t help. What is a “head”? It’s often a point on the coast with a lighthouse sitting on it, though in the case of Malin Head that is not a true statement. It is a piece of land that projects out from the coast. And in the case of Malin Head, there is a high point (a hill, if you will), called Banba’s Crown, upon which sits a Martello tower. I had seen none of this in 2003. And if you follow your GPS, you likely won’t see it, either. Hence the purchase of the paper map.

If you follow the GPS, you’ll end up here.

If you follow the GPS, you’ll end up here.

Lovely view, though. We got out of the car, walked across the field.

And, well, here he is, outstanding in his field. :) (John took this photo.)

And, well, here he is, outstanding in his field. 🙂 (John took this photo.)

Then we started looking around. First …

A very old culvert.

A very old culvert.

And then: ooooooh … there it is. The Martello tower atop Banba’s Crown. West of us.

Banba’s Crown in the distance. On the left you can see the little one-lane road lined by rock walls.

Banba’s Crown in the distance. On the left you can see the little one-lane road lined by rock walls.

Just for comparison, here we are at Banba’s Crown, looking east, from whence we’d come. We were beyond the “finger” sticking into the sea.

Just for comparison, here we are at Banba’s Crown, looking east, from whence we’d come. We were beyond the “finger” sticking into the sea.

So we drove right up to it, parked in the lot below, and walked up to the tower, built in 1805 by the British to guard against French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Martello tower at Malin Head.

The Martello tower at Malin Head.

John took this one of Gerry and I.

John took this one of Gerry and I.

John at Malin Head.

John at Malin Head.

There’s a trail along the cliff, with all the appropriate warnings about no children, don’t get close to the edge, beware the winds, and so on—it was very windy—and John wandered down a little of it.

John took this photo of the trail along Malin Head, which he called “tame,” at least in this stretch.

John took this photo of the trail along Malin Head, which he called “tame,” at least in this stretch.

Meanwhile, Gerry and I took photos, including one of Ballyhillin Beach, which is a “raised beach,” meaning it’s still there when the tide is high, as it was this day. This is because it was formed about fifteen thousand years ago, when the glaciers began to melt and sea level was much higher. It’s a pebble beach, studded with semiprecious stones, it’s said. (One website I checked said it’s against the law to remove the stones, but—seriously? You’d really have to know what you were looking for.)

Looking east, that’s Ballyhillin Beach.

Looking east, that’s Ballyhillin Beach.

Just below the tower, you can see the word Eire spelled out in stones, put here in 1942-43 because Ireland was a neutral state; if Germans were going to bomb, they needed to move on down the highway to Scotland. Just three years earlier a Coastal Watch had been established to guard against invasion by the Germans; Malin Head was number 80. Allied pilots used these as navigational aids.

The Eire 80 sign.

The Eire 80 sign.

Malin Head is an important mavigational point for other types of pilots too. Only ocean lies between it and the Americas, so Malin Head provides a welcome resting point for migrating birds. This landmark also helps them locate feeding grounds around the loughs (Swilly and Foyle).

John wasn’t gone but a few minutes, and we walked back down the hill and drove on. Of course, we immediately came upon a little junk shop, at which it was imperative that we stop. I bought a piece of Royal Tara bone china—a little cream pitcher. The company was started in Galway in 1953 and closed rather abruptly in 2003, to much disappointment. My little pitcher—creamy white with shamrocks scattered around the top; I paid just €7 for it—is missing the matching sugar bowl, but a search around on the web indicates a sugar/creamer pair is valued at $50.

The Curiosity Stop. Of course! (John took this one.)

The Curiosity Stop. Of course! (John took this one.)

We drove back down to Malin village on R242 along the shallow Trawbreaga Bay (at low tide you can see just how shallow).

Looking across Trawbreaga Bay at high tide.

Looking across Trawbreaga Bay at high tide.

Malin is a seventeenth-century plantation village—plantation meaning the British brought in settlers to colonize the countryside away from the native Irish—with pretty features such as its ten-arch bridge and the triangular green in the center of town planted with lime, cherry, and sycamore trees.

John and Gerry getting ready to walk across the green to the grocer (in search of green teabags).

John and Gerry getting ready to walk across the green to the grocer (in search of green teabags).

More of the pretty village green, with the Church of Ireland in the background.

More of the pretty village green, with the Church of Ireland in the background.

Gerry and I spent a night here twelve years ago at the Malin Hotel, and remembered the experience with delight—particularly the wonderful meal we had in the pub (and the Molton Brown amenities in the room, which were the start of a lifelong and not inexpensive Molton Brown habit)—and all of us were ready for lunch. But when we got there, the sign on the hotel was faded, and, in fact, it was closed for the season. A man working nearby told me it was only open on the weekends even during the summer. (sigh) There was no joy at the grocer, either. Green tea is hard to find in the more remote places (i.e., on the Inishowen Peninsula).

So … we were still hungry and still needed to replenish our green tea supply. Off to Carndonagh, a couple miles away. I’ve since read that Buncrana is the largest town on Inishowen (pop. 6800), but when we drove into Carndonagh—remembering the burgh we’d seen in 2003—we were shocked.

How large you’ve grown, Carndonagh!

How large you’ve grown, Carndonagh!

That’s the Church of the Sacred Heart up there on the hill. I got a kick out of this somewhat snippy commentary from this architectural site (from which I’ve gotten a lot of good information over the years)—

Large Roman Catholic church that proclaims its position over the town and countryside. Done in a vaguely Italianate style with the campanile and crossing tower and dome, described as “Neo-Italianate” at the time. Clearly an example of the mid-century church building in Ireland, as epitomised by buildings of the period in Dublin – vast, lacking in architectural detail, and historically dubious.

—partly because I’ve seen new churches built here in Tennessee that I would call “historically dubious” (and, frankly, ugly too).

There’s a historically very important (seventh century) cross in Carndonagh, right on a main street. We’d seen it in 2003 and thought it would be easy to find, but what with urban sprawl, we weren’t having any luck. We pulled into a parking lot to reconnoiter and realized there was a good-sized grocery store there, and when we went inside, we also found a little restaurant. So we had a pause, found the cross on a paper map, and went back.

The Carndonagh Cross, October 2015.

The Carndonagh Cross, October 2015.

This is one of the earliest and most important high crosses in Ireland. To understand why, you need to know that before the tools had been invented to carve stone into three-dimensional shapes, humans simply carved outlines on stone—like line drawings on paper. So you had a slab of rock and you scratched out a picture on it. This article at Megalithic Ireland (in addition to having much better photographs than mine*) explains, “This early Christian cross is thought to represent the transition from crosses carved on slabs, such as that at Fahan Mura, to a slab that is cut out in the shape of a cross” (emphasis mine). Do read this article. Note that unlike later high crosses that depicted Christ at the point where horizontal and vertical crossed, here he is further down, on the shaft. (Here’s another interesting article, with photos likely taken several decades ago.)

This is the other side of the Carndonagh Cross, flanked by the two pillar stones, with Gerry in the background. You can see in the pillar stones, how the artist would simply use unshaped (or barely shaped) stone, upon which he’d scratch out a drawing. That’s King David with his harp on the left.

This is the other side of the Carndonagh Cross, flanked by the two pillar stones, with Gerry in the background. You can see in the pillar stones, how the artist would simply use unshaped (or barely shaped) stone, upon which he’d scratch out a drawing. That’s King David with his harp on the left.

Here’s David holding the harp, closer. It was an imprecise art, trying to find a suitable stone. This pillar has, perhaps, three sides, with a fourth side too small to draw on.

Here’s David holding the harp, closer. It was an imprecise art, trying to find a suitable stone. This pillar has, perhaps, three sides, with a fourth side too small to draw on.

A better look at the crucified Christ in the center of the cross’s shaft.

A better look at the crucified Christ in the center of the cross’s shaft.

Here are those three figures—possibly the women who discovered the empty tomb—at the base of the cross.

Here are those three figures—possibly the women who discovered the empty tomb—at the base of the cross.

This is on the opposite side of the Psalmist: David the warrior. Or, perhaps, Goliath. Who knows?

This is on the opposite side of the Psalmist: David the warrior. Or, perhaps, Goliath. Who knows?

Inishowen is a small place. We crisscrossed the peninsula several times over the days we were there. On this particular day the shadows were growing long and we meandered back to the hotel—because I had a 5pm appointment in the spa for a foot and leg treatment.

It was wonderful. Worth every penny, and the young woman who did the work was a delight to chat with. I asked her for a restaurant recommendation in Moville and she gave me one we would try out the next day.

And that was the day. Gerry and I made an early night of it.

* It helps when you have professional lighting!

The Stealth Sheep

Monday, 22 September 2003
Malin, Inishowen Peninsula, Co. Donegal – Boyle, Co. Roscommon

It was significantly cooler in the morning, windy, blustery, and raining off and on—which it continued to do all day, although it might be expected in late September that far north, eh? However, I’d come to judge how serious the rain was by whether the windshield wipers had to be run on intermittent, regular, or fast … and this was just an intermittent day. 🙂

We retraced our route south through Carndonagh, and I began telling Gerry the story of my search for the seventh-century cross the day before. I’d found the brown sign the previous day, and we found it again; the cross was allegedly on the highway we would travel to leave the peninsula. I was moaning about having driven up and down “this very road” several times looking for it, when Gerry interrupted me. “It’s just there,” he said, pointing. It was one of those Aaaaaaaaargh moments, because the cross was not but a block from the turn indicated by the brown sign, in plain sight! I do know how I missed it: it’s right on the sidewalk, in the middle of “everyday life,” and the town has built a little roof over it, to protect it from the elements. It wasn’t what I was expecting.

Irish high crosses are beautiful and moving, and the original ones—we’ve visited a few on this trip, and will see more before it’s over—are a thousand years old. Just saying that makes me catch my breath. But this humble stone cross in Carndonagh—as you approach it, it looks like nothing more than a rough, flat, red/tan sandstone slab with a short crosspiece—is four hundred years older than that, has stood in (or near) this spot, a momument to Christ and a memory of the passionate early Christians, since the mid seventh century!

But draw close, there’s more. It’s known, actually, as St. Patrick’s Cross, and is widely regarded as the earliest known high cross, although it is ring-less. The cross represents a transition in design in that it is one of the earliest stone cross sculptures to break free from the slab: earlier cross monuments were carved on slabs (we’ve seen several of those too) but the Carndonagh slab is actually cut out in the shape of a cross. It stands ten or so feet high, and is accompanied by two short pillars, which are also carved. The photos in the link above are better than mine, because I believe the photographer must have brought a spotlight to cast shadows, which would then make the detail more visible.

Carndonagh Cross, east face. Can you see Christ’s face?

Carndonagh Cross, east face. Can you see Christ’s face? It’s about halfway down.

East face again, different angle. Here you can see the east side of both of the small pillars.

East face again, different angle. Here you can see the east side of both of the small pillars.

The east face has what you might call a Celtic knot in the center of the crosspiece area, and in the “armpit” on each side are three birds. Underneath this, on the main body of the cross, is Christ, but whether it is the crucified Christ (common on later high crosses, including the one we saw at Kilfenora two days past) or “Christ in Glory,” it’s difficult to tell; both versions would show him with his arms outstretched. On either side of his head are angels. Below him are three human figures; perhaps they are apostles or perhaps they are “three holy women walking toward the tomb,” a scene which was in those days intended to represent the resurrection. Again, it’s very hard to tell, and different articles I researched said different things.

Have I mentioned that high crosses were originally painted? St. Patrick’s Cross at Carndonagh was almost certainly painted; the fact that the carving on it is very shallow bolsters the argument that color may have been an important part of the original decoration. At any rate, over the years detail has been lost that would possibly make the meaning of the figures more clear.

Carndonagh Cross, west face.

Carndonagh Cross, west face.

West face, with the pillars.

West face, with the pillars.

The west side of the slab is totally covered in that interlacing pattern that we call Celtic knotwork, although it was actually introduced to Ireland from eastern Europe, and was simply improved upon by the Irish. 🙂

So we left the peninsula, finally, and the rainy day, following the same road we took there, since there is very little in the way of an alternate route through that mountainous terrain.

Leaving the rain behind. Oh look! A rainbow!

Leaving the rain behind. Oh look! A rainbow!

At one point (still in County Donegal), I took a wrong turn, and in getting back to the main road we stumbled across one of those brown markers that I’d come to love. This one said “Beltany Stone Circle, 2km,” and that was all the encouragement we needed.

There were several twists and turns involved, but always a sign leading us on, until finally the road just ended, with no clear way to go. So we parked and got out and wandered around a bit, until a nearby farmer hollered across the field, “Looking for the stones?” He directed us up a tree-shaded lane, and off we went, experienced hikers we, haha. That little lane, however, was steeper than it looked, and pretty soon we were huffing and puffing with no end in sight; ten minutes later we glimpsed the stones on the other side of the fencerow we’d been walking along, out in the center of a field with a herd of sheep for companions.

Finally the lane itself ended at a farm-gate, and next to it, on the outside, stood a large sheep, bleating its frustration at finding itself on the wrong side of the fence from its fellows. It looked at us warily as we approached, then skittered away as we got closer. Beside the larger gate was one of those turnstile-type gates I’ve previously referred to as a “kissing gate” (there was one at Glendalough); these gates are designed to keep livestock in while allowing free access to hikers here to see the stone circle, and while also keeping the hikers from either climbing (and potentially damaging) the fence or opening the farmer’s gate (and possibly not shutting it properly). In other words, the kissing gate allows humans free access, but sheep—in theory, anyway—stay safe inside their field.

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate.

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate. Don’t forget, you can click any photo to enlarge it and zoom in.

“Sheep may safely graze and pasture …” as the song goes.

So we passed, one at a time, through the ’stile, and the minute we did, our buddy the sheep moved right back to the gate and continued to cry to be let back in. Gerry will attest to the fact that I was quite distraught by this; I imagined that it saw us as shepherds, and wanted us to help it return to the bosom of the herd, which had stood near the gate on the other side, in sympathy. Once we were in the field, the herd moved off, and we proceeded to do our Sound of Music reenaction.

Standing in the center of the Beltany Stone Circle, high on a hill. What a view!

Standing in the center of the Beltany Stone Circle, high on a hill. What a view! (Click to enlarge.)

The view from the top of that hill was just incredible, and the stone circle was huge, larger than any other circle I’d seen (which, after all, is only Drombeg in County Cork, and Stonehenge, in England).

Another view from inside the circle. The stone in the distance is separate from the circle, though it certainly had some function in relation to ceremonies carried on at the circle.

Another view from inside the circle. The stone in the distance is separate from the circle, though it certainly had some function in relation to ceremonies carried on here.

This megalithic monument dates from 2000 BC; the Irish name Beltany is from “Baal Tine” which means “Baal’s fire” and suggests that the pagan practice of sun worship was celebrated here. It’s 145 feet in diameter, by the way, and contains 64 stones, although there were probably many more originally.

Here you can get a feel for the entire circle. And its guard sheep.

Here you can get a feel for the entire circle. And its guard sheep.

I took several photographs, and we just enjoyed the view for awhile, before we picked our way back across the field (verrrrry carefully) to the kissing gate and the little lost sheep. I wanted to help the poor thing regain its promised land, but Gerry, the voice of reason, reminded me a sheep that feels threatened might charge me and knock me down, and the resulting damage to my old self might well ruin my trip. We did try to open the farmer’s gate—precisely what he wouldn’t want us to do—but failed to budge it, so we left the sheep, still distraught, at the top of the hill and started the (blessedly downhill) hike back to the car.

About halfway down—we were chatting, deciding that we’d about had enough of climbing hills—we were startled to hear an indignant “BAAAaaa!” right behind us (I could have touched him, that’s how close he was): that sheep had followed us stealthily down the hill when he saw we were not going to solve his problem! I can hear him now: “Where do you think you’re going!” Oh, my friends, Gerry and I both must have jumped a foot straight up, and in the process lost ten years off our lifetimes and gained a load of grey hair! Gerry then remarked that he wasn’t sure which had been harder on his heart, the climb up that hill, or the shock the sheep gave us—and at that point we both laughed until we we were hysterical. For the rest of the day, all Gerry had to do to make me howl was to softly “baaa.”

We did quite a bit of driving that day, back down through Counties Donegal, Sligo, and into Roscommon, headed for Boyle, which was to be our stopping place. We were listening to RTE talk radio, as we had throughout the trip. The three big stories of the week were the big brawl at the end of the Manchester United / Arsenal game, which happened the previous day (and which took fully six weeks to be put to rest, by suspending two Arsenal players and fining four others, and I believe two Man-U players will be fined, as well), and the bin tax fracas (Dubliners are up in arms because the city has decided to charge them for garbage pickup), and the ban on cigarette smoking in pubs, bars, and restaurants, due to take effect on New Year’s Day, 2004.

We were nearing Boyle, but as we passed a sign for Riverstown, Gerry said, “Let’s turn off here”—and so we did. A couple years ago, the ESB Archives set up one of their historical displays here, at the Sligo Folk Park. The ESB have produced several of these displays, for different occasions and organizations across the country. The general theme of each is always the electrification of rural Ireland … but they always search their archives to find documents pertinent to the specific area, so each presentation is personalized, and sheds light on the neighborhood, and what life was like there in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and so on.

The folk park itself was quite charming, basically a collection of items from the locals, gathered together. It appears to be curated by the locals, too, and thus is very personal. The main attraction—aside from a large exhibition hall jam-packed with items portraying rural history and agricultural artifacts—is the Old Millview House, where twenty-first-century children can see how their great-grandparents used to live. Both Gerry and I are fascinated by this kind of thing, so we wandered every room and pondered Irish rural life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There’s also a thatched-roof cottage and some farm buildings, including a forge and a pig house (with live pigs!).

It being late September, the place was practically deserted, so we easily located the ESB’s two displays, one about the electrification of Riverstown, and the other in the main exhibition hall (which was made up to look like a village centre), which was a representation of an ESB office of the 1930s, showing those new-fangled electric stoves and refrigerators in the storefront window. My absolute favorite thing, though, was the vast treasure trove of miscellaneous household and farm items filling the exhibition hall … there was even a stuffed cow head. (I do understand, sort of, when a hunter kills a deer—well, no, I don’t get the killing thing at all, frankly, but—I get why he might have the head mounted, or have the antlers mounted. But this was a mounted head of a cow. Bossie. What’s up with that? I am giggling even as I write this. Moooo.)

Finally we found our way to Boyle, and checked in to our delightful B&B, which sat right across the road from Boyle Abbey, the very thing we’d come to see. Our hostess, Mary, was about my age, and she and I bonded quickly when we discovered we were both mothers of grown sons. After unloading the car—and taking a photo of the abbey from the room’s large window—we headed right across the street to the ruins. It was late enough in the afternoon that the place was remarkably tourist-less—we’d watched a tourbus depart just minutes earlier.

View of Boyle Abbey from our B&B.

View of Boyle Abbey from our B&B, 2003.

Boyle Abbey was founded in 1161 by the locally ruling MacDermott family, and was a sister house to the first Irish Cistercian monastery in Mellifont, County Louth. Finally consecrated in 1220, the abbey had survived years of attacks during feuds between the warring MacDermott and O’Conor clans, and would survive many more. For example, in 1235, English forces forcibly took possession of the abbey, seized all the goods, vestments, and chalices belonging to the monastery and stripped the monks of their habits in their cloister. Took their clothes, for heaven’s sake! In spite of this, the abbey survived until well past the Dissolution of the Monasteries, because the English Crown was weaker in Ireland, and the process took longer. Because of the remoteness of Boyle, the community lasted until 1584, when its abbot was executed in Dublin for refusing to renounce his allegiance to Rome.

Boyle Abbey, 2003.

Boyle Abbey, 2003. I love that tilting wall.

Though the buildings were mutilated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when it was used to accommodate a military garrison (and later was used as an armory—surely the monks were rolling over in their graves about that!), the abbey continued to be subjected to raids, making its present well-preserved condition pretty remarkable.

In spite of its abuse, it’s still beautiful.

In spite of its abuse, it’s still beautiful.

We had a nice chat with the gentleman at the entrance gate, who, spying my camera, advised me to look up—at the capitals (the top of a column, a piece between the column and the arch), for which Boyle is especially known, particularly since the Cistercian tradition was for plain churches. “You’ll want to take pictures of those,” he said cheerfully, and so I did. The official guidebook says, “Some of the capitals have trumpet scallops, suggesting a West of England influence. However, the majority were decorated with an attractive range of floral motifs … [and others] were ornamented with animal and human figures. One particular design consists of little men standing between trees and holding on to the branches in a rather stiff fashion. Another depicts a confrontation of two dogs and a pair of cockerels.”

These are those dogs and chickens.

These are those dogs and chickens.

More lovely capitals.

More lovely capitals at Boyle Abbey, 2003.

Funny little men at Boyle Abbey.

Funny little men holding onto trees at Boyle Abbey.

Arch and capital at Boyle Abbey, 2003.

Arch and capital at Boyle Abbey, 2003.

Built between the Romanesque and Gothic periods, the Abbey exhibits features of both, the most notable being the row of rounded arches on one side of the nave which faces a row of pointed arches on the other side. The arches were particularly interesting, I thought, so I took a lot of photos of them, too!

Here you can see both round and Roman (pointed) arches. If you look carefully. :)

Here you can see both round and Roman (pointed) arches. If you look carefully. 🙂

Later we drove back into the town centre and had dinner in a pub, after which we enjoyed a stroll as Boyle began to close down for the evening. And so did we!