7 October 2015, Wednesday
It was a pretty sunny day, much less mist, much more sun.
After breakfast we drove south on the R238 to Muff.
Then we got back on the exciting R239 we’d traversed two days before and found our way to Bridge End (pop. 497) and along the N13 to Burt. We were on our way to an ancient site (in use since 1700 BC)—a ringfort called the Grianán of Aileach.
Sometimes the things you want to visit in Ireland are right out where you can see them (the Cross of Carndonagh, for example). Other times they lie further afield, and this ring fort—built in an age when any unknown human most likely was an enemy, so your home had to be fortified—is no exception. We wound around and up and around and up, until we arrived at a high hill.
The view was positively stunning, and we stood there gaping. (And taking photographs.)
In retrospect, we spent too much time taking those photos before going up to the stone fort. There was only one other car in the parking lot when we got there—just three other people besides us and the wind.
And we went inside. This fort—the home of a Gaelic king—was built, they think, in the sixth or seventh century, atop a much older Bronze Age earthen rath, or hillfort.
It’s impossible to show the scope, really, with stills. Here is a video John took that may help.
We had about five minutes with the fort and our thoughts and the view before the tour buses started arriving—and between them vomited out about a hundred people. It just filled up with people. I am glad John didn’t take a photo of me then, because I won’t apologize for the sour owl manure* look that must have been on my face. It was too many people for the site.
And so we left.
We’d seen a little church marking the turn to head up the hill to the fort, and stopped to take a photograph of it.We knew immediately that it was built to echo the stone fort up the road, but we had no idea it was famous! Begun in 1964 and opened in 1967, this little church was designated Building of the Century by the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland in 2000. Here’s a snippet of an article from ArchiSeek:
The eminent Donegal architect Liam McCormick designed St. Aengus’ Church or “Burt Chapel” as it is locally known during the period of 1964-67. McCormick’s distinct ability to read a site and produce remarkable buildings from that, sets him apart from any of his Irish church architect peers.
The building as most will know takes its inspiration from Grianán of Aileach, the Bronze Age fortification that dominates the landscape above Burt. The area around St.Aengus’ church is steeped in religious tradition, both Christian and Pagan—there has been some form of religious temple in the immediate area since the Bronze Age and McCormick has more than lived up to the task of facilitating an era of a rich tradition.
Now that I’ve read this article, I’m sorry we didn’t go in. (I did discover this sweet video of a wedding held at the church in 1975. Isn’t it just special? The clothing, the hairstyles, her dress, I love it. They’ve recently had their fortieth anniversary, this couple. That is, I hope they have. I wish there were information here about them.)
Instead, we drove onto Inch Island, which we’d already thoroughly documented in photos. I’d heard they had a nice bird sanctuary there. What I can tell you for sure are the roads are tiny—about a lane and a half. Use caution, friends.
You know a GPS is grand to get you to a specific place … but in the more remote areas, you really need a map. So we drove around aimlessly. How lost could we get? It’s five square miles. First we stumbled on a tiny church.
As it turns out, this is the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, built in 1932, near the Carnaghan community. I was both fascinated and repelled by a little grotto shrine near the front door, where the statue of Mary is packed tightly with all manner of mementos, stones, cheap stuffed toys, plastic flowers, and on and on. So I moved on to the cemetery for the gravestones.
We drove on … then stopped at a little beach (at Millbay, I believe). At one point we had to stop for cows crossing the road, being moved from one pasture to the next. John started to video but missed the cows. It’s worth watching, however, for the horses running excitedly along the fence.
Inch Island was gorgeous, with its tiny roads and beautiful homes. There were lots of what we’d call McMansions. (This trend continued up the west coast of the peninsula, thru Fahan and Buncrana; we concluded that property must be so cheap that people are buying here and commuting into Letterkenny or Derry.)
And then we found the bird sanctuary, and pulled in.
From here we crossed back over to the peninsula and drove north, up the west coast on the R238 (again). We were going to see that famous slab cross in Fahan (pronounced fawn)—it was on my list of things to see. We found a church first (always a good sign when you are looking for a graveyard).Built in 1820, this little church is dedicated to St. Mura, who was born in Co. Donegal around 550 and was later appointed (by St. Columba) the first abbot of a monastery here. (Margaret and I saw his crozier at the National Museum in Dublin in 2012.) Behind the church (we didn’t walk up that little rise) are sixty-eight World War 1 graves of Commonwealth soldiers; additionally there’s a memorial to the 256 seamen who lost their lives with the sinking of the HMS Laurentic (and forty-three tons of gold bullion)—right out front, so to speak, in Lough Swilly—in 1917.
But we were going to see a different church and a different gravestone.
I’m always a little taken aback to see these ancient things just sitting out in the open. But there it was, the slab cross. You know about them because we discussed this art in yesterday’s post: long before men had the tools to carve a shape out of stone, they carved lines into stone.
The graveyard was a riot of stones and mounds—quite a mess, really. And yet there were some pretty vistas.
As always, I admired the headstones.
This Victorian-era stone is fantastic.
There’s another important grave in Fahan—that of Agnes Jones. Born into a well-to-do family who moved to Fahan when she was very young, Agnes became a nurse during the time when “nice girls” didn’t do such things. She trained at Florence Nightingale’s training school in London, and later became the first trained nursing supervisor of Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary (a hospital for the poor). She was just thirty-five when she died, but is still remembered for all she did for the poor of Liverpool.
We drove on in to Buncrana—the largest community on Inishowen, remember—and it was remarkably … unbusy. After the season, I guess. Easily found parking and walked across the street for lunch and a pot of tea at a place called Oscar’s. (I failed to take a photo but Gerry and I just found it by using street view on Google Maps. Technology—ain’t it grand!)
After lunch we followed the R238 (it’s everywhere!) northward toward the Mamore Gap. which is some stunning scenery—bleak and rocky—that I failed to photograph. It was late in the day and we were just ambling, taking it all in. The countryside on Inishowen was an interesting mix of seaside with countryside (tree-lined country lanes) and mixing in forestland (evergreens) and the bare, rocky hills.
Just outside Clonmany, we stopped at the Glenowen Traditional Craft Shop. It was one of those eureka moments when you realize you’d put this place on a list of things you wanted to visit, and there it was. Ann McGonigle is the owner; she was personable and fun to talk to. She displays crafts from artisans all over Donegal, and makes/weaves the wool tweed and makes garments from what she weaves. It was beautiful. I picked up a gorgeous throw blanket and Gerry said, “We could spend some of our wedding money.” We smiled at each other and chose the one we wanted. The prices were right. (Later we would regret not buying several.)
We kept following the R238 back through Carndonagh toward the Culdaff–Bocan–Gleneely area and spent an hour looking for things we did not find: standing stones, stone circle, tombs, and so on—Cloncha church, Cross of St. Bodan (by Cloncha), Larrahill court tomb, Bocan stone circle, Temple of Deen, Kindroyhead standing stone, Carrowmore crosses—all within a couple square miles. No really. We drove around and around and around, knowing we were close. We had GPS, we had smart phones. But finally we gave up.
The thing is, sometimes when you see these things you think they aren’t much. A pile of rocks. Gerry thinks we should have a bumper sticker: We brake for piles of rocks. But you have to consider how old they are, that these were important, sacred places for human beings who lived (who manipulated these rocks!) before the time of Christ. It makes me feel as if I am a part of something so vast … Well, I can’t explain it, really. I know it’s not for everybody. But I’ll tell you it was hard to give up that search.
So we went back to Redcastle. First, though, we’d been driving by this churchyard that was perched on the side of the hill—truly, precariously perched—and I wanted to take a photo of it every time. So this time we stopped.
Back at the hotel, we rested a couple hours—I answered email and worked on a manuscript—and then went out for dinner at Inish Fusion in Moville. I’d asked the young woman who gave me my massage yesterday for a recommendation. We’d seen it, of course—it’s hard to miss a purple building. Intimate space inside, and the meal was very good.
This would be our last evening with John. He would be flying back to Dublin the next afternoon, and to the States the morning after that. We had done a lot of laughing and playing and joking, the three of us. Good times. I think Margaret would have been pleased.
* Sour owl manure was one of my father’s phrases.