Sample text for The Irish way : a walk through Ireland's past and present / Robert Emmett Ginna.
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From Malin Head
NEVER IN MY DREAMS HAD I QUITE FORESEEN THE WILD BEAUTY of Malin Head, not as I saw it that September day. I was standing at the most northerly point of Ireland, a high promontory jutting into the North Atlantic Ocean. Rain pelted down; curtains of it raced across the cobalt sea rolling toward the jagged rocks just offshore and bursting over them in cascades of emerald.
Though I was waterproofed head to toe, I took shelter in a crumbling lookout post erected during the Second World War as Ireland was guarding its vaunted neutrality. The rain dripped through every fissure in the ruin and made blots in my journal. A tiny fireplace in the corner of the hut would have given scant comfort to a sentry enduring a winter storm here.
Below me, the headland fell away over slabs and crags and grassy patches to the surf beating against the shore. At its rocky lip a little cross marked the place where a youth, heedless of Plato's warning that the sea makes a dangerous neighbor, had been snatched away by a great wave. On a green plot the word eire was picked out in white stones, perhaps so the pilot of a transatlantic airplane descending toward Britain might sight it on a clear day, a welcome landfall.
Behind me rose the signal tower built in the nineteenth century by the British Admiralty on Malin Head, or Banba's Crown, as it is also known, after one of the several mythological names for Ireland. The tower was long manned by Lloyd's of London, the dauntless insurers. The approach of ships bound for Britain would be semaphored to the tower from the now deserted islet of Inishtrahull, six miles offshore, then telegraphed to expectant shipowners in British ports. Shipborne radio changed all that.
Intermittent shafts of sunlight slashed through the rain, illuminating distant hills and fields. Far to the west, beyond the great gash of Lough Swilly opening to the sea, Donegal's Derryveagh Mountains were a purple backdrop. In the near distance verdant fields were interspersed with heather-covered bog, the green patches dappled with sheep and cattle, and here and there was a white cottage.
As the rain lightened, I stepped out into a pool of sunlight beneath the tower and caught sight of two small fishing boats, perhaps a mile offshore. Suddenly, they were haloed by a double rainbow. A happy portent for the journey I was about to begin-a walk through the heart of Ireland, the length of the country, north to south, from Malin Head in Donegal to Kinsale in Cork.
I HAD FIRST COME to Ireland decades ago and found a country much like the posters that invited tourists. Thatch-roofed cottages of whitewashed stone nestled in the green bosoms of its hills; donkeys carried wicker baskets piled with bricks of peat cut for farmhouse fires; tinkers, later called itinerants and now, formally, Travellers, plied the roads in their painted wagons; and sheep and cattle were driven along Dublin's North Circular Road to the docks. To be sure, there were some industries; Ireland's universities continued to be centers of learning; the Abbey Theatre and the Gate Theatre were world renowned, as was Dublin's Institute of Advanced Study; the country produced playwrights, poets, and artists. But until the 1970s, Ireland remained a distant, backward cousin of Europe-largely rural, agricultural, and poor. By the dawning of the millennium, however, inventive government policies leading to vast investments by international high-technology companies, the infusion of funds by the
European Community, which Ireland joined in 1973, and Ireland's ardent membership in the European Union, which succeeded it in 1993, had wrought astonishing prosperity. By 1999, this republic of some 3.75 million people was achieving the highest economic growth rate in Europe,
7 percent, and was touted by economists as the Celtic Tiger; it was the apogee of Ireland's prosperity before the information technology bubble burst. I wanted to learn in just what ways this new affluence had affected the land and the people I'd long known. What better way than to view Ireland at eye level? I was eager to see what the Irish had accomplished, what they had gained for themselves and perhaps had lost, and what they had preserved from a rich and tumultuous past.
SO, IN MY seventy-fourth year, I had come to Malin Head, in Donegal, to begin my journey. Paradoxically, the northernmost point of Ireland is said to be in the "South." For Donegal is one of the twenty-six counties constituting the Republic of Ireland, or Éire in Irish, commonly called the South especially by those in the six counties of Northern Ireland, which others casually call the North. From time immemorial, Ireland has been divided into four provinces: Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty, creating the Irish Free State, gerrymandered off six counties from the nine that had made up the province of Ulster (including Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan) to form Northern Ireland and remain part of the United Kingdom. In 1937, the Irish Parliament (Oireachtas) enacted a new constitution, which declared that the twenty-six counties constitute a sovereign, independent republic and that "The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas" and claimed jurisdiction over the whole. However, in 1993, the British and Irish governments jointly acknowledged that reunification of the six counties of Northern Ireland and the twenty-six counties of the Republic "must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the consent of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland." Not until the Republic of Ireland's constitution was emended as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was ratified by an overwhelming vote of the peoples of North and South, did it give up the claim to jurisdiction over the North.
AS A FRESH TORRENT of rain swept in from the sea, I turned away and started off from Malin Head toward the nearby hamlet of Ballygorman. A friendly sergeant of the Garda Síochána, as the police are known in Irish, whom I'd met on my way here, had suggested that I not miss the Seaview Tavern of "Vera Dock"-properly Vera Doherty-in Ballygorman.
The Seaview Tavern is a pub-cum-grocery and filling station overlooking a little harbor, where several fishing boats sheltered behind a high stone breakwater. On shelves behind the small wooden bar were assorted bottles and such dusty goods as batteries in several sizes, locks and keys, Wellington boots, dip for sheep, and nostrums for ridding cattle of worms.
I took one of the few wooden stools and ordered a Powers whiskey. A young couple who had scooted in from the rain ahead of me asked for Guinness. After sipping appreciatively, they remarked that the brew in Ireland was superior to what they drank in London, where both worked. We were the only customers, and after we'd each offered a round, they introduced themselves as Seamus and Patricia. Although she had long lived in London, where she had met Belfast-bred Seamus, it transpired that Patricia was from the area. She and the buxom blond barmaid were catching up on mutual acquaintances when the door opened and out of the rain stepped a character from a Synge one-acter. Lean as a rake, he wore muddy Wellingtons, a shabby tweed jacket, and a conical hat of the shape and size favored by Chico Marx. He asked to see the proprietor, the redoubtable Vera Doherty, but the barmaid adroitly put him off. Undaunted, he launched into a catalogue of the things he could provide the Seaview Tavern at bargain prices. A rapid-fire dialogue of feints and sallies ensued, in which I recall five planks and other building supplies offered and declined before the defeated salesman took his leave.
"A traveling man?" asked Seamus.
"A Traveller, surely," said the barmaid. "I hope the doors of your car are locked. And I hope our stores are secured, as well as the petrol pumps."
By her comment, I was reminded of the long-seated prejudice of the regularly employed and settled against the people now called Travellers. Just then the proprietor and local doyenne, Vera Doherty, appeared and was filled in on the departed peddler.
"God help us! You did well to be shut of him," said Vera Dock.
I would have liked to hear more from the proprietor, and the couple offered another round, but it was midafternoon, and although the sun would not set until late evening in this latitude, with the rain still falling, I wanted to move on before dark. So, I bid all a good-bye, pulled up my hood, and set off, squishing along in my Gore-Tex togs.
Ahead I saw a cluster of white buildings and the tall radio masts of one of the Irish government's three land, sea, and air rescue stations. Curious, I sloshed the half mile or so there, hoping to be admitted. I was fairly sure that if you wanted to check out one of the government's key communications facilities in the United States, you'd have to go through channels and, in this age of terrorism, possibly be checked out by the FBI. But this was Ireland. I walked up to the principal building and knocked on the door.
A slender chap with thinning hair and a ready smile opened, and I introduced myself. Mike Mullins, for so he was, ushered me in to a large room on the ground floor, said that he was one of two radio officers on watch-they stand twelve-hour tricks-and introduced me to the other, Jack Kenny, a burly man with a grand red beard and twinkly eyes behind metal-rimmed glasses. He sat before a panoply of receiver, transmitter, computer, printer, and other instruments to the right of a similar setup, which was Mike Mullins's post.
Jack Kenny was responsible for the "emergency channel," transmissions from and to aircraft, vessels, and those on land in need of emergency aid. At the adjacent console it was Mike Mullins's duty to communicate by the "working channel" with the services that must deliver that aid by land, sea, or air, calling for ambulance, lifeboat, helicopter, or other aircraft as required.
On one wall of the room was a huge map of Ireland, dotted with disks representing the locations of helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, ambulances, and other medical and rescue facilities. Other markers placed around the many-fingered coast of Ireland indicated the positions of the government's rescue craft. Mike Mullins explained the sequence of operations that follows receipt of a distress call and showed me the forms on which are recorded particulars of each call and its disposition. He handed me a log for the years 1947-1997, in which were entered the distress calls from ships and aircraft. Most seemed to have been either sinking or afire, and I found chilling the frequent terse notations "sank," "ditched," and "crashed."
Just then, the station's commanding officer-crisp in white shirt and black tie-appeared, and Mullins introduced me to Regional Controller Mike McGarry. He headed a crew of fourteen men, each of whom must have served at least two years at sea as a radio operator. Jack Kenny told me that he had served more than twenty years afloat in the merchant service.
"Do you prefer being ashore?" I asked.
Kenny thought for a moment, stroking his beard. "I do now, but when I was young, no."
Showing me to the door, Mike Mullins told me that he had been a radio operator for four years at sea aboard the M. V. Doulos, as part of Operation Mobilization, a Christian missionary organization. "I was a missionary," he said.
As he opened the door and I stepped out, Mullins spoke the words of an old Irish toast: "May the road rise up to meet you . . ."
I chimed in with "May the wind be always at your back . . ."
"May the sun shine warm upon your face . . ." he continued; then, as he shook my hand, he altered the usual closing, saying simply, "God bless you."
I knew Mike Mullins meant it.
THE RAIN HAD eased to a dense mist when I struck off in the dim light of late afternoon for the village of Malin, some six miles south of Malin Head on Donegal's great peninsula of Inishowen (from the Irish Inis Eóghan, or Owen's Island), named for a son of the great High King Niall of the Nine Hostages. Referring to the detailed Ordnance Survey map for this
section-its scale one centimeter to one kilometer-I chose a little byway, a bohereen, or bóthairín. Although the rain still fell steadily, the wind had slackened, and I made good time across a treeless landscape, passing the occasional cottage and one derelict farmhouse, which enjoyed a grand prospect. My map indicated "standing stones," ancient megaliths, off to my right-the country roundabout on Inishowen is sprinkled with megalithic tombs, ancient single standing stones, promontory forts, and ring forts-and I trudged across a sodden field in a fruitless search for the two close by. Then, after one gradual ascent and a somewhat steeper descent, I arrived in Malin, a little village laid out around a triangular common, typical of the plantation settlements of the seventeenth century, when King James I of England and VI of Scotland planted loyal Scottish and English subjects on lands seized from the refractory Irish. At the apex of the common was a pretty Church of Ireland (Anglican) chapel, and on the east side was the small, attractive old Malin Hotel, recently renovated, the
family-run establishment of Martin and Bridie McLaughlin.
After a scrub, I dined very well in the hotel's cozy dining room. A lively waitress recommended the chowder, and it was memorable, rich with plump mussels. In a benign mood, I sallied forth for a stroll around the little village. Malin boasted three pubs, besides the hotel's attractive bar, and I dropped in to McGonagle's. No lights showed from without, the curtains were drawn, and within the one public room ten people-eight men, two women-were playing cards, matchsticks for chips. The play was swift, conversation sparse. When one player came to the bar, a kibitzer took his place.
"What's the game?" I asked the cardplayer.
"Thirty-five," he said, glancing back at the play. "In thirty-five, with only two cards out, you pretty well know."
I didn't know thirty-five and was none the wiser but ordered a whiskey and regarded the gold stud in the barmaid's right nostril. Besides the cardplayer and me, only an old-timer, nursing a Coke and puffing on a full-bend pipe, occupied the little bar. He and the barmaid had been conversing in Irish, and the odd man out joined in; their Irish was hardly more impenetrable than their brogues in speaking English with me.
Above the bar, which was finished in bright new pine, hung a clock whose face, with Roman numerals, bore the legend j. a. johnston, carndonagh and was set in a handsome marquetry case.
"Would Mr. Johnston have made both case and works?" I wondered aloud, indicating the clock with my pipe.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Ireland Description and travel, Ginna, Robert Emmett Travel Ireland, Historic sites Ireland, Walking Ireland