Roar of the Celtic tiger reaches Donegal

By Mike Higgins

Mike Higgins rediscovers his Irish roots on a trip to the town of Ardara.

At Loughros Point in Donegal, you can pick your own mussels and go snorkelling for crabs. Photo / Thinkstock
At Loughros Point in Donegal, you can pick your own mussels and go snorkelling for crabs. Photo / Thinkstock

Funny things, big families. Take my mother's, the McFerrans. Nine children there were, and for a good few years they left Northern Ireland: they emigrated to the States, South Africa and "the mainland".

Now, though, four of my mother's siblings own homes in Donegal. And not just anywhere in this remote north-western county of the republic, but on one spit of land, Loughros Pt, just outside the small town of Ardara.

Auntie Colette was the first to buy a cottage there, in the early 70s, then Uncle Bro 15 years later, and most recently Sheila (Christine's cottage is actually a few miles up the road in Glenties).

Why? You might well ask. Donegal is landfall for every major weather system that howls in off the Atlantic, and Loughros Pt, jutting into the Atlantic, gets a pasting from most of them.

I was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, but brought up in South Africa and England, so I've never felt quite as Irish as the rest of my family.

All I remember from my first visit to Donegal in 1976 was the light - there wasn't much - and the Arran jumpers Mum bought me and my little brother: they itched like hell and smelled funny in the rain.

My first proper memories of Donegal, however, are from 1984, when I was 12. We stayed with my Auntie Colette in her thatched holiday cottage, and over two sunny weeks in August, my brother, cousins and I ran up and down the huge, empty dunes of Liskeraghan and Maghera beaches.

You could pick your own mussels on the Point, and go snorkelling for crabs. And when it rained we tagged along to the pub with our parents. While they got stoked on Guinness in Nancy's Pub (not much more than a front room) or Peter Oliver's (good for musicians), we didn't have to sit out in the car like we did in England, waiting for crisps and lemonade to be ferried out to us - we could come and go as we pleased, until 11pm, midnight, whenever closing time came round or Uncle Fred ran out of ciggies.

But even though Ardara was just four hours' drive from Belfast, Donegal was a good quarter of a century distant from the UK.

Cows occasionally blocked the main street while many local children spent their summer holidays working on the small family farms in the area.

Nobody seemed surprised when Dad told them that we'd been stopped in our car by a poacher - a man had sprung out of a ditch, opening his long, grubby coat to reveal a large fish hanging from the lining. He stuck his head in the window: "Would you be after a rock trout?" The "rock trout", it should be said, bore an uncanny resemblance to a salmon.

I was back with my family a year later, when the big news of the summer was the arrival of garlic in the local mini-market. Garlic! Not that Ardara wasn't cosmopolitan. Since the 70s there have been plenty of Scandinavians and French to be found, and not just tourists either. In fact, if you spot a nicely restored thatched cottage in the area, it's a fair bet that its owner is from Copenhagen. And blame for the grim bungalows that dot the Donegal landscape can be laid at the UPVC, double-glazed doors of the locals.

These early travel memories were hard to ignore as, 29 years later, I returned to Donegal for a family wedding. The weather report forecast uninterrupted sun for the weekend. I knew better and packed as if I was about to spend three weeks on a North Sea trawler.

Over three baking-hot days, dogs were seen to pass out and Donegal basked in the sun. But through the sweat that poured from my brow, I noticed the 21st century had finally arrived in Ardara.

Today, it is an international tourist destination. A coach-load of Italians was booking into the recently extended Nesbitt Arms Hotel as I passed. The town even has a proper Chinese restaurant now. This diversity would seem to go hand-in-hand with a new cultural self-confidence. You now hear more Gaelic spoken on the street.

But the most telling accents you hear out and about are those of the English visitors - for the duration of "the troubles" many English acquaintances of mine seemed to believe they wouldn't be welcome anywhere in the north of Ireland. The Donegal beaches, the sea cliffs of Slieve League, the Guinness you could stand a wooden spoon in - none of the tourist-brochure images I painted for my friends was as vivid as that of a burned-out car in Belfast on the news.

Back in the mid-90s I remember getting together in a pub with a few cousins who, like me, had been brought up in England. There was a fiddler there too; as the evening went on he began playing rebel songs, and in a way that suggested we ought to finish our drinks and go.

We disagreed, more drink was taken and the music stopped altogether so the fiddler and my cousins could get down to a proper drunken row. In the end, no one had the stomach for a ruck, thankfully. Tempers calmed and the fiddler left.

We were then told that he was a Dublin bus driver who took a couple of weeks off each summer to tour the pubs of the West - he was spoiling our holiday, as much as we had apparently spoiled his.

Now that peace is breaking out, fitfully, across Northern Ireland, Donegal is benefiting, and there's a touch of glamour about Ardara. There were posters for the annual Ardara Show; the year before, Sarah Jessica Parker had been roped into handing out an agricultural prize, and had bought herself some Donegal tweed in Triona, a shop on the high street. She and her husband Matthew Broderick, the son of a Donegal family, have a cottage in Kilcar.

But it takes more than yer woman from Sex and the City to turn heads in Donegal. Americans have been pitching up in search of a "roots experience" for generations.

Auntie Colette bought her cottage in 1975 from an American whose family had lived in it before emigrating in the 19th century. The day after my cousin's wedding, my girlfriend and I visited Glenveagh Castle, which, from 1937 to 1983, was owned by a wealthy American, Henry McIlhenny (his grandfather emigrated from Donegal to the US where he'd made a bob or two inventing the gas meter). McIlhenny would invite friends such as Greta Garbo to Glenveagh.

Today, the extensive gardens McIlhenny developed are well worth a visit, as is Glenveagh National Park, but prepare yourself for the interior of the heavily crenellated house - "camp" doesn't really do it justice.

I return to Donegal more often now. I live close to my cousins in London. But it's in a small town on the weather-blasted northwest coast of Ireland that we seem to enjoy getting together.

As I said, big families are funny things.

- INDEPENDENT

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