MY CHILDHOOD SUMMERS were spent in Gweedore. Four kids (and sometimes the dog) packed into the back of a yellow Toyota Corolla.
We’d sit, giddy like goats, as we set off on our annual holiday to my dad’s hometown, passing the cows and the soldiers that didn’t smile en route through the ‘North’, to the land that smelt of turf.
I returned – my first time in years – expecting to see a landscape soiled by progression and the passage of time. Hitting the road, I put my rose-tinted glasses into their protective case.
Nestled on the northwest coast of Co Donegal, you will find Gweedore. You can approach Gweedore two main ways when travelling by road. The long way or the good way.
Take a left at the Blue Lagoon and follow the mountain road. It meanders through the distinct Donegal hills until you reach the stretch of road that divides Mt Errigal from Dunlewey.
Errigal provided the backdrop to my summers in Gweedore. You could see if from the golf course on return from the beach or bingo. Approaching it on your way into Gweedore it appears as nothing more than a well walked trail. It is not until you pass and cast your eye back that it reveals its true presence in the Donegal landscape.
The first time I climbed it I did it alone in a bout of stubbornness that even a donkey would struggle to emulate. Halfway up I regretted my decision but I couldn’t turn back. So, I made friends with some random hikers by offering my services as their on site photographer.
The mountain doesn’t delay with a lengthy approach and between the bog holes and the scree you will be kept on your toes. And pay heed to the wind – while it may not be the tallest of our mountains, it knows how to drop off at the summit.
From its twin peaks, you can see far below to the lakes and beyond to the Poisoned Glen. And as you catch your breath you will wonder why you haven’t climbed this beauty before.
The sun shines
The sun shines in Derrybeg, just like I remember. A quick stop to see the shipwreck – the cause of many a pirate-based daydream of mine. It remains still. Stuck in the sands, but losing its former glory as it’s shell surrenders to the sea.
But at least it has company in its final years- joined now by the abandoned hotel that looks down from on high. The Óstán Gweedore, now lies vacant and unwanted perched above the dunes of the beach.
The following morning, I awoke to find my glasses still intact and catching the ferry to Gola the tint turned turquoise. The sea was still crystal clear which leads me to think perhaps my memory can be trusted.
My Dad was born on Gola Island. He left it in 1961. We had returned over the years but this trip was different. This time, when my dad talked, I listened. And wished I had before.
He showed me the houses of the men who sailed with Casement on the Asgard. Described how my Great Aunt, Nora Joe, would run to the viewing point above the arches during the Emergency, to watch the splashes that came up as the German u-boats attacked the Americans convoys that sailed past.
The sea poured over the seaweed covered rocks while he pointed to the jut of land the cattle were exiled to graze upon. He laughed as he told of how they swam back (the cows that is) because they were lonely for the company of humans. There were tales of drownings on return from the mainland and he pointed out where ‘the Yank’ lived for a few months each year.
I envy the views
Walking through the ruins of Gola Island National school, now overrun with nettles and stingers alike, I can’t help but envy the view these school kids had. They had no playground or swings or interactive whiteboards but instead they had the sea. At break-time, they fished for periwinkles instead of playing tag or bulldog.
From the fallen down ruins of the old schoolhouse we walk through the fields to my father’s childhood home. It stands there still, looking out to the sea quietly contemplating the memories of the family long departed.
The island also tells the tale of Ireland’s more shameful past. Among the ghosts of the heroes and poets of this island, there lies a corner field walled in and marked only by a gate that says ‘Cliabhán na bpáisti’. A burial ground for the unbaptised children of Gola.
Gola does not cash in on its visitors. A €10 boat ride gets you there and back. The only chance to part with your punt comes in the form of a cupán tae or a bag of Tayto served by Eddie Joe in ‘An Teach Beag’, the islands one-size fits all café.
The rest, the island is for free. I just wish I had cashed in on it all before now.
Michelle McBride is a freelance journalist.
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