By Bill Heaney
Unfortunately, there was rain on the wind when we rolled up the hill towards our Donegal destination, one of the most northerly points in the south of Ireland.
If that sounds Irish, then it is. Despite a promising forecast from the Met Office that we might expect sunshine, that bitterly cold wind had suddenly got up.
And it was spitting bullets made up of a mixture of salty seawater and icy rain, which hammered loudly against the windscreen of our new Range Rover, keeping the wipers swishing rapidly.
We were on the well-named Wild Atlantic Way, which is drawing more and more Scots across the Irish Sea to trace their ancestry and visit the West Coast counties of Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Limerick and Kerry.
Or, as will happen later this month, to attend the Open Golf Championship at Royal Portrush, one of the finest links courses in the British Isles.
We had a good trip over on the Stena Line ferry from Cairnryan to Belfast and the chief steward, Mary, and her efficient team had looked after us well in the Stena Plus lounge.
The coffee and tea on tap – and even wine if you wanted it – refreshed us along the way and we were sustained with snacks and burgers and delicious bacon rolls.
That’s the way to do it if you want your holiday to get off to a good start.
The roads were safe and wide as we motored from the port through the North with a capital N and the much loved towns of Dungannon and Derry.
We had crossed the bridge at Toome, where an old song reminded us of the rebel Roddy McCorley, who met his death at the end of a rope there.
And Castle Dawson and Bellaghy, the home place of the poet Seamus Heaney, where there is a centre dedicated to the Nobel prize-winning laureate and his work.
We had to drive North along the N56 into the South, through Letterkenny, Dunfanaghy and Falcarragh with its surfing school in the main street and on to Gortahork and eventually the townland of Magheroarty.
Our house for the week was one of a number of small, white bungalows, converted farmhouses dating back to Famine times.
The well-kept house clings to a cliff high above the pier, looking out from a wonderful landscape window which provides the most beautiful of bella vistas.
There are magnificent views over endless miles of mountains, including Muckish, green fields and golden, sandy shores to the islands of Toraigh and Inis Bo Fin.
That is as the widely-spoken Irish Gaelic language would have it. They are Tory and Inishbofin in English.
Next stop, out beyond them, is Rockall, Greenland Newfoundland or possibly even New York.
We were two tired brothers-in-law travelling together for a welcome break from domesticity, neither of us terribly enthusiastic about doing the cooking.
Óstan Loch Altan (Hotel Loch Altan) in Gortahork, the main town, is modestly described on its website as “a casual roadside hotel with a restaurant”.
And then there is Coll’s Bar or Teach Coll in Magheroarty itself (+353 87 783 6415), which is cosy and casual with great cocktails and, of course, Guinness to die for and a large selection of ales.
Down at the pier in Gortahork, where the ferry leaves for the islands, there is the Loft Bar & Restaurant, a good, homely Irish pub which is open until half an hour before midnight.
And sometimes a little later.
Summer hadn’t arrived and Coll’s was closed that night, so we opted for the Loch Altan, where we received a warm welcome, pints of cold black stout and a tightener to see us through to the full Irish we would drum up for ourselves in the morning.
Carried away by the craic and the generous hospitality and the excellent food in the hotel, we sank a few pints and crossed the road to Billy’s Bar and a great song and music session.
I was almost talked into singing myself.
That is the great thing about Ireland. The rain doesn’t matter because there are so many great places like Billy’s to shelter.
A taxi took us home, up the hill, and we stayed up late, talking politics deep into the night.
Scotland and Ireland were involved in a dispute over Rockall and inevitably Brexit stretched the night towards dawn before we headed for bed.
Books and newspapers around a blazing turf fire comforted us through the hangovers of the next day until we decided to head out to dinner to Coll’s restaurant and bar about which we had heard so much.
This was fine dining in a rural setting with a superb menu including local fish dishes, chowder, tempura prawns, sizzling scallops, sirloin steaks and puddings. My favourite was a chocolate basket filled with mint chocolate chip ice cream.
And there was excellent service and a wine list which city restaurants would envy and which we appreciated all the more because the prices wouldn’t break the bank.
We went to Coll’s every evening from then on. It was superb.
The weather was never good enough to go swimming or even to take the boat out to Tory Island as we had intended to do, so we had the odd day when we drove down to Dungloe and our favourite Donegal pub, Beedi’s Alehouse in the Main Street.
We received a failte go Beedi’s from the owners, Maire and Dave Mullis, who have the place spick and span as ever and where they have created new, residential accommodation in flats up above, which looks brilliant.
As usual, we tried our luck on the horses and this time we won enough from the bookie to cover the price of the holiday.
What we didn’t do, as I have said, was get over to Tory Island, but we’ll tell you a bit about it.
It’s a long and narrow rock off the north-west tip of Co. Donegal.
The island is home to a small community of artists and Maire from Beedi’s and her friend, Margaret, from Dungloe art club take day trips out there.
They paint there and visit the art gallery in village of West Town, where the inhabitants mostly speak Irish.
There is a strong sense of community and independence on the island and they even elect their own King of Tory, whose job is to promote and protect the interests of the islanders.
In 1884, a gunboat, the Wasp, was sent to collect taxes from the islanders but was wrecked on the rocks near the lighthouse and broke up with the loss of 52 lives.
In the 1970s, the Irish government tried to evacuate the islanders to the mainland, so that they could use the island as an artillery firing range, but the islanders refused to move and stayed put.
On Black Friday, Friday the 13th of June, 2003, a boat full of contestants for a TV reality show called Cabin Fever hit the rocks off Tory and sank, with no loss of life but causing this show to be postponed for a considerable length of time.
The word Tory itself was a name given to Irish bandits who robbed and plundered in the north-west of Ireland during the 17th century English Civil War.
They purported to be on the side of the Crown and so the name was subsequently applied to those who upheld the prerogatives of the Crown.
In time, the name was given to those who resisted change and protected the old order, or conservatives, which is why the Conservative Part in the UK is known as the Tory Party.
- Bill Heaney, editor of The Democrat, travelled to Ireland from Cairnryan in Scotland as a guest of Stenaline. Details available here: https://www.aferry.co.uk/cairnryan-belfast-ferry.htm
The Cairnryan to Belfast route is a fast and comfortable crossing to get to Northern Ireland. Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, and offers its visitors a whole host of attractions; from the Titanic museum, the Belfast Zoo and its beautiful cathedral. Belfast is also a great starting point to exploring the rest of Northern Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway is a stunning World Heritage Site offering picture perfect sites. More recently Northern Ireland has become popular with Game of Thrones fans, where tours of locations used in the series can be visited.
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