Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Inishowen Peninsula - from Fort and Famine to Feast

On the second day of our visit to Co. Donegal we went on a guided tour of the Inishowen Peninsula on Lough Swilly - The Lake of Shadows. This was unusual on two counts - one, we never opt for guided tours, preferring to do our own thing and neither of us like being herded about - look this way and that and then the bus goes in 10 minutes - and two, this was a totally new part of Ireland for us both, which gave the day a real holiday feel.

The Inishowen Peninsula is renowned for Ireland's most northerly point Malin Head - which we didn't get to, but the drive along Lough Swilly on the western side of the peninsula gave a good sense of the place.

The fact that the weather was positively Mediterranean made it even more magical, as coach tours in Ireland are notoriously nightmarish if it's raining. Being incarcerated with about 60 strangers while a chirpy guide extols the virtues of the countryside - shrouded in mist through the condensation on the windows - is most peoples' vision of hell, while the rain from the last expedition across the car park to some unmissable sight drips down the back of your neck and you realise your shoes weren't as waterproof as you'd thought! No, that's not my cup of tea at all, so I enjoyed the afternoon tour of Inishowen for all of the above reasons.

We stopped at two major attractions in the area - Fort Dunree and Doagh Island Famine Village. I'm not really into Military anything, let alone Museums - so I wasn't prepared to be overly impressed by Fort Dunree, a defence point on the shores of Lough Swilly dating from 1798 and which housed the entire British Fleet during the First World War as it sheltered from the Germans. It was actually interesting to hear how it remained in British control until it was handed over to the Irish Government's Defence Forces in 1938. There were a number of key “Treaty Ports” around Ireland that Britain didn't relinquish until well after Irish Independence - and this one was the last to be handed over. The little anecdote about it is that the Union Jack was lowered by one British Officer, and the Irish Tricolour was raised by an Irish Officer - and these two men were brothers-in-law! They were married to two sisters, and I suppose it's a nice metaphor for Anglo-Irish relations after the fraught tensions engendered by Ireland's neutrality in WWII which we euphemistically called "The Emergency". The views from this rocky outcrop were spectacular and I just enjoyed these rather than the dungeon-like bunkers and museum.

Our next port of call was Doagh Famine Village which was absolutely fascinating. The guide spoke at breakneck speed in a strong Donegal accent which really needed subtitles for those of us unaccustomed to it. But what a narrative - very strong social links to current issues, be they famine in other parts of the world or the nation losing the run of itself in the property boom - we' were all getting a bit like the landlords of yore. The exhibits were static and very geared towards the tourist as everything was multi-lingually labelled - French, German and Dutch - probably reflecting the clientèle profile. The fact that someone had the initiative to start up something like this in such a remote corner near the northernmost tip of the island of Ireland has to be impressive, and the owners have a real passion for their work.
The Great Famine of 1845-49 had a lasting impact on the Irish psyche that still resonates and provokes strong emotion in any debate - and clearly demonstrates how famine is and always has been a man-made disaster - the crop failure is almost always incidental and the catalyst is usually social and political ineptitude and apathy. Ireland has never regained its pre-Famine population of 8 million, after over a million died and millions more emigrated on the aptly named "Coffin Ships".

The thatched cottages are lovely and folk-museum-like, and some were positively arcane - in the Ripley's Believe it or Not category, such as the depiction of the Irish Wake tradition in rural Ireland which lives on in so many places. We learnt a lot of trivia that would make the day for any pub quiz aficionado - like the origins of "Dead Ringer", "Saved by the Bell" and the significance of "Snuff at a Wake" - neither of which I knew before. Dead ringer and Saved by the Bell refers to the fear of being alive which led to a string being led from the hand of the corpse in the coffin through a pipe to above ground where it was tied to a bell - and someone sat watch by the grave for a few days - so you could be saved by the bell if you became a dead ringer! (These are hotly disputed origins on some websites so make up your own mind!). Snuff at a wake was extremely popular but could be rationed by being placed on the deceased's chest in the open coffin and as the mourners paid their respects they took a pinch of snuff - and that prevented people coming back for seconds! Normally we would say that something is "thrown around like snuff at a wake" to infer excess and largesse - as in the "banks were throwing money around like snuff at a wake during the boom".

We ended our tour with traditional tea and soda bread and jam in the farmhouse kitchen which was done out in the style of the 1950s - and was a lovely way to wind down the day. We were driven back through the mountains of Insihowen to Buncrana along some of Ireland's most treacherous roads that have claimed numerous young lives in recent months and years - 8 people were killed in one catastrophic head-on collision in July and when you see the roads there is no room for speed as they are pretty unforgiving.

That evening we enjoyed the "craic" at the Gala Dinner for the conference delegates and guests. We were entertained by a lovely choir singing some wonderful harmony and they sang "The Derry Air" better known as "Danny Boy". There was an uninspiring speech from the Minister for Social Protection - an Orwellian rebranding of what was once Social Welfare - Éamon Ó'Cuív, a grandson of DeValera, Ireland's first Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and comes from a political dynasty - something that characterises a lot of what is wrong with Irish politics in that it reinforces a sense of entitlement rather than a meritocracy.

We had a lovely meal and an early night, unlike the previous night when a spontaneous sing-song in the bar kept us up till past 2am and was thoroughly enjoyable. As I write this the Taoiseach (PM) Brian Cowan is in trouble for a poor interview he gave yesterday morning after a late night at his party's conference in Galway and he's being slated for it, as the Twitterati are buzzing with whether or not he was hungover - he was certainly unwise to agree to a Morning Ireland live radio interview at 8.50am when he was drinking and singing in the bar until 3.30am - with the current state of the nation going down the economic tubes there's a strong sense that "the peasants are revolting" against this poor taste and bad judgement - a sort of Nero fiddling while Rome burns moment.

After Donegal we went to the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland and drove down to Westport, then on the final day we went home via Connemara, so there's plenty of fodder for another post in a day or two. I hope you enjoy these travelogues and maybe you'll be inspired to visit this corner of Ireland some day.

The photos show:
  • Lough Swilly
  • Fort Dunree
  • Thatched cottage at Dooagh Famine Village
  • Plaque at Famine Village
  • Depiction of a Famine Eviction
  • Me in a cottage kitchen with the "Box Bed"
  • Jan and me at the Gala Dinner


T. said...

Great post! Two summers ago, my husband and I toured (by car) the same places -- we were delighted beyond belief to stumble across the Dooagh Famine Village -- it was odd and wonderful and so obviously the passion of a single imagination. And Inishownen is spectacular in itself. Are you familiar with the Joseph O'Connor novel Inishowen? One of my faves.

Catherine said...

Sounds like you had a similar trip to ours! I see just now over at your blog you've been in Mayo also. I had never heard of the Dooagh Famine Village till now and I really enjoyed it - sometimes it's good to play tourist in your own land. Gives it a different perspective. I haven't read Inishowen, but might do so - I've only read his funny books - The Secret Life of the Irish Male - hilarious! He is very good on radio he did a weekly slot commenting in verse on topical issues. I used to podcast them on the RTE Drivetime website. He has a caustic wit.
All the best, Catherine

Stephanie V said...

I knew I had to get back to Ireland! I keep learning about all that we missed last year. Your photos inspire me. And your travel info is good, too. History is always interesting if we just remember it's all about the people. Thanks for sharing.

Marguerite said...

Just catching up, after losing my internet connection for a while. Looks like a fabulous trip! Such a beautiful place and one that I would love to visit someday. The Dooagh Village is so quaint and charming and the Inishownen Peninsula is breathtaking! Thanks for sharing!