I remember interviewing Ned Wynne several years ago and recall him telling me how his life in Athy, which started nearly 70 years ago, commenced with his journey from the family home in Ballylinan. It was by any yardstick a short journey but one which opened up opportunities which would not have been available to him in his home village. As a young man, Ned, in common with the rest of his contemporaries, cycled to dances and it was at one such dance that he met the girl who was to become his wife. “She was just from down the road”, is an expression which might properly describe Margaret Harte from the neighbouring County of Carlow who was to share Ned’s life for over 50 years.
I was reminded of this when last week I attended the wedding of Ned’s grandson, Eamon Wynne, which took place in County Donegal. Nowadays distance presents no obstacle, whether in the pursuit of employment or as in Eamon’s case, the pursuit of happiness. A generation or two ago when young people met they were generally from the same or neighbouring towns or villages. Today the world is a smaller place and the island of Ireland presents no difficulties to anyone willing and able to travel.
Many travelled from Athy for the wedding and for those who like me had no great knowledge or experience of Donegal, the opportunity and the good weather encouraged a prolonged stay in the North West. I drove around the county for a few days paying particular attention to the Innishowen Peninsula and came away with two abiding memories of that part of our island. The friendliness of the people on the streets and in the shops was in mark contrast to what one is normally used to in the Midlands. People greeted you without any preliminaries whatsoever and exchanged pleasantries in a most natural way.
The second most memorable thing about Donegal was the absence of any farming activity of note. Nothing seemed to be growing in the fields which weaved a criss cross pattern in the landscape as far as the eye could see. That is true however, only if one excludes the amazing number of new houses which were to be found everywhere throughout the county. I have never seen so many houses, all apparently newly built or still under construction which filled almost every acre of ground, no matter how isolated it was. From Ballyshannon right up to Malin Head the clearest indication of the locals preference for bricks and mortar was everywhere to be seen.
The houses, many of which seemed to be unoccupied, were not small vernacular farm type houses of rural Ireland, but rather elaborate versions of town houses not always appropriate in design or setting for their rural surroundings. What I wondered was the explanation. Was it, as one local explained, a combination of holiday homes owned by people from outside the county and houses built by locals lately returned from abroad who built houses larger than required for their own needs but with a view to eventual sale. Whatever the explanation, the housing explosion in Donegal is something to behold.
Despite the visual intrusion of so many such houses the glorious scenery which is Donegals is largely undiminished. It is truly a beautiful part of this country of ours which repays in wonderful memories the time and expense of travelling so far north.
I travelled to Glencolmcille, the Gaeltacht village on the edge of the Atlantic the day after the wedding to pay my respects, as it were, to the memory of that great practical socialist, Fr. James McDyer. I met Fr. Dyer once in Dublin at a time when I was attending night classes in U.C.D. He was the principal speaker at an evening debate where he spoke of workers co-operatives in that wild south west area of Donegal which has since become synonmous with his name. McDyer arrived in Glencolmcille in 1951 after spending several years working with Irish emigrants in London and Brighton. The area had no electricity, no running water, no industry and was without a dispensary doctor. He started a number of co-operative projects as well as securing electricity and piped water for the area. He brought hope and confidence to a depressed area of rural Donegal and today the Glencolmcille area enjoys a thriving tourist industry. The good cleric died in 1987 but he left a legacy which endures to this day.
The Innishowen Peninsula on one side lapped by the waters of Lough Swilly and on the other side bordered by the waters of Lough Foyle is the largest of the Donegal peninsulas. It is rich in heritage, much of which can be gleaned from Brian Bonner’s fine book, “The Inishowen Heritage” and Michael Harkin’s book, now in reprint, “Inishowen - It’s History, Traditions and Antiquities” which he wrote under the nom de plume of “Maghtochair”.
However, it was as I headed out of Donegal that I came across a reminder of our most recent history. As you pass through Stranolar a sign signalling the way to the Drumboe martyrs site caught my eye. Up a narrow twisting lane just about a mile or so from the village is a monument standing in the middle of a field commemorating Charlie Daly, Sean Larkin, Daniel Enright and Tim O’Sullivan. The four young men, three from County Kerry, Larkin being from Derry, were executed on 14th March 1923 having been captured and court marshalled by Free State soldiers. The memorial is a stark reminder of a dark period in our history but it’s a part of a shared history which encompasses the killing of many young men who served as either Free State soldiers, Republican soldiers or soldiers in the Great War.
In contrast was the extraordinary sight witnessed in the graveyard of the Church in which Eamon Wynne and Vivienne Davin married last Saturday. Just off the footpath leading to the Church was a headstone on which the names of several members of one family were recorded. The back of the headstone was clear of any inscriptions as one might expect, except in this case in larger than usual lettering and facing everyone walking to the Church door was writ large the family name and underneath “Wine and Spirit Merchants, Main Street”.
It said so much about the spirit of entrepreneurship in the North West. And you know, it’s hard to begrudge the initiative of such a spirited people.