I was born a Brady. So, like 15% of Canadians who claim Irish heritage, going to Ireland feels a bit like coming home.
County Donegal showed me the “other” Ireland, the island country’s upstart wild child. To the north and removed from busy tourist routes in the south, following the wavy, stylized W signposts along the Northern Headlands stretch of the 2,500 km. Wild Atlantic Way revealed a rugged, less-visited region. Shoulder-season travellers who don’t mind dressing in layers and being prepared for a bit of rain will find the often have the narrow, curving, sea-hugging roads to themselves.
The views are stunning, the churning ocean, sharp cliffs and rock formations jutting from the surf providing a backdrop for grazing blackface mountain sheep. If you are lucky enough to be there in April, you’ll see their skipping newborn lambs everywhere.
I was surprised to find a robust surfing culture during a stay at Rossnowlagh. Who knew? There are surf beaches all over the wild coast and you can take lessons, or at least buy a hip shirt that makes you look like you ride the waves.
The welcomes were genuine, no matter where we went. Come in, get warm by the fire, hear a story, have a pint. I rediscovered Guinness. I’ll never forget you again, you creamy-headed beauty.
Ireland’s history feels immediate in this part of the country. I heard about the Great Famine in many places and saw evidence of the hasty and heartless way families were forced off their rented land in the still-standing stone shells of their two-room cottages.
Fascinating Strokestown Park in County Roscommon was filled with stories. Maj. Denis Mahon, owner of the great 18th century house and landlord to more than 11,000 tenant farmers, gave them a choice of the workhouse or passage to Quebec on “coffin ships” during the potato famine of 1845 to 1849. No surprise, Mahon was later assassinated.
Tens of thousands of papers found on the estate by a new owner in 1979 turned out to be a priceless archive. The huge mass of documents included a pleading letter from 19th-century tenants to their landlord to ease their suffering and hunger. It’s now among the items on display at the Irish National Famine Museum next to the great house.
The Wild Atlantic Way also led us to weaver Cyndi Graham, along a winding, narrow road from Killybegs to St. John’s Point and her pretty 18th-century cottage.
The typical Donegal structure was originally on her family’s farm and was lived in until the 1930s.The wee house was moved to St. John’s Point to become Graham’s studio, expanded to include a small retail area displaying her work.
Weaving is literally a cottage industry in Donegal. The famous tweeds were never made in factories, rather done by independent weavers and sold to garment makers.
It’s also traditionally men’s work, “a domain of men, a way of making a living,” Graham said.
The wooden “flying shuttle loom” Graham uses was built in the early 1900s and belonged to her father, a fisherman, farmer and reluctant weaver, who much preferred being at sea.
He helps her now with the business. Her parents live in a neat house is across the road and her mother does much of the sewing on the capes, vests, funky purses, hats and scarves made from lengths of woven cloth.
The loom is built of a series of frames with treadles, or foot pedals, to make the pattern. Some are woven in traditional herringbone, while luxurious long wraps feature Graham’s bold designs and modern stripes. The thin strands of wool she ties on the loom are dyed in colours ranging from traditional Irish landscape hues of heather, moss and the grey-blue sea, to rich port wine and muted orange.
Donegal’s sheep don’t contribute to the tweed, replaced by soft Merino wool from New Zealand
Out in front yard of the cottage, a large Irish hare hopped by, then sat up in a handsome pose with the sea behind him. Irish folklore says these large-eared rabbit cousins are actually witches who have transform themselves to shake pursuers.
National Geographic Traveller dubbed Donegal the coolest place on the planet in 2017. Is it true?
“Of course it us,” Graham said. “I don’t have to be told that. I know that it is.”
“We’re on the edge of Europe,” she said, looking at the slate-coloured ocean where she sometimes spots whales and dolphins.
“I am on the edge of the world and the world comes to me,” said Graham. “What more could you ask for?”