To the Horizon
From the coast road, we saw the Atlantic north and west and east, stretching blue to the horizon. We took a looping one lane road on the headland called Horn Head. It was a sunny, warm day and still it was desolate and romantic; the headland was studded with huge whitish rocks that looked like resting sheep. There was no one else on the headland, in either car or on foot; we stopped to eat our lunch but it was too windy to eat outside the car. Even inside the car, the immensity of the Atlantic was awe-inspiring and humbling. How fragile human life is here and everywhere, and how tenacious.
It was only about 30 miles more to Dungloe, but the coast road was narrow and winding, and lovely; we stopped frequently. We took a break at Teac Coll, a pub nearly 140 years old, owned by the same Gaelic-speaking family still. The young man behind the bar spoke into the phone and to customers in Gaelic, and to us in fluent English. He said he had been to the US for college but of course came back to run the pub; who wouldn’t, he said. Do you see how lovely it is here? He told us that people in the Gael Teac regions of Ireland, where Irish is the first language, speak Gaelic exclusively except when speaking to outsiders. Gaelic was forbidden until the 1830s by the English during their rule, and then strongly discouraged, but the Irish in far Donegal never stopped speaking it entirely. The road signs throughout the Gael Teac are only in Gaelic; we resorted to translations in our guidebook to find our way.
The outskirts of Dungloe are a short jog off the coastal road; bland suburban houses and a few new-looking shops scattered on asphalt roads. As we got closer to Main Street, though, the street took on what must have been its 19th century look: narrow stone streets with weathered stone two- and three- story buildings. And Main Street itself, where our Donegal church directory told us the parish house would be, was a lovely sight. Seven or eight blocks on either side of the street are lined with white and pastel painted shops; the sun was shining, and we could see the sea beyond from the top of the street before it dipped and rose again.
We drove down and then up the street, looking for the parish house, but couldn’t find it. Ken stopped the car and rolled down the window to ask directions from two elderly women with shopping baskets on their arms. “Ah,now,” one told us, “the parish house hasn’t been in the Main Street for some time.” She told us how to get to it, and asked if we were visiting. “We think my wife’s grandfather is from Dungloe,” he said, “We are here to see where he came from.” “Welcome home!” she said at once. Her greeting brought me to tears, and surprised me. I hadn’t cried when I saw the soft green and peaceful land where my great-grandparents’ farms had been, or even when I learned about the harsh poverty and ingrained discrimination in that beautiful place that forced their emigration.
But it was different for my grandfather. Why had he not given his children more information about his life? Where had he lived growing up? What was his childhood like? Or was it that no one asked him? Or remembered now what he said? I felt that he had unfairly cut us off from our own history. I was invested in finding him in Dungloe and claiming the town as mine by right of inheritance.
To be continued next week...