The top of Glengesh Pass in Donegal, Ireland is breathtaking. You’re in one of the most remote corners of the country here, sparsely populated, windswept and wild. You’re as likely to hear Gaelic spoken as English, for life hasn’t changed a whole lot over the past hundred years. The land and sea and the weather it brings still govern people’s lives, as it once did in the village of Port.
Coming down off the pass leads you to Ardara, famous for its weaving. Take a left and you end up in the holy land of Glencomcille, deep in the Gaeltacht. The rain has been alternating between pounding and steady, the wind buffeting the car and it was a helluva a climb to the top of the pass. Particularly as it was being driven by an American who has no great love of heights. With a nasty hangover as well.
I’d spent most of the past two weeks in various stages of drunk, chasing the fiddle music of county Donegal. Some places resurrect their regional folk music. In some places it never died, and Donegal is one of those places where the tradition has continued unbroken. This isn’t the diddly dee most people think of when they think of Irish traditional music. They don’t get the foreign tourists here like they do in other places. Down south they often play a slower, lilting style. Up north it’s fire and blood. It’s the Led Zeppelin of Irish music. At its heart it’s a single fiddler, maybe two playing tunes passed down from generation to generation.
In a lot of places, the people who play Irish music almost make it a point of pride not remembering the name of a tune. After all, they know so many. Up north they can tell you the name, the person they got it from, who they got it from before that, and the story of their lives.
Blame it on the mountains. It made traveling outside of the area difficult. It kept outsiders away. And it blocked the radio transmissions of the early twentieth century which would have brought new musical styles in much sooner.
So that’s what I’ve been doing, which means hanging out in a lot of pubs, where I had no choice but to be sociable and drink. The day before in Teelin, on the edge of the world, the music started late in the morning. Whiskey was flowing shortly thereafter. I have a vague memory of staggering back to the B&B late that night. We didn’t make it till closing time. Before we left I had a curse put on me by a witch.
This was the morning we found out whether it stuck or not.
I took a right, back towards the wild, windy north Atlantic, and the abandoned ghost village of Port.
It wasn’t long before we were on a single lane road. It didn’t matter as there was no traffic. There were no signs, very few cottages, just open bog and rain. I was on my third raincoat since I’d arrived. I didn’t pack one because I figured there’d be more of a selection in Donegal. I was right, but I didn’t expect to buy a whole range of them.
The first proved impossibly light – the rain poured in every available orifice. The second one … I don’t remember what happened to it. But it didn’t work either. Finally in the fishing village of Killybegs I bought a lined wax coat, with drawstring around every opening and a hood. I was ready.
Somewhere out in here was the hamlet of Kityfanad, if anything of it remains. All I know about the place is a fiddler came there by the name of Padai Bhilli na Ropai. He’s famous for a tune called the Black Mare of Fanad, as well as a few others. There is some debate about whether the Fanad in question lies further north, where there’s a peninsula by that name. The tune is known there as well, credited to a fiddler by the name of Doyle. But the source for the tale was John Doherty, a traveling fiddle who worked a circuit that took him to Ardara and this area. John was as important for the stories behind the tunes as he was for the tunes and his otherworldly technique. But John’s stories tended to vary depending on where he was and who was playing for. I wasn’t going to be in Fanad, but I was sure we were Kityfanad, and so I adopted it as the home of this tune.
John Doherty is quoted telling the tale in the book The Northern Fiddler. “It seems that Fiddler Doyle was returning home on horseback after playing at a dance party when he came to a crossroads, a place where visions had lately appeared of an old druid. As they approached the crossroads the horse, seeing the apparition when the man didn’t, shied away, and Fiddler Boyle, unaware of what might be wrong, had to exert mastery of the animal to get it to approach the road again. As horse and rider arrived at the intersection once again the vision reappeared, and this time the horse halted and threw back its head. Boyle managed to stay on the mount, but the horse’s gaze was fixed to the side, and he finally broke into a gallop. The vision stayed at the horses side and Boyle finally saw what it was. Though frightened, the fiddler and his mount finally made it home. After retreating to bed and sleep, the next morning Boyle was inspired by the rhythm of the horse’s hooves on the road and heard a reel in his mind, which he called “The Black Mare of Fanad.”
At the time we visited Port, there were no instructions on the internet to find it. It wasn’t on any maps. I finally found it on the Ordnance Survey Map, which was spread out over half the car as we were sure we had to be lost. But then there was the ocean, and there was the turn marked on the map, which looked a road to nowhere.
I took it. As you come over the rise the Atlantic is below you. It’s almost like a shallow bowl, open on one side with the sea rushing in. We parked, I got out of the car to see how badly it was raining. It was tolerable, but the wind almost blew you over. Still, there were the ruined cottages just in front of me, so I took a step towards them. I sank almost to my thigh in the bog. After fishing my boot out I was pretty wet, but the coat held. I put my boot back on and said “come on.”
One of the things this area was famous for was its rope. The wind was giving a lesson in why. The winter gales that come off the north Atlantic are fierce. Concentrated in this shallow bowl, they’re amplified. These cottages date from the 19th century if not before and were roofed with thatch. Thatch is held down onto the roof with ropes and if the rope doesn’t hold, you lose the roof. The rope that these people made to hold their roofs down had to hold and so they developed their own technique. The wove together the boiled roots of fir trees which made an exceptionally strong rope, and became one of the few commodities that came from Port.
It’s believed that Port was the first port opened in county Donegal. Trawlers still come in on occasion, but the port, like Port itself is long since abandoned. It’s often said it was abandoned during the famine because of lack of food. Caoimin MacAoidh, author of Between the Jigs and Reels – which had become my defacto tour guide, told me they left because life was just too damned hard there.
And yes, on a day like today you can see why, as there’s a gloom that settles on you as wander the abandoned cottages. There are ghosts here, watching you as you move through their homes, those hardy roofs long gone, doors and windows as well, nothing left but stone skeletons.
Once there was music here, and dancing. I stood in front of a hearth in one of the larger cottages. The best place for dancing was there on the hearth stone, as it was often hollow beneath for the ashes. The hearth stone was missing, but I could see the man in his heavy boots dancing before me on it, hear the scratchy fiddle coming from the corner of the room and feel the hot breath of the people within the small space.
Though the village itself had been abandoned long before, people continued to live here for periods of time long after. It was a place to pull yourself together, to plan your next move, to hide away from the world.
The walls of the cottage blocked the wind, but without a roof it didn’t do much about the rain. The waxed canvas did a great job of repelling it. It ran in rivulets down my arms, off my head and managed to find its way up inside the cuffs, around my neck and inside the coat, soaking the lining. I figured “what the hell” and abandoned my attempt at shelter.
Eventually I wandered out and down towards the sea. Some madness seized me and I decided to walk out a few feet into the water. The beach was stone, not pebbles but stones big enough to fit into the palm of your hand. I was happy to see my boot were waterproof after all, and didn’t plan on going out over the tops. I’m not stupid. Or so I thought.
The first waves that sizzled around my feet, grabbed the back of my boots like hooks and pulled me back towards the sea as it went. The rocks were like glass and within a couple of seconds the water was over the boots, and almost up to my knees. I danced that delicate dance people do when they’re trying not to topple over into the surf. So I wasn’t even aware when the second wave hit, splashing halfway up my thighs. As it receded I slipped further out, almost to my knees. It was time to panic, or at least make my way to shore.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked, and for a moment I thought of just letting go, getting out into deeper water and swimming towards the shore a bit to my right. But I instantly realized the waves would throw me into the rocks behind me. Or if I did make it away from this stretch, I’d be pounded into the jagged rocks that lay to my sides.
There’s a creek that runs into the ocean here, and I recalled a story about it. Tarlach Neill, head of the clan of Ui Bhaoill had a daughter, Siobhan who was learning to swim in that creek. She was swept to sea and drowned.
I inched my way back towards shore, moving a tiny bit then bracing myself to stay put when the next wave tried to pull me out.
There’s an alternate version of that story. In that his daughter was to be married to a man who lived nearby. She didn’t love him, instead loving a sweet boy from here in Port. When the day of the wedding came she ran. She ran here to Port with her father in hot pursuit. As she reached the low cliffs looking over the ocean below, the cottage beyond where her beloved lived, he caught up with her. She was given one last chance to come back and go through with the marriage. She refused. Her father picked up and threw her off the cliffs and onto the jagged rocks below, and washed away by the sea.
I finally stepped out of the surf and back onto the stones.
When we travel we look for those perfect moments. They aren’t always the happiest moments, the most beautiful sunsets or the most exotic locations. They’re those places where you’re swallowed up by where you are, by the moment. For me, it’s the moments that become timeless, where you’re no longer who you were a moment before, but someone else entirely.
That was my perfect moment. There was nothing happy about it. Port is a desolate place, though I hear it’s quite nice when it’s sunny. It’s a place of hardship, so much that even the hardy soles who lived here gave it up. I looked beyond the ruined cottages and saw in the distance a red one, still intact.
I haven’t been back to Port, nor Ireland since then. But I will, and soon. Ireland is a place of natural beauty, amazing history and there are so many places to see. But when I come back, it’s to that red cottage, which as it turns out is available. It’s where I’ll stay, where the scenery is shrouded in mist, where the history has been forgotten, but the ghosts are still there. I hope it rains.
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