In the introduction to her excellent – indeed seminal and unprecedented – anthology of Ulster prose,[*] Patricia Craig remarks that for her collection Northern Ireland is to be regarded as ‘a geographical rather than a political entity; it consists of seven counties, not the partitioned six or the historic nine. Donegal seems to be inescapably part of the “North”, whereas Cavan and even Monaghan have a less decided orientation. I cannot, for example, think of Patrick Kavanagh as a Northern writer, any more than I would wish to allocate Peadar O’Donnell to the South.’ Donegal is part of the North, yes, but it’s also the place many Northerners go to escape from ‘Norn Ireland’, as we sometimes call it, mimicking one of the province’s accents – an accent Gerard Manley Hopkins termed Chaucerian. Outside the tight wee six is another county famous for its healing powers, a mountainous, often boggy, lough-shining region wedged between the Border and the Atlantic. In the summer months, this particular coastal village is full of Northerners who make merry with those few Southern visitors who return here annually. We gaze out at the blue enormous bay, its long curving marram strands, its islands and roshans and purple hills with the white quartzy dome of Errigal beyond – we stare out and agree that this must be one of the most beautiful places in the whole world. The moist light moves and zings like a Jack Yeats painting – in a different climate these immense empty strands would be lined with concrete hotels. Seasoned and seasonal visitors, we mellow out into the illusion of dwelling in the place. And because we come back again and again, we remember our childhoods here and watch our children swim and play just as we did back in the Fifties when things were intensely peaceful, the fish more plentiful, the crabs ready to be hoked in sackfuls.
Talking to friends here – friends I’ve known for nearly forty years – I almost persuade myself that I’m still living on this island and have just motored across the Border into this great good place where we pull mackerel, cobalt and frantically glistening, out of the Atlantic, then head down to Rankin’s Hotel where we sit up till the small hours singing and shouting and telling stories. Last night and the night before, as Van Morrison intones in ‘Coney Island’, the crack was good.
I could gunge on about my holiday for ages and hack out the praises of a resort I don’t quite want to name, for that might spoil it – or at least my consumption of it. Like Joyce Cary in his exuberant Donegal memoir A House of Children, I could disguise the names of people and places and rewrite as he does To the Lighthouse, but changing Woolf’s dreary Bloomsbury chic into the new Ulster chic, all tatie farls, cute hominess and dacency – Corny Island, in fact. Taking Joyce Cary’s cue, I could disguise the names of people and places, make Lough Foyle into Mannanen, the longest sea lough in Ireland, and turn Ernie McCleery into Sam Watt or the Bubble. Was it Rankin’s Hotel I mentioned? Not at all, it was the Dolmen Bar – named for the famous dolmen in Kilclooney, a place so small it’s hard to find on any map.
‘Would Kilclooney mean church field?’ I ask Barry as we sit in the bar in the heel of the day.
‘It would, Tomás,’ he says, then instantly produces etymologies and all sorts of words in Irish – way beyond the dozen I vaguely know, and can never pronounce right.
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[*] The Rattle of the North: An Anthology of Ulster Prose. Blackstaff Press, 456 pp., £9.99, 25 June, 0 85640 464 0.