Sligo is Yeats Country and the county’s tourism board spares no opportunity to remind you of this fact at ever turn. Picnicking in our cozy room by the sea the previous night, we YouTubed some readings of the poet’s most famous works – mesmerizing, but a little sombre. We speculated that the dreary weather must have significantly influenced his outlook and that if he’d been born in southern California, he might have produced some more optimistic stuff. We visited his grave at Drumscliffe and left the rest of the designated Yeats Country trail to the diehard fans.
Amazingly, the rain stayed away and we strolled along the shore glimpsing sobering reminders of sad events in the village’s history – a monument dedicated to fishermen lost at sea, or yet another roofless stone cottage overgrown with grass and moss, probably abandoned suddenly during Famine times. It’s eerie to think about the lingering effects of that devastating event, and interesting that the Irish are notoriously generous when it comes to providing aid to famine-stricken African countries today.
We spotted the famous Metal Man, a navigational aid in the form of an Royal Navy officer, strategically positioned in the bay to direct ships to the right channel. Legend has it he’s the only man in Rosses Point never to have told a lie.
Our next destination was further north still, in County Donegal – a couple of days into our visit, we’d decided we could probably make it clear around the whole coast of Ireland without too much trouble, so Donegal was a natural next step in the journey. Before making our way to our B&B we stopped in Ballyshannon, Ireland’s oldest town, and then Donegal Town for lunch. While there we spotted a pretty badass-looking castle towering over the town, so we sauntered over to check it out – we’re down for the occasional tourist attraction, and it was amazing to walk on stones laid five hundred years ago and imagine the feasting and debauchery that had once taken place in the massive banqueting hall.
Our accommodations for the evening consisted of a charming room on a working sheep farm – we’d easily seen more sheep than people in Ireland, but hadn’t had a chance to spend much quality time with any thus far. Here was our opportunity. The farmer, a jovial chap whose accent we could barely decipher, was kind enough to demonstrate the herding prowess of his team of sheepdogs for us. It was magical. He chose two of his veteran dogs for the task, for the task, and untied a younger pup who was barking frantically and eager to tag along. We followed them out to the field. Suddenly, a series of whistles and shouts sent the dogs racing away from us at top speed, and within seconds they were out of sight. Moments later they reappeared at the top of a small hill, flanking a group of four little white sheep trotting along closely together. More whistles and shouts of ‘Lie down, Clint! Lie down, Laddie’ and ‘That’ll do!’ caused them to advance toward us, stopping and starting until the bewildered-looking sheep were delivered right to us. It was pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever seen involving sheep. These dogs were absolutely thrilled to be given such an important task and assert their dominance over the hapless sheep. When not in demo mode, they work for real – herding the whole flock of 400-strong to and from the pasture at the start and end of each day. The farmer was rather tickled by my enthusiastic reaction to the whole exercise and was curious to hear about our lives in the big city. We told him how city dogs, live lives of leisure and don’t have full time jobs. He listened bemusedly until it was time for him to go out to the bog and harvest turf – a substance traditionally used for heating in northwest Ireland. All in a day’s work.
Speaking of sheep, I have to remark on the difficulty I had in finding a stylish wool sweater, made of Irish wool, in Ireland. I figured I’d come across one at some point – after all, sheep seem to outnumber people 500 to 1 and they must be doing something with all that wool. A friend told me about Aran sweaters, which used to be made for fishermen by their wives – each family used a different pattern, and sadly these unique patterns were sometimes the only way drowned fishermen could be identified. Despite or perhaps because of the Aran sweater’s morbid history, it has gained international recognition as a must-buy product when visiting Ireland. Unfortunately, as I was forced to accept, a pregnant woman cannot possibly look attractive while sporting an Aran sweater. I searched high and low for one with buttons or perhaps a stylish sash, but no shop I visited carried such innovative version of the traditional staple. Instead, they supplemented their small supply with vast quantities of stylish mass-produced clothing made with merino wool, which in case you didn’t know, is in no way indigenous to Ireland. Salespeople helpfully pointed out that these merino sweaters were made in Ireland, using Irish patterns, and seemed puzzled that I was keen on buying wool actually originating from the thousands upon thousands of sheep in the actual country we were in.
The farmer’s wife mentioned we were only an hour’s drive from Slieve Ligue, the highest marine cliffs in all of Europe. So that evening, we decided to hop back in the car and try to find them. It was no easy task – this small part of Ireland is predominantly Irish-speaking, and signs were tough to read. We got hopelessly lost but were glad we did, because we happened upon a dolmen. What’s that, you ask? Only a rock tomb dating from the freaking neolithic period. We managed to lose ourselves further trying to get to a castle perched on a hilltop surrounded by farms, and were at one point forced to stop and wait for a herd of sheep to vacate the roadway (where were those sheepdogs when you needed them?), but eventually, we found our way to the cliffs. Our timing was serendipitous because a large barrier was blocking access to them but a couple of local teenagers in a car ahead of us simply got out and opened the barrier, leaving it open for us to follow them through. In the suburbs, teenagers are stuck with parking lots, but these kids get to party by the highest marine cliffs in all of Europe. Of course, they were spectacular and I had plenty of time to gaze upon their beauty while waiting patiently for a certain perfectionist to get the perfect shot. On the way back, we stopped in Killybegs for a smorgasbord of local seafood.
That night, we went into Donegal Town in search of some craic – it was Friday, after all. We found it in the lively Reel Inn, a very old pub whose owner could be seen joining in the traditional music jam with his accordion. The guitars strummed and the old man went to town on the squeezebox, while an even older man bashed away at a homemade drum. It sounded great. The tightlipped German tourists may have felt otherwise, but an astonishingly drunk local guy was simply on fire, jigging up a storm with every girl in the place (even me!) before passing out peacefully on a friend’s shoulder. Riccardo and I made snide remarks about an odd couple sitting nearby – the lady was clearly Irish, as I heard her unmistakable accent when she jovially reminded me that Guinness is good for the baby, but her husband looked too snooty, skinny and sober to be local (we noted sneeringly that he had been nursing the same glass of orange juice all night). We nicknamed him Mr. Burns, and decided he must be the guy having the least amount of fun in the whole place – and there were a few contenders for that title, such as the exasperated-looking wife of a tourist who absolutely had to video the entire evening for posterity. But Mr. Burns took the cake – every time his merry-looking wife looked away, he checked his watch.
But then, a TSN turning point. The owner-accordionist stepped down, creating a vacancy in the musicians’ circle. Riccardo and I noticed Mr. Burns’ wife give him a nudge, and we glanced at each other, eyebrows perked. Burnsie looked back at his wife without a word… and slowly, almost painfully, got to his feet and approached the empty chair at the front of the pub. The room fell eerily silent. Even Paddy and his friends looked on to see what would happen next. And then, Mr. Burns picked up that accordion and began to play. The other musicians, bewildered but clearly impressed, joined in one by one as he led a lively traditional air. Of course, he was a real virtuoso – how could he not be after that scene? – it was wild, straight from an 80s movie. He sat in on a few tunes, fingers flying but face oddly expressionless, until the regular accordion player returned and Mr. Burns’ brief, dazzling musical career came to its abrupt end.
How’s that for a thrilling day?