Prior to the Plantation of Ulster, County Donegal was divided between the O’Donnell and O’Neill clans. When most of Ulster became Northern Ireland, Donegal was severed from its neighbouring counties and County Fermanagh also completely cut it off from the rest of the Republic. It has stayed stubbornly independent-minded and Dublin pretty much ignores it completely.
Donegal is the most remote part of the entire island and as a result, Donegal has the country’s largest number of Gaelic speakers. The main appeal of the region is the natural beauty of the rocky coasts and the windswept peninsulas. There’s no end of outdoor activities in and around the small town of Donegal or further south at Sligo, the regions only city of note.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
For the same reason that we didn’t venture into Patagonia in southern Chile, we decided not to head into the wilds of northwest Ireland. We’re not the most outdoorsy of people and besides we don’t carry heavy-duty hiking gear or clothing for seriously inclement weather. Donegal is famous for its howling winds, thick fog and lashing rain. Though we were experiencing warm days and clear skies for the most part, we didn’t want to risk jinxing the good weather we had going for us so far in Ireland.
For those reasons, we made a bee-line across country from Derry straight to Donegal town and found a simple B&B for the night. Our host directed us to a small hotel restaurant where his wife works, but when we checked the menu outside, it was too upscale for us. We wandered through the quiet streets, past the little square, called ‘The Diamond’ because it’s triangular, and spotted a sandwich board advertising the Manhattan Bar.
Up a flight of stairs and into an ultra-modern pub, we felt like we had been zapped back to New York City from where we had just come. We sat alone in the lounge, it was probably too early for the party crowd, and had a fabulous meal, well within our budget. When we were finished, we climbed back down the stairs and returned to the Ireland we had come to know and love. It’s hard to describe the contrast between the streetscape and the massive posters of NYC’s yellow taxi cabs and other iconic symbols we’d just left behind.
Next we set off in search of the Reel Inn, a place near the little stone bridge a stone’s throw from our guesthouse. The Lonely Planet promised us ‘the best craic in town’ there, and we were looking for some authentic craic for sure. Now before you confuse ‘craic’ with ‘crack’, let me set you straight. I’d first heard of the word when my son-in-love Geoff Mason emailed us in response to our announcement that we had arrived safely in Ireland. It’s a Gaelic word that means ‘good fun’, phew!
We entered the small old-school pub to find the fun already underway. The owner was playing a button-box accordion and there were two fiddlers and a guitarist keeping him company. It seems there are different people playing most nights, but the owner is always there to lead things off. We were lucky to find high stools near the bar with a clear view into the backroom where the musicians were playing, in fact, we were seated next to the arched opening between the two rooms. Close to the bar, close to the music, a perfect spot I’d say.
Anil ordered us a couple of pints of Guinness and we settled in to be transported to another place and time. We had been looking for an authentic traditional music experience to take away with us and store in our memory archive, and here we were, right in the middle of the real thing. At first, I thought we were the only overseas visitors that night, but then a well-dressed elderly lady got up to dance a jig with a local female resident she told us that she was of Irish descent, from Chicago, a recent widow coming to Ireland to touch base with her Irish roots.
We chatted with a couple sitting near us and learned that they were from Dublin, out on a weekend holiday and looking for an authentic pub experience as well. They seemed surprised that I could sing along with many of the old ballads, I knew the tune and, better still, I knew all the words to all the verses. As I sang, I could hear my Walker grandmother singing to me as a young girl. I have her and my mother, two women who could barely carry a tune (I’m not much better) to thank for singing to me anyway, despite their lack of talent.
It was a magical night, one neither of us will ever forget. We were happy to walk the short distance across the bridge because that first Guinness wasn’t our last, couldn’t have been in such a place as the Reel Inn, Donegal County.