The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland was formed over 55 million years ago. Photo / Northern Ireland Tourism Board
The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland was formed over 55 million years ago. Photo / Northern Ireland Tourism Board

Ireland: be blown away

IN Ireland, you always take the weather with you. But don't worry if you forget; you may be sure it will come along anyway.

It pitches in off the Atlantic in slabs and heaps and droves and gusts. Brewed somewhere around Iceland, it is poured on to the coast of Donegal, in the island's northwestern corner.

In Donegal in November, I drove through landscapes in which low cloud merged with smoke from hearth fires. The grey-white sky lent an eerily beautiful light to the day, making it hard to tell the difference between early morning and late afternoon.

It was early afternoon, though, as I followed the winding road to Malin Head, the island's northernmost point. The weather forecast on the radio as I drove spoke of the barometer "dropping fast" and "cyclonic conditions". The phrase "gale force 9" kept recurring.

When I stepped out of the car the wind almost tore the door off. A handful of other people, parka hoods up, hands thrust in pockets, braved the conditions and we exchanged sheepish "what the hell are we doing here?" looks as our cheeks burned with the cold. It was magnificent.

It's a poignant place because you know it was the last glimpse of Ireland for shipboard emigrants - particularly the tempest-tossed five million who headed for America between 1830 and 1914. But to this traveller, comfortably cocooned in a rental car, it's little more than a bracing moment in the bone-chilling wind.

"How do you write about a place like this without mentioning the weather?" asks the barman at Farren's Bar, Ireland's most northerly pub, when I stop for a medicinal whiskey. He finds it hard to understand how anyone could write anything about Ireland other than "Don't go there; the weather's awful".

In Ireland, of course, "bad" weather is good weather for the visitor. The mountains - we'd call them hills, really - and the craggy coast; the dizzy cliffs of Slieve League, peppered with puffins keeping an eye out for fish in the water below, the deep Loughs (lakes) Swilly and Foyle (actually a fjord and an estuary respectively), the sea-raked rocks of the wild coast, are all at their best when the wind and rain fret and pick at their edges.

And when things turn seriously feral - that cyclone tugs at the chimney as I write, although in the morning I will discover that it was downgraded to a mere storm - there's no better place to be than at the fireside with a book on your lap and a pint of Guinness, ideally accompanied with oysters and brown bread, between you and the flames.

Donegal's Isolation is more than simply geographical. Part of the historic province of Ulster - the name given to the entire north - it was cut adrift by partition in 1921.

The vast majority of its land border is with Northern Ireland, a part of the UK; only for about 30km in the south does it touch against another Irish county.

It is also one of the more fiercely Irish corners of Ireland. The far west of the county is a Gaeltacht, an officially designated Irish-speaking region where the language doesn't share space with English on signs.

But it is also, to its chagrin, one of the country's ignored corners: its own representatives in the Irish Parliament have labelled it "the forgotten county", a suspicion reinforced last year when it emerged that Donegal had been inadvertently left off the national civil defence plan.

The isolation makes it an ideal place to sample the charm of the Emerald Isle. The roads are uncluttered and the folk in the sleepy small towns seem genuinely interested when a visitor fetches up on their doorstep.

I had come to Malin Head by way of the Glenveagh National Park, a handsome expanse of woodland on the shores of Lough Veagh. The park is home to the country's largest population of red deer, though none disturbed my rambles. What was slightly disturbing was the knowledge of how the park was established: in 1861, John George ("Jack") Adair, who had made his pile in land speculation in the US, cleared 5000ha by forcibly evicting 47 tenant families, including screaming children, because their meagre cottages spoiled his view. As in so much of Ireland, beautiful appearances are built on ugly histories.

What is undeniably beautiful about Donegal is the legendary tweed. In Donegal Town itself, I dropped into Magee Clothing on the triangular piazza at the centre of town which is, in good Irish fashion, called the Diamond. Here they've been making cloth since 1866. It's not handwoven now but at least it's not made in China.

I bought a handsome cap which warmed my bald pate a bit more stylishly that the beanie it replaced. But my trail soon led me to nearby Ardara where there was reportedly some handweaving to be found.

At the first place, Triona Designs, they encourage the impression that the cloth is woven by hand but an explicit assertion to that effect is absent from all their brochures and when I emailed them to ask about this, they never replied. The woman owner was as snooty as hell, too, so I moved on round the corner to the low-ceilinged workshop of Eddie Doherty.

The sign on his door says to ring his bell and "wait one minute". That's because he's coming from two doors up the road at Doherty's Bar ("You need some other form of income coming in," he said gloomily).

Eddie was happy to demonstrate a bit of weaving and when I admired one of the jackets made from his handwoven cloth he smiled modestly. I slipped one on. It fitted perfectly and felt warm and snug. "Sure and it looks good on you, that it does," said Eddie. You wouldn't call it hard sell, but it was irresistible. I paid up. Eddie's one of a very small handful of handweavers making Donegal tweed these days. Young folks aren't picking up the craft - most young people in Ardara (population 500) wouldn't know what he does, says Eddie.

But as the Irish pick through the ruins of the economic miracle they called the Celtic Tiger, it's reassuring to meet people doing things the way they've always been done.

* Peter Calder was enchanted by Donegal, thanks to the Irish National Tourism Development Authority, Failte Ireland and assisted by Cathay Pacific

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