Friday, November 18, 2011

Peat and Rhythm

When Al and I first talked about going to Ireland, high on my list of places I wanted to go was Donegal. I had nostalgic memories of Donegal in the 80’s—huge family gatherings at my aunt’s cottage, games of soccer-tag (also known as ‘quick, make up a game that all ages of our family can play’) on a near deserted beach in the middle of July, scrambling over rock walls as my cousins and I explore the fields around us—and I knew that I wouldn’t find that Donegal again (firstly, good luck getting all my cousins together at the beach) but I was hoping that the landscape was still as breath-taking as I remember.

Well, it was really hard to see the landscape when it rained the entire time we were there. Not just rained... POURED! My poor shoes never did fully dry out and took on such a funky smell that I ended up just binning them and buying a pair of cheap boots. (Thank you Dunnes!)

We arrived at the Diamond* in Donegal Town and I wondered if I had made a huge mistake in dragging Al here. Co. Donegal had been my request after all. Once-a-day bus times meant that we couldn’t go to Bunbeg, the area of my childhood memories, without eating into a lot of our precious travel days, but I was hoping that a day trip to Slieve League and Killybegs would be just as lovely. Donegal Town, however, wasn’t really living up to my hopes.

The Diamond in Donegal Town. Don't be fooled by all those cars, that's the taxi stand.

We arrived at the hostel to find the owner (the lovely Linda from the county Cork) in the middle of starting a peat fire. While Donegal Town still had yet to win me over, the hostel was getting major bonus points!

There's something about a big pile of peat which makes me insanely happy. It reminds me
of visiting my granddad's friend with my dad who lived in a thatched cottage with a peat fire
and he boiled the water for tea in a pot hanging from a swinging arm over the fire.

After we had warmed up and somewhat dried off, Al and I walked back into town for dinner and a drink. We partook in the ‘traditional’ fish and chips from an actual chipper before making our way to the Reel Inn. Rumour had it that there was music every night and the one thing that Al wanted before she left was to hear Irish music in an Irish bar.

Our Saturday night at the pub turned out to be a lot of fun. We arrived well before the music started so we pretty much had the place to ourselves for the first hour. We made small talk with the barmaid (the fabulously sarcastic Emer) and tried to decipher the comments from the drunk regular who I think might have been speaking Irish at one point. The place slowly filled up and by the time the band started, it was standing room only. Still, you can always find room to dance!

We learned later from our new friend, Helly** that Al’s
dance partner was single and owned 80 acres of land!

We left the Reel Inn at 1:30am with the realisation that everyone still in the pub was older than us. That’s right, the 45 – 80 years old age group totally out partied two 30-somethings. Welcome to Ireland!

The next day was still raining. We had hopes of going to Slieve League but everyone we talked to said they were fogged in (later confirmed by other tourists who had gone), so we went with our back up plan of the Donegal Bay Waterbus Tour. The first indication that perhaps this wasn’t the great idea was the booking agent who replied to our request for two tickets with ‘really?’ The next indication was the bus loads of seniors that were being dropped of as we boarded the waterbus. It was a full tour and save for ourselves, a family with three kids under 12 and couple who looked much like Al and I felt (that would be ‘horrified’ for those of you who need an actual word for that moment), everyone was 65+. The minute the bar opened, Al and I hightailed it to the alcohol.

We thought the guide telling jokes which had nothing to do with the tour was bad—we groaned, we rolled our eyes, we giggled at how silly the whole thing was—but when we got to the end of the bay and it was time to turn around, they pulled out a keyboard. Nothing, I repeat, NOTHING is as bad as cheesy songs with synthesised drums. Al and I beat a hasty retreat to the top deck... where the music followed us. It was like some bad horror film. No, don’t go upstairs! He’ll just follow you!

Oh well. At least we got to take pictures in between our bouts of laughter.

The bay is very shallow so at low tide you can walk to most of the islands from the mainland.

And just so you can hear exactly how bad the music was:

Um, it won't let me play this video to check it before I post it but
if the colours are as wacked as they are in the draft photo... oops!
On our way back into town we passed the ruins of the friary where the Annals of the Four Masters were written. Having wasted €4 on Donegal Castle earlier that day we decided to check out the free ruins. If you ever find yourself in Donegal Town, skip the Castle and just go check out the friary. I would have rather paid to see the friary (which is now a cemetery so double score for me!).

Being Canadian Thanksgiving that weekend, we decided to get dolled up and go for a nice dinner. It was surprisingly hard to find anything turkey related so had to make due with lamb so perfectly cooked that I touched it with my fork and it fell off the bone. It’s a tough life, I tell ya! After dinner, we headed back to the Reel Inn to see what Sunday night would provide in the way of music. While Saturday night had been fun, it had felt touristy. Sunday night reminded me of my dad’s parties growing up.

The owner (on the accordion) and a few of his friends sat around and played whatever song they felt like. If one of them felt like taking a smoke break or heading to the washroom, the others kept playing. If they weren’t totally sure of the song, they’d fake their way through it. If someone wanted to get up and join them or sing a song, they were welcome to it. It was about as authentic an Irish music night you’re going to get in a pub.

There was supposed to be two videos here but after 37 minutes of waiting for just one to upload (I'm not joking, old computer...) you're just getting a picture instead.

The banjo player was amazing! Even more amazing was the man hiding behind the mic. His name is Frankie and Al and I love him. I found someone else's video on YouTube so you can understand why.

PS. That's the owner on the accordion.

He  had such a lovely singing voice that we loved him in spite of what appeared to be a very gruff demeanor when we first met him. Then he threw a couple of smiles our way when we responded positively to the songs. During a break late in the night, he sat down beside us and we got to chatting. I asked if he knew Sonny's Dream and he admitted that he didn't know the words, but if I wanted to sing it he'd back me up. Small problem: I'd had a bit to drink and couldn't remember the words. He wanted to know if we were going to be around the next night. We weren't but he was willing to bring in the words and sing Sonny's Dream for us if we were. I love this man more than I can express in writing.

We saw none of the things we wanted to see, we spent more time wet than we did dry, and we wasted money on the stupid castle and the waterbus, but Donegal had won its place as our favourite stop. “We could always go back to Donegal” became the mantra of the rest of our trip. When we hit up a music pub in Galway, we looked at each other, agreed it was no Reel Inn and beat a hasty retreat. And any singers we heard? Well, they’re no Frankie!

What I would give for this pub to be my local!
*many northern Irish towns call their town centre or square ‘the Diamond’ but it’s usually a triangle. I get the feeling Irish people probably fail geometry ;)

**I can not, for the life of me, remember his first name but he spelt his last name for me so it kind of stuck. It’s what Al and I referred to him as for the rest of the trip.

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