Celts

Tourists are scarce in the wild and beautiful lands of Donegal. My spell-checker doesn’t even know the word. The Americans who land at Shannon or Dublin, searching for their roots, Guinness, or a spot of Irish craic (pronounced crack), gravitate around Kerry and Cork—some make it up to Galway for a more Gaelic experience.

Dún na nGall is at the very top of Ireland, a rain-drenched county where the black-faced sheep is king. Perhaps due to the weather, or lack of good roads, it remains unspoiled by hordes of visitors. On the eastern side of the Inishowen peninsula lies Derry (no one calls it Londonderry on this side of the border), one of the bastions of Irish nationalism.

Keep heading east and you get to Belfast, which in many ways I prefer to Dublin. The city has undergone an amazing transformation since I first went twelve years ago—the waterfront has been given the ‘Barcelona’ treatment, and now shines with parks, a conference center, and the Titanic Odyssey.

Belfast Harbor seen from the upper deck of a converted trawler. The Titanic Odyssey building is directly in front, and the famous Harland and Wolff gantry is on the right. Two gantries, Samson and Goliath are now used for shipbuilding.

Belfast Harbor seen from the upper deck of a converted trawler. The Titanic Odyssey building is directly in front, and the famous Harland and Wolff gantry is middle right. Two gantries, Samson and Goliath, are now used by H&W for shipbuilding.

The Odyssey is the jewel in the crown of this modern, bustling city—one hundred million dollars were spent on this interactive museum, where you’re introduced to XIXth century Belfast. First come the flax works and textile mills, then the heavy industry.

The story of the city at that time is the tale of Chinese or Indian cities nowadays—desperately poor people, scrawny, barefoot children, but all of them are white.

Then the winding course takes you to the shipyards, the engineering and design shops, the molding rooms, the fitters and joiners at Harland & Wolff, until you become part of the great endeavor of building the Titanic—you grieve for the dead and dying, tick off the names of shipyard workers who perished after being given the reward of traveling to New York on the maiden voyage of the great ship.

Your journey ends with a Disneyland-style ride up the gantry, where all around you is the crashing of plate riveters and other shipyard workers. The rivets were hammered by two men, fixing them in place before they cooled—left- and right-handed pairs were chosen for more efficient work.

The writing on the wall at Madden's, a traditional pub in central Belfast where a Basque band was celebrating the virtues of ETA.

The writing on the wall at Madden’s, a traditional pub in central Belfast where a Basque band was celebrating the virtues of ETA.

But the troubles, or at least their legacy, are seen in the deep split that continues to exist between Catholics and Protestants. On a bright sunny morning, as I drove through East Belfast on my way to Donegal, the street art made the Unionist position clear.

Murals at Freedom corner, East Belfast. The everpresent H&W gantry dominates the skyline.

Murals at Freedom corner, East Belfast. The ever-present H&W gantry dominates the skyline.

On the radio, the usual Irish craic. The word is almost as mystical as grok, the term invented by Robert Heinlein in 1961 in the book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Donegal, I frequently heard cellphone conversations start with ‘What’s the craic?”

The craic on the car radio was a spirited debate about hair growing faster on holiday. Fingernails and other body parts got thrown into the mix. One guy said he needed to shave twice a day on vacation.  Heat and dry weather were blamed. Someone promptly phoned in and said “I was in Donegal for a week and I went bald!”

Yes, Donegal can get damp and chilly, but the warmth of the people, the traditional music in the bars, and the stunning scenery, more than make up for it. I was out on the boats in Mulroy Bay, where some of the best rope mussels I’ve ever tasted are grown.

Seafood everwhere: salmon, crab, razor clams, oysters, and few young people eat it. The two Irish rowers who claimed a silver medal in Rio are a good example—first rate craic, if you can understand it. In another clip they explain that on their return they want steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Let’s keep Donegal nicely hidden away, like any true gem. Sláinte!

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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