Al and Marsha's Journal
 

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March 24 - 28th

          

This week has been very busy with my project. Monday was going live day, and it has gone extremely well. I am very pleased with the way this has gone so far, as are the management. From a professional point of view this has been one of the more rewarding projects I have been involved in for quite a while. The staff at this plant are terrific, and eager to get it right.

 

During the last week or so I have noted a few things about Ireland which I think are worth writing down:

 

One of the differences that relate to the keepers of the public morality has to do with betting..... betting on sports, horse racing, whatever. The interesting thing is that much of this activity which is so tightly controlled in our society is done in street betting parlors.

These businesses are on every business street, and in sometimes seem to outnumber the pubs in the same places. I have not been in one but I find it interesting that they are a natural part of daily life here.

 

Another characteristic is the fervor with which sports are followed, talked about and participated in. Everyone is into football (the kind played everywhere in the world except in North America) and team loyalty and support knows no bounds. I constantly hear conversations at work between the guys discussing the virtues or lack thereof of one or another player. And many seem to remember games from years ago, almost in play by play. It is a national passion. One similarity to home though; the women here roll there eyes in disgust whenever one of these impassioned analyses breaks out. Some things are just international in character.

 

A couple of nights ago there was a long segment on a national program about Letterkenny. I found it fascinating to listen to the commentator discuss the fact that Donegal, and therefore Letterkenny are going through an economic boom after decades of decline and difficult times. The main reasons for this new boom are all related to Northern Ireland. During the thirty years of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, Donegal, due to its proximity was seen as a poor choice for both tourism and investment, even from other parts of the Republic. So during all of those three decades Donegal stagnated. 

 

During the last five years things have changed for both Donegal, and its main town, Letterkenny. The relative peace next door, also brought the end of the daunting border crossings and made movement  between Donegal and Northern Ireland routine. The third factor is that as Ireland is using the Euro as its currency, and Northern Ireland is still on the English pound, the currency advantage has been with those with pounds. What the advent of these three factors has meant is a large surge of commerce between the two areas, investment in business in Donegal, and a significant number of Northern Ireland residents buying  summer homes and investment properties in Donegal.

 

Another interesting aspect of the television commentary described how Donegal's isolation in the far Northwest corner of the Republic meant that it was largely neglected by the Irish national government. This resulted in Donegal not receiving as much help with infrastructure and government support as the areas of the Republic more important politically. In fact there are no railways in Donegal and only two main roads into the county from the rest of the country. It struck me that much of this neglect has similar roots as our experience in British Columbia and our relationship with Ottawa..

 

The television piece was very upbeat about Letterkenny, its economy, its good hospital and university service and its very pleasant location. One commentator was the local newspaper publisher, and he made a comment which summed this place up perfectly. He said "Letterkenny is a happy place, a happy town." I agree, this is what it feels like to me.

 

March 29th

 

Today I took another of my jaunts through the countryside. I headed roughly Northwest toward my first stop, Glenveigh National Park. This is the largest National Park in Ireland and is located about halfway between Letterkenny and the ocean. As I drove along the ever narrowing roads toward my first stop, I could plainly see that Spring has sprung. Everywhere there were hillsides of a very bright yellow flower, something like Broom. (P)  These flowers would be visible throughout my journey today. All of the trees were starting to bud, and often folks were out in their gardens. Of course, some of this may be due to what everyone continues to insist is very unseasonable sunny and warm weather.

 

In one of the towns I glanced at the sign on the obligatory pub and slammed on the brakes. There was a wonderful sign proclaiming this place to be Callaghan's Bar. (P)  If any of you are fans of science fiction writer Spider Robinson, you will know why I had to stop and take a picture. If you aren't, forget it, it's too hard to explain.

 

As I drove along the usual pastoral scenes greeted me; rolling hillsides covered with cultivated  fields, homes, farm buildings, sheep and lambs (another sign of spring). Suddenly the scenery turned to the dull brown desolate land that I had seen near Glenties a couple of weeks earlier. Again I was seeing barren hills and valleys, with that signature dark brown scrub. I came across more signs of peat harvesting (P) , and also forest farms on the hillsides. In the peat harvesting picture you can see the trenches which have been cut in the past to remove peat. It seems clear that this is a serious resource, and I also began to see bags of peat piled beside houses along the way. Every time I got out of the car to take pictures near a town or village the smell of peat burning was evident in the air.

 

The other thing that happened as  I drove through this area was that the road became more and more of a roller coaster ride. It wasn't rough and bumpy, it actually undulated like the surface of the sea. It really made me slow down because it became quite pronounced.

 

I arrived at Glenveigh National Park without incident and with some misgivings, went for a short walk to see what  was what. As I expected, it had all of the elements of a groomed "experience" for the visitor. As this was not what I wanted to do I strolled about by myself for a bit, took in the marvelous view of the lake near the entrance (P) , and then retreated to my car and moved on toward the ocean.

 

The ocean side was really my objective for the day, and I headed further along the highway toward the North. As I drove the land suddenly reverted to the pastoral scenery and the houses became more numerous. 

 

Regarding houses, I have noticed a couple of other interesting things as I have driven about the countryside. Wherever I have gone, aside from row housing, all of the houses, small, posh, old, older or bloody old, all seem to be situated on large plots of land. Even houses built in the form of what we would call a subdivision are spaced quite far apart. This seems to me a paradox. Here is this tiny island, which has been developing for eons and the individual home owner has land on which to stretch his or her legs. In Canada where the land is enormous and seemingly endless, we build houses cheek by jowl. It doesn't seems to compute.

 

Another thing I have noticed. In every valley, on every hill, beside every lake and along every sea shore there are many, many houses obviously situated to take advantage of whatever splendid vista is at hand. The thing is that all types of houses have equal share of that vista, little basic units, posh houses, new, old, older and bloody old. They all share on an equal footing with each other. Frankly I have seen many places with breathtaking views which I would love to live in, without regard to size or poshness. Of course, having lived on a sailboat for five years, and loved every minute of it, my sense of place seems to take precedence over that of space.

 

As I passed through Creeslough, Ballymore toward Dunfanaghy the terrain in the distance became more rugged, and then suddenly I crested a hill and there was the ocean ahead of me. (P) The sun was shining and the ocean had a deep blue colour.

 

When I reached Dunfanaghy I realized that I had entered a part of the country where Gaelic is the everyday language, and English is spoken, but only when necessary. The first sign of this was when the road signs which I had relied on so much previously were suddenly only in Gaelic. In Dunfanaghy the stores, signs, everything you could see were almost totally Gaelic. In addition, ominously for my navigation, the names on the road signs were different than those on the maps I had.

 

I passed through Danfanaghy, which is a very pretty little town situated on the side of a hill near the ocean. I stopped to consider my next move, which was essentially; which direction was I going to go from here; North toward Fanad Head or South along the coast. 

 

Throwing caution to the wind I turned South and began to take whatever road presented itself as long as it appeared to get me closer to the ocean. 

 

I was successful in keeping to the edge of the ocean and in one place I managed to work my way down what was little more than a cattle trail, across a very narrow bridge to find myself at the seashore, with no one else in sight. The sun was shining, and the waves were crashing on the shore and there were just the birds and me. I spent some time there enjoying the place and taking some pictures. (P) The seashore, where it has not been made into a play place for people is all rock. There is no wood to be seen (the only forest this beach points toward is in Labrador). The beach is covered almost totally with well rounded rocks of various sizes. Some of these rocks, even the larger ones, which had been rounded by years of pounding by the sea, were as far as 150 feet from the edge of the water. I wondered what kind of storm could throw these rocks that far. I decided I really didn't want to know.

 

After I pulled myself away from that wonderful place I continued my roaming generally following along the shore of the ocean. I stopped at a little village store to pick up a drink, and asked the shopkeeper where I was. She was as uncertain as I was, and soon several shoppers were involved in the discussion. We decided after a while that I had in fact driven off the edge of the detailed map I had and would have to resort to the larger scale map. It turned out I was in Meenacfady near an interesting place called Bloody Foreland. I could not determine if that was an expletive, or descriptive of some event. In  any case I continued my meandering and uncertain route coming at the end to Derrybeg where I gassed up the car. Derrybeg is quite a large town, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why such a large town would exist in such a remote place.

 

Just outside Derrybeg I came across a very nice looking craft store, and dropped in for a look. It had a great range of knitted stuff, some real craft stuff, and some factory made "craft" stuff. It was the best shop of its kind I have seen in Ireland so far.

 

A few miles down the road at Bunbeg I decided to turn back inland and wend my way back to Letterkenny. I again found myself driving through vista after vista of those delightful rolling hills, farms and villages. The road went back to the rollercoaster ride for a while as I drove through another patch of desolate peat bog. Suddenly, once again I rounded a corner and there  were the farms, fields and villages. It is quite strange how suddenly the terrain switches from one to the other type and then back again.

 

I passed through Dunlewy and Kilmacrenan, where I stopped for lunch, and shortly thereafter found myself back at Letterkenny.

 

This trip was very enjoyable both for the spectacular countryside that I experienced, but also for the fact that I was on my own in terms of navigation and was able to accomplish my goals using my own resources, by and large. There is nothing like driving in a place where the native language is not English and you don't have a map of where you are. Very exciting day.

 

(Pictures on the road to and from the Ocean)

 

At home I am reading a book about Ireland called "McCarthy's Bar". This book is about the author's quest (his name is McCarthy) to travel throughout Ireland looking for his supposed roots, and to have a beer in every bar he finds named McCarthy's Bar. Actually he is quite successful at this. I have looked in almost every town I been in or through and only in Donegal Town did I see one which was close... McCarthy's Lounge. I decided it didn't qualify, so I didn't go in. You may be wondering why I bring this up at this particular point. Well, mainly because I just thought about it. Also, however, in this book the author laments the advent of Caravan Parks (Trailer Parks to thee and me) along the shores and beaches of Ireland.  While I have not seen many, the ones I have seen certainly deserve to be lamented about. They are devoid of style or imagination, they just sit there with caravans parked side by side in a straight row, without a hedge, tree or shrub to break up the blight. Actually, if it weren't for the fact that they are along the edge of the water, you would think this was a place where  these things are sold. Not very pretty, and they detract dramatically from the very beauty of the place they were built for people to enjoy.

 

Back to the book for a moment. This is an excellent book to read if you have an interest in Ireland. McCarthy is witty and very observant and his travels are quite extensive. McCarthy's Bar is recommended reading in the Lonely Planet guide book of Ireland.

 

For those who are interested, I have added several pictures to the Castle Grove page. 

 

Well, its dinner time, so I'm off to the Silver Tassie for an egg mayo and a steak.  Cheerio.

 

March 30th

 

Today is my last opportunity to see more of the countryside. I got up early and after consulting the maps, headed out onto the road.

 

The weather is still co-operating and it is a sparkling sunny day, and already quite warm.

 

I had chosen to head South today, and to reach the bottom corner of Donegal first, which would mean that I had covered Donegal from top to bottom and side to side. Of course, given the nature of the trips I have only been able to see a fraction of what is there. Today will be no exception. I decided that after reaching Bundoran, the Southernmost significant town in Donegal, I would continue through the top corner of County Leitrim and into County Sligo (Sly-go or Slee-go depending on who you listen to) to the City of Sligo. 

 

So, off I went on the first stage retracing my route toward Donegal town. While passing through the mountain pass just North of Donegal Town I realized that the geography was somewhat reminiscent of the approach to Palm Springs, California on Highway 111. Of course, as I have said before, Ireland is most definitely not a dessert environment, but still, it rang a little bell.

 

Before reaching Donegal Town the highway branches more Southward toward the bottom corner of Donegal. The route South had all of the familiar characteristics of the Irish landscape which I had so consistently seen on previous drives. Soon I reached the first of the seaside towns I would encounter today, Ballyshannon. 

 

Knowing that I had a lot of road to travel today, I continued on without stopping and soon came to Bundoran. I saw right away what a beautiful seaside town this was, and quickly took a right turn to see what I could see and to get closer to the ocean. On the way along a stretch of farm lined road, I spotted a very imposing looking castle-like structure on the far horizon, on the top of a ridge. (P) As I got closer it became apparent that this was in the center of what was a huge private estate. I drove for quite a distance before I got to the end of it. It was clearly thousands of acres in size, and encircled  the whole way with a relatively new looking three foot high stone fence. It is also clearly a working farm. There is obviously still lots of old money at work here.

 

Again, following my instincts I kept working toward the sea, and to my great surprise came upon a large resort and hotel, with a beautiful golf course right on the edge of the sea all on a tall bluff overlooking the ocean. Across a bay was the town of Bundoran. (P) It was a splendid sight. I parked and walked a considerable distance along the edge of the bluff overlooking the bay and took several pictures. (P)

 

After exploring for a bit, I found my way back to the main road, and the centre of Bundoran (P) . It is clear that this is a vacation destination. There are many hotels, a lot of them new and rather luxurious, numerous entertainment spots, dive shops and more than the usual complement of pubs and restaurants. In one of the pictures in the gallery of today's trip there is a surfer walking toward town from the great surf breaking at the foot of the bluffs. My new Irish friends tell me that it becomes a "tacky" tourist town in summer, attracting a type not considered stylish. I'm just telling you what they said to me, I have no personal experience in the matter. If its true it would be a shame because it is a wonderful location.

 

A couple of minutes of driving past Bundoran and I left Donegal behind and entered County Leitrim, where the road instantly became much better. Crossing the top of this county, however took about five minutes, and then I was in County Sligo. In a few minutes I came to the town of Cliffonoy, and again made an impulsive right turn, without any real reason to do so. 

 

I'm glad I did, because very soon  I was on a narrow road which went for miles along the very edge of the bluffs in a Northwest direction. It was an entrancing sight with every corner bringing a new dramatic view of small bays carved into the shore, layered limestone or shale bluffs falling a hundred feet or so into crashing surf. This went on for several miles and suddenly rounded a curve into the seaside town of Mullaghmore. This town is right on the seashore, and has a wide expanse of beach right on its doorstep. (P) The town and beach are at the head of a fairly large bay, and there were fish boats, sailboats, and a large number of divers at play there. Actually, I couldn't see the divers, but I could see their boats and dive flags.

 

Again I found myself lingering to take in the scene. After some picture taking I decided to shun what was obviously a shorter route back to Cliffonoy and retraced the route by which I had arrived.

 

At Cliffonoy once again, I rejoined the N15 highway and continued toward Sligo. At  this point the highway headed inland and I saw no more of the seashore until I reached Sligo. Just outside of Grange I found a huge bottleneck of parked cars and again, on impulse  turned into a driveway to see what was going on. What I chanced into was a very old cemetery, with a very old disused church at the entrance. There was a sign at the entrance to the cemetery requesting that any burials be registered at some office. I thought that a bit strange in this day of beaurocratic control. There was a funeral in progress, so clearly the parked cars and people were there for it. There were a lot of other folks there too, paying their respects at various grave sights. I felt quite uncomfortable intruding on this so I did not stay. It occurred to me later that some of the people may have been there because today is Mother's Day in Ireland.

 

A couple of miles down the highway near Grange I passed another funeral procession clearly headed for the cemetery. The hearse, of course led, followed by the family on foot, and again followed by a number of cars. 

 

When I reached the City of Sligo (I say City because outside of Belfast this is the largest place I have seen. It is much more than a town) I was soon in the midst of a maze of streets and alleys with fascinating outlooks in all directions. After poking my way around for a bit to get my bearings I parked in the town center and did some exploring. I walked about a block and around the corner was a splendid scene of a very old bridge crossing a rushing stream of water. (P) There was a promenade along both sides of the river lined with businesses of various kinds; restaurants, bistros, pubs and coffee houses. This place is much more cosmopolitan than any other I had seen in Ireland. I took a lengthy walk along the river and took it all in. 

 

At this point in my journey I was faced with retracing my route to Sligo, or to head East on N16 through County Leitrim and into Northern Ireland. I don't normally like to retrace a rout, particularly a lengthy one, so I chose to take the long way. I headed East and found myself wandering through mile after mile of typical pastoral countryside. The roads became better, but, at least through Leitrim more corners and curves. I was grateful for the improved road quality as negotiating all those corners was wearing enough without having to contend with being bounced around as well. There was one stretch of roller coaster, but beyond that it was fine.

 

After I left Sligo, there was a long easy climb up a hill, at the top of which was a grand view back toward Sligo and the sea on one side and a beautiful valley, a lake and a steep hillside on the other. (P)

 

The drive from Sligo, through County Leitrim, into Northern Ireland at Blacklion, and then through County Fermanagh to Enniskillen was rather long, and did not, aside from the view at the top of the first hill, provide much new to marvel at.  The countryside, the signage, the buildings and the way things looked were generally the same in Northern Ireland as in the Republic. There was considerably more commerce and industry visible from the highway, and quite a bit more traffic. The roads, as I have said before are startlingly more sophisticated as you drive through Northern Ireland. I wonder what the economic issues are that make this infrastructure difference.

 

I was starting to feel a bit of overflow of images and decided just to follow my route without a lot of stopping and gawking. I also felt a little uncomfortable being in Northern Ireland. I know its totally irrational, but I guess after all of those years of seeing and hearing about violence and strife, it does rub off. I had experienced this overflow sensation once before many years ago when driving the Banff-Jasper highway in Alberta. After some time my mind could not take in any more of the spectacular scenery. I know that the brain's storage capacity is close to impossible to use up, but that's not necessarily true of the ability to retrieve the data.

 

I drove through Enniskillan and continued directly on my way to Omagh (now there is a name to conjure up visions of bombs and rifles.) A few kilometers before Omagh the main road was suddenly blocked by construction. There was only one way to turn, so I did. I was immediately surrounded once again by hedgerows and stone fences as I made my way along a one lane road. I had no idea where this was going to lead me, but I carried on. It soon became pretty clear that this was the correct detour as there was traffic in both directions, and more than a car or two. As you can imagine (or maybe you can't) more than one or two cars coming in opposite directions on a windy country one lane road creates some interesting scenarios. Fortunately for everyone involved the built in politeness of Irish drivers made the situation fairly easy to handle. I think that there are a couple of new scratches from hedgerows on my rental car. I hope they don't notice. After about ten miles of this exciting experience the one lane road rejoined the main highway and the detour was over.

 

Again, having decided to be somewhat single minded about getting back to Letterkenny, I passed fairly quickly through Omagh and took a Northwest leg of the A5 highway toward County Donegal. The road got progressively more freeway like, and the lanes wider as I went. The countryside was still as charming as all the rest, but there was nothing to distinguish it from what  I had already seen.

 

Which brings me to a point. These two countries are much like identical twins. They obviously are virtual clones of each other, and the differences are so small that only the family can tell. You really have to dig deep to identify any significant differences in the way these countries look and feel. Currency is one, but that's only because they are two countries, one independent and one not. So, the only thing that separates them is political, with the religious undercurrent which creates the political environment.

 

Last night I watched Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein (Shin Fain), the once radical Catholic political group, so recently changed from its terrorist roots, make a speech at a political rally which was televised. He said at one point that the unemployment rate among Catholic men was double that of the Protestant men in Northern Ireland. He constantly mentioned equal rights, equal opportunities and elimination of systemic discrimination. What now is becoming clearer to me is that, contrary to previous assumptions, this is not fundamentally a religious war. It is a political and social war between the majority, the Protestants, and the minority, the Catholics.

 

This is a unique situation between the majority, who support the historical conquerors the English (after all they were planted here by the English in the first place), and the minority who want to become part of the Republic. The Irish Republican Army, played a large role in the past in the creation of the existing Republic of Ireland want Northern Ireland to split from England and become part of the Republic of Ireland. So while this is a classic fight between the controlling majority and an oppressed minority, what differentiates these two groups, with their differing political aims is their religion instead of colour or tribal background. The minority here are an invisible minority, and only differ as to which building they go to on Sundays.

 

In discussing some of these issues (very carefully) with my associates I learned a couple of things not always obvious. In talking about unemployment of Catholic men I am told that while it is a systemic issue, it is in some significant part due to the fact that Catholic men have a very low work ethic. They have been "on the dole" for generations in the six counties of Northern Ireland, and don't know any other way. So, they haven't had good jobs for generations, and now they can't get them. So.... it's the chicken and egg question again. With some trepidation I raised that point at dinner with some friends and they readily agreed with me. However, they added an historical footnote that was most interesting:

 

You may recall that I mentioned earlier that long ago the English, in an effort to reduce the control of the Irish Catholic clergy introduced a large number of Protestants to the area which is now Northern Ireland. These folks became the land owners and the native Irish could only be tenant farmers, paying annual rent to the Protestant landlords. This is, in itself bad enough but these landlords were not very clued in to economics. The deal was that if a tenant worked hard, kept his farm sparkling, and organized and did well, his rent would be raised. Can you imagine a greater disincentive to being industrious! This kind of governance, over many generations is one of the root causes of the situation which exists today. As usual, there is more to the situation than meets the eye of the casual observer.

 

In any case, I continued on my way, enjoying the sweep of the landscape and the relative ease of driving these roads. At one point the highway actually bypassed a little town called Newtownstewart. This was the first town in all my driving where the main road did not go right through the middle of it. I didn't get to pass right by though as there was a delightful river on the other side of which was the town. The highway department even provided a real "lay-by" which I could use to stop, admire the scene and take pictures, which  I did.

 

I soon reached  Strabane, right at the Donegal border and passed through. One kilometer further I passed into Donegal and the town of Lifford. The town has achieved a little fame in Ireland as a young man from there won the annual singing contest for all of Ireland, and will represent Ireland in the world talent event in Europe this summer. This win has resulted in much joy in Donegal, and it even reached into Letterkenny's St. Patrick's Day parade when he came to sing for the kids at the end of the parade.

 

Within a stone's throw from the Northern Ireland border in Lifford is a petrol station. The place was jammed with cars, all with Northern Ireland license plates lined up to fill  up their tanks. This was another sign of the exchange rate advantage which those from the North exercise. Blaine with an Irish accent.

 

Regarding the matter of Northern Irish spending their money in Donegal, in the parking lot at the hotel when I left this morning there were nine cars, of which seven were from Northern Ireland. 

 

The road from Lifford to Letterkenny, about twenty miles, immediately descended to Donegal standards, and commanded my full attention for the short time it took to complete the journey.

 

I was glad to get back as it had been a long drive, about 175 miles, but over six hours duration. The sense of time and distance which we have in Canada is of  no use here. The highway speed limit is 60 miles per hour everywhere. Of course everywhere does not include the twisting curves, some of which require you to slow down to thirty, nor the innumerable towns, all of which require you to slow down to thirty. The theoretical highway speed is sixty, but the speed made good is considerably less. This takes some getting used to when planning a driving trip. It actually reminds me of Sunday drives in the country when I was a little kid, when all of our highways still went through every town along the way. Notice I  said "Sunday drive". When was the last time you bundled your kids into a car to just go for a drive? 

 

So, I made it back "home" and repaired to my favorite restaurant, the Yellow Pepper for a prawn cocktail and a goat's cheese and walnut salad. Very nice.

 

(Pictures on the Road to Sligo and Northern Ireland)

 

 

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