Donegal, holidays and a poor border economy..

Nice piece from Fionnuala O’Connor on the role of Donegal for many escapees from the stress and division (subs needed) of Northern Ireland. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s a couple of snippets:

Bad Northern habits are pushed to the back of the mind. People from irritable Belfast, tiny intermarried Derry, uptight towns and watchful divided countryside, switch off their internal alarm systems. The coast’s deep inlets have a history of sanctuary, Lough Swilly famously sheltering the British grand fleet in the first World War when it fled Scapa Flow. But Donegal has a strong republican strand: IRA fugitives were loathed by some, sustained by more. Today’s west Belfast republicans are at home in their summer settlements.

A slice out of several generations trekked repeatedly to the Gaeltacht to learn Irish (some still do), lodged with families who 30 years ago were poor in a way uncommon in the North. Gaeltacht summers turned some off the language but enchanted others: first holiday without parents, first kisses in seaside twilight. Donegal is still Rest and Recreation. It worked through the worst years, and it works more surely now. Not even a month after the murder of Denis Donaldson near Glenties, the will to push its horror out of mind is almost tangible.


Northern Protestants who love the county would probably tend to be liberal unionist, if they admit to any label. They also tend to stay clear of the Gaeltacht, or the possibility of spotting Gerry Adams over a pint. Northern families with local Presbyterian and Church of Ireland roots used to arrive each summer at Rathmullan’s modest Pier Hotel, now demolished. But once prominent unionists such as the late Jim Kilfedder and Ernie Baird looked back with very mixed emotions on their Donegal origins, and the exodus at partition, and stayed away. Local folklore entrenches an image of the county’s Protestants as reserved, polite, a wary small minority.

The local rural population are invariably tough, resilient and inventive. As O’Connor argues tourism is a welcome boost to small incomes, but most make their living in an electic bunch of ways. The subsistence farming of a generation ago no longer cuts it for families whose young grow up with serious educational ambitions. Yet the Regional College in Letterkenny remains the jumping off point for Belfast, Dublin and beyond. Too few return to an economy still drasticly unfit to hold their talent ambition despite the boons bestowed elsewhere in the Celtic Tiger.

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  • slug

    “IRA fugitives were loathed by some, sustained by more”

    How does she know this?

  • Conor Gillespie


  • carlos blancos

    irritable belfast and intermarried derry. she couldn’t have summed it up more perfectly.

    a beautiful county, i spent my childhood summers there, in a caravan. and of all ireland’s western seaboard, it is the most varied, most interesting and 2nd mots beautiful region (west cork/kerry beats it i fear)

  • Carnhill

    “IRA fugitives were loathed by some, sustained by more”

    How does she know this?

    As someone who lives in Donegal I’d say it is pretty common knowledge that many IRA fugitives were ‘looked after’ in Donegal, and many in fact have remained there, settling down and starting families.

  • slug


    But how does she know that, in the population of Donegal, the number who sustained IRA fugivtives was greater than the number who loathed the IRA fugitives?

  • Stephen Copeland


    But how does she know that, in the population of Donegal, the number who sustained IRA fugivtives was greater than the number who loathed the IRA fugitives?

    As a simple rule of thumb, she might think of comparing the pre-ceasefire electoral support for Sinn Féin (presumably the ‘sustainers’) against the pre-ceasefire support for Fine Gael (undoubtedly the loathers).

    She would find that the loathers probably outnumber the sustainers ten to one.

    But that might require thought and professionalism, two qualities too often lacking in modern journalism.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Thanks to the excellent pages on the last Dail election before the ceasefire (1992), I can safely say that Fionnuala O’Connor has maligned the good people of Donegal.

    In Donegal North-East:
    Fine Gael – 6959 votes (22.3%)
    Sinn Féin – 819 votes (2.62%)

    In Donegal South-West:
    Fine Gael – 11249 votes (37.74%)
    Sinn Féin – 986 votes (3.31%)

    I think she might owe the fair county of Donegal an apology.

  • piebald

    Stephen –

    you are not taking into account the IFF voters.

    There were also some FG voters amongst the “sustainers”

    IMO no apology needed for the fair county of Donegal as many would consider it a badge of honour.


  • slug

    Stephen’s analysis is probably quite good but I cannot comment on whether the FG voters or SF voters would loathe or give sustainance to fugitives from the IRA. Even Stephen’s thoughtul analysis does not give us direct evidence.

    It seems improbable that the numbers who actually sustained IRA fugitives would be large, so it seems quite possible that the number who loathed the IRA could quite likely be higher.

    The jouranlist’s belief was stated with probability=1. But her hypothesis — that the number of the Donegal population who actually sustained on the run IRA paramilitaries exceeds the number who loathed on the run IRA paramilitaries — seems something that is fairly difficult to put a probabiltiy of 1 on.

  • JD

    I am aware of quite a view Fine Gael voters who not only were willing to sustain fugitives but a little more besides, so people should not simply view historical afmily civil war voting patterns as an indication of their attitude to Irish reunification and the IRA. I agree with trhe previous poster a beautiful county with an honourable history.

  • slug

    “I am aware of quite a view Fine Gael voters who not only were willing to sustain fugitives”

    This anecdotal piece in no way establishes that the number of the Donegal population who gave nourishment and other sustaince to IRA men on the run exceeded the number of that population that loathed IRA men on the run.

  • Stephen Copeland


    … people should not simply view historical afmily civil war voting patterns as an indication of their attitude to Irish reunification and the IRA.

    There is no need to go back to the civil war. Fine Gael under Cosgrave, Fitzgerald and Bruton were extremely anti-republican. The ‘heavy gang’ of the 1970s were Cosgrave’s men, and John Bruton was a notorious unionist. So I would be quite surprised if any republicans, let alone IRA ‘sustainers’ would have voted FG during the last 30 years.


    You may be right about the IFF, but who can say. Were any of them ever charged with any ‘troubles related’ offences? Arms dumps on their land, OTRs in their spare bedrooms, that kind of thing?

  • Carnhill

    As mentioned above voting patterns don’t really add any clarity to the arguement of sustainers vs loathers – People can only speak of their own experiences on this issue. In my experience of living in South Donegal, ex-republican paramilitaries from ‘the North’ are very much an accepted and respected part of the community. Strange though it may seem, I know of quite a few FG voters down here who would consider themselves republicans, and would’ve supported the republican movement in the North during the troubles.
    As mentioned by JD there is a very strange hbit down South of voting along historical family lines regardless of one’s personal political viewpoint. Don’t understand it myself, but there ye go.

  • fair_deal

    “John Bruton was a notorious unionist”

    What did he do to be considered notorious?

  • Stephen Copeland


    Notoriety is a subjective concept, as I’m sure you know 😉

  • Conor Gillespie

    Isn’t anyone in this twisted scenario allowed to be Mildly Supportive, Mildly irritated or even just plain apathetic? If Donegal has been so strictly divided between those who loathed the IRA and those that actually took them in than its become even more divided then the north itself. I really do hope there’s at least some grey area between the two.(:

  • Stephen Copeland

    Conor Gillespie,

    Of course 90% of people fell (and continue to fall) into your categories of “Mildly Supportive, Mildly irritated or even just plain apathetic“. Even some SF voters were probably anti-IRA or uninterested in the situation in the ‘north’ (or ‘east’ as it would seem to Donegal folk!)

    The fact that many northerners cannot seem to get their heads around is that the vast majority of people in the south do not spend their time, or their votes, thinking about what is happening in the north. Most voters in the south vote for parties or individuals because of party policies on health, education, law and order, the economy, etc. Even the majority of SF voters in the south vote for SF because it is seen as an anti-establishment, somewhat radical, somewhat socialist, alternative.

    That does not mean that people are either anti-nationalist or uninterested, but that they are primarily self-interested.

  • fair_deal


    “Notoriety is a subjective concept”

    True but there has to be at least something that triggered the “notoriety”

    “as I’m sure you know”

    Never consider anything you do as being worthy of notoriety. It means you stop pushing yourself and go stale. (Now if I can stretch that over 200 pages, develop a permanent grin and put on some fake tan I could make a fortune.)

  • Dr Stangelove

    I thought all the OTRs were on the other side on the country in Louth ?

    On a sporting note, Donegal is home to my favourite golf course, the Sandy Hills links at Rosapenna… sublime.

  • Conor Gillespie

    well being On The Run and all I’m sure they were compelled to very it a little.(:

  • briso

    “This year’s Easter tide across the Foyle from Northern Ireland”

    I’m across the Foyle, but I’m still in Northern Ireland (mores the bloody pity). Look at the damn map!

    Belfast civil servants consider us already ‘lost’ so won’t spend any money here (“Sure it’s kind of in the South isn’t it?”).

    Dublin neglects Donegal (“Sure it’s kind of in the North isn’t it?”). Hammered both ways. Time for “Fair deal for the North West” marches in Belfast and Dublin.

    “tiny intermarried Derry”

    Gee, thanks. Tiny compared to what? Intermarried says who?

  • Ciaran Irvine

    True but there has to be at least something that triggered the “notoriety”

    Where to begin? His outburst on being “sick of the f*****g peace process”. Having an orgasm on TV because he was in the same room as Charles Windsor. Leading the campaign to demonise Mary McAleese as a Provo during her election campaign. And an endless stream of pro-Unionist, pro-British comments that left most of the country convinced that Bruton was utterly opposed to that whole 1916, Independence carry-on and would prefer us all to be back in our natural state snuggled against the bosom of Mutha.

    Bruton would have held views very, very similar to our own Keith Mills.

  • elfinto

    John Bruton. Trigger words.

    How did that man ever get to become head of the government?

    ‘You are what we aspire to’ said John to Charles Windsor in the most sycophantic of tones. Puke!!

    And speaking of cringe, parts of the article cited above are cringeworthy, especially for Derry folks. We Belfast folk are just irritable -well, she probably got that one right.

  • briso
  • Conor Gillespie

    Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

  • andy

    excuse my ignorance – what is IFF?
    Independent Fianna Fail?


  • Stephen Copeland


    Yes, exactly that – ‘Independent Fianna Fáil’. Set up by Neil Blaney when he was pushed out of Fianna Fáil, and still going today despite his death. I think the current standard bearer is his grandson Niall.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Sorry, I was wrong. Niall is the nephew of the IFF founder, Neil T Blaney, who left FF around 1970. Neil Blaney (the grandfather) lived, was elected, and died, entirely within the Fianna Fáil family.

    Complicated family dynasty!

  • Dread Cthulhu

    SC: “Notoriety is a subjective concept”

    FD: “True but there has to be at least something that triggered the “notoriety” ”

    All notoriety is is fame belonging to someone you don’t like.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Dread Cthulhu,

    … someone you don’t like.

    You’ve got me on that one. John Bruton is the someone.

  • carlos blancos

    i liked her comments about derry and belfast people, they summed up the two peoples in a concise manner.

    as for the loathe/sustain discussion; sometimes the arguments on this place get, how can i say?, a little too ‘academic’.

    count sf .v. fg votes all you like, but the idea of large amounts of people across the border either loathing or sustaining fugitives is the only place where fionnuala gets it wrong (and i’m not even sure she was suggesting this in the first place). faced with an ira runaway, most people would have just turned their attention elsewhere.

    or, if you lived in dundalk or donegal, dealth with them as your neighbours.

  • downmarket

    Sometimes its difficult to believe that Donegal, the most marginalised county in the Republic with the highest rate of unemployment in the state and the worst school retention record, votes almost overwhelmingly for the party which has governed the state the longest.
    Last time out the two constituencies returned four Fianna Fail TDs, one semi-detached Fianna Fail TD, and one Fine Gael TD.
    SO the message to Dublin is quite clear: Keep ignoring us, we love it when you treat us mean!

  • Thank God the secret’s still kept. I was afraid that Motormouth O’Connor was going to expose the very best place to vacation in Ireland. I am there each and every year for several days.

    It’s a place where I am cheek to jowl with Protestant nordies anytime I hit the place close to high season. Damn nice people once they are free of the anonymity of their commuter keyboards. Even though O’Connor put it in code the secret is still safe.

    Her article subtext is partly the Kiplingesque riff about the colonel’s lady, yada, yada, yada. That I have not panned the premise is because of a certain Nordie entrepreneur who tried to play the orange, white and green card when denied a building permit in one of the Donegal coastal villages. The civic reaction was interesting to me.

    My buddy in Derry succinctly summed it up with dazzling clarity. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland disagree on many things but they will always band together to kick the living daylights out of a blowin.

  • Paul

    Donegal is a bastion of patronage politics, only a few Republican headbangers really give a shit about the north there. Fixing someone’s son up with a job in the Garda or getting someone’s drive tarmaced, that’s the stuff of politics in Donegal, that’s how votes are won. That and family tradition.

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