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.