15 years on…how has boom and bust changed Lawrence Donegan’s Donegal?

Conor Johnston writes about how County Donegal has coped with the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger

Lawrence Donegan’s excellent ‘No News at Throat Lake’ (Penguin, 2000) about his year in Creeslough, North Donegal, not only explains why the successful journalist and musician took to living in rural Ulster and covers his time playing GAA for the local club despite no knowledge of the sport at all, but also includes his time working as a writer for the local Tirconaill Tribune newspaper during his stay.

But how does Donegan’s Donegal look over 15 years later since the Celtic Tiger has been and gone? How does it feel as a place to visit in 2015? And what would Lawrence make of it today?

Myself and my partner Elle, both from County Antrim and fairly new as visitors to Donegal, took the opportunity in August to retrace Lawrence’s footsteps and discover the same places – and some of the same people – through fresh eyes. Our adventure even finished with the Tirconaill Tribune, which is still edited by the same John McAteer who features prominently in the book.

 Lawrence, now an international golf journalist but at the time an author and newspaper writer as well as former member of the bands the Bluebells and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, had come to Donegal in late 1998 to write. However, his experiences and thoughts about the county itself make No News At Throat Lake a superb book.

Anyone who has read the book will have been struck with the deep affection the writer found for the area.

Did we enjoy the same welcome and the same  attachment to North Donegal he quickly developed?

From a stranger who offered to lend us a car, to refusals to accept a drink from us visitors or even allow us to phone a taxi when a lift could be found, that unforgettable uniqueness about Donegal that Lawrence revelled in was easily found.

Our journey, which took in Creeslough, Dunfanaghy, Tory Island and then finishing in Milford with the Tribune, found every reason – just as Lawrence did – to find Donegal and her people to be priceless.

But first, an apology to readers in or from Donegal: with a grandfather from Moville and Derry-born parents who spent their youth in the dancehalls of Donegal I should have listened to their years of advice to go and enjoy the county for myself. I only did so with the first visit of my adult life three years ago and was instantly hooked, as was my partner when we visited this month, no doubt forming a lifetime of summer visits.

So our revisit to Donegan’s North Donegal comes from a very biased viewpoint. I already love the area: the coastal signs telling me where the sea is at all times (clue: it will either be out of your left or right window), the road manners, the pride in each townland and the local Football Special soft-drink. 

I also love that taxi drivers will not only know where you are going but who you are meeting and where they can actually be found at that exact minute, I even love that finding working wifi in pubs is almost harder than picking winning lottery numbers. As the old lottery slogan used to go…it could be you. But the chances are slim.

Also the dying art practised by proper professional bar staff, honesty boxes with eggs and jam by the side of the road and pubs that, strangely, never have a light-bulb in the cubicle. 

We even developed a bemused respect for Daniel O’Donnell, a powerhouse of Donegan tourism, which must be a sign of going native or else the sea air having gone to our heads.

So how has the Donegal Lawrence made his own changed? A healthy thirst and nothing as sensible as a decent map or satnav led us to start the search in the tourism-boosted town of Dunfanaghy.

St. Michael’s GAA and Dunfanagy

A visit to Molly’s Bar, sponsors of St Michael’s GAA club, in Dunfanaghy quickly found someone who had played GAA football with Lawrence. He said with an affectionate smile that “he didn’t have a clue what he was doing…but he was selected and loved it”. 

Once Sunday came around we heard talk about St Micheal’s from a stream of people from Dunfanaghy to Creeslough, saw youngsters in St Micheal’s training gear and all the signs of a thriving club at the centre of the community.

A walk around the impressive St. Micheal’s facilities, beautifully placed between hills with cattle overlooking the main pitch and a stunning view along the coast, showed us a club that we think Lawrence would be proud to know is clearly going from strength to strength. 

Elle suggested we take a short cut along the edge of the pitch. Being a football (ie, soccer) fan, I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t walk on a pitch because the very bad thing that happens if you walk on a pitch will happen. I’m not sure what that is: an angry groundskeeper at the least, or else it is a superstition to do with luck.

In any case, we left wishing the very best of luck to St Micheal’s and glad to see that there were few signs that they need it.

As for Dunfanaghy: we found the streets – which have an air of Holywood County Down – to be full of visitors in summer, with packed pubs, live music, cafes and even the odd working wifi signal.

We saw posters for the play Dancing at Lughnasa, the very film Meryl Streep had finished in 1998 before coming to Donegal to be met by star-struck Lawrence, which was being staged in Letterkenny. We suspect Lawrence would have been first in line to buy a ticket if he had been there this summer.

We were also delighted to see posters for a film club screening of Mr Turner in Dunfanaghy Work House heritage centre, as movies and supporting the people who take the time to organise film clubs are a passion of ours and a subject I’ve written about in the past. Here’s hoping I can catch a screening next year.

The signs of recession weren’t far away due to two closed hotels (including the huge Shandon, along a stunning coastal back-road, in the process of re-opening). 

Among the rows and rows of Celtic Tiger bungalows some abandoned, unfinished housing builds could be still been seen, however this was a town that is looking good and clearly feeling good.

I’m sure a very warm welcome awairs Lawrence in Dunfanaghy at any time, and that he’d enjoy a pint knowing that the only way is up for Dunfanaghy and his former teammates at St Micheal’s.

Creeslough 

Not a superstition this time, but we found that if you ask anyone from the area about walking the narrow, busy road from Dunfanaghy to the very small village of Creeslough they’ll step away as if you have lost your mind or issue a warning not to be so idiotic. And not in such mild terms either.

With a touch of County Antrim thran, we did it anyway…and found ourselves halfway between Marble Hill and Creeslough in what we now call a Donegal Downpour. 

Cars skimming past our elbows, sideways rain battering us and water squelching out of out over-flowing boots, we walked with our heads down.

I started to whistle the theme from the old Caffrey’s TV advert; you know, the Miller’s Crossing movie theme and the Irish-set ad with the boats and lads with hurls and warm cosy pints in smokey bars.

The comparison didn’t amuse Elle and, with every road sign for an hour towards the end of the walk mysteriously each claiming Creeslough was still 3km away, we walked a safe distance apart, our mood fading as quickly as the evening light, until Creeslough chapel was safely in view.

And what a welcome we found. Going straight into McNulty’s bar and a roaring fire, the drinkers shook their heads at our dripping clothes and said we needed our heads examined. Again, in slightly less diplomatic words.

We were soon chatting to people who spoke fondly of Lawrence and his time in the village, recalling how he came to work on an old house owned by his wife’s family, became bored writing a golf book and took to training with St Micheal’s and approaching the Tirconaill Tribune’s John McAteer for a job at the paper.

One local recalled how Lawrence left Creeslough, which has just two pubs and for now attracts far fewer tourists than bustling Dunfanaghy, saying that he’d write a book about the area. A touch of disbelief about the idea was met with pride and delight just one year later when the superb No News at Throat Lake appeared.

Next, a visit to Rose’s bar and the wonderful old Log Cabin bar (which is outside Creeslough, in the townland of Turmon I believe). In both places we were talked hoarse, we were offered the use of a car – “sure, just leave the keys in her in the sun-visor” – and any talk of buying a drink for our hosts or even getting a taxi was met with a polite refusal and a wave of the hand. One local even offered to step in with a marriage proposal if ‘that Antrim fella there’ failed to step up to the mark. We’ll let him know next year how we’re fixed.

Two lifts later – both from followers of Termon GAA – and we were left bowled over by the welcome laid on for a couple of ‘tourists’. We know very little about GAA but we’ll be back to see Turmon play as a thanks for a great night in proper pubs with wonderful people.

But what would Lawrence think of Creeslough today? Sadly the Corncutter’s Rest bar of No News At Throat Lake has since closed, along with the grocery shop and a hardware shop, scattering their vacant former premises along the single main street.

We were told in McNulty’s that they were lost to the recession, taking 39 jobs along the way, and we reflected that – just like County Antrim – somehow money could be found to keep banks afloat but not small businesses alive long enough to get over the crash and provide life-blood jobs to the likes of Creeslough.

The closures have taken something from the village, but certainly haven’t the heart from it. A Rose’s local proudly boasted of the excellent new camping and ‘glamping’ facilities and, with a round of introductions and friendly banter between all, anyone could see that this is a community on its feet and looking forward.

Tory Island

In No News At Throat Lake, Lawrence jokes that he fled to Tory Island, in Donegal’s Gaeltacht region, for a week to hide from the IRA after making a comment about a North Donegal-based republican in the Guardian newspaper.

After crashing over nine miles of waves on the slightly hair-raising Tory Island ferry and reading-up on some basic Irish words for the first time, we stayed at the same Óstán Radharc Na Céibhe / Tory Island Harbour View Hotel as Lawrence. The end-of-season calm gave us the island almost to ourselves for breath-taking walks to the lighthouse, a chat with the wonderfully friendly owner of the local hostel and a great night in the island social club in the company of a great host behind the bar.

We were told we had just missed a night which had seen the social club and hotel packed with dancing and music as well as missed a chance to talk to the ‘King of Tory’ who was “away in Dunfanaghy”.

We also found out that vodka or Captain Morgan’s Spiced can be mixed with Football Special: information that was worth the ferry trip alone.

All in all, summer-season Tory Island, which also has a number of B&Bs and some excellent apartments we were helpfully shown around, is clearly in fine health.

We even, unlike Lawrence, had a working TV in the room in our hotel, which has changed hands since No News at Throat Lake was written.

And with cold pints, a warm welcome, world-class walks and the chance to dance the night away we could only assume that Lawrence would have smiled to see how the island has flourished since the arrival of streetlights in 1999 – a week before he visited the Island – and after fighting their corner so well against Irish government plans to turn the island over to the Army to use for training.

There will be countless visitors from around the world, not to mention of course the locals, that will be very very pleased that this didn’t happen. 

Milford and the Tribune

Since Lawrence himself took to Milford to meet the Tribune’s John McAteer and start working for the newspaper during his time in Donegal, our retracing his steps had to end in Milford town.

Despite our turning up unannounced in the Tribune offices John kindly came out to chat about our unusual travel notion, even agreeing to accept an article for the Tribune.

With thanks to John an article about our visit is to run in the newspaper (no online version available), neatly rounding off our Tirconaill tribute to Donegal and Lawrence Donegal.

We’re told that Lawrence himself – now a world-class golf writer based in America – still returns to North Donegal from time to time, and how could he not.

Despite the occasional remaining signs of recession, for a visitor this is a place like no other which will soothe your soul and may well find a place in your heart.

If you are an outsider to the county and you too decide to visit, you could be creating one problem for yourself: your visit will never feel long enough and – like Lawrence’s time in Creeslough – it definitely won’t be your last.

* Photographs from the visit can be found at: http://s447.photobucket.com/user/conorjohnston/library/Donegal%202015

*No News at Throat Lake by Lawrence Donegan was published by Penguin books in 2000. Lawrence has also written books about about working as a caddy (Four Iron In The Soul, Penguin, 1998), about his time as a used car salesman in America (California Dreaming, Washington Square Press, 1999) and about his experiences as a Ryder Cup steward (Quiet Please, Yellow Jersey Press, 2004).

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  • Brian Walker

    Alas while the natural features are indestructible and the Mill restaurant in Dunfanaghy is excellent, so much of Donegal is wrecked by bungalow blight

  • I didn’t really see Donegal before they arrived but when I was there last month I did notice some developments that were a real eye-sore.

  • Mister_Joe

    If you don’t mind paying extra for your vegetables in dunfanaghy.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    It’s quite the contrast when one takes the ferry from magilligan to greencastle.
    Look towards Donegal and you see the landscape dotted with houses, look back towards binevenagh (winter fell??) And it’s quite intact.

    I have always thought lowly of NI’s planning officials but it could evidently be much worse…

  • Mister_Joe

    I know for a fact that a large envelope of money works wonders in at least some parts of Donegal.

  • ‘What were they thinking?’ was my thought about some of the developments, particularly where they have a allowed a tight little clump of soul-less boxes in stunning surroundings.

    A forehead-slappingly daft omission on my part, but then again as a new visitor I’ve never known Donegal to be any other way.

  • And extra for a pint!

  • Janos Bingham

    As a film extra (very much in the background crowd: playback button overused to catch my fleeting seconds of ‘fame’) I can tell you that ‘Winterfell’ was filmed at Castle Ward County Down (castle shots) and on the Antrim plateau for shots of ‘The North’.

    In my opinion your “lowly” opinion of NI planners is not misplaced. Locally we may have avoided the despoiling of the landscape suffered elsewhere, but in many rural locations the presence of nondescript cement-rendered uPVC-windowed template-generated houses is not unknown.

    These blots on the landscape, seemingly always present as a two or three ‘bargain bucket’ offer per half acre, are without any architectural merit and add nothing to the environment. Well done planners!

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Thanks janos but I was referring to the landscape around winterfell, as in when bran, ricon, hodor and yer woman are fleeing.
    I seem to recall a lot of the landscape being around binevenagh.

    Must have just been a wee portion though as now that you’ve mentioned the Antrim plateau as the background I do indeed recall that too.

    Did your extra character live or die a horrible horrible death?

  • Janos Bingham

    The flight scenes were filmed I believe below the Sallagh Braes above Caincastle (outside Larne). Logistically it is a good location as its only thirty minutes from Magheramorne quarry – the site where ‘The Wall’ set is built.

    “Yer woman” is ‘Osha’ a ‘Wildling Spearwife’ captured by the Starks.

    My involvement hardly amounts to a ‘character’. I don’t merit a mention in scripts. Sometimes in longshots I’m lying ‘dead’, on other occasions I’m milling about looking wild and warlike – not that mostly even my mother couldn’t pick me out. Although I do have a blurred screen grab of me standing in a group behind Kit Harington (Jon Snow). I must be only three metres from him: a star is born!

  • mickfealty

    The house my great grandad built is still standing proudly, and in the family, but no one these days would attempt to bring up a family in such conditions.

  • Just back from Dunfanaghy.
    I’ve been visiting north Donegal since i was a babe in arms. It’s my spiritual home. For decades it hardly changed, but there was little in the way of prosperity for the locals. It was nice for the northerners to come & gawp at the scenery. But you can’t eat scenery.
    Not all the development has been bad.
    The collapse of the Celtic tiger destroyed some indebted local businesses, but they are starting to rebuild. One local hotel is still lying empty in the deathly grip of NAMA.
    Dunfanaghy is a marvel of enterprise & energy compared to the dour wee place it used to be.. I hope it continues to develop in the right way & the locals get a fair crack.
    The whole place is still magical.