Into the Darkening Sky: Memories of strange Donegal…

Rossnowlagh Beach, Donegal, on the last cusp of summer can give you a tingle of isolation that goes far beyond the blue-grey horizon. When the tide sneaks in (beware parked cars) it is loud and bossy, laying down challenges to trespassers and surfers alike to come and have a go. It is a place of the bleakest magic.

For others, that equivalence comes from the lure of the North Coast, the Mournes or even just the skittering of birds along the silent Loughshore. But on the road beyond Belleek, Rossnowlagh roars.

Of a late September afternoon: Two ice-cream vans were idling on the cool, hard sand, strategically positioned at about fifty yards apart. Business was quiet. The ice-cream men were crouched and hidden, fingers on the trigger. A creamy ’99 was only a tap on the window away. Further along, Mr. Chips was waiting patiently, without much to do. His generator hummed, the griddle was hot and the plastic cutlery was out.

Although, he had no napkins left, only blue roll.

Later on though, a steady queue began to form and the brown bag parade darted back to their cars, clutching their warm wares safely in against their tummies, lest the heat escape. The empty strand seemed to stretch on for miles that day, the people reluctant to hang about.

My nephew once turned around and asked, ‘Was Jesus shot in Donegal?’

Nope, He dodged that bullet. Yet there’s an ethereal quality to the place, this slice of heaven, that means JC was surely resurrected there.

Down in the corner of the strand is an old concrete road. It falls away from the army of fir trees above and slides neatly down to the sand. Puffing and panting, a short hike up will find the Franciscan Friary, and a most peaceful paradise.

On that September day, the church stood firm and grand against the gloomy sky, the car park empty. Suddenly, a priest leapt from the shadows and ushered me inside to confess (‘Jaysus no, don’t be kneeling down there, take a seat on the chair!’).

This was no ordinary confession. This man of nearly ninety (he surely was!) was an inspiration and he had the wild energy of a calf out on the pasture.

I began.  ‘Bless me, Father, fo-‘

A gnarled and bony hand shot up for silence, then settled over his breastbone. The ancient face of the priest came alive as he leaned in close. Deep lines and creases came together, holding the secrets of a thousands of sinners who’d long since wandered by.

‘Where. Is. God?’ he demanded.

‘…I suppose…’, was my brilliant response, as a I tried desperately to think of something fancy and profound to say.

‘In d’ heart. God is with us… in our hearts.’

It was a powerful revelation.

He blessed himself three-times, genuflected twice, and took off at once!

Sometimes, of course, you need much more than spiritual sustenance. But Rossnowlagh is not exactly Donegall Place!

Trapped in the house with the rain beating down, no Wi-Fi and the cupboards empty… God, where can you get a packet of fags in this place? Or a thing of lettuce?

There is only one solution for the weary traveller: Out on the Wild Atlantic Way, Finnegan’s Post Office is an iconic staple of the Rossnowlagh experience. Imagine being able to buy a bar of chocolate and bag of crisps in a shop? But for this simple pleasure, on what feels like the edge of civilisation, we are always truly grateful.

Sure, in a world of bliss like this, you’re well out of harm’s way, aren’t you?

The benevolent priest is still hidden away at the Friary, a friendly spiritual spider. The waves are still roaring and shouting and threatening up and down that beautiful golden strand, and Mr. Chips is always waiting patiently for your order.

Although, he has no napkins left, only blue roll.

That’s my Rossnowlagh.

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