Donegal – Fort of the Foreigners

The Memory at War project specializes in Slavonic studies, but despite this focus on my chosen part of the world, I remain fascinated by memory in places that lie beyond its boundaries. This geographically interdisciplinary approach to area studies – connections, comparisons and parallels – is one of the convictions I’ve brought to my work here. These days, I’m gathering more than my share of connections and parallels in Ireland.

This isn’t the first August I spend in Donegal, Ireland’s beautiful and rugged northernmost county, where Irish is still spoken on a daily basis and where traditional folk music fills the bars with violins and flutes. My father hails from these lands; his mother’s ancestors arrived here from Scotland as early as the 13th century as mercenary soldiers, while his father’s family has lived here as long as anyone knows. In and around Gortahork (Gort a’ Choirce – Field of Oats), a little township close to Falcarragh and Dunfanaghy, everyone is his cousin. But that’s not why I come here.

There’s simply something about Donegal, with its perpetual layers of deep gray above and deep green below; its smells of turf, rains, sea salt, autumnal smoke and oceanic roughness; its fishermen, poets, legends and history. I’ve read that some places on our small planet simply work better for each of us than others; if this is true, then Donegal is one of those places that work for me. Dún na nGall is Gaelic for Fort of the Foreigners. The foreigners were the Vikings, who set up camp here in the 9th century. Ironically, the county is now the last remaining fortress of Irish culture and language. Very few regions in Ireland still operate in Gaelic; those that do are known as the Gaeltacht.

This preservation could be due to Donegal’s general isolation, brought about by the turns of history. The Partition of Ireland in the 1920s had a massive direct impact on the county: it was cut off, economically and administratively, from Derry, which had acted for centuries as its main port and center. Derry was now in a different country – Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. But Donegal was also cut off from the new Irish Free State (which became the current Republic of Ireland in 1949). Only a few miles of the county are connected by land to the rest of the Republic. Effectively, Donegal found itself in a world of its own.

On the long bus ride here from Dublin, a bit over one hour is spent driving through Northern Ireland. But this summer, after my first year at Cambridge, I took notice of the fact that the road signs for Londonderry in that area have been altered: a can of green spray paint has meticulously taken out the ‘London’ along that entire route, leaving only ‘Derry’ – the city’s original name, anglicized from the Irish word Doire, before it was prefixed with London- in 1613. This gesture of memory, though commited by an invisible hand, is a reminder of how alive the recollections of war and of violence remain on this beautiful island.

This past year hit the county hard. Seventeen businesses closed their doors in Letterkenny alone, according to the local butcher. In addition to the economic crisis, winter frost descended on Donegal in May, killing off the potato crop. Poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh, treating us to tea at his house last week, described the devastation: the severity of the temperature drop, coupled with the gentleness of young spring foliage, turned the newborn leaves black in his garden. Framed on Cathal’s wall is a handwritten translation of one of his poems (composed, as usual, in Irish) into English by Seamus Heaney. Its text mourns the decline of Ireland as the poet remembers her. One line struck me: “If only anger could split the atom of grief!”

The BBC covers Cathal’s poetry, in his own words, as “… an act of re-possession. Re-possessing tongue and tradition to a large extent.” I will not pretend to comprehend the strength of his feelings for his ancestral lands (‘Slan go fóill!’ he waved as we departed late at night – ‘Goodbye for now!’). But I am once again reminded of the common themes of traumatic memory in the world – grief, and anger, and nostalgia, – and of the resulting poetic license people may take while working through these feelings.

 

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