Tag Archives: Donegal

What to do if you get lost

Dava Sobell, author of that great book Longitude told me about her maps and gender theory.

Ask a man the way and he’ll  give maplike instructions: Left at the traffic lights, carry on for mile, then take a right and immediately another right  till you come to a fork and take the righthand one…  And so on.

Ask a woman, and she’ll say something like: Go as far as the letterbox, then turn where there’s a chemist shop and walk on for about ten minutes till you come to a school and turn left there…

You get the picture. Women tend to notice street furniture more than  men. What do you think?


Anyway, if you’re lost there’s always the last resort: a map which is the equivalent of RTFM. Simon Garfield’s great book explores all aspects of maps and mapmaking.


In 1824, the British decided to map Ireland largely with the aim of measuring boundaries for tax purposes and from  this we get townlands. (My former home in Donegal was in the townland of Corkerbeg.)

The man who did great work on this was Thomas Drummond who devised a light that could be seen in murky, misty weather such as you sometimes get in Donegal and other coastal areas. What he used  was a small pellet of lime ( calcium oxide) which could be seen up to 100 miles away. Lots  more of interest in Garfield’s book. And while you’re up, check out Brian Friel’s play Translations which is about the Ordinance Surveying of Ireland at that time.

These thoughts came to me yesterday when I was doing some work on my current project – the old butter roads of Ireland.

I  have a marvellous map dated 1686 which shows, with drawings,  the cattle being milked, the butter being churned and then being taken in wooden firkens to Cork for export.

All this looking for maps and notes led to this, part of my collection of everyday maps:

IMG_2005 And this is only some of them.


Of course, if you ever get lost, you can always ask. In most countries now it’s kilometres but in Ireland watch out for the Irish mile. What’s an Irish mile, you’ll ask. It’s a measure of distance ( not used now, you’ll be glad to hear ) that is 1.27 whereas an English or statute mile is 1, All to do with the difference between a rod and a perch – but let’s not go there. Or, if we do, let’s work it out as the crow flies.



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Friday afternoon in the loo

The mornings work – prepping a talk for next week – was more or less done.Emails dealt with, this evening’s work planned and so – a few minutes tidying the bathroom. Ten minutes at the most – a quick sweep, wipe down, swift rearrangement of  the towels and then, wait, those books – they don’t all have to stay on the shelf, do they? No, this can go and that too, and those. All away to the charity shop. Except, what are these – three slim volumes of poetry, one with an unfamiliar cover –  Poems from the Persian, translated by Edward G Browne. Maybe a quick look: ” Of thy favour, Cup-bearer, fill me up that clear and crystalline bowl…” I put down the seat of the lavatory and flick through the index: Al Rumi is here. And Avicenna. For later.

The next slim volume is The Rainmakers by Francis Harvey. Francis Harvey lives in Donegal town and my favourite poem of his is the Heron. It won the Guardian prize a long time ago. It’s requested so often that, he told me, he almost got to hate it. It’s not in this collection – I checked. But there are plenty others –  A Roofless Cottage near the Horse Glen at Twilight,  A Soft Day and Elegy for  the Islanders: ” They died elsewhere but their graves are here/and these bare gables are their headstones…”

    And then, ah, Paula Meehan’s Mysteries of the Home and comes with a dedication to the traveller. Precious.

I open the book, knowing the one to look for:

   “Would you jump into my grave as quick?

my granny would ask when one of us took

her chair by the fire.  You, woman,

done up to the nines, red lips a come on,

your breath reeking of drink

And your  black eye on my man tonight

in a Dublin bar, think

first of the steep drop, and the six dark feet.”

Good woman, Paula, as long as I’m never the one in the bar with the red lips.



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Omagh, home of poets – and Ben Kiely.

It’s not hard to like the small town of Omagh. Tucked snugly into the valley of the Strule river, in the county of Tyrone, it is of manageable size.There’s the Court House, a few bridges over the river, the well-stocked Carlisle bookshop – and the marvellous Strule Arts Centre with a lecture theatre, conference rooms, a café, recording studio and, for free, a terrific overview of the river which, at this point, has a fish path created to aid the salmon as they make their mystical journey back up the river.


Omagh is the home of Benedict Kiely, prolific writer, joker and raconteur, whose memory is celebrated with the Ben Kiely Literary Weekend, held every year in September.

This year, the theme was travel with artist Eamon Coleman showing his work in Northern Ireland for the first time. Writers included Carol Drinkwater, Afric McGlinchey, Patricia Craig and Eoin Bourke with Paul Clements and Manchan Magan leading a discussion on travel and travel writing. My own contribution was on Sunday morning when I read from my book on Syria – and even found someone in the audience who spoke Arabic.

It was a great gathering of townspeople and others from further away such as Glenties and Portaferry – where, on a sailing jaunt, I was once left high and dry. Literally. That was the boat, by the way, not me.

Saturday afternoon, we were given an unexpected treat: a bus ride out into the hinterland of Omagh. Parked high up on Pigeon Top


, we had a stupendous view of the Sperrin mountains and, looking dead straight ahead westwards, Muckish and the volcanic cone of Errigal: Donegal – my soul home! (The graffiti comes free, by the way.)


   Then we side-tracked along a private road to the site of an old mass rock. This is our shepherd – Frank Sweeney.Image

Tucked into the hillside where no one could see them, the people used to come here in the penal days and now, once year, they still come to make their local pilgrimage. The place is Corradinna with the land made available by the two local people.


 Next up was Langfield Church in Drumquin and a lovely walk to the former rectory there along a secret, sunlit path.


Strule Arts Committee member Georgina Millar now owns the rectory and the cherry on the cake was a chance to hear her play the piano. A serene occasion.


 On the way back, we passed through Dromore where Ben Kiely’s parents met and where he was born before they moved to Omagh and from where he eventually moved to Dublin’s Donnybrook.

 But wait. I’ve forgotten something. Another deviation took us to the waterfall at Sloughan which, if you want to pretend to be a local, you pronounce Slavin.


It was here that the Black Bush was produced and where, with Frances Kiely and Ben’s old friend Stephen McKennaImage, we drank Ben’s health.

It must surely be something in the water – or the whiskey – for this area has produced many writers: Seamus Heaney is only a stone’s throw away in Derry, Flann O Brien is in nearby Strabane and the great John Montague is from just down the road in Garavaghy. Truly, Omagh is a special place.

The annual Ben Kiely Literary Festival is run by volunteers with the support of Omagh District Council. To find out more, email struleartscentre@omagh.gov.uk

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Skinny-dipping, anyone?

Depends on where you are. Anywhere in the Med, off the back of a boat is fine. Lewknor, in Scotland, is good too except that it’s a long way to walk in the nip under scrutiny, if the tide’s out.

St John’s Point, in Donegal, is perfect providing it’s a blazing hot day.

Last week, in Mayo,  was brilliant.  ( Pause here for picture of lovely Mayo to show I know a good thing when I see it.)

20`3 aug Mayo sod house, j and C portobello mural 006

Extend pause to show more of lovely Mayo, with Croagh Patrick in the distance:

Mayo camera 2013 002i

But it wasn’t blazing hot.  It was freezing enough for the tits to be standing straight up and pointing right at New York and the cold making me gasp so that half the Atlantic poured down my throat.

All the talk  this summer about how hot  the water’s  been what with the invigorating jog along the beach and the jumping up and own  and laughing to let on you’re loving it  –  it’s all so much guff. Give me an urban pool – heated if it’s an outside one – where the water is so smooth you hardly get wet and you can swim quietly and calmly to one end, turn and swim back again.

You have to invest in a pair of togs, of course, but you don’t get any sand between the toes.


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My Christmas Reading

Last year, my Christmas reading was an early birthday present of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens. Each winter’s evening, in the run up to Dec 25th, I couldn’t wait to light the fire, draw up a chair, pour a glass of wine and get reading. A marvellous book.

This year, it’s a bit different: a rereading of Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time which looks at the complexities and mysteries surrounding Richard lll: his women, the princes in the tower, his relationship with his mother – all told as a detective story. In tandem, I’ll have to hand the Oxford World Classic annotated edition of the play itself – plus my own memories of the many productions I’ve seen including those of Ian Mckellan, Derek Jacobi, Kathryn Hunter, Mark Rylance, Kevin Spacey, Peter Dinklage, Fayez Kazak,Barrie Rutter,Richard Clothier – and many others!
I’ll also be rereading The Calligrapher’s Night – a gift from an earlier Christmas – which is an evocative novel about a present-day Istanbul-based calligrapher and is written by Yasmine Ghata, a French/Lebanese writer. The image below – a projection of the prayer Bismillah –  is from the excellent exhibition of Arab art and culture at the Louvre.

Nov 2012 etc 033

This will stand me in good staid when planning the presentation (on Syria) I am giving in Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library, on February 2nd and which will touch on examples of calligraphy at the Library – among other aspects of Syrian culture.

For poetry, I will have Donegal poet Francis Harvey’s Collected Poems, published by Daedalus. My favourite is the one about the heron which, the poet has told me, is one he is almost sick of reading because it is so often requested by his fans. Well, I’m a fan and I can’t read it often enough.

And, yet another present (how well people know what I like to read!) is Ian Cobain’s Cruel Britannia A Secret History of Torture which includes analysis, narrative and exposure and is especially of interest since Shannon Airport was used by the US and the UK and their allies to render to Guantanamo people suspected of terrorist acts.
For other ( light?) reading, I intend going to a bookshop today and choosing a book of short stories. Watch this space….

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