Life in Donegal is pretty much the opposite of the life I’ve known thus far.
If I had to describe my experience of this space, I’d say it’s a laid back, half-forgotten, half-emerging place full of wild, natural beauty with just a tinge of cruelty around the edges; a place with a kind spirit filled with memory and loss. And it’s this tension that creates the beauty of Donegal.
Donegal is sometimes referred to as “the forgotten county”. Tucked away in the far north-west, bordering Northern Ireland, it almost stands apart from the rest of the Republic. We have no trains here. We have no highways connecting us with any major cities or towns. And if you can believe the news, Donegal is one of the counties that proportionally receives less state funding than other counties. This is made evident by the number of people waiting for hospital beds and treatment. It can be seen in the harassed looks of the hospital staff, the potholes and small narrow roads, and the huge outward stream of the young and educated looking for career opportunities elsewhere.
But Donegal is a gem, if you care to look more closely. Perhaps because it’s the forgotten county, many people (tourists and the Irish alike) never make the effort to come this far north-west, and it really is their loss. If you made the effort, you’d be met with incredible landscapes and warm Donegal hospitality.
I’ve never lived a lifestyle this rural before. In all fairness, I live on the outskirts of town, but I only have to walk a few hundred meters to see the first farms. I love to walk or jog on the small country roads in my area. I enjoy watching the sheep, cows, horses, and donkeys. I always chuckle when the sheep look at me with suspicion. For a few seconds, they stop chewing and turn their heads to follow me as I go by until they’re sure I’m safely on my away. I won’t tell you how I know this, but if you “bah” at a Donegal sheep, you have a good chance of it answering you with enthusiasm! After two kilometers along my route, I’m well into the countryside, and I can see Mount Errigal and Muckish in the distance. On a clear day, I can look across the whole valley to lough Swilly. On the halfway mark of my route, I always stand still for a couple of minutes and just drink in the view. This is where I live. This is my back yard. Mountains, green valleys, and farm animals. Who would’ve thought?
On sunny days, it’s worth exploring the rest of the county. The beaches here are beautiful and pristine with white sand flowing into the crystal clear Atlantic. More often than not, you’ll find yourself in the presence of magnificent cliffs; their sheer drops painting a picture of how the landscape was formed over millions of years. You’ll also most likely have some sheep keeping a watchful eye on you from their pastures on the grassy dunes right by the beach. Here you need hiking boots, and perhaps a mountain bike, to fully explore the natural forests and scenic walks in the area.
For the first time, I have a vegetable garden and a small lawn. I enjoy getting to know the different plants and insects, and how to manage an organic garden in wet and windy weather. I’m attempting to grow vegetables, herbs, and strawberries and the outcome has been varied so far. This year, at least, I hope to eat more of my own strawberries than the slugs can manage! Although, we might have to compromise and settle for a 50/50 split.
I’m working as a volunteer in the Animals in Need charity shop in town. It’s a daily source of inspiration, exasperation, and joy. Here I meet people from all walks of life, all with different agendas. I’ve found amazing books and seen rare and confusing objects. In many ways, the charity shop is a little time capsule of the Donegal that was and is.
One reality that you can’t get past is that it rains. A lot. You know you live in a wet and grey place if you are jealous of London’s great weather! But you have to take it in your stride, and you very quickly learn to not let a light drizzle and a slight to moderate wind keep you from doing things.
The warmness of the people makes up for the fickle weather. Here people stop their cars in the middle of the road to have a chat with a friend. Getting stuck behind a tractor or someone exercising their horse with a cart in town is commonplace. The people are always happy to help with a smile on their faces, except maybe some of the waiters in town. But the overall spirit is that of community and kindness. This includes the surprisingly large group of South Africans living in Letterkenny. Some are here permanently, and some are just passing through, but my experience has been overwhelmingly positive and enriching. People are happy to help, give advice, and support each other. If it wasn’t for my group of South African friends here, I think surviving my first year would have been a close call.
Even though my life in Donegal is different to anything I could have envisioned for myself, I’m embracing this chapter of my life. Rain and sunshine, sulky waiters and friendly faces, this is a good place to be right now.
If you are curious to learn more about Donegal, you might enjoy the story Rhubarb and Ginger about Rose who’s prize-winning jam changed my life. In Unforeseen Challenges, I talk about the sometimes unexpected obstacles that I’ve had to overcome since moving to Ireland.
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