Life

Nuala McCann: Easter holidays were the wilds of Donegal – they never won me over

We'd make small chat with the woman of the shop, then gird ourselves for the return leg to huddle around the turf fire – no central heating in the cottage – and take whatever comfort we could suck out of a quarter of Emerald toffees

Even now, I associate beaches with a keen sense of abandonment

THE love for faraway isolated places must skip a generation. The gene missed me. A childhood spent on vast Donegal beaches with never a soul in sight has cured me of them forever.

I blame my parents. They took the cottage in Fanad every Easter. There was a certain priest who could rattle through the Easter vigil so fast it made it worth the journey.

The drunk men in the balcony of the church tried to puff out my Easter candle just as we were renewing our baptismal promises.

There was a small bar where you went to get a lemonade with a head on it so that it looked like you were having a beer, much to the delight of my little brother. Like sweetie cigarettes with the little red ‘fire’ on the end, I fear such delights are no longer PC.

The thing about Fanad is that it offered little for the teenager. The nearest shop was a mile up the road and opened for just an hour. We’d struggle into our anoraks and head up past whin bushes and donkeys half crazy with loneliness.

We’d make small chat with the woman of the shop, then gird ourselves for the return leg to huddle around the turf fire – no central heating in the cottage – and take whatever comfort we could suck out of a quarter of Emerald toffees or a bag of iced caramels.

At night, having nursed your fake beer, the road home was treacherous. Street lights had not made it that distance, the dark was velvet black with a smattering of stars and it took real pathfinder skills to stay on the path.

My parents loved it. They left us to dig sandcastles in the vast beach and disappeared off for long walks. Even now, I associate beaches with a keen sense of abandonment.

The Easter that it snowed and hailed and my father’s kidney played up badly, we went home early. At that stage I’d had enough of the Wordsworthian bliss of solitude.

Back home in the big metropolis that was Ballymena, I just about kissed my bedroom door that I’d tastefully decorated with a Holly Hobby sticker. She was a Raggedy Ann doll in a patchwork pinafore and a blue bonnet that was all the rage back then.

Home sweet home meant heating, a full fridge and boxes of books that my mother had not had time to censor. Hello to The Country Girls, The Emperor of Ice Cream and Borstal Boy, Seek the Fair Land and Fear of Flying – farewell ye blue hills of Donegal.

We had streetlights, we had central heating, we had box loads of old Reader’s Digests. I could lose myself in Jane’s right ovary or John’s left kidney or in the drama of a plane crash in the Andes and the ethical dilemma of eating dead passengers to survive.

There is a certain story of a kidnap and being buried alive that has forever sealed my certain belief that cremation is the only way to go.

Time softens the edges of memory and I’m no teenager any more. I have a certain fondness for Donegal. Now, when I think back on those Easter adventures, I remember my cousin coming down with an Easter egg for each of us.

I remember my aunt taking us to the local hotel and treating us all to a lemonade and a bag of Tayto – the Free State ones were always much cheesier.

I remember what a big adventure it was to go away at Easter and how truly beautiful were the hills. We just never looked.

For my mother Donegal was home – her father’s home and the place that her parents lived in their early marriage before settling in Derry for work and city life. I see now what it meant to snatch time away from the hectic world of work and find peace on a lonely beach.

French friends love the very thought of Ireland.

“How very green it is,” they say.

“That would be the rain,” I say.

The Donegal of my Easter holidays over 40 years ago has long since changed. The world and his wife have a holiday cottage now. But the whiff of a turf fire never won me over.

The empty beach is for the long weekend only – give me the big smoke, the coffee shop, the bar and the movie house... Cave Hill, Black Mountain, the Bog Meadows, the Hatchet Field.

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