A Gaeltacht region road sign near Bob Luhmann's cottage in Ireland. Photo via Flickr

BOB LUHMANN: Letters from County Donegal, Ireland

As he again enjoys a trip abroad to his family's small Irish cottage, Bob Luhmann recalls the very first time he encountered the island, its language, and its politics.

The first time I stepped foot in Ireland was November of 1973. I was 22 years old and had just been married way too young. My folks, being what most people who knew them would generously describe as unorthodox, had bought a 24-acre farm with a cottage and two outbuildings in County Donegal, Ireland the year before. Neither of them had much Irish heritage, but they loved Donegal’s wild beauty, its affordability, and the thought they could use it as a springboard to tour the rest of Europe. The farm had been previously owned by the Curran family, who had built a cottage on the property in the 1890s and upgraded to a newer cottage across the road in the 1940s, which is the cottage we use today. We’ve maintained a warm relationship with the Curran family ever since.

Previously, my folks had packed us up and left northern New Jersey for North Truro on Cape Cod, where my mom took a job as a high school home economics teacher and my dad, who preferred to be called Dave by his kids, began working as an advertising consultant after leaving a job on Madison Avenue. The plan to use the farm as a European springboard didn’t pan out the way they’d planned, as they fell in love with Donegal and found it difficult to leave.

The romance of living in that little, white cottage was intriguing to a couple of counterculture kids of the ’60s who had met in the wild and insular world of 1970’s Provincetown on Cape Cod just a few months earlier. Besides, almost as importantly, staying in the cottage was a cheap honeymoon getaway. So, I sold the only thing I possessed of any real value, a 650 cc Yamaha motorcycle, and we scraped together another few hundred dollars we had saved and set off to live in my folk’s cottage rent-free in exchange for doing some work on it until our money ran out.

County Donegal is the most northwest county of Ireland and is part of the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Free State was established in 1922 for the counties of Ireland other than the six counties in the northeast which remain fully part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Free State remained quasi-independent, or a dominion of the UK, for the next 16 years until it evolved into the fully independent Republic of Ireland. The population of the other, more industrialized six counties of what became Northern Ireland were majority Protestant and remain with the UK to this day.

Map courtesy Wikipedia

Northern Ireland’s membership in the United Kingdom is increasingly tenuous, though, due to the complications of Brexit and what to do with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a European Union member. A reunification of the counties of Ireland would be an unintended consequence in the conception of Brexit and is another indication of how poorly Brexit was conceived. It’ll be righteous justice for the nationalists of Ireland after centuries of conflict, though.

My new wife and I were ignorant of Ireland and its workings except for what my folks had told us. I should probably amend that to say we were ignorant of how the world worked generally, but that will become apparent as this story progresses. Our first stop in Ireland was Dublin, where we spent a couple of mostly forgettable days. Dublin in those days, especially in November, was exceedingly dreary and could just as well have been the inspiration for Ewan MacColl’s classic, “Dirty Old Town” performed most famously by The Pogues.

Being a music fan, the first thing I did after waking up from a jet-lag-induced nap in our hotel was to turn on the radio to hear what Irish music was like. I was surprised when the first song I heard was “Paper Roses” by Marie Osmond, which was a top hit on the country music charts in the States at the time. Over the next months, I heard “Paper Roses” played ad nauseam in shops throughout Donegal. In later years ,as I became better acquainted with Donegal, I learned Nashville was as much a priority destination as New York or Boston for many who toured, or dreamt of touring, the United States.

It confused me at first until I learned that Scotch-Irish music was effectively the major influence on the roots of American country music. Scotch-Irish music was born in the province of Ulster, the northernmost of the six traditional Irish provinces, which includes Donegal. Ulster is where many from the Scottish Lowlands migrated during the 17th century, which is a story unto itself about which many books have been written. For the purposes of this story, it’s the reason for the concentration of the Church of England’s Protestants in Northern Ireland while the Republic of Ireland, including Donegal, remain overwhelmingly Catholic.

Many of those Ulster Scotch-Irish emigrated to the United States in the 18th and 19th century, escaping religious conflicts and economic hardships. Traditional music, so often born out of adversity, travels with those who are emigrating, forced or otherwise. The poor Scotch-Irish American immigrants took their music with them, which become the main influence on American country music, especially bluegrass. Today, the music continues to evolve between Ireland and America. I have a young Irish musician friend from Donegal who is exceedingly jealous of the fact I’ve seen the legendary Del McCoury Band numerous times.

While in Dublin, I experienced an Irish pub for the first time. As my bride and I entered, a roomful of men in tweed caps and mugs of creamy-topped Guinness Stout went silent as we entered, glaring at us as one. It’s an image that has stuck with me forever. The glares were obviously not what I would call welcoming, we got the hint, and we left. I had become somewhat used to individual glares in the U.S. due to my shoulder-length hair and beard, but I came to learn the glares in that pub were probably for a different reason. As I later learned, many Irish pubs at the time were strictly a man’s sanctuary, and if women were allowed, it was in a separate “family” section which became the village living room, especially in rural pubs.

The Curran family in front of the old cottage, circa 1923. Frank Curran is the youngest in the front. Photo courtesy Anne Curran

After our forgettable time in Dublin, we continued to Donegal by bus, some four hours away. However, somehow my wife and I managed to miss the bus we were to take to begin making the bus connections necessary to take us to Gortahork, County Donegal, where we were to meet Frank and Mary Curran. Those dear people were to take us up to my folks’ cottage in what many Irish consider the outback. This was not good. Today this might have been an inconvenience remedied by a telephone call or text, but almost no one had a telephone in that remote part of Donegal at the time. We felt lost and a bit hopeless. There we were, a couple of kids in a foreign country, not able to reach anyone and with little money to spare. Our only choice was to continue our journey and hope to find the Currans once we reached our destination.

Our bus ride took us through Northern Ireland, with a stop in Derry, or Londonderry as it’s officially named. We weren’t aware that The Troubles were at one of its apogees when we pulled into the bus station. Consequently, we weren’t prepared to find the bus station encircled with barbwire, stacks of sandbags piled high, and guarded by vigilant British soldiers. During our stop we changed buses and two heavily armed British soldiers boarded. They strode menacingly up and down the aisle, studying each person carefully as they went by. It was extremely intimidating, as I’m sure it was intended. As I said, we were ignorant of the workings of Ireland, and especially ignorant of the extent of the conflict between the unionists in Northern Ireland — self-identifying as British and favoring remaining with the United Kingdom on the majority Protestant side — and the nationalists mainly on the Catholic side throughout Ireland seeking to unify the island as one country.

Derry was a particular hot spot due to raw emotions after the events of Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972. If you’re as unaware as we were, Bloody Sunday in Derry was one of the most infamous incidents of The Troubles, when 26 unarmed Irish nationalist civil rights protestors were shot, 13 of whom were shot dead by British paratroopers. This barbarous act sparked an immediate escalation in the conflict. This event can still raise the blood pressure of any Irish nationalist to this day.

Old postcard of McFadden’s Hotel in Gortahork, now the rebuilt Óstán (hotel in Irish) Loch Altan. Image courtesy Bob Luhmann

After that disturbing introduction, our bus took us to the small city of Letterkenny, just over the border from Northern Ireland in County Donegal. We huddled against the cold in an unheated bus station for what seemed like hours, nipping on a bottle of whiskey we had bought at the airport duty-free shop, rationalizing it would keep us warm as we waited for the last bus to Gortahork. The whiskey may not have warmed us, but it allowed us not to care as much about our predicament. Once our bus pulled up, it took about an hour to arrive at our destination, but too late to rendezvous with Frank and Mary. It was dark as dark can be and a damp wind made it seem colder than it was. We were left to check into McFadden’s Hotel, where we had dinner and planned how to find our protectors the next day.

When I raised our hotel room shade the next morning and looked down, a fortuitous event was occurring. A swarm of tweed caps and headscarves lay before me. When I looked across, I realized our hotel was next to a Catholic church, and since it was Sunday, I figured Frank and Mary had to be there. I was right. During our three-month stay, from November 1973–January 1974, Frank and Mary became guides and unofficial godparents to two young, newly married, clueless Yanks. I have nothing but warm, loving memories of those dear people and have kept in touch with their children over the last 50 years.

We spent a number of wonderful evenings at Frank and Mary’s cottage during our stay, where seven of their nine children, ranging in age from 2–16, were still at home. The sound of knitting needles clicking furiously away is my first memory of those evenings. Mary, with her children encircling her, would sit by their only source of heat, a stove fueled by turf cut from the surrounding bogs. She would knit a woolen fisherman’s sweater to sell while barely looking at what she was doing. As she worked, she directed her children to mind Tom, the two-year-old, answered her children’s endless questions, and calmly directed them in their activities while also carrying on a conversation with us in her lilting southern Irish accent. Multitasking doesn’t adequately describe what Mary was doing during those visits.

A turf fire in our cottage. A framed photo of the Curran family is on the mantel. Photo: Bob Luhmann

I mention her accent because she was a transplant in Donegal, and her manner of speaking was quite different from the locals. The reason was that Irish Gaelic is the vernacular in Donegal and Mary was from an area in the south where Irish Gaelic was spoken infrequently. Irish Gaelic, which I will refer to simply as Irish as the Irish do, was spoken everywhere we went in Donegal. This was particularly so because, in the 1920s, after the Irish Free State had been established, the government designated regions in the country as Gaeltacht, mostly in the west, which were to preserve the Irish language and more broadly the Irish culture after the British did their best to eradicate it. In these regions, which still exist, Irish speaking is encouraged, public schools are taught in Irish, and almost all road signs and many shop signs are in Irish. Not much has changed today, but globalization has had its effect and Irish is not spoken with the same frequency.

At one time, my wife was looking for some sewing material and we were directed to a store, called a drapery, where such things could be found. That store is still in Falcarragh, the next town east of Gortahork (or Gort an Choirce as the entrance sign indicates in Irish). We were told to look for Kelly’s, however, we walked up and down Falcarragh’s relatively short main street but couldn’t find it. We finally gave up, entered a shop and asked the shopkeeper where we might find Kelly’s. The shopkeeper looked at us incredulously and exclaimed, “It’s but the next shop over!”We could be forgiven for our ignorance this time as Kelly was spelled O’Ceallaigh on the sign.

Not too long ago, our good friend and neighbor Michael Coyle, who is in his seventies as we are, told us in one of his marvelous stories about growing up in the area. His parents were strictly Irish speakers, he said, and never felt the need to learn English. Because schools in the area were taught in Irish, my obvious question was how he learned English. With a twinkle in his eye, his droll response was, “I still am!”