I wrote this piece in early 2020 on spec for the editor of the travel section of a nameless newspaper, having visited Ireland for the second time the previous year. Of course, shortly after I submitted it, COVID hit, and the editor said she could no longer publish it despite her liking for the piece. So, here it is on my blog - my first blog post since 2017!
Low clouds are rolling down the mountainside towards Teelin Harbour, where the River Glen meets the choppy waters of Donegal Bay. Outside, a chill wind is blowing but in the front bar of the Rusty Mackerel in County Donegal, the Guinness and the craic are flowing and it feels like the most welcoming pub in the world.
Located in remote north-west Ireland, Teelin scarcely seems to qualify as a village. There’s no church that I can see, not even a shop; just the pub, an Irish language college, and a cluster of houses scattered along the road leading to the harbour. Wild fuchsias bloom along the road’s edge; in the green fields beyond, black-faced sheep graze quietly. On a nearby hillside overlooking Teelin Pier, the tumbled ruins of a coast guard station, burned down by the anti-treaty IRA during the civil war of 1923, stand watch over the steel-blue sea.
I’ve come to Teelin on a whim. With just a few days left in Ireland I’ve decided that a visit to the Gaeltacht – one of the Irish-speaking regions of the country – is essential. There are just two small problems. Donegal’s Gaeltacht stretches along the rugged western coast, at least 50 kilometres from Donegal Town but I can’t drive – and I only have a 24-hour window in which the trip can happen.
Arriving in Donegal Town at 10am means I’ve already missed the Bus Éireann service to Glencolumbkille. I’m slowly realising I might have to skip the Gaeltacht altogether when – thanks to the local tourist bureau – I learn about a small community bus service running westwards three times a day. It doesn’t run as far as Glencolumbkille, but perhaps I’d like to visit Teelin instead?
Two hours later I’m on a minibus bound for Carrick, a village approximately an hour away. From there I hitchhike for the first time in decades, since taxis are temporarily unavailable (Carrick’s taxi drivers double as the local bus drivers and are tied up with the school run). A mother and her adult daughter pick me up and drive me down the road to Teelin. Ten minutes after that I’m sitting at the bar of the Rusty Mackerel with a pint of cider in hand.
Above a turf fire hangs a glass case containing a stuffed salmon while the stone walls are adorned with old photographs and even older Guinness ads in Irish and English. Here hangs a collection of mugs and jugs; there stands a model sailing ship. High wooden chairs line the timber bar, behind which sit bottles of Silkie Irish Whiskey and An Dúlamán Maritime Gin, both distilled less than a mile away. By the end of the night I’ll have sampled them both.
After checking into my room (a cabin recently constructed behind the pub) and strolling down to the harbour to take in the view across Donegal Bay – where the distant, glacier-sculpted slopes of County Sligo’s Dartry Mountains are faintly visible through the soft rain – I return to the Rusty Mackerel and fall into an easy conversation with a couple of locals.
John, a 30-something farmer and his sparkie mate Francis seem gobsmacked to learn that I’ve come all this way just to soak up the atmosphere of an Irish-speaking village for the night. “If you were looking for the authentic Ireland, you’ve found it,” John tells me, after shouting me a pint.
Soon, a guitarist and a fiddle player sit down at a nearby table. Quietly, without fuss, they begin to play. The Rusty Mackerel’s patrons are drawn towards them.While some are content to sit and listen, others add their own voices to the chorus. Beside me, a lad in his early 20s takes advantage of a lull in the music to stand and recite a poem from memory. In another break in proceedings an older woman seated at the bar starts to sing – hesitantly at first – until the musicians pick up the tune and accompany her.
I’ve been travelling around Ireland for over three weeks now, taking in performances at the Dublin Fringe and live music in Cork and Galway, but for the first time I feel like I’ve gained a glimpse of the Ireland that existed before radio and television – when the pub was the heart of the community and communal singing was part of everyday life. There’s a palpable sense of camaraderie in the Rusty Mackerel this evening, a sense of timelessness, of magic even – though perhaps that’s the seaweed-infused gin talking.
By the end of the night, everyone is singing together – even me, on the rare occasion that I know the chorus of a traditional song like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. The next morning’s hangover, as I hitchhike back to Carrick to catch the community bus to Donegal, lingers for hours, but my memories of the Rusty Mackerel will endure for years to come