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Driving Ireland’s West Coast

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Photo: Jessica Schwartzberg

It’s been a decade since I was last in Bunbeg, in northern Donegal, yet when I walk into Teach Hudi Beag at 10:30 on a Monday night, the pub seems unchanged: the white façade, the dark wood beams, the musicians gathered around a row of low tables to the right of the door. Dark-eyed Hugh Gallagher, the owner, plays fiddle at the head table, and seven or eight other players lean into the circle and ease through a succession of tunes. Soon I am seated among the musicians: a tolerably decent Irish-American flutist with a deep devotion to rural Irish culture, welcomed again into the flow of the tradition. I take out my cell phone and call my wife, a first-rate fiddler herself and a great fan of the Donegal style, so that she can hear what I’m hearing. It feels like a homecoming.

Last time I was here, I was on a quest to find the pure music of Ireland’s west; this time my mission is more complex. I’ve been hearing a lot about changes in the region—laments of rampant real estate development and a dilution of traditional culture—and have already seen ample evidence of this on a two-hour drive along the coast. Tomorrow, I will begin a five-day road trip to see it for myself; tonight, I fall asleep with old Donegal melodies running through my head.

Day 1: Bunbeg to Dunkineely (72 miles)

At noon the following day I meet Gearóid Mooney, son of the legendary Bunbeg fiddler Francie Mooney, for seafood chowder in the stately old Highlands Hotel in Glenties. From there we head to Glencolmcille, in the dramatic coastal highlands of southwest Donegal. The road seems relatively unchanged, and the drive through Glengesh Pass is as hairy and magnificent as ever, with sharp curves, precipitous dips and climbs, and a succession of head-turning views. As we hit the outskirts of Glencolmcille, however, a small crescent of colonnaded McMansions stops me in my tracks. Most new houses I’ve seen in rural areas promise to blend in once the paint fades and the hard edges soften, but these will always look like awkward transplants from Long Island.

In town we rendezvous with Paddy “Beag” Gillespie, a local character and expert guide who leads us down narrow lanes and across boggy pastures to a 6,000-year-old ring fort and a row of 5,000-year-old megalithic graves, then unlocks a medieval souterrain (underground hideaway) in the graveyard of St. Columba’s church. All the while, he and Mooney banter about a variety of topics, from the effect of broadband access in the remote hills of Donegal to the exploits of “Anna from Buncrana”—a local garda notorious for her zealous enforcement of drinking laws.

It’s nearly 6 p.m. when I leave for my hotel. I arrive at the Castle Murray House Hotel after dark in a dreadful downpour, and happily while the evening away by the fireplace after a dinner of local seafood prepared by chef Remy Dupuy.

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