Sleive League, Donegal
August 22nd, 2018
I am back on the Wild Atlantic way after a detour to Dublin to drop off Dad and pick up Paige. Driving into Dublin, I noticed a change in my body. I was slightly uncomfortable, as I seem to be in most large cities. I began taking on a mild undercurrent of adrenaline—perhaps the energy of the city itself—and couldn’t seem to be still. I walked to a gear store; I walked to the supermarket; I walked to move our car every three hours so it wouldn’t get a boot on it. Even in the dark space of our rented basement apartment, I was up and planning our travels into the late hours of the night.
As I walked the human-clogged streets, I noticed that Irish authenticity was being advertised everywhere: “Get your Authentic Irish Wool Sweaters,” “Ireland’s Best Fish and Chips,” “Buy your Genuine Celtic T-shirts here.” Many of the businesses in Dublin were trying to capitalize on the cultural commodities that drive tourists to Ireland. They were bringing back an echo of the past that was saleable. But real authenticity for me is not about getting a buck off a tourist, it is about maintaining cultural traditions and landscapes. Often, it does not ask for any money in return. Since returning to Donegal on the northwest coast of Ireland, I’ve observed three different experiences that might be considered authentic:
The first is the cottage where I am sitting and writing. Simple. Entirely unpretentious. Sloping ceilings and doors that don’t close because of the sloping ceilings. Light fixtures I must duck to keep from hitting my head. A small, peat-fired wood stove in the living room with a bucketful of dried peat harvested from the hillside out back.
The second is the man I saw sitting at the pub last night where we ordered dinner. Sharp, narrow face. Classic tweed hat. A mustache and a light overcoat. He appeared to be looking at the rain outside. In the first hour we were there, he drank half a pint of Smithwicks. Sips came minutes apart and were small enough to barely wet his throat. He kept looking out from the bar. There were three boisterous patrons next to him, but he didn’t say anything to anyone. He ordered another pint of Smithwicks five minutes after finishing the first. In twenty minutes he took two small sips. A portly, older man walked in the door straight out of the rain and sat on the stool next to him. They began talking in quiet voices with measured pauses. They may have been speaking Irish–we’re in a Gaelacht region–but I was too far away to hear them.
The third experience was following the Pilgrim’s Way out the back door of our cottage this morning. It lead to the top of Slieve League, touted as the highest sea cliffs in Europe. After rain overnight, every creek was full—dirty green. Water had flooded the flat pasture. Sheep were bunched along the road in front of me. They trotted ahead of until they could find a place to step off. It was classic Emerald Isle weather with dappled waves of sunlight on the ocean behind me, and the small town of Teelin tucked onto the hillside on the far side of the estuary.
The path was steep rock and mud. Some rocks were painted white in case you lost your way in the fog. At the top, you could look down 1800 feet to the ocean. Ephemeral waterfalls plunged off. Heather clung to impossibly steep hillsides. I passed over One Man’s Pass, an airy tightrope along the cliff line. Shimmying on my butt, I reveled in the depth of air beneath me. Then it was down the ridge on spongy tussocks back towards the cottage. I didn’t see anyone until I reach the parking lot, where a few food trucks were setting up to wait for the day’s tourist rush.
Each of these experiences seemed to be a vestige of something authentic. I did not particularly seek them out. They seemed to come to me, just as many things do, when I let myself be open to their arrival.