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Denis: Enjoying the charm of the Irish

I BECAME a tour guide in Donegal to give guests from America a taste of Irish hospitality.

I BECAME a tour guide in Donegal to give guests from America a taste of Irish hospitality. Our trip was a moveable feast. Just like the traffic lights.

The lights were at road works in County Tyrone. We waited in line ... and then they started moving.

A workman had hitched them to a JCB and off they went, still showing red. I have often been delayed by temporary lights but not when they were being towed along the road in front of me at 10 miles an hour.

But that's Ireland.

By then, my in-laws Ian and Virginia Lennon, who used to live in Skelmanthorpe until they emigrated 12 years ago, and American Kim, all from the Seattle area, had been in the country long enough not to be surprised.

We had flown into Derry from Liverpool and picked up a car from Martin at Avis. His welcome is always guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

The drive to Thatch Cottage on the outskirts of the small town of Ramelton in Donegal was about an hour. Farmer John Coyle showed us round. The cottage was beautiful and I said: “We owe you money, John. Can I pay?”

“Ah no,” he said. “We’re just having a chat and becoming friends. It’s no time for money. I don’t like dealing with it. I used to have a garden centre and the old ladies would say, I’m on the pension, John, and I’d be giving them stuff.

“There’s plenty of time for paying. You just make sure you like the place before we get to that.”

He was so diffident about what we owed that we had to call him the evening before we left to insist he come and collect.

Ramelton is an attractive town on the River Lennon, packed with history. The O’Donnels ruled from here until their exile in the 17th century.

In 1995, a 200 strong film crew descended on Ramelton which, along with the surrounding wild hills, was used for filming the historical drama The Hanging Gale about the potato famine of 1846, that killed a million people and sent almost as many emigrating to America.

It starred the four McGann brothers – Joe, Mark, Paul and Stephen – and Michael Kitchen. The crew stayed for three months.

The town has never forgotten and neither had Patsy, the inebriated gent we met in Conway’s Bar on our first night. He was enrolled as an extra after wandering into town to buy cigarettes for his father.

“They took me home that night in a car and I never did get me father’s cigarettes.”

Conway’s is thatch-roofed, flag-stoned and smoky from two big fires. We took our drinks into the room away from the bar. Patsy and his friend Sean immediately tumbled through to join us. They had a sway factor that looked as if they were attempting to stand in a very strong wind.

They put on a wonderfully entertaining double act, as if they had been cast for the parts. Ian stopped Sean from falling into the fire.

“I wonder who’s paying them?” my wife Maria said, between bursts of laughter.

“Welcome to Ireland,” I said to Kim.

Sean stumbled away and we had the benefit of a solo Patsy – “I was known as the fifth McGann,” he said – to keep us laughing. As we left, the locals at the bar smiled knowingly.

“He got you, then?” one said.

The next night in the Bridge, one of the most famous music pubs in Ireland, we described our encounter.

“Ah, you mean Patsy and Sean,” said the barman.

Their fame was infinite. At least in Ramelton.

Donegal is a great place to walk, enjoy the craic, discover history, ruins, churches, saints and, like we did, watch race horses being exercised on the long open beach at Rathmullan: galloping across the sand and wading through the breakers to strengthen their muscles.

We visited the 2,000 year old hill fort that was once the seat of the high kings of the O’Neills from where you can look into three counties. The hill has been fortified since 3,000 BC. The views are incredible.

A drive onto the Inishowen Peninsula and into Amazing Grace Country. It was here in 1748 that the boat of slave trader John Newton limped to safety in Lough Swilly during a violent storm. Newton found God and wrote the famous song.

In Buncrana I lost my wife in a one-man store with nooks, crannies and a downstairs sweater department.

“You’ve lost her?” the man said. “You sure you want her back?”

“Do you do exchanges?” I said.

“Which would you like? Blonde or red head?”

“How about one of each?”

“Ah, you wouldn’t cope. These are Irish women.”

Wherever you go, there’s always the craic.

Back at Thatch Cottage, John’s son Barry called to see if we needed anything. We began to tell him about our encounter in Conway’s Bar.

“Ah, you mean Patsy and Sean,” he said.

Fame indeed is a memorable moveable feast.

 

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