Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Donegal's saint, Colmcille (or Columba) has left his mark on many places around the county.  He was born at Gartan in 521 AD, christened at nearby Temple Douglas and had his first education at Kilmacrennan.  (As an aside to this blog post, it makes me wonder why then the film being made about his life is not to have even one scene filmed here?  Norman Stone and Jeremy Irons please take note!).

Painting of St. Colmcille from St. Eunan's Cathedral, Letterkenny
I have a fascination with Colmcille.  His life was so interesting and he was so talented and clever that it is hard not to be fascinated by him.  I have visited all the sites in Donegal connected in any way with St. Colmcille, from all of the obvious ones (Gartan and Temple Douglas) and the more obscure, for instance a large Colmcille cross in a derelict church near Falcaragh, and of course, the beautiful and rugged Tory Island to where Colmcille brought Christianity.

I went back yesterday evening to the place Colmcille had his early education at Kilmacrennan.  Just a couple of minutes outside the little village of Kilmacrennan there is a path that takes you to a place steeped in history.  Colmcille was educated in the area around 528 AD by his teacher, Cruthnechan, and he later founded a monastery there (6th c-1129), a Franciscan friary was built there (1537-1610) and one of the walls remain to this day, the O'Donnell chieftans had their religious rites of inauguration here (1200-1603), and the ruins of the old Church of Ireland of Kilmacrennan (1622-1845) are still there.

The path between the Franciscan friary ruins and Church of Ireland ruins
My mission was mostly in connection with St. Colmcille and wandering along the little path between the ruins of the Franciscan friary and the old Church of Ireland ruins it felt strange to think that Comcille as a child and later as an adult probably walked along this very ground.

The river Lennon where it rises at Gartan Lake
The river Lennon, which runs through Kilmacrennan, rises at Gartan Lake and for the first time it struck me that perhaps Cruthneachan (Colmcille's first teacher) and the young Colmcille had travelled between Gartan and Kilmacrennan in a currach rather than on foot?

Franciscan friary ruins, Kilmacrennan
In the grounds of the friary ruins there are many graves, some ancient and some marking the final resting place of more recently deceased locals.  The graveyard meananders along for a little distance and then seems to disappear.  Walking to the end of the graveyard I saw that it didn't actually disappear, or end where I thought it did but rather it dropped down a steep slope with even more graves.  It is so steep that I wonder how on earth they manage to get coffins down the slope at all.  But they do and have as there are quite a few graves, again both ancient and modern, there.

The steeply sloped graveyard at the Franciscan friary, Kilmacrennan
I (very) carefully walked down the steep slope, between the graves to the old stone wall at the bottom of it.  Looking out over the wall with nothing but countryside and sheep to be seen, I thought that the landscape was probably more or less (other than for a few fences) what Colmcille would have looked at nearly fifteen hundred years before.

The view which St. Colmcille probably saw nearly 1,500 years ago
It was quite awe inspiring to think this.  And also how perfect that there are still places uncluttered by modernity?  I paused here for a while, thinking of the boy that was St. Colmcille and how happy he was at this place.  He wrote of it later:

'Half of my name from the church,
This I cannot deny.
Kilmacrennan my holy rest,
Leave it willingly not I.'

(The reference to his name ~ "Half of my name from the church" is the "cill" in Colmcille, the gaelic (Irish) for Kilmacrennan being Cill Mhic nÉanáin).

The warm spring evening and my thoughts of the early life of St. Comcille caused such a peace to descend around me.  I happened to glance down and there at the base of the old stone wall, at my feet, were a little crop forget-me-nots.  If I were a more fanciful person, it would have felt almost like St. Colmcille had somehow read my thoughts and placed them there just to let me know ... okay, I admit, I am a more fanciful person and I did think exactly that!

Forget-me-nots at Kilmacrennan
FOOTNOTE: For those interested in reading more about the life of this fascinating saint, I am working on adding a lot more about his life on our WeLoveDonegal website.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Driving around Donegal at the moment you can't fail to see all the lambs ~ well it is spring in Donegal after all.  The fields are full of ewes with their single, twin, triple and in one case I saw down by Lough Finn in Fintown, quadruple lambs!  The photograph below shows the ewe with her lambs although the fourth one is hidden from view here, it was definitely there.

Ewe with four lambs at Lough Finn
The lambs seem to interact with the other lambs in their field so well, a sort of ovine kindergarten if you will.  You see little heaps of them on mounds leaping over each other, butting each other and generally having all the carefree fun of the very young.  But in all cases there is mummy ewe nearby, munching away on grass but keeping a careful ear out for the calls of her off-spring.

Lambs at play in Donegal
Driving out to Fintown to take photographs at the weekend we had slowed down to view such a scene.  Lambs in abundance, dancing and leaping through their field.  The sheep saw us slowing down and immediately we caught their attention and they headed over to us in a great hurry.  Of course this was a photo opportunity not to be missed and we pulled over and out I leaped with my camera. 

Sheep and lambs rushed to the gate, bleating very loudly indeed.  I know that all animals are more protective when they have young but I had the gate between me and them to save me from any possible "attacks".  Any noise, like banging against the gate, made them take a step back but on lady (sheep) was not for turning and came right up to the gate, almost daring me to enter.

"Who ewe lookin' at?!"
She glared at me with her malevolent eyes and of course, delighted at all the sheep and lambs being up beside me, not to mention her cheeky face, I stared back and got lots of photographs of the "gang".

The lambs, being young, soon lost interest in the human at the gate and recommenced their play but the mother sheep continued to stare, taking their lead from the chief honcho out-front.  The noise at this stage was almost deafening by the way.  Ovine yelling of "GO AWAY OR ELSE!" I imagine they were bleating.

As I stood enjoying the aggression, that I know for a fact would have dissolved in all but the head honcho had I braved entry to the field and made a lot of noise.

A van drove up beside us and I knew he had to be the owner checking his flock.  He was.  He said he had to more or less continually, day and night, check his flock until all the lambs were born.  He had lost a couple of lambs during the birthing process in the past couple of days.  I never realised before that they needed so much human support to ensure a safe delivery of their young.

I pointed out the leader of the pack (flock) and we were laughing about her as she continued to hold her defensive stance.  I said she was so aggressive and bold compared to the rest and he confirmed that she was indeed the one who would "attack" interlopers and was very protective of her flock.

So next time you see a field of sheep and lambs and think you would be safe to approach because you can't see a ram, remember this ...

... the female is more deadly than the male!

To view the photographs of Fintown and Lough Finn CLICK HERE

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


MGB Roadster
I met with a Donegal man last week who has recently turned his passion for classic cars into a business which allows the public a new and very stylish way to see County Donegal.

Joseph McCloskey from Killybegs has been buying and restoring classic cars for over a decade and knows his stuff when it comes to these beautiful cars.  He is also passionate about photography and spends a lot of time out and about the county taking photographs to bring the beauty of Donegal to the world via his flickr photo site.

These two passions have now combined to bring us "Classic Car Hire", a car hire company with a difference: "Get away from it all in a stylish classic car.  Chose one of our Golden Oldies and treat yourself to a day, a weekend or even longer, touring the fabulously scenic northwest coast of Ireland.". 

Tour beautiful Donegal in style
Currently Joseph has for hire an MGB Roadster (This iconic sports car of the seventies is still as eye catching and classy as ever. Dressed in old English white with a contrasting red mohair hood and a dash of leather and chrome, it's the epitome of style. With the top down and the wind in your hair the throaty snarl of the 1800cc engine will urge you along country lanes.), a Mercedes 350 SL (The more prestigious Mercedes 350SL is a delight to drive, the power is smoothly delivered to all eight cylinders from the comfort of a leather clad cockpit. Images of eighties soap stars and pop icons jump to mind when you look at this car and its very elegant lines.) and a TR6 (This fiery British thoroughbred is a throwback to the days when driving really was fun. Nestled in a cockpit of walnut and leather you can savour the growl of the straight six as you buzz along country lanes.).

All three are convertibles thereby allowing the occupants to not only see and enjoy our beautiful scenery but also to enjoy the fresh Donegal air on their skin as they drive along our roads.

Hood down and ready to go!
Joseph can deliver your choice of car to your hotel, home, or even local airports if required and after a brief introduction to familiarise you with the car and make sure you are comfortable with the controls you can be on your way.

He even goes the extra mile and supplies a carefully prepared choice of routes that you might like to take, or just go your own way.  Packed lunches can also be arranged if required. He also offers a 24 hour back up service should it be needed.

What a great way to see our county and what a great idea for both visitors to the county and also as a gift for a wedding, anniversary, retirement or birthday ~ or even a romantic day out travelling in style.  Gift vouchers are available too.
Joseph McCloskey
EMAIL: info @ classiccarhire.ie (close the space between info @ and classiccarhire.ie)
MOBILE/CELL PHONE: 00353-87-2052853

Friday, April 1, 2011


I have been working hard on a new section to our WeLoveDonegal website ~ Irish Recipes.  And it has indeed been quite hard work, and continues to be, as I research, make and sometimes re-make each dish before I am happy.  The dish then has to be photographed and the recipe written up together with a bit of history where appropriate.  Many people around me have enjoyed the results of my labours as they were pulled in as testers and so got taste, eat and approve each dish before it was added to our site.

My aim in adding the dishes was to try to give our readers the most authentic version of the dishes possible.  I thought a lot about each dish and consulted with older people who remembered for me their mothers and even grandmothers making the dishes for them as children, in order that the recipes added are as near the original as is possible.

Another thing I wanted to achieve was to write up the recipes in as straight forward a way as possible.  I do this under three headings: What You Will Need (ie the pans and utensils needed); Ingredients (I have tried to avoid too much fuss here, for example instead of saying you will need so many grams/kilos/pounds of say carrots I instead put is as, for instance, 2 medium carrots); and finally the Method where I have listed in what to do in numerical order.  As I am writing the recipes I have my notepad and pen beside me (usually covered in flour, butter, or other food stuff!) and list what I am doing as I do it and then write it up properly later.

During my research as I said above, I find out from others what they think their own mother and grandmother would have used.  I also consider further what would be available to the people of the time.  To consider this for a while is actually a good rule of thumb when deciding which ingredients to use in any traditional Irish recipe.

Bacon and Cabbage
The recipe that kicked off our Irish Recipe section on our website was Bacon and Cabbage.  I made it for St. Patrick's Day this year and thought it was the ideal dish to put on first.  It is so popular (not to mention delicious) but there are so many untruths and misconceptions about this simple dish.

People confuse the meat.  Some think we in Ireland eat Corned Beef and Cabbage.  We don't.  Or at least, most of us don't.  Corned beef here may be used from time to time but it is usually of the sliced variety and put between two slices of bread to make a corned beef sandwich.  Corned beef is probably an Irish dish but it only came to popularity after the Famine when many Irish went to America and found that beef, which had been almost impossible to get in Ireland as it was far too expensive for the majority, was much easier to get in America.  But these people were thrifty from having to stretch out whatever was available to eat and so they cured the beef they got in the same way the pork had been cured in Ireland.  To preserve it and so make it last longer.  And that is where the idea for Corned Beef and Cabbage more than likely comes from.

The meat used in traditional Bacon and Cabbage is cured pork taken from the shoulder or the back of the pig whereas bacon in America is usually taken from the belly of the pig. 

Some say the cabbage, which should ALWAYS be of the dark green variety, was cooked for hours on end with the bacon joint.  That may or may not have been so, but in my recipe I only cooked it for a very short time to retain some crunch.  I, and no-one else alive today, could possibly know how our ancestors cooked it so it is each persons option to cook it as they see fit.  But in my opinion retaining the colour, and more importantly the vitamins, is paramount.

Speaking of Bacon and Cabbage I considered the idea of a sauce.  Some say a mustard sauce (highly unlikely this was used by our ancestors), others say a parsley sauce, which I still doubt very much would have been used many years ago but at least the ingredients are things that would have been available. 

"Shamrock" Sauce!
A lady from Donegal told me that as a child her father had always referred to the parsley sauce as shamrock sauce.  At the dinner table he would say to her "pass the shamrock sauce", resulting in her spending her childhood thinking they ate shamrocks.  I loved this story so much that I decided to rename the parsley sauce as used in my recipe "Shamrock Sauce".  It has such a happy, Irish ring to it and I don't think I will ever be able to think of parsley sauce again without automatically thinking Sharmock Sauce!

Traditional Irish Stew
In the case of research for my Irish Stew recipe I found many, many recipes on the net purporting to be "traditional" Irish Stew.  Some I knew instantly could not be traditional or indeed authentic because of some of the ingredients listed.  So I sat down and actually thought about what people would have used.

My conclusion was that there were only two ingredients I could be certain of: mutton and potatoes.  A third, pearl barley, was almost certainly used too.  Just these three together and without anything else would have made a good filling meal.  In relation to the meat, it would have been mutton as opposed to lamb.  One, in days of extreme poverty and want no-one would kill a lamb to eat.  If they were lucky enough to have a lamb it would have been kept because it would later produce more lambs, wool, and even milk.  Mutton on the other hand is the meat of an older sheep, probably past her productive age and therefore a viable ingredient for a meal.

Cheap ends of mutton would have been used too.  Why?  Because many would not even have had a sheep to kill and so would only have been able to take the rough bits of the animal that those better off discarded.  This is course is the history of many peasant dishes across the world, one of the best known would be beef stroganov, a Russian peasant dish which originated at a time in history when the fillet of beef, now one of the most prized cuts, was considered offal and therefore thrown away by the better off and only used by those too poor to obtain the more prized cuts of the time.

The secret to Irish Stew is in the length of cooking.  The cheaper cuts of mutton, although tough if cooked for a short time, come into their own producing lots of flavour when cooked slowly for a long time.

One problem I came up against though is the problem in finding mutton nowadays ~ it is not really available which seems ridiculous but there it is.  I spoke with my best friend who is a chef and he says that (here in Donegal) some of the Asian shops sometimes sell mutton so next time I make my Irish Stew I will visit them first.  So I had to use lamb and the best cut for Irish Stew after mutton is neck of lamb (I used neck of lamb chops).  As with mutton these are too tough to quick cook but after a long slow cook they produce the most delicious meat which almost falls apart when your fork touches it.

After the meat, potatoes and barley I thought that, despite what many recipes say, there would have been no hard and fast rule about any other ingredients ~ people would have used whatever they had to hand so it may have been carrots, onions, or any other root vegetables which grow in Ireland and maybe even the likes of wild garlic which grows freely in Ireland.  So my advice with Irish Stew is to go back to what would have been available and not fuss too much about different recipes.

One person commented on my Irish Stew recipe "this is just exactly as my grandmother used to make it" and to me that was the greatest accolade for authenticity of my recipe.

Irish Apple Cake
The Irish Apple Cake recipe I used for our site is a sweet dish my own grandmother used to make for my mother and her brothers as sisters when they were children.  It is quite a simple dish in that it's components are simply Irish soda bread topped with apples, sugar and cinnamon.  It would have been served to adults with a big mug of tea.  In earlier days it would have been made on a griddle pan but I used a bit of modernity and used a ring bound baking tin.  This worked out well in that it kept the apples in place with no bother of them slipping off during cooking.  Sometimes it is okay to update the old, providing of course that the new it is for the better.

And speaking of updating and new ... with all this cooking and reading of what people ate over the centuries in Ireland, I came up with my own original (and brand new) dish ~ Irish Cottage Pie.  My eight year old grandson was one of the first to taste this dish as I served it up for dinner last night.  He declared, totally unprompted, "This is the best dinner I have ever eaten!".  I will tell all and discuss my Irish Cottage Pie (topped with another of my own inventions, Irish Mash) in my next blog post.