Donegal, Where They Make Their Own

Donegal was a county I knew well as a young lad, on account of my mother being from there and most years I’d spend several weeks at my granny’s in Falcarragh, three to four of those in the summer. It always struck me as a county oddly different from what I knew of the rest of Ireland — it was effectively the next county to the north of Sligo but the distance to my granny’s was about as far as it was to Dublin; people there supported Celtic rather than English football teams (indeed, north Donegal was unusual in being a part of rural Ireland where the locals cared far more passionately for soccer than GAA). A popular newspaper was the Scottish Sunday Post, a “good, clean tabloid” as my father used to call it,  which was probably unavailable anywhere else in the 26 counties. Despite being the second biggest county on the island, it had no railways — the various lines that served it had all closed by 1957.

It was only later when I crossed the border for the first time that I realised this difference was because Donegal was isolated. It was culturally closer to Northern Ireland — both its Nationalist and Unionist elements — than to the ‘south’ and unlike Monaghan and Cavan, most of the county bordered none of the other three provinces. The partition of Ireland in 1920 had cut Donegal off from its neighbours  like a schoolboy who has been kept back a year misses his friends. Donegal was, in a way, the Alaska of the Free State. Most Donegal people, in my childhood at least, rarely thought of the border as anything other than a man-made imposition, viewing it much as the Comanche think of the US-Mexico frontier that cuts through their ancestral lands. And though the overwhelming majority of Tyrconnell folk were enthusiastic for the young republic, Dublin was awfully far away.

I’m not sure if partition had anything to do with a strange industrial subculture that existed in Donegal but there sure was a lot of shit in the shops in Donegal you couldn’t easily get ‘down south’. It probably all started with the Crolly Doll. Made in the village of Crolly since 1939, the dolls were a sort of Hibernian proto-Cabbage Patch Kid, except they had that icy, glazed, all-seeing demeanour of traditional marionettes. They were often clothed in variants of the peasant dress that was rapidly dying out at the time. In a foreshadowing of globalisation, cheaper competition from East Asia killed off the Crolly Doll in the late 1970s and the factory closed but not before my auntie Bríd worked there for a while — something, which, you will understand, represented untold glamour for us as children. A smaller, more ’boutique’ factory was resurrected in the early 90s, and started making more specialised dolls, including ones with porcelain heads (which surely upped the creepy quotient no end), but it appears to have run aground once again.

Image from Wikipedia

Admittedly, the Crolly Doll was available outside of Donegal, and quite famous internationally it was too, if specialist internet doll forums are anything to go by. The fact though that the doll emanated from what was little more than a hamlet in a far-flung corner of the county was strange enough. And it was far from the only star of light industry Donegal could boast. One of the landmarks we always passed on our journeys north was the Oatfield’s factory in Letterkenny, a building that looked strangely more like a convent school than a confectionery wonderland and the company’s motto – ‘the sweet’s that are pure’ – is rather telling. Oatfield’s made old-school sweets, which only came in those larger, more expensive bags that usually hung behind the counter in a sweet shop, so eating them was synonymous with visiting grown-up relatives. The list of Oatfield’s products reads like a demented Séamus Heaney poem: Butter Mints, Sherbet Fruit, Orange Chocolate, Glucose Barley, Eskimo Mints, Colleen Irish assortment. But the crowning achievement was the flagship sweet — the Emerald.

John Byrne, of this parish, has written eloquently of Oatfield’s but I think he does the Emerald an injustice. This coconut caramel with a casing of dark chocolate so thin it might have been painted on, was a toffee of the perfect chewability for my young jaws. It was not fudgey enough to deprive you of your money’s worth nor was it too resilient so as to wedge your teeth together in a masticatory morass. It even had classic packaging (which has now, alas, given way to generic computer-generated design): a portrait of an old biddy encased in a sepia oval, who, uniquely, looked very like the person likely to be holding the bag out to you, urging you to “take two, they’re small.” I have met Eastern Europeans who grew up under communism, who speak fondly of the low-rent sweets of their childhood, which were later bought up by Danone or Nestlé and cast aside as embarrassing relics of the planned economy. Thankfully the Emerald has met no such fate and is still with us — it’s a sweet that symbolised a brave new nation, a sweet that held its own. There was even Arabic writing on the packet, for God’s sake — it was that well regarded!

Another post-lunch staple of those summer holidays was McDaid’s Football Special, made in Ramelton in east Donegal. No doubt the fortuitous result, like Worcestershire Sauce or penicillin, of some crazy stab in the dark at something else entirely, Football Special tasted like no other soft drink. It made Irn Bru seem as recherché as buttermilk; it turned your mouth pink without tasting like gentian violet. It also had football in its name, which made it the best drink ever. I imagined it was the stuff that victorious football teams drank from the cup but later when I started appearing on such teams myself I was shocked to learn there was no McDaid’s Football Special outside Donegal. We had to make do with red lemonade, which was tantamount to imposing Babycham on Formula 1 champions. Last year, Football Special was launched on the unsuspecting  masses south of Bundoran as a sort of Irish Pabst Blue Ribbon in the hope of becoming a hipster favourite. Well, I was drinking it long before any of the rest of them.

Over in Gweedore, they made crisps. This was Sam Spudz, a country cousin to Tayto and King but which nonetheless had a grittier, urban image, with its logo pilfered off Dick Tracy, a ‘z’ where a more pedestrian brand would have an ‘s’, and its avowed specialisation in “thicker crinkled crisps”, which was heralded in gumshoe-steeped radio ads. Sam Spudz probably didn’t invent the crinkled crisp but it was certainly the first to market it in Ireland, long before Hunky Dory’s (whose owner Largo Foods later swallowed up both it and Tayto) or McCoy’s. It also did a line in corn snacks that looked and tasted irredeemably cheap, and, if memory serves me right, outdid the thicker crinkled crisp in popularity in the lower 25. There may have been several but the only ones I can recall are Onion Rings and Burger Bites, each of which bore the same resemblance to their models as Blackpool Tower does to Gustave Eiffel’s effort. In all, the collective output of Oatfield’s, McDaid’s and Sam Spudz means Donegal was probably responsible for me cultivating a fearsome paunch long before I had figured out how to get served in pubs.

I’m still not sure why local industry thrived in Donegal throughout a century that was mostly dismal in Ireland from an economic point of view. You could say it was a pop-culture realisation of de Valera’s dreams of Irish self-sufficiency.  Other parts of the country had their star local brands but few had as high a concentration as Donegal. Even in adulthood I kept discovering them. When I moved to Paris ten years ago, I worked in a bar, whose cranberry juice, in those days before Ocean Spray became available in France, was made by Mulrine’s in Ballybofey – “the juice production experts”, as their website says. One of the owners of the bar was from Gweedore, of course…

(by Oliver Farry)

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16 thoughts on “Donegal, Where They Make Their Own

  1. Brendan Strong says:

    Really enjoyed this! My own mother was from Fahan, near Buncranna on the other side of Donegal, but I can attest to all of these important cultural artefacts.
    There were more – the bakers over in Moville, the shirtmakers in Buncranna (McCarters, which became Fruit of the Loom), the dress sellers in Ballybofey.
    When I was a teenager, the usual influx of Spanish students came one summer, and thought Buncranna must be one of the richest towns in the world. Everyone was wearing Fruit of the Loom, which was the fashion in mainland Europe at the time. They laughed at the runners though, which they saw as cheap and often bought for discount if one went to the seconds shops. The Fruit of the Loom seconds shop was studiously hidden from them for that summer.
    I’ve always thought (as you pointed out) that Donegal’s isolation led to a sort of “Wild West” mentality, where people had to do things for themselves.

    Thanks again for the post!

  2. fústar says:

    The Irish love of Western-Americana (manifested in the mental hybrid that is country ‘n’ Irish) is well known. The Irish love for sweet/salty foodstuffs that rocked a gumshoe/noir vibe is less celebrated. The question: Did Sam Spudz and Steve Silvermint ever run a detective agency together? Or were they bitter rivals?

  3. Oliver Farry says:

    Thanks for that Brendan. I remember Fruit of the Loom well; a friend of my mother’s used to work in the factory and as teenagers we were often decked out in rejects and discounted t-shirts from Buncrana, though I didn’t know there was a factory there before it.

    I also remember Milford Bakeries too – the batch loaves and the tea cakes.

    John: I’d say Sam was more Hammett (hence the name) to Silvermint’s Chandler. They probably weren’t even aware of each other’s existence.

    Wasn’t there a Fig Rolls gumshoe ad too?

    • fústar says:

      There was a Germanic professor type who spent his days trying to figure out how “de figs ver put into de fig rolls”, I seem to recall. Possibly voice by Frank Kelly in Dr. Astro mode. I think you’re right, though. There may have been a PI who tried to puzzle out the same mystery.

  4. Susan Cullen says:

    Wasn’t/Isn’t Kulana Orange Juice made in Donegal too? Donegal, of course, enjoying a micro climate conducive to growing of oranges. And don’t forget Donegal Catch….. 😉

    • Oliver Farry says:

      Yes, Kulana (which I had forgotten about) was a product of Mulrine’s juice expertise.

      As for Donegal Catch, it wasn’t too surprising, given Donegal people catch practically all the fish between here and Iceland.

  5. nlgbbbblth says:

    Very enjoyable piece Oliver. Sam Spudz made their way to New Ross during the early 1980s – bags awash with gaudy colours and strong flavours. A much-missed snack.

  6. Oliver, you’ve effectively preempted about five posts I might have written here. I should have put some kind of claim down on Football Special. My cousins were addicted to the stuff. One that lived in Essex used to fill his suitcase on the way home with it. Many, many belching competitions were amplified by it until slightly toasted parents got a little too irritated by it. There’s probably a treatise on how Donegal’s small, independent, family-run cinemas were kept afloat by Football Special’s advertising budget (they had an increasingly scratched animated ad on the advertising reel).
    I also got to visit the Oatfield factory when I was in primary school. Wonka tumbling out the door would not have inceased the pant-shitting excitement of going to Letterkenny on a bus to Oatfields. For everyone there, that journey usually represented the horror of visiting a sick relative in the hospital just up the road (where most of us were also born), but not this time. This time, WE WERE GETTING SWEETS.
    But maybe that’s another blogpost.

    • fústar says:

      McDaid’s Football Special is/was a thing utterly unknown to me (and to most of Munster, I’d imagine). I feel like I really missed out on an experience. Particularly as the design looks like it was inspired by David Sque’s efforts on Roy of the Rovers. Granted, the McDaid’s mascot is right-footed (as opposed to the famously lefty Roy) but the similarities are still…striking.

  7. europhile says:

    I owned that very Crolly doll. I called her Clancy after the Liza Goddard character in Skippy.

  8. […] to “yoof” it up). Ireland’s Own is another (in fact, it’s several). Oatfield sweets are/were yet another…and look at where taking them for granted […]

  9. Well done on a great piece. I’ve put together 24 Donegal ‘shrines’ as part of the free Donegal app & suspect Ramelton merits being #25 with Football Special!

  10. James Harvey says:

    The train from Killybegs to Strabane ran until 1958. I was on it many times in the early ’50’s coming from London to stay with my mother’s sister in Belfast before talking the train to Doorin to spend the summer with my grandmother. At Strabane we had to get off the full-size train that ran in the Six Counties, go through customs on the station dock, and then get into the narrow-gauge train operated by Donegal Railways. They were terribly rickety old trains, but a lot of fun. I remember one particular trip where the train smelled as though they’d cleaned it up for the journey to Donegal after taking a load of cattle with a bad case of the runs up to Strabane!

    The last time I took it, I was 15 and cried all the way through Barnesmore Gap. I thought I’d never see Donegal again. That was in early September 1958. I think the whole route shut down a few weeks later. I was en route to London and then on the States with my mother. Drive through Barnesmore Gap today and you can still clearly see the roadbed of the old railroad line; look for telephone lines and there’s a clear track alongside them.

    The original station in Donegal Town is now a heritage site with momentos, posters, and pictures from the railroad era. I went into it a few years ago and the young woman at the desk tried to explain what it was all about. “Oh, yes,” I told her. “I know all about it. I last rode that train in 1958.” I’ll never forget her face when I said that: She looked as though nobody could possibly be that old! That’s when I realized I was getting on in years.

    Thanks for the memories.

    • You can see the train line quite clearly from the road. It’s one of the things the kids and I look out for when I’m visiting the home place. The amount of dormant lines crisscrossing the route from Galway to Donegal is amazing. I’d no idea that train ran as late as 1958. There was a train that brought goods all the way to Carndonagh and I’ve heard most of the town got a day’s work out of unloading it when it arrived. The extinction of the Irish railway is fascinating, and the amount of bones left behind can be seen all over the place.

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