Category Archives: Donegal

Does Your Mother Come From Ireland?

RTÉ archives are in possession of a 1981 documentary called Does Your Mother Come From Ireland? It was co-produced and presented by Limerick traditional musician and US-based academic Mick Moloney. The film gets an occasional airing, the last for RTÉ being 11/11/2011. Information about the film is not readily available and the following is based on a single viewing.


Does your Mother Come from Ireland? is roughly 45 minutes in duration. The brief was to film the practice and maintenance of traditional Irish music in 80s New York. The film follows Moloney and cameraman Paddy Barron to New York and then back to Ireland where they document the 1981 All-Ireland Fleadh in Buncrana, Donegal.

Opening with the vista of New York from the air, and soundtracked by the Bob Seger rock anthem Rosalie, Does your Mother Come from Ireland? is a unique visual record of many contrasts specific to its time.

An exploration focused on Bronx residents the Tara Céilí Band who were busy preparing for a return to Ireland to compete in the annual All-Ireland Fleadh. These teenagers had previously won the title three times before and would be filmed winning it again. Historically this film is a record of a pan-Atlantic traditional music scene. Embedded in the film was an outline of the cultural mission imitated by an Irish diaspora concerned for the upkeep of tradition. The New York players were conscious of  the possibilities of cultural isolation and insisted on the maintenance of a continuous link with the source of the music.

The NY Irish community was known to harbour talented musicians and families noted for their traditional strengths but no one had investigated, in film, how their endeavours fed back into the cultural cradle in the ‘old country’. Moloney’s film is a singular record of this.


The cast, including the celebrated fiddle player Eileen Ivers, were all young American-born musicians who were as proficient in the language of traditional jigs and reels as they were in typical New York pastimes. Footage of these youths playing baseball was styled in that particular filtered haze, unique to filming in New York in the late 70s. It rendered the Irish-Americans similar to those who shimmered in the otherworldly Coca-Cola television ads familiar to Irish television audiences. When the film cut to the same youngsters in houses in the Bronx, diligently playing the sets that would win in Donegal, it registered as a benign jolt.


The overlap between 80’s America, Ireland, Irish America and TV America on Irish television became more than just a subtext as the film progressed. In the 80s US immigration restrictions ended the steady traffic that had replenished New York’s Irish population since famine times. The special Irish relationship finished and with this ending the cultural update injected from each new group of Irish immigrants did also.

Those who delivered styles to the Bronx from sessions all over Ireland were now without visas. The consequences of restrictions forced a realisation that, for the culture to progressively continue, the response would involve an Irish return. Moloney interviewed parents, teachers and other members of the community after the fallout from the decision of the US government to cap immigration. The annual visit to Buncrana was part of a solution.

Increasing awareness of the lack of immigrants arriving  with new songs encouraged the parents and teachers to support the concept of the return. The passion and commitment of these teachers in this process was very evident. Other vital insights arose in how the culture was being maintained. One involved Martin Mullverhill, a Bronx musician and teacher. He described quickly crafting an original Irish tune underneath the city (in tunnels, perhaps dug by Donegal men). The subway composition flowed easily, “I had it finished by 205th St”, he said proudly.

Heading to Ireland and winning the Fleadh were happy events for the young American passport-holders but those were not the main priorities of the trip. The youth were engaged in a type of journeying, travelling in the sense of a pilgrimage. An undertaking of a type of pilgrimage that sought rejuvenation and reflection. The humble showing of awards at home by the Ivers family testified to this, as did a Bronx bar manager’s dignified imploration while helping to raise 5000 dollars to send the Tara Céilí Band back to the Old Country: “If anyone here tonight hasn’t the money to contribute, please stay and enjoy the music anyway”.

The hazy tone of the 80s New York landscape as a backdrop to the endeavours of the American Irish youth filled the first part of the film. The second part while filmed in colour stock may as well have been shot in black and white such was the contrast of location at the Fleadh. 

Now far from the Bronx the Tara Céilí band are performing on a knocked-together stage in a grey Parish Hall. Their practised reels were clinically measured under the horn-rimmed eyes of a stern adjudicator (the cigire). An impassive seated crowd also measured their performance. A readjustment of viewing was needed as the romance of the previous communal preparations undertaken in the beauty of a New York summer was left behind. The music was the same but it was now heard in the environment of a monochrome Ireland. This 80s island was home to many who wished they had the chance of returning with the American visitors.

Moloney’s Ireland presented itself through another lens. The landscape could have been taken from any Irish documentary film of the 50s. Things moved differently, people acted slower. An officialdom appeared to take over the camera as if the regulations of the Fleadh insisted on it. The adherence to Comhaltas rules and the rigidity that accompanied the reading of them registered even in its recording.

Afterwards, the Americans quietly moved outside with portable cassette recorders recording the open sessions in the unregulated public space of Buncrana. This act of capture was what the journey was about – collecting evidence of native playing. They were capturing the Donegal air to uncap and release on their return. Historically the natives merited recording also. A long shot showed tents surrounding Buncrana. An atmosphere was evident in the attendant mingling of generations and visitors, each with their own agenda.

Another shot on the street captured a suited family man, in town for the day, holding his own as he passed long-haired youths and neatly dressed musicians. Fleadhs at this level were the social midway for the remaining Irish generation of the 80s. The campers in the background sought a music based outlet in this, a transitional time. For the long-haired youth the landscape of this Fleadh was open ground between the depressed dancehall scene and festivals that had yet to appear.

The demand for trad-based groups like De Dannan and Planxty on the festivals that had began to appear came from the transitional long-haired demographic filmed by Moloney. Panning his camera for background filler the filmmaker inadvertently documented a crossover.


Another vibrant shot of overlapping cultures was a brief shot of a native Irish céilí band with a young drummer starkly wearing a Doors t-shirt. There was a minor cult for the ‘poetry’ of Jim Morrisson circa 1981 as the Doors’ back catalogue was being repackaged. But a Doors t-Shirt was a relatively rare and exotic item particularly for a teenage drummer in a céilí band in Donegal. Would one of the American contingent have gifted him the shirt?  Perhaps gifted tapes also? The Americans were now known as regulars and tentatively part of this Fleadh community. It is conceivable that friendships were made, and perhaps cultural exchanges of many sorts were a regular feature.

It is fair to speculate that the New York parents who facilitated their children’s activity to maintain the diaspora’s cultural link to Ireland could have inadvertently instigated a reciprocal musical process. 80s Virtual America, especially the urban otherness of New York, was visually a familiar sight from Irish TV programming which leant heavily on US import drama. A type of virtual American landscape began to merge with an Irish one. A topology that stretched from The Waltons‘ Mountain to Kojak’s Manhattan with the beach of The Rockford Files in between. The virtual West was passively received, indulged as a glamorous contrast to a recession-based Irish vista. An aural insight into the land of opportunity would have delivered a different sensation. This insight may have been on a cassette tape containing excerpts, musical and otherwise ranging from New York radio to trad sessions in the Bronx. Those cassettes may have been left behind in Buncrana.

The content of Does Your Mother Come From Ireland? whether primary, secondary, or speculative remains as entertaining and historically informative 30 years after it was shown, and its concept is a credit to Moloney and his team.

(by Paul Tarpey)

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Did it taste just as good then?

It was August 1977.  Elvis was still alive. We were on our annual family holiday and like the previous summer, Duncannon was the location.

Back then a Chilly Willy or L’il Devil was the usual cooling-down tipple for my sister and me; either could be had for a mere 4p. My parents tended to avoid the ice lollies and instead were happy with a Choc Ice or a Brunch.

One day I decided that I wanted proper grown-up ice cream. There was only one problem – the newsagents at the bottom of Duncannon’s main street was sold out of Choc Ices. Instead I was offered this:

The first few bites tasted funny and eating the chocolate exterior was a little tricky as the pieces kept sliding off and on to my t-shirt. But dogged persistence paid off and I got to the end – licking the stick with a sense of accomplishment.

In those formative years holidays abroad were very much the exception and only affordable for a handful of people in the town. Like many others our annual getaway brought us to such far-flung places as Inchydoney, Courtown Harbour, Bundoran and Slea Head. One or two weeks of mostly sunshine, daily strolls from our chalet or guesthouse to the adjoining beach and plenty from the ice cream freezer. Back then HB were the main attraction with the likes of Dale Farm a trivial sideshow. Every summer brought a new marketing campaign, a fresh poster with a mixture of old reliables and some fresh débutantes to keep the customers happy.

1979 saw four new offerings. The anodyne Mini Milk, the clumsy-sounding Frogurt, the delightful Nogger and the marvellously exotic Cornetto. At 20p this was an infrequent indulgence. We hit West Cork that year and the sensible / affordable choice was the plain yet tasty Golly Bar. I was also discovering Enid Blyton around the same time so the wrapper struck a chord with me.

We went back to the same place in 1980. Rain drove us into Clonakility one afternoon and into a newsagents to pick up a new Kalkitos. I had caught the action transfer buzz some months earlier and was eager to add to my collection. But what was this? A new and unusual looking ice cream stared back at me. It was the Hiawatha – a hybrid of lemon, vanilla and chocolate in the style of an Indian headdress. A genius move by HB and from a taste perspective, a most delicious concoction.

We stayed in our own county for 1981 and made the 40 mile trip to Courtown on 15 August. This was to be our destination for three years – a busy spot with a decent beach and an exciting amusement venue.

By now HB added a third variety of Cornetto to the range – the mint option – along with two other popular strawberry-fuelled treats.

Funny Feet: the original Freaky Foot.

That-A-Way was a rich ice lolly that once unwrapped could be utilised as a rude gesture. Until it started to melt about 30 seconds later.

I turned 10 in 1982 so my parents increased my weekly pocket money. Just as well – Jumbo had arrived.

Jumbo was a wallet-buster. It was the most expensive item in the range and retailed at a staggering 50p. But it was amazing – completely encased in chocolate with a sweet oatmeal biscuit underneath that stored a thick slab of vanilla ice cream. It wasn’t the hottest of summers so I was able to exist by forking out for one every two or three days and foregoing other confectionery pleasures.

1983 was a different story – July and August were relentless with sunshine which meant that we were constantly parched. From a financial perspective it was easiest to revert to icepops. Enter Dracula and its “mixed fruit” creation that made for a refreshing shot of citric acid and flavouring.

1984 was another scorcher. Two Tribes went to number one in June. We spend most of July visiting the circuit of beaches in Wexford – Duncannon, Booley Bay, Dollar Bay and Carnivan. Top Of The Pops every Thursday night to see Holly Johnson and co. Two heavy-hitters got added to the range – Fat Frog and Feast – the ultimate chocolate ice cream indulgence. Fat Frogs were marketed with a groovy rock’n’roll advert.

Two Tribes stayed at number one until August. I bought a different version for each of the nine weeks. It was dethroned by George Michael’s Careless Whisper in the UK with Neil’s Hole In My Shoe doing the honours over here. Poor old Nigel only lasted a week at pole position before Two Tribes went back on top.

Three years later and we arrived in Lahinch. Tangle Twisters were the new kids on the block, Golly Bars were still hanging in there while Jumbos had been axed due to poor sales. Inflation had driven the top price to 65p. Spotting a gap in the market, HB decided to launch a luxury cornetto. There were two additional choices – Tutti Frutti and Choco Rico – while the mint version was quietly dropped.

Tutti Frutti was the clear winner – rich, creamy and bursting with er, fruit. The drawback – the aforementioned 65p. But by then I had a proper summer job in a supermarket and could afford one every day if I wanted. However my tastes were changing and the music bug had well and truly gripped me. Ice cream had been supplanted in my affections by vinyl.

Postscript: the answer is “Yes it does.”

The posters and wrappers are taken from Luke Keating’s HB Ice Cream Memories Facebook page.
I urge everybody to “like”. Sincere thanks is extended to Luke for granting permission to use this wonderful collection of memorabilia.

(by nlgbbbblth)

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In Search of the Whatyoumacallit, You Know, That Show with the Girl and the Alien. I Think It’s Australian.

Inishowen, c. 1980s.

Part of Donegal, part of the Republic, part of the domain of paying for an RTÉ TV licence if you owned a set.

Except we couldn’t get RTÉ. Two channels of swooshing snow that would bring on epilepsy in a breeze-block were all that resided behind the pushbuttons of channels 5 and 6. There was however the odd Saturday when if the wind was blowing a gentle north-west, you stood five inches from the TV set, and you’d had a certain amount of honey-coated cereal, that your sugar-rushing brain could convince itself that the gaudy stripes of a Bosco presenter’s pants were emerging from the dancing, screeching blizzard of the complete lack of a TV signal.

It didn’t matter. We could get BBC1, BBC2, ITV in its regional form of UTV, and eventually, SexyTitsAdultCensoredBannedWhatAreThosePeopleDoingToEachOther 4.

I mean, Channel 4.

So the mental firmament of ephemeral televisual culture I daydream into is not Forty Coats or Wanderly Wagon;  it’s Stig of the Dump, Ulysses 31, Noel Edmonds in his Swop Shop, Sandy Toksvig making sandwiches in No. 73, Philip Schofield, and, and, and…

And that’s just it. For some reason the titles of some of the shows that inhabit my memory didn’t make the cut. Every so often I’m plagued by a Pepper’s ghost in my imagination, a scene so vivid I could reach out and touch it, but lacking the substance of identity. I don’t know why I get so fixated on them, but I spent some of my happiest days inside the television. If that’s damning of modern living, I don’t care. I hold some of these shows in the same regard as a salivating antiques dealer appreciates fingering something Louis XVI.

For years I was haunted by a blonde girl, who lived in the future with people who weren’t her family, and who had an alien pet with a massively fluffy body. As much as I wringed my mental sponge into a bucket I could not remember anything about it other than my weak-kneed fondness for the lead, it was possibly Australian, and that it was on Children’s ITV (an entire children’s channel, within a channel! Kidception! No, no, wait, that’s a really dodgy looking neologism). With the advent of sewshawl meeja I took the opportunity to ask around, even recreating the alien from the frayed filaments of memory and posting it on Twitter and Facebook (that’s it up there). Some suggestions came back, but they weren’t even of the right vintage, and no-one recognised what I thought was the indelible form of the pink alien. I began to worry I’d created a false memory (the curator of this here blog has a friend who invented a Leaving Cert Irish story that never existed).

I googled loose combinations of keywords. Eventually I discovered and went to the TV Cream Ask the Family forum. I posted the above pic, and as much detail as my synapses could muster, and waited. For weeks. With nothing.

And then a lone genius replied and let me sleep peacefully again: “It looks like Luna. It wasn’t Australian, though. It was British. And it starred Patsy Kensit.”

Amazing. I went to YouTube, and there it was in all its sci-tirical brilliance. It’s even darker and funnier than I remembered it, a kind of Gilliam-esque nightmare bureaucracy with a Douglas Adams sense of humour.

It tapped into one of the most potent tropes of children’s fiction: the absent/dead parent(s)  (Chronicles of Narnia, Box of Delights, Under the Hawthorne Tree, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events…). In Luna’s case we don’t know much of her origins, or if she even had parents (she was “batched” on the moon). Luna was our point of entry into this world, as she was as naive to it as we were. It ran for two series, with Kensit being replaced in the second series by Jo Wyatt, playing a different character who assumes the same name. A 9-year-old boy in Donegal had mixed feelings about that. Strange, new, mixed feelings. And the pink alien? Jazzmine, Luna’s alien pet; ‘a “little simple” (from the planet Sim)’. And it was orange, not pink.

Alas TV Cream has had to expunge itself of that beautiful forum as it was experiencing uncontrollable spamming so I can’t link to the thread. It also means next time I get that gnawing in my brain* of an absent TV title I’ve no recourse other than to bash myself over the head with an inflatable mallet like a wacky 80s kids’ presenter until I pass out, and that takes ages.

(*There’s one about Victorian-era children who lived in a big house with a magic garden where the statues came to life at night that I’m not even going to go into now. Gah! Solved, thanks to Simon in the comments below. It’s The Enchanted Castle by the prolific E. Nesbit. Edwardian, not Victorian!)

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“That’s Not Berlin! That’s Up by Christchurch!”

In my early teens, I had my first real brush with the movies when the BBC came to my mother’s village in Donegal to shoot for TV an adaptation of Jennifer Johnston’s novel, The Railway Station Man (screenplay by Shelagh Delaney, no less). The long disused Cashelnagore railway station was fitted out for this tale of a war veteran restoring an old station and his burgeoning love affair with a recently widowed Derry woman. The film was heavily trumpeted by the Beeb for reuniting Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie two decades on from Don’t Look Now. It was a much more pedestrian film than Nicolas Roeg’s icy classic but not without its merits. We knew that the interiors were filmed further down the coast in Glenties while the railway station incongruously planted in the middle of a lonesome bog was used only for outdoor shooting. About nine months after filming we watched it in my grandmother’s house. At one point in the narrative Julie Christie’s character Helen has to make a mad rush to the station to avert an incident that could have terrible consequences. She leaps out of bed in the middle of the night, hastily throws on some clothes and gets on her bicycle. Seeing her make her way out her front gate, my uncle, a cinephile with a sense of humour you might call ‘dry’, opined “she has some cycle ahead of her to get to here from Glenties.”

Though I was no ingenue in terms of parsing filmic narrative or understanding how movies were made, I couldn’t get the image of Julie Christie’s long-distance sprint up the Donegal coast out of my mind. Such was my first ever experience of the jarring gap between the landscape of the movies and the one you know in real life. It is something people in cities accustomed to film-making, such as New York, Los Angeles or Paris, have long been used to. These days I am most likely to see the urban geography of Paris rearranged. In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson goes searching for the restaurant in which he has been boozing with Hemingway and Fitzgerald only to find it is now a modern-day laundry; in actual fact, the restaurant — Polidor on rue Monsieur-le-Prince —  is still there, virtually unchanged since the 1920s. As I watched more and more movies throughout the nineties (and, thanks to the tax breaks, more and more movies were filmed in Ireland), I had opportunities to observe how movie-Ireland was different from Ireland-Ireland. Sometimes the geography of the island was boldly defied as in Gorgo, where Dalkey and its Martello Towers is shifted to the Gaeltacht or the Hollywood teen film Leap Year which sees Amy Adams getting landed on a beach, rather than at a port, somewhere in Kerry.

But sometimes movie-Ireland wasn’t even Ireland. It had long been serving as a proxy for other places, such as in John Huston’s Moby Dick where Youghal passed muster as New Bedford and it’s hard to imagine too many of Roger Corman’s Galway-produced Z-movies were set in the City of the Tribes either. I remember watching Mike Newell’s adaptation of Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure, in which Dublin stood in for post-war Liverpool. Hugh Grant dines in Bewley’s on Grafton Street (immeasurably more glamorous on screen than the glorified college canteen it had become by the mid-nineties), pays his bill and then emerges out of the front gate of Dublin Castle.

In Braveheart the Battle of Stirling famously took place in the Curragh, with the arses of thousands of FCA volunteers on display as William Wallace defied the Sassenachs with a mass-mooning, which was a definite mark-up on the free boots and army-surplus bag that usually attracted the post-Leaving Cert crowd to Mullingar or Finner Camp for a week of training. Films set in the north during the Troubles were usually filmed in the 26 counties because of the, er, Troubles. Irishtown and the Ringsend gas works became a permanent landmark of Belfast, the North Strand flats stood in for their more famous Divis counterparts in In the Name of the Father; a bomb in Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer went off opposite the Front Lounge, with the dome of City Hall in the background probably convincing the casual viewer that this was indeed Titanic Town under attack.

Even the most iconic buildings in the country were not safe from shuffling. The real Four Courts got bombarded by the pro-Treaty forces in Michael Collins (in the abysmal Kevin Spacey/Martin Cahill vehicle Ordinary Decent Criminal, the courts were moved up the river to the Customs House) but there were other jarring details. The set that Neil Jordan and Co built in the grounds of Grangegorman hospital in the summer of 1995 was probably the most impressive one of its kind in Irish history but its O’Connell Street was all askew, with the GPO standing at the end of the prospect from North Earl Street. A street parallel to the main thoroughfare was also there where it wasn’t in real life (think Marlborough Street, only a couple of blocks further west) and it is here that the insurgents from the GPO are arraigned after their surrender (including Dev, who must have decided there wasn’t near enough action down at Boland’s Mills).

The fiery Dáil sessions were filmed in Trinity College rather than up the street in their actual historical location in the Mansion House; I remember the filming, which I observed as I wandered across Front Square a week before Michaelmas Term began. The building used was the 1937 Reading Room, founded in that very year by none other than… Éamon de Valera. In fairness it was an ideal setting for a parliament session, more so than the side hall on Dawson Street which was more accustomed at the time to raves and Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna. Trinity also, of course, stood in for Liverpool in Educating Rita, a film I had difficulty watching as a child, sore as I was over ‘our’ urban landscape being purloined in such a flagrant manner.

An even weirder use of Trinity occurred three decades earlier when the World War I aviation drama The Blue Max was filmed in Ireland. Dublin University was transformed into Luftwaffe headquarters in Berlin, with biplanes parked in front of the Graduate Memorial Building, which, like many other buildings in the city at the time was black from acid rain. There was also a jaunt through the streets of fictional Berlin that almost made sense through real Dublin: down Winetavern Street from the arch at Christchurch (that redoubtable Dublin chronicler Éamon Mac Thomáis recalled Dubliners shouting at cinema screens: “that’s not Berlin, that up by Christchurch!”), down by the Four Courts and on to Trinity, where the magisterial James Mason was hanging out in the GMB.

I watched the film for the first time in my days working in Laser Video on Georges’ Street in the late nineties. A colleague was keen to see it because his mother was supposedly in it and had a scene where she kissed George Peppard. As the film progressed though it became increasingly apparent that his mother, if she did work on the film at all, had ended up on the cutting-room floor and Ursula Andress’ buxom countess was the only lady getting anywhere near Colonel Hannibal Smith’s lips. If my disorientation at Dublin being overrun and ruled by the Jerries was not bad enough, can you imagine my poor colleague who was learning that all these years his mother had been living a lie?

Ireland itself ended up being outsourced too, as our little Celtic cousin the Isle of Man began to undercut our tax breaks, with Waking Ned and Cathal Black’s Love and Rage, among other productions, being filmed there. But there were more location-based ads filmed during the Celtic Tiger years, most notably by Guinness, who seemed keen to rekindle an Irish identity for the stout. Probably the most successful of these was the ‘Quarrel’ ad, where hearing the late Mic Christopher’s Heyday on the radio prompts Michael Fassbender to walk out of his flat, across the Burren and then to swim the Atlantic to be reconciled with a friend in New York. A friend from Kildare claimed that Fassbender was actually walking back into Dublin as he passes by the Perpetual Motion sphere on the M7, though I can’t substantiate that.

Once he gets across the water though it all gets tricky. He storms through a street basketball game, past the Naked Cowboy on Times Square and into…the Dice Bar, on Benburb Street, back in Dublin. He needn’t have gone to all that effort, after all. Of course, the Dice Bar was one of those few Dublin bars that could readily impersonate a Manhattan dive (though, come to think of it, shouldn’t it be on the Lower East Side rather than by Times Square?) and the ad’s director even had the foresight to change the light-fittings, something which regular patronage of the Dice Bar at the time caused me to notice. Any hopes of suspending disbelief for me were dashed however when I noticed standing next to Fassbender’s friend as the two are reunited was Pedro, a shaven-headed Spanish cook whom I worked with in a number of establishments over the years. This was a time when the general Georges’ Street area was central casting for Guinness ads. Pedro beams unobtrusively as the Fassbender and his smouldering friend embrace — it’s a perfect piece of acting by an extra but I sure as hell wasn’t buying it as being set in New York. Still, it is probably a bit petty to pick holes in an ad where the main character swims the Atlantic…

(by Oliver Farry)

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Taffin: The Extended Cut

I think I spent at least an hour replaying the original clip of this, making myself sick the way you do when you’ve pigged out on processed crisps but won’t stop so long as there’s some left at the bottom of the tube. This above has more “heeeeeere”.

The scene eventually becomes like an irritatingly familiar song, and you find yourself donning shades and screaming along. Found via Broadsheet.

Soon, I will begin to recount the effects of growing up without RTÉ in a forgotten northern neck of the Republic. Nippers? No bite. Wanderly Wagon? Wheels came off. Where’s Grandad? Shame on you for losing him.

Stig in the Mud of the Dump? Now you’re talking.

(by Allan Cavanagh)

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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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