By Tom Finnigan
On a business trip to Savannah in Georgia, I showed some pictures of Malin Town to my American supplier.
“That’s a real pretty place ya have there,” Dozier Cook said. “D’yall have ya own mayor and sheriff?”
I pondered this driving over Malin Bridge on my way home from Dublin Airport. Slowing down for horse riders near Rose Cotage, I imagined John Henry McLaughlin, the chairman of our Tidy Town committee, raising a posse to chase the boy-racers of Carndonagh. Star glinting in his lapel, I saw him on a white stallion leaping ditches of red fuchsia to head off a souped-up Toyota that roared along the Lagg Road.
Back home in Goorey, looking into Trawbreaga, I watched a cormorant patrol the bay dam-buster style, wings flicking the water. I heard curlews cry and smelt salt. I was home from a distant place. Not like those Earls – The O’Donnell and The O’Neill – whose flight from Rathmullan ended in exile four hundred years ago. More like the wild geese that come and go with the seasons.
In Manchester, my parents belonged to The Wild Geese club. We were a family of emigrants who celebrated a romantic Ireland that existed only as a myth to expunge the bitter memories of Mayo poverty. As my father’s business grew, we explored Kerry and Sligo, even came to Donegal. Aer Lingus offered a car-carrying service and once we flew with a car from Speke to Dublin.
Today everyone travels. If O’Neill and O’Donnell were still here, they could fly to Spain or Italy in a couple of hours with Ryanair, instead of waiting for wind off Fanad Head.
A week later on a visit to my sick father, I arrive in Manchester four hours after passing Slieve Snacht. “It took us three days to get to England,” he recalls. “And now they fly from Knock to do their Christmas shopping in New York…”
Stomach cancer makes it hard for him to eat. His flight is ending, wheels are down, seat-belt fastened. “I’m as week as a traneen,” he whispers over breakfast, mouth smeared with porridge. “D’ye know what a traneen is?” I shake my head. “It’s a small bladeen o’ grass – and not a very good one at that…”
When I return to Malin, white water jumps in Trawbreaga. Smoke drifts on the Isle of Doagh, and a breeze carries the smell of burning turf. I carry sods in a basket – the same fuel they carried to keep O’Neill warm on his last night in Rathmullan, the same sods my father dug in the bog below Killinaugher.
They sold Guinness in the Kevin Barry Pub in Savannah. There was bacon and cabbage on the menu and someone sang ‘Danny Boy’. The place reeked of tobacco and sweat. In a corner by a rocking chair, I noticed a basket of turf.
“Do they burn it?” I asked my friend Dozier Cook.
“Whatever for?” he replied.
The geese have returned to Inishowen for winter. On their evening passage from feeding by the Swilly, they honk and swoop in an arc towards Glashedy. I watch them swing towards a blood-red sun.
O’Donnell and O’Neill never returned to Ireland. Nor will my father.
I raise a glass of iced gin to toast all who pass from one place to another. Slainte!
“We are like grass which springs up in the morning,” the psalmist sings. “In the morning it springs up and flowers: by evening it withers and fades.”
Like a traneen.