The Bridge of Tears

Sheephaven History
The Muckish Gap is the name given to a stretch of road which links Creeslough and Letterkenny to Falcarragh. It is a lovely drive in a car and also one of the best rally-driving stages in Europe, if not the world. as it makes its way past the back of Muckish Mountain. It is still a very busy stretch of road in 2023 but if you travel from the Falcarragh side you will notice a sad memorial to former times – Droichead na Caointe nó Droichead na nDeor, which translates to “The Bridge of Tears”. A Gaelic inscription is now on the Bridge commemorating those times. The Inscription translates as: Friends and relatives of the person emigrating would come this far. Here they parted. This is the Bridge of Tears Long before the coming of the railway to Donegal, those emigrating from the area would travel with their families to the Bridge of Tears before parting with their loved ones to make their way on foot to get the boat at either Derry or Moville to take them to a new life in Glasgow or later on the New World in America. This was long before the advent of cheap air travel. The majority of those emigrating would not see their homes or their loved ones again and so many tears would be shed on both sides, hence the name of the Bridge. Often, the night before a young person or family would emigrate, an American Wake or ‘Convoy’ would be held in the family home and all the neighbours and friends would gather around to say goodbye to them as they would not expect to see them again.  These events would last until the morning when those emigrating would leave accompanied by their families to begin the long walk to a new life. At that time, Tickets for voyages could be bought in Dunfanaghy and sometimes those emigrating would get into a Curragh and leave Dunfanaghy or Port na Blagh. They would then jump on the Transatlantic Liners as they passed by the back of Tory Island – a journey not without risk as not only had they to brave the seas between the mainland and Tory but they also had to jump onto the moving liner which only slowed down and did not stop to let them on board! Many of those who left would never see their homeland again as back then even Glasgow seemed a long way away and the life of the Donegal emigrant has been well documented by such writers as Caisleáin Óir by Séamus Ó Grianna and Rotha Mór an tSaoil by Micí Mac Gabhann.  The latter is a posthumously published memoir which was dictated by Micí Mac Gabhann to his son in law Seán Ó hEochaidh and tells the story of Micki’s life working as a labourer in Scotland, Montana, and in the Klondike gold rush, where he made his fortune and was able to return to his native Donegal. In earlier times most of the emigration from West Donegal would have been to Glasgow where the Donegal people would have struggled to at first to make a living, having in most cases no English as they were Gaelic speakers and also discrimination because of their religious beliefs. They lived in tenement buildings in places such as The Gorbals which had little to no sanitation and made their lives there.  These buildings would eventually be torn down in the 1960s but the Southside of Glasgow is still very important to the Donegal Irish. In fact, the buses which still run during the summer season to and from Glasgow still begin their journey home at Gorbals Cross. Nowadays though through their sheer hard work and perveance their descendants occupy important jobs in both the political and business world of that city today. In the 1840s, and especially during the Great Famine, many of those emigrants made their way to America many on coffin ships, which were run by unscrupulous companies and captains to cash in on the crisis in Ireland with little thought for those whom they were transporting. In the beginning many settled in cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia after making the long sea voyage from their homeland. Eventually, as the American West opened up the Irish followed the Wagons and the Railroad west and they settled in cities all over the United States. Some of the Irish went on to have great political influence in some cities such as New York and the Irish American vote remains a very important vote to this day in U.S. Elections. Many of them did well for themselves never returned home again whilst some fell on hard times and even passed working to try to feed their families such as those who died at Duffy’s Cut. Two of these emigrants who left Donegal were Grace Strain and Manus McFadden near neighbours who were born in the Townland of Muntermellin in Hornhead in Dunfanaghy around 1831 and 1842 respectively. They got married in Doe Chapel in 1864 and shortly afterwards they left their thatched cottages behind in Horn head to sail to the new world, little knowing that over a century afterwards a descendant of their working in a medium which had then yet to be invented would grow up to be an award-winning actress. On sailing to America, the newly married Manus and Grace McFadden arrived at the port of New York aboard the ship Webster SS. By the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, the McFadden family had settled in Pennsylvania. Their child, Mary Agnes McFadden, later married Henry Charles Wolf. Henry Charles and Mary Agnes Wolf’s daughter  ‘Mamie’ is Meryl Streep’s grandmother. This is just one of many examples of how the Donegal Irish have made their mark in the land of opportunity. These days, emigration is not the life-changing event that it once was as nowadays most parts of the world are just a 24-hour plane journey away but nevertheless tears are still shed at ports and airports when our loved ones go away. So remember, that tucked away in a lonely corner of north west Donegal stands The Bridge of Tears. a sad monument to the thousands of people who emigrated from north west Donegal in search of a better life and never came home again.

The Dunfanaghy and Sheephaven Schools

Image of Holy Cross Church

Nowadays the children of the Dunfanaghy area have their education needs looked after with several local primary schools and their teachers – Holy Cross, Holy Trinity, Faugher, Ballymore and Murroe. In recent years, these schools have undergone some refurbishments and are equipped with the latest technology for learning in a digital age, though it has not always been like this.

The Irish School System has come a long way since the days of the Hedge Schools, when Teachers would teach pupils in the open air and in private homes to give children a chance of an education. The Hedge Schools were set up in response to the 1695 Stuart Monarchs which prohibited Catholics from getting an education. This remained in force until it was repealed in 1782. Its’s believed that by the 1820s, up to 400,000 students, in 9000 schools, were educated through Hedge Schools.

In the early 1800s, a formal education for Catholics in Ireland, was established by Ignatius Rice, and by 1831, the Board of National Education and the National School System was established. A Commissioner of National Education was set up and their role was to assist in the funding of primary school construction, textbook production, and the training/funding of teachers in National Schools. It wasn’t until 1967 with Free Secondary Education Act in the Republic of Ireland that secondary school education became open for all.

Just over 100 years ago in the Dunfanaghy area there were different National Schools to what we know now and some of these buildings are no longer standing. For the children of Hornhead, their school was located in a building in what is now Wilson’s farm in Lurgabrack. This was the school that my grandmother would have attended and she often spoke of having to run the gauntlet of passing Stewart the Landlords Bull which was in the field on the way to the school morning and evening on her way to school in the late 1800 and early 1900’s.  In those days’ children walked to school Summer and Winter often in the bare feet.  After the fall of the Landlords, this School was moved to the Gate Lodge for Hornhead House at The Bridge and it features on old pictures of when the sand blew in Hornhead and the Teacher and Pupils would have to dig themselves out of the sand in the evening and their Lunches would be filled with blowing sand!

In the late 1930s, it was decided to close this school and move the pupils to the Robertson School Board School which was located where the car park beside the Holy Trinity Parish Hall is now.  This decision did not sit well with the parents from Hornhead and there was a strike for a few months before the children eventually went to the Robinson School which was known as Dunfanaghy Number One National School. This meant a long walk for the children of Hornhead and there was no clock in the school. So, the Master would send the children over across the road to the Garda Barrack to get the time and often the Guard on Duty would give them the wrong time which meant the children would get sent home early! The headmaster here was Master Barlow and he went on to teach in Holy Trinity School when it was opened and the old School which was a landmark at the top of the town was demolished to make way for the car park.

100 years ago, the Catholic Children of Dunfanaghy would have been receiving their education in a school which is now also demolished at the entrance to the present day Holy Cross Cemetery.  The school then moved to the Old Fever Hospital in Dunfanaghy which is now the Gallery.  The teacher was Eamon Cannon who moved to Dunfanaghy from the south of the county and was to be instrumental in the Educational, Sporting and Musical life of Dunfanaghy for decades afterwards.

Both schools would share important information with each other such as when the School Inspector would put in an unexpected appearance. 

Master Cannon and his pupil, like their neighbours down the road, moved to a new school with the opening of Holy Cross NS which is still educating children today.

The Old Murroe School would have been providing education to the children in its area in the early 1900s, and like all schools at the time pupils would be absent from school when the hard work had to be done on the farm.  Ireland was largely a rural economy back then and the horses and carts were the driving force on the farms and the hiring fairs were still a fact of life which saw many children take the train to Letterkenny to be hired in the agricultural heartland of the Laggan and elsewhere. The new school at Murroe was built and opened in the 1960s. 

Among the other schools in the area were at Roshine which has closed and Kildarragh which only closed in the 1980s when its pupils moved to Creeslough.

100 years ago, Ballymore School would have been providing education to all the children in the area and among those who would have attended in the early 1920s would have been the late Bridget McBride from Knocknafaugher who only passed away recently. The School at Ballymore continued to educate the children of the area until Faugher NS was opened. 

Like Ballymore, Faugher NS continues to provide education for the children of the area and this is due in no small way to the campaign led by the parents in the 1980s to keep the school open when plans were afoot to close the school and move their pupils elsewhere. 

This is just a small history of some the schools in the area and things have certainly changed in the past 100 years and those at school then just at the start of the Irish Free State could hardly have thought that in a few short months a Civil War would have broken out and just 17 years later we would find ourselves in ‘The Emergency’ as the Second World War was known here would break out and they would certainly not have known about the technological advances which would take place during their lifetime and change their lives forever.     

The Port na Blagh and Dunfanaghy Fair

Dunfanaghy Fair Vintage Car

Monday the 7th of August was the annual August Bank Holiday here in the Republic, and for years it was traditionally a very busy day for Festivals in towns and villages up and down the country. None more so than in Port na Blagh and Dunfanaghy where Sports and Fairs have been traditionally held on this date for years.

For the months leading up to the Port na Blagh Sports Day, the hard-working local committee would be making preparations as well as getting the all-important sponsorship gathered up to keep the Sports Day going. The fundraising meant visiting businesses as far away as Letterkenny and members of the committee would spend a day visiting all the pubs and business premises on the Main Street in the Cathedral Town gathering much needed sponsorship.

The annual Port na Blagh Sports Day were held on ‘Mullens Keadue’ which is situated close to Port na Blagh Pier. This was one of the biggest sporting events in the North West, attracting the best athletes from around Donegal to compete as a medal won at this event was to be cherished. As well as the Track and Field events, there was also the Bonny Baby Competitions, Cycle Races, Curragh Races, Tug of War and the choosing of the lucky girl who would get the title of Miss Port na Blagh.

The Sports would be followed by the Annual Sports Dance in the nearby Pier Hotel, which used to be a mecca for dancers and disco goers for miles around but which is now sadly confined to the annals of history. 

The Portnablagh Sports ran for many very popular years before eventually fizzling out in the late 1990s, despite the best efforts of the organisers and this left a void in the Bank Holiday entertainment in the area.

It would not be too long however before this void was filled by another local event which from small beginnings grew into one of the biggest annual events in north west Donegal. 

In the early 1990s, Holy Trinity Church in Dunfanaghy were looking at ways of raising money for the Parish finances. For a number of years previously, the Church had been holding Coffee Mornings, Socials, ‘Donegal Evenings’ and teenage discos in the Parish Hall as well as a Table Quiz and Treasure Hunt. The Select Vestry at the time felt that another bigger event might be able to be held which would replace some of the smaller ones and put less pressure on the fundraisers. 

They had seen that the Sports in Port na Blagh had been discontinued and thought that it might be a good idea to start a new event in Dunfanaghy in its place.

To this end a ‘Car Boot Sale’ was organised for the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday in Charlie McKinley’s Field on the Horn Head Road and in the following years the Dunfanaghy August Fair Day, as it came to be known, was established. The event grew into one of the biggest and most popular events with thousands of people flocking to Charlie’s Field on a yearly basis to meet their friends and have a great day out. 

Over the years, all the local Churches used the Fair Day to raise finances and the Table Quiz and Treasure Hunt were also organised for the week prior to the Fair Day as well as new events added such as the Beetle Drive, Float Parade, Underage Disco and the Choosing of the August Fair Queen so that the event became the August Fair Festival Week. In the early years, events were also held in the Green at Arnolds Hotel on the Saturday and entertainment from the likes Conal Gallen would be held in the Marquee in the Field.  The Sheep Dog Trials and Sheep Judging in John Joe McGinley’s Field were also a very enjoyable part of the Fair for many years as was the Angling Competition on Purt Lake. In recent years also Dunfanaghy’s very own Dog Show has become a very popular event also.

The August Fair continued in Charlie’s Field for a long number of years before moving to its present location of a field in Figart Dunfanaghy overlooking the New Lake.

For a number of years also, Holy Cross Church organised a very enjoyable Country Concert in the Ozanam Centre in the weeks leading up to the August Fair and this has added to the pre-August Fair atmosphere in the area and the Creeslough and Killdarragh Fairs would also take place around this time of year bringing visitors into the area from far and near.

Sadly, due to the Pandemic, the Dunfanaghy August Fair Festival Week nor the Concert nor any of the forementioned events has not taken place for the for a few years. Then, in 2022, the August Fair Day returned to the Calander and is now being held on the Holy Trinity Parish grounds of the Hall, Church, Rectory and Church on the Horn Head Road with the majority of pre-fair events also returned. On Bank Holiday Monday last, crowds again gathered to enjoy the Dunfanaghy August Fair keeping the tradition of Festivals in this area going and hopefully it will continue long into the future.

The Letterkenny to Burtonport Railway Extension

In recent times there has been much talk about the possibility of the Railway coming back to Donegal after a long period of years. The proposed route is to link Letterkenny to Derry and from there passengers could travel further afield throughout Ireland, both North and South.

It’s worth remembering that for a period between 1903 and 1940, this area was served by trains operated by the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company on a narrow-gauge railway before the line was closed in 1940 to save the company money. The coming of the railways provided a boost for the commerce of the area because it meant that goods produced in the area could be transported to vital markets much quicker by rail rather than the old system of horse and cart. This was especially true for the fishing industry and the piers at Burtonport and Downings. It flourished so much so that, according to a British Parliamentary, herring landed from boats and cured in Downings by Scottish and local girls in 1906 fetched record prices in St. Petersburg in Russia and the Congested Districts Board had plans to export Mackerel caught in Donegal to the American market. Downings was one of the top Piers in the country back then and this can be seen in photos from the time.

The coming of the Railway meant that there was a bit more choice of items for the local shopkeepers to sell and local produce such as eggs, rabbits and potatoes could be sent to market quicker. Unfortunately for those living in Dunfanaghy there was a bit of a journey to get to the train as the local Dunfanaghy Road Station was in fact located at Cloone in Creeslough so a train journey would start by either a walk, or journey to Creeslough to get the train. The building of a train station far from a town was not an unusual occurrence as the building of stations were often at the whim of local landlords who sometimes did not believe in the new-fangled train technology or did not want the cost of having the railway on their lands as each landowner was responsible for the upkeep of the railway line.  They were given a ‘cut’ to maintain and there were a number of those in this area. 

Nevertheless, many canny businessmen saw the chance to make money from the railway and among those was Mr Sterritt from the Stewart Arms Hotel (Now the Carraig Rua) in Dunfanaghy who transported tourists from the Dunfanaghy Road Station to his hotel. There was also Master McGinley who done the same when he built the Port na blagh Hotel in the early 1920s, pioneering tourism in the area which before was confined to mainly the more well off or friends of the local gentry. Many people would also have travelled on the train to get the Derry boat to go Tattie Hoking in Scotland, or to emigrate to far off fields or to go to the hiring fairs in Letterkenny or Strabane and an often-uncertain future.

The essence of the Letterkenny to Burtonport Railway Line was brilliantly captured by the former P.P,. of Dunfanaghy when as a young curate he filmed the journey and this footage is now available online to view and offers a fascinating insight into the journey.

The tracks were lifted in 1959 and over the years, the only reminders left are the little Station Houses, the flat areas of ground that the tracks were laid on and the bridges and viaducts you can see from the roads.  In this area, the Owencarrow Viaduct was the scene of a disaster in 1925 when the train was blown off the tracks during a storm, resulting in the loss of 4 lives.

The Railway may be gone but here in this area it still provides a great amenity for the Railway as the Railway Walk between Muckish Mountain and Dunfanaghy continues to provide a great tourism amenity for the area.

Lughnasadh and The Tailteann Games

Tailteann Games

In Ireland, August is when two very important events occur; the first harvest of the year, and the festival season kicking off. Festivals have been an integral part of our history for thousands of years and have carried on to the modern day with new, innovative ways of engaging with our heritage while still maintaining a very traditional, if not ancient, celebration of life, agriculture and culture. The most famous, and one of oldest running, is the Puck Fair which as been going on since the 17th century, but many communities much like our own have smaller local fairs and festivals in the early part of August, but beyond it being associated with the harvest season, why else do you think we have so many localised fairs and festivals nationally, and do you ever think it’s associated to an Old Irish God?

Well, if you are not familiar with it already, the first of August is actually a festival in the Irish Celtic Calendar from ancient times. This festival is called Lughnasadh and its origins date back to when Ireland followed a polytheistic faith. The name is believed to be derived from the God of Craft and the Arts, Lugh Lamhfada or Lugh of the Long Hand – a greatly skilled hero and warrior in Irish Mythology who also has ties to the harvest and warrior culture. According to legend, Lugh was cast from the shores of Toraigh Island by his Grandfather, Balor of the Evil Eye, and was raised by his Foster Mother Taitliu. After clearing the plains of Ireland for settlement, she died and Lugh created a harvest festival with funeral games in her honour known as Áenach Tailteann. During this, there would be events honouring the dead, proclaiming the laws and the festivities following. Some of the sporting including running, hurling, spear throwing, archery and even horse racing, and the festival, much like today, would have competitions in crafting and music and food. Due to these great sporting events and competitions, the Tailteann Games are often referred to as the Irish Olympics because of this!

One of the stranger events that took place were mass arranged marriages where couples would often meet for the first time before being married amongst other brides and grooms. If you didn’t like your spouse though, you had a year and a day to decide of you wanted to divorce them.

This festival also celebrated the beginning of the harvest season. People would celebrate by cooking grand feasts, playing music, selling their wares and revitalising their connection with nature as the Irish landscape was bursting with produce and foliage. We still see this today with events like the Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July. Lughnasadh is actually the last of the major festivals in the Celtic Calendar.

Today, the festivals that we have across Ireland have evolved into something new that reflects our ever-changing climate while still honouring and preserving ancient tradition. If you have a festival coming up in your community, take a moment and consider how this yearly festival has its roots in our rich line of cultures and traditions.

The Second Battle of Moytura

For 2022, we want to start sharing more posts to do with our cultural heritage and our Mythology, so we’re starting up Mythology Monday with our Heritage Officer, Róisín. Even if it’s a condensed version, it’s so important that we’re able to share these stories and this week we’re starting with one very close to home, the Battle of Maigh Tuireadh.

In an Ireland times gone by, a great battle took place to restore the honour of the old Gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Tuatha were made up of Gods and Heroes that nurtured the earth and the mortals, gods like Brighid, the Dagda and Dian Cecht. For years they had been oppressed by the Fomorians under their king, Bres, but enough was enough. They raised their armies to fight their oppressors and reclaim Ireland.

They fought ferociously against the Fomorian armies, the Dagda lifting his great club, Nuada slicing with his sword, the Claomh Solais, and the Morrígú crying out their battle cry but the Fomorians pressed on. Their leader, Balor, struck down their men with his Evil Eye, a cursed third eye which killed any man in its line. However, when things seemed lost, Lugh Lamfhada rose. Lugh, son of Eithne and Grandson of Balor, stood with the Tuatha and faced his Grandfather. Balor laughed, as all Lugh had before him was a slingshot – such a weapon could not defeat him! But Lugh was not deterred. He swung his arm and fired a stone towards Balor’s head. The stone ripped through his evil eye and Balor and the Fomorians fell.

The Tuatha were victorious, and Lugh took his ranks amongst them. Prosperity returned to Ireland and the Fomorians retreated back to the sea and their fort at Tory Island.

Suggest other myths you’d like to see next week! The reason why this is so close to home? Some versions of the myth say this battle took place in the Poisoned Glen in Dunlewey! In fact, it’s said Balor is buried in the side of Errigal.

Yule, Newgrange and The Irish Winter Solstice

Ireland has been celebrating the different markers of the year for millian and over time these different festival have evolved to adapt to our changing Climates. Samhain has evolved into Halloween, Ombolc has evolved to St. Bridget’s Day and even the festivals of Lughnasa are believed to have evolved into the village fairs we see across the country. The Winter Solstice is a quieter festival date that marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, but it may be one of the most important dates in the ancient Irish calendar based on our archeology. 

The Winter Solstice or Yule, known as “An Grianstad” in Irish, is a mid-season festival on December 21st that marks the Winter Equinox – the shortest time of the year in which we only have around 9 hours of sunlight. Our ancestors would have recorded this time as having some great significant meaning, from what we can see through archeology, specifically at Newgrange which dates back as far as the Neolithic Period – around 5,000 years ago! 

Newgrange is one of the oldest buildings in the world, and is the second largest of the mounds of Brú na Bóinne, the largest being Knowth. It is approximately 80m in diameter with a 19m long passage tomb running through the mound with a corbelled ceiling which has kept the interior of Newgrange water-tight for millenia. Upon its rediscovery in the early 20th century, bones and cremated remains were found on the flat stones in the chambers of the passage tomb, along with intricate designs and grooves carved into the stone of triskles and spirals that to this day historians are still unsure of their significant meaning. Some believe that Newgrange, and it’s surrounding mounds in Brú na Bóinne, were the burial sites for important figures in society, such as Kings or Bards, and that the Winter Solstice marked a point in the calendar when the first light born after the longest night carried the spirits of the dead, but this is only speculation. 

The entryway of the passage tomb, guarded by an intricate carved kerbstone and a lightbox above the doorway, is perfectly aligned so that at dawn from the 19th to 22nd of December the rising sun [pierces through the lightbox perfectly illuminates the long inner-chamber for 17 minutes. 

There is so much we can learn through monuments like Newgrange on how our ancestors celebrated different markings of the year, and what they may have meant, and even looking at things we still do today says a lot about how our folklore and culture has evolved. Today, the Winter Solstice is synonymous with dark, cold evenings shared with loved ones and roaring fires, and I’m sure not much has managed to change in the past 5.000 years.