Of Walks and Seaside Days
"From Portnasun to Bulliebawns, and round the Abbey bay,
We were fortunate, geographically, to grow up in Ballyshannon. Three miles down the estuary
lay "Coolnargit sandhills grey", arching in a great curve along the river channel where it
narrowed before meeting the ocean waters of Donegal Bay. There was a treacherous, shifting
sandbar at the river mouth, and there, half submerged for half a century, lay a wrecked
From rocky Inis Saimer to Coolnargit sandhills grey."
At very low tide a venturesome person could almost walk out and touch its rusted hull. Tons
and tons of sand covered most of its superstructure, and filled its crushed-in holds. With
every tide this sand shifted, and portion of the vessel that was was covered one day would
be uncovered the next. It drew youngsters to it like a magnet, and many an imaginary tale of
sunken treasure, piracy, and the King of Spain's daughter filled many a young head.
The sandhills themselves towered over the river, their sides knifed clean with every tide.
It was a wonder to see the speed with which the river and tide combined to empty the estuary
as the 60-mile river ended its journey to the sea. When the tide was out, a narrow strip of
hard packed sand rimmed the deep river channel. Chosen wisely, a walker could pick the
right moment to take this route home safely from the wreck. A miscalculation, however,
could place the same walker in grave danger. I know. It happened to me.
I was all alone at the time. I thought the tide hadn't turned when I started for home.
About a third of the way along the strip of sand I saw the surface of the river on my left
hand start to flow backwards, upriver, keeping pace with me as I walked.
Within a minute it was moving faster than I could walk. Behind me it had already submerged
the path I had trodden. Looking ahead, it had started to narrow the dry strip in front.
Beside me, less than two feet to the right and within touching distance, rose the clifted
sandhills of Coolnargit. Ten times my height, and perpendicular to the top, there was no
way to climb them. In fact, to attempt it was to ask for an avalanche that could sweep
right over me and carry me into the river. I could be suffocated by sand and drowned by
water all in one go. Another legend of death on the Erne was about to be born.
Terrified, I started to run. The water came closer, and the strip became narrower.
Well, I wouldn't be writing this and you wouldn't be reading it if you didn't know the
result. For the rest of my life, Wellington's "it was a close run thing" has had a special
meaning to me.
That day's fright finished me with sunken treasure and pirates. If the King of Spain's
daughter was daft enough to let herself be captured at sea, she could damn well wait
until they brought her to port and imprisoned her in a dungeon before I would try to
From the middle of the Sixteen Arches you could see the self-same sandhills, and when the
wind was in the right direction you could hear the booming of the waves on the bar. What
you could not see was what lay behind the sandhills, Tullan Strand, one of the most
beautiful stretches of beaches to be found anywhere on the western coast of Europe. Before
the war, and for long afterwards, it was a hidden jewel, reached only on foot from either
Ballyshannon or Bundoran, the neighbouring seaside resort.
From Tullan Strand there opened up the whole of Donegal Bay, the Leitrim Mountains on one
side, Slieve League and the Rosses on the other, the broad Atlantic ceaselessly in motion
in between. The strand itself, all two or more miles, was usually deserted. Behind it lay
little friendly sandhills that it was fun to race up and jump down from their tops so that
your legs sank into soft, sun-warmed sand, up to your knees and hips.
Many a summer's day, my father, mother when she was in good health, and I would walk the
four miles there to bathe, to wander and sit in the sun, and then the four miles back, with
the scent of the sea and the warmth of the sun to refresh us for the days that lay ahead
until our next outing. Of all your walks, and every day, at least in the evenings after
work, Dad and I had a walk, the one to Tullan Strand was my favourite.
There was a certain ritual to the longer walks. Once out into the country, once over a
stile into a field, leaving roads and humankind behind, the first thing to be done, the
most important first step of the outing, was to find a walking stick. This did not mean
breaking off a living branch from a tree. The best walking sticks were already on the
ground, broken off by wind, and weather-worn to a smooth hardness.
Finding one the exact length for a ten-year old was crucial. Often the first one that
seemed just right would be discarded ten minutes later when a better one was discovered.
Sometimes Dad's penknife might be used to trim a ragged end. When the absolutely
best-walking-stick-ever was chosen, then, and only then, could the walk proper begin.
What was that building? Why did the rocks lie shaped like that? Why did fish only eat during
the evening rise? Did St. Patrick really bless that well? Why this, why that, why the
other? Every stone or tree or evening star brought on its own question, and the man beside
me had the patience and the forbearance to answer each and every one. He had done the same
with my three older brothers when they were growing up, and now he did the same with me,
Colour was his passion. An evening sunset of spectacular beauty could have him wax on about
tints, and shades, and the relationship of one to the other. Crimsons and pastels, the
rare, exceedingly rare shot of green, gone almost as soon as it was seen, and the exquisite
palette of sun's rays shooting skywards from beneath the horizon, enthralled him.
It so happened that he had been smitten by sunsets in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, when as a
member of the Royal Signals Corps in World War I he had gone off to fight "for the freedom
of small nations", and twenty years later a sunset on Donegal Bay was enough to bring on
the symptoms once again. To my mind clouds were clouds, sun was sun, and the rabbit family
nibbling over by the whin bush were much more interesting.
At the end of the long walk the treasured walking stick would be carefully concealed close
to the stile, or in the ditch adjoining the road, "for the next time". Never once, in all
my many years of walks with Dad, do I remember finding that stick ever again. It was always
a new walk, a new stick, and a new story. I loved my Dad.
"From Dooran to the Fairy Bridge, and round by Tullan Strand,
Level and long, and white with waves, where gull and curlew stand."
Tullan Strand was a beauty spot, but a notorious one too. At one end lay the remnants of
the collier. At the other end rose the rocky cliffs that stretched all the way to Roguey,
a famous bathing inlet beside Bundoran strand. These cliffs were home to the Fairy Bridges,
rock arches beneath which thousands of years of pounding waves had created caverns where
seas roiled and spumed, dashing spray up to the cliff top during winter storms.
The cliffs fronting the strand caused strange, unseen patterns in the flow and ebb of the
tides. On the surface the little wavelets reaching the beach seemed just as friendly, just
as beckoning, as the waves a mile and more away along the strand.But, as they reversed and
rolled seaward, they took the sandy bottom with them, so that even a person paddling at the
strand's edge, in only three inches of water, would suddenly find his feet yanked from
beneath him, and in seconds be dragged into the deeper surf from which there was no
escape, not even for the strongest swimmer.
Warning signs were posted on the pathway from the cliffs to the beach, but summer after
summer some unwitting Sunday excursionist would be tempted to shed shoes, socks or
stockings, to wade ankle-deep close to the cliffs, only to be swept away before the
horrified eyes of friends and relations.
Tullan, its charm is treacherous. Only those who know it well, and know the really
dangerous places, should bathe there. It was my favourite bathing beach.
For swimmers Roguey was the place to be. The local urban council had diving boards fastened
in place from which, at high tide, the masculine ego could proudly be displayed to watching
hundreds. Really skilled divers shunned the boards as not high enough. They preferred to
climb to the cliff top and launch themselves from bare rock into the sea below.
My brother Charlie was among the latter, or thought he was, until the day he went diving
just after lunch, breaking a rule that had been dinned into us from toddler stage, "Never,
never, go swimming just after eating".
A quarter of an hour later he developed cramps, and was, in true movie cliff-hanger
fashion, "going down for the third time", his short life flashing through his head, before
Kevin McCloskey, an older brother of Paddy of Rock Hall fame, realized he was really in
danger, dove in and hauled him to the surface, where many helping hands got him out of the
water, and other helping hands pumped the water out of him.
When Mother learned of it later, Charlie got one good talking to, and never did that
"Farewell, Coolmore, Bundoran! and your summer crowds that run
From inland homes to see with joy the Atlantic setting sun."
Bundoran was a children's paradise, and a heart scald to some of their parents. The central
Mecca was the strand, a place for building sandcastles, simple ones at first, more
elaborate as the years rolled on, five, six, seven and eight, at about which age their
attraction mysteriously vanished, only to reappear as mysteriously in adulthood when
watching and playing with one's own young people.
All good sandcastles, especially those with multiple turrets, fortified with towers at four
corners, demanded a keep. Trenching out a moat was easy work. Filling it with water and
keeping it filled was not. Endless pails of water had to be brought from the waves' edge
to the castle and dumped into the moat. Yet, no matter how many pails were dumped in, and
no matter how many times little legs ran back and forth with precious loads from tide line
to castle, the sand would swallow up all the water. The only way to guarantee any
short-lived success was to organize a human chain of boys and girls, endlessly running,
pouring in water, and dashing back to the sea for more. If the keep could be kept full for
five minutes, the effort was judged a success.
The building, the trenching, the digging, the running and the dumping meant tired young legs
and sound sleeps at night, when parents could relax and count the holiday a success.
Most young families stayed their allotted week, sometimes two, in boarding houses. Every
single house in Bundoran seemed to be a boarding house during the short six weeks that made
up the high season, six weeks in which cafes, amusement park, dance halls, hotels,
victuallers, provisioners of all sorts and kinds, had to make enough money to carry them
through a full year, especially the winter when the whole place seemed deserted. If the
two chosen weeks turned out to be rainy, woe betide hapless parents with youngsters cooped
up in some of the selfsame boarding houses, driven to distraction trying to keep them
occupied indoors while endless rain streamed down window panes, and all outside was grey,
and wet, and miserable.
A special treat for all little ones was a donkey ride along the strand. The man with the
donkeys had six or seven of the patient animals saddled and ready for customers, from just
after breakfast to just before teatime. The poor beasts would spend eight and ten hours a
day in the hot August sun, led by halter, plodding over sand that got hotter and hotter as
the day advanced, each with a happy boy or girl atop, lost in a fantasy of delight riding
great black stallions or sleek brown mares over field and fence and racecourse in all the
thousand and one gallops of childhood imagination.
Another never-failing delight was wading in rocky pools at either arm of the strand, pools
left by the receding tide, pools in which lurked unknown denizens of the sea, baby crabs,
little transparent fishes so tiny they were difficult to spot in the sunlit water,
jellyfish that stung, clinging mussels, periwinkles, yellow seaweed, black seaweed, brown
seaweed, dulse and bits of sloak, and shells of all colours, bright and beautiful,
treasures to be carefully set aside, wrapped in handkerchiefs, and brought to inland homes
miles and miles away from sea and sand, souvenirs to kindle and rekindle memories of happy
days and happy times, until the next summer's holidays rolled around.
Dulse was a seaweed which, when dried, was munched with relish. A precursor to chewing gum,
some people chewed and swallowed; others were content to chew and, having extracted the
taste, would spit out the rubbery residue which the more fastidious covered by toeing sand
over it. There were professional dulse sellers on the road above the strand, people who
gathered the dulse in great quantities and strung it out on lines to dry in the sun, just
like the weekly washing done on a Monday and which decorated every yard in the country.
At the end of each day, towels, bathing togs and bathing suits--togs for the males, suits
for the females--were rinsed out in cold tap water to remove the salt, and hung from every
window sill and boarding house clothesline to dry, bedecking the whole resort like flags and
bunting, until retrieved next morning.
Unescapable, morning, noon and night, was the sound of the calliope blaring forth from
Harrison's Amusements. This establishment, a collection of huts and open-walled sheds,
housed slot machines, roll-a-penny games of chance, swing boats--the gondolas of
Bundoran--dodgems, and, joy of joy above all joys, a hobby horse carousel was situated in
the centre of the grounds, the town at its back, the ocean in front. If the wind was from
the west the carousel music could be heard all the way up to the main street of the town,
funnelled up the lane-way past Cassidy's Central Hotel. If the wind was from the east,
whales, stray dolphins, and fishermen at sea got the benefit of a mechanical seaside Souza
march being played as carved wooden horses, brightly painted, went galloping up and down,
and round and round, the youngest riders clutching with might and main to the central pole
that transfixed each steed, a patient mother or father standing alongside, waiting hands at
the ready in case of a slip or a tumble.
Older children who didn't need the attendance of parents rode triumphantly alone, backs
straight, pole barely touched with fingers, and tried to look nonchalant, all the time
waiting for their prancing horses to bring them circling past their proud parents who never
forgot to shout out, "Hold on Johnny; hold on Mary," the last syllables lost as horse and
rider were carried away and out of hearing. The thrill and the magic of it all!
In the evening young courting couples, and some not so young, would ride those same painted
horses, capturing, for a sixpence, the forgotten memories of innocent happiness. Later they
would stroll by Roguey, hand in hand, or while away the hours at the cinema or at Jim
Carroll's Ballroom, where Ruby Murray eternally sang "The Key to my Heart".
John Montague has captured those later years in the haunting, evocatively lonely lines in
his poem "Above the Pool".
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