What a powerful word that is.
For most of us it’s that place. The place we form a deep attachment to. Sometimes it’s not the place we thought we’d find ourselves, nor the place we’ll stay forever. London — the city that can in an instant push your basic human resolve to the limit, while in another remind you of its sheer vibrancy and charming quirks — is a place I call home. But it’s not quite the place. At least not yet.
You see there’s somewhere else, somewhere I still have a strong bond with. It’s where I navigated the jumps from childhood to adolescence. It’s the place that formed the backdrop for a perfect countryside upbringing anyone would be fortunate to experience. Where a ruggedly handsome locale boasts haunting mountainous vistas, deep blue loughs and rolling plains of green. And in the years since leaving, as each day passes and I become slightly more detached from my first home; I treasure those images, as I do the memories from that place. They remain boxed in a little section of my mind dedicated to comfort, to solace, and I play the slideshow on a particularly challenging day.
This place? The place that I once couldn’t wait to leave? The place which now occupies a cherished spot in my heart no matter where I find myself? The place that never gloats, or tells me “I told you so”? The place that graciously accepted the fact that I left to find something else, but was there for me, reassuring when I didn’t always know what that something else was?
Well, it’s that place — we all have one. But mine is a place called Donegal.
For years, as I have introduced myself to countless new acquaintances and arrived at the “So where are you from?” part of the introducing-yourself-to-someone-new conversation, the reactions to my declaration, “A place called Donegal”, have ebbed between those in the not-a-notion contingent, to knowing nods from those with a point of reference to this wildest of wild Atlantic counties lining the Irish coast. I hope those knowing nods will begin to prevail though thanks to Donegal’s coronation at number one on the National Geographic Traveller’s Cool List for 2017. It’s now officially the coolest escape on the travel radar this year. Quite the achievement for the place that has oft struggled to divert visitor attention northwards from the many other historical glories, cultural trails and beauty spots that abundantly litter the majestic green isle of Ireland.
I may be somewhat biased of course, but I think the choice is spot on. There’s just something about Donegal, something you won’t find anywhere else. I say this though with a hint of remorse — guilt even. You see I’m trying to win back favour with her. I left, and for a long time, I never looked back. I was on a mission to seek out other places: cooler places. But as it transpires, I actually started out in a pretty cool place to begin with. Yet back then I didn’t appreciate her, I took her for granted.
Growing up, my relationship with Donegal was rather perfect. We happily hung out together every day, close friends living in blissful normality. I knew no different. Our parents took my sisters and I on holidays to other parts of the country, trips that seemed like great adventures to my younger self — eight hours in the car to Cork in those days may as well have brought us to a new continent. Sometimes we went further afield to places like France on camping trips. Once we even went to Disneyland in America. America! And when we came back, Donegal was always there waiting for us, welcoming despite our exploits to new and supposedly more exciting places. We remained on good terms because I had no real desire to explore the world just then, or to leave. If all my friends were doing it then of course, but they weren’t. We were too wrapped up in just being kids in a place called Donegal.
But then the cracks formed, and their formation coincided with a time where everything seemed to crack — adolescence. It wasn’t Donegal’s fault of course. The combination of having to grow up, the looming shadow of exams, the pressure to choose a career, to secure a university place, not to mention the tiring upkeep of a supposedly cool, laid-back teenage persona, well they all weighed heavily. Donegal took the brunt of my frustrations, as did my parents and anyone I deemed too old to really, “get me”. It was then that I discovered my desire to travel. I vividly recall memorising every single American state from the US map that hung on the wall in front of me in my final year geography class. How many of those states could I tick off on my travels over the coming years? Despite my daydreaming, I somehow managed to pass that class, and all the rest. I sealed the deal on university, and freedom, independence beckoned. I didn’t really say goodbye. I couldn’t wait to be somewhere new, somewhere more exciting — somewhere cooler.
University was only a few hours away so I visited on some weekends, keeping an attachment but remaining noncommittal. Then came the big break. I left for Asia and wouldn’t be back for at least a year. I’d found myself a job teaching English (with a Donegal twang) to children in a school in Bangkok, a place where I knew no one, couldn’t speak the language and was about to discover exactly what humidity and its consequences meant for a girl used to the climes of west Ireland. Indeed, I was a sweaty mess most days that year, apart from when cocooned in air-con. Every insect in the place had also received the memo about my arrival so I was dotted with itchy red lumps for months until, finally, they accepted I was sticking around for a while and my novelty wore off. And all the while I became the subject of much consternation from the locals who marvelled at my ghostly white complexion and height.
But oh, how I loved it there. That first time travelling solo introduced me to a tiny part of this extraordinary planet and I knew then what I’ve known for a long time — I will always want more. I want to see more. I want to experience more. I love travelling, I’m good at it and it fascinates me. But I also love being stationary sometimes, having that place where I can just live life, where I can build a career and friendships and relationships; where I can have a home. London is that place now. For now.
Have you heard about this wonderful place called Donegal? It’s where I was born. Where I was raised. I’ll proudly keep that attachment, that connection — if she’ll let me. I think she will. It says everything really, that a part of me still aches when I have to accept that I’m just a visitor when I go there now. But Donegal has always proven to me that she will happily remain my true home no matter where I go; she’ll be there if I ever need her, if I need that sense of belonging. That’s the thing about Donegal. Whether it’s an entire lifetime, a childhood or just a weekend; your time, your experience there, will leave a lasting impression on you.
And that, well that’s actually really cool.
Until next time…
For more on the 2017 Cool List visit natgeotraveller.co.uk
Check govisitdonegal.com to plan the perfect Donegal getaway, you won’t be disappointed!