ahhh, the life of a diplomatic princess . . .

Archive for the tag “Donegal”

A Proper Homecoming

Two months from now my family and I will be back in Ireland, where we lived for close to three and a half years, and I am beyond excited! I am “OHMYGODICAN’TBELIEVEWE’REGOINGBACK!” excited. I am excited to the point where, when I think about it, my heart actually starts to beat a little harder and I get a stupid grin on my face. If I think about it in public strangers likely worry about my sanity as I stare off into space with what is probably a creepy, euphoric, “pull the children in close to you and don’t make eye contact,” look on my face. We have an awesome trip planned, all accommodation reservations have been made, friends have been notified of our dates, (SQUUUEEEE!), lists of “we have to go back here” have been started, revamped, and added on to several times.

First we are spending a week in Donegal and renting the lovely, traditional  Fawn Cottage. I have to stop myself from looking at its website anymore because the drool is causing a rash on my chin. Cannot. Wait. Then we head over ancient homestead way and spend a few days in Blacksod Bay, where will will be staying with our friend Hannah, who is loads of fun and owns the best B & B in County Mayo  (Leim Siar, check it out!). Visiting this part of Ireland is always very special for us, we get to see family, bring flowers to the graves of my great-great grandparents, drive by the cottage where my great-grandmother was born and raised, and stroll through Belmullet where every other shop has the name of O’Reilly on its front. My great-grandfather was a Reilly and our youngest, named Riley in honor of my family, feels like a king marching through those streets, chuffed that everything is named for him.

Our last stop is Dublin, it gives me a topsy turvey stomach just to type that because Dublin is, hands down, my very favorite city. We’ll be staying in Temple Bar in an apartment above the iconic Oliver St. John Gogarty pub. One of my Dublin friends teased me not to forget my ear plugs and I know he’s right but I’m so excited to be in the middle of that dynamic city! Just to stroll the cobblestone streets of Temple Bar in the morning with a coffee from my favorite little coffee house, to window browse on Grafton Street, picnic in Stephen’s Green, visit our favorite restaurants (if you’re ever in Dublin DO NOT miss a chance to eat at Urban Picnic in George’s St. Arcade, the food is phenomenal and inexpensive), heaven! I’m itching to go back to the museums where I spent countless rainy afternoons wandering, I’m pretty sure there was a meeting about putting my name on a chair in the room of the National Gallery where the paintings of Jack Yeats are hung because I spent so much time immersing myself in his work. Hopping the DART train to little coastal villages where we can sit with a properly poured Guiness and a heaping plate of chips, again, heaven! I could go on but that drool thing is kicking in and my chin needs a break. An Irish friend of mine sent me a text after I told him I was blogging about our trip that read “You got it bad!” He’s not remotely exaggerating.

So, Ireland is amazing, everything about it. The natural beauty, the vibrant cities, the warmth of the people, it’s got everything I feel I need in a country in order to be truly happy, and the hubby and I fully intend to plant our creaky butts in a tiny cottage on the coast of Donegal when the time comes to retire. But it’s also far more. We first visited Ireland eight years ago when my father, now retired from the Foreign Service, and step-mother were posted to our embassy in Dublin. We stayed for five weeks, had an incredible time, and my memories of that trip, like many memories I have of Ireland, are in technicolor. I savored every sight, every smell, every taste, every hug, every raindrop. Each experience, down to the smallest detail, was carefully tucked away by my brain, which often has trouble remembering why I’ve walked into a room so this is saying something.

The highlight of a trip full of highlights was when we went to Belmullet. Visiting the place where I was rooted, where my children were rooted, made me feel something I have difficulty putting into words. I was raised to feel a deep connection to Ireland; my grandmother felt it gave me a sense of history, an understanding of myself, and that it was important to remember the sacrifices my great-grandparents made in coming to a new country, leaving behind the place, and family, that they loved. Growing up I was surrounded by Ireland–the music, writings, folklore, photos, heirlooms, family stories–so walking the shores of the Atlantic, knowing that I was on the land of my ancestors, was something I did with great reverence. I remember crouching down to softy stroke the earth, overwhelmed by a sense of belonging to something greater than myself, feeling tears sting my eyes because it was the only way my body had to respond to such a piercing sense of place. Being able to tell my children “this is where it all started, this is how you came to be,” well, when I think about it I still get tears in my eyes.

The purpose of our trip to Belmullet, other than to visit the place of our roots, is a sacred memory for all of us. On a cold and blustery Sunday we went with my folks and our children to a tiny church whose priest, my cousin Liam, baptized our daughter. The church was empty except for us, the scent of the incense Liam had used in mass hung in the air, the wind roared outside, and I’d never felt such a sense of peace. I remember listening to Liam softly recite the baptismal rites in both Irish and English, remember watching him tenderly bathe Aisleen’s soft hair in water from the font, remember him smiling at our oldest, also a Liam, as he ruffled his hair and said he had the best name in the world. That afternoon is one of the most special we have spent as a family, my husband and I still talk about it and how it was a turning point in our lives and our communal sense of self. We have a baptismal certificate for Aisleen from the same parish as the baptismal certificate of my great-grandmother, it’s a special thing.

Our lives as nomads can be a whirlwind of adventure. They can be full of incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They can also be lonely and isolated because we are usually very far from family and friends. My husband and I struggle to give our children a sense of belonging and to nurture the roots that we gently uncover, pull up, and travel with every few years. It isn’t always easy and our kids sometimes have difficulty understanding that they have a nationality, they are American. They feel connected to the US, they love going home and seeing family and friends, but they also live with the realization that they are children of the world and in many ways their roots are global. They feel a deep and binding connection to Ireland. I know it is in part because we lived there for a good chunk of time, in fact it is the first “home” that our younger two remember. It is also because it is so much a part of me that it is an easy love for me to nurture in them, but they have their own love for it and, most importantly, they know in a tangible way the story of them started there. They’ve been shaped and molded by their experiences there–long afternoons spent racing through rolling, green hills, early evenings spent in conversation in front of a roaring fire in our cousin’s home, countless days spent on beaches where they swam until their teeth chattered and we would fold them in their towels for a warming snuggle. Their imaginations have been fertilized by abandoned famine villages, ancient castles of the Pirate Queen, hikes through forests where pookas are said to roam. So, while America is their home, Ireland is also their home, and being able to go back in two months is an incredible gift.

I was chatting with a friend of mine with whom we are planning a mad night of fun in Dublin and he said “Heather, we will give ye a proper homecoming!” A homecoming. That has such a lovely ring to it …

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Cottages of Donegal, Ireland

Some of my favorite memories from Ireland were made in traditional cottages in Donegal. From the first time we stayed in a traditional cottage I was smitten–their charm, their traditional beauty, their history, I was completely enamored. In all I stayed in three cottages on five different holidays, all of them I recommend with a loud and hearty “YES! GO THERE!” I found them on a fabulous website called Donegal Cottage Holidays where you can search for cottages based on location, size, cost, and other important factors. Without exception the landlords were warm, welcoming, and helpful without being at all intrusive. One of the cottages where we stayed, Miller’s Cottage in gorgeous Ramelton, was originally built for the family of the miller and was around three hundred years old. In an unbelievable move that can only be classified as “DOH!” I forgot my camera for that trip, I still can’t believe it. It’s no longer available for rent but there are some other adorable cottages in Ramelton, which is a sweet, tiny village with very friendly people. If you go make sure you check out McDaid’s Wine Bar and Conway’s Bar, both define Irish village charm.

Cloverfield Cottage is a cottage I went to twice, each visit for a week at a time. I took my “alone” holidays when my husband was in Iraq, they were crucial for recharging my batteries. I dropped the kids with my folks who were living in Belfast and went off on my own, the kids got spoiled by grandma and grandpa and I got to do all the stuff I can’t do when the kids are around–sleep in, take long, quiet walks, drink wine with lunch, eat Doritos for dinner, that kind of stuff. After dropping the kids off I would stop at Marks & Spencers (M & S), buy all my favorite foods, including pre-made dinners I only had to heat up, pile back in the car and head off to paradise, this cottage:

                                 Charming Cloverfield Cottage

This cottage was perfect for me, just enough space for me to relax and remote enough that I could gather my thoughts and enjoy the solitude. Sitting in front of a living room window of the cottage, watching the sunrise over Trawbreaga Bay while sipping tea was lovely, especially since I could climb back into the warmth of my bed and drift off to sleep before waking up and taking a stroll along the road that led to some of the beaches on Doagh Island (not actually an island, though it was a very long time ago). I got to pass by friendly horses who would always come over for nose tickles

I soaked in views like this one

Overlooking Trawbreaga Bay

I stopped off at one of my favorite patches of earth anywhere, this little alcove under the hills and along the bay, where I never saw another person

Continuing on, past a few farms, I stopped off at the local ruined castle

Carrickabraghy Castle


I always ended up at what I think of as my favorite beach anywhere. I spent hours on this beach, both with my family on other holidays and alone. There is something about it that I found peaceful and restorative, I would stroll from one end to the next collecting shells and rocks, trying to find new ways to implant it in my memory so every time I closed my eyes and thought of it I could hear its surf, feel the spray on my face, feel the sand crunching under my wellies, and remember how good I felt standing on that beach.


Then I would sigh and turn back towards the cottage and the serene beauty of Trawbreaga Bay



Grace’s Cottage, which is over one hundred years old and has been lovingly restored



This cottage is the perfect place for a family, in part because it has an addition that provides a lot of extra space so it has three bedrooms and three full baths. One of our favorite things about it is the big, traditional fireplace and an unending supply of turf.

Another favorite thing of ours about traditional cottages in general are the beautiful, deep windowsills


On our first trip to Grace’s Cottage we took full advantage of the sites that were close by. We went to a ton of fun places, including Grianan Ailligh, a ring fort from the Neolithic period; Fort Dunree (in English it is Fort of the Heather, which I particularly like); Doe Castle, built in the early sixteenth century; Inishowen Museum and Planetarium; Doagh Famine Village, which teaches visitors about the Great Hunger in Ireland as well as about Travelers and the Civil War in the North; and Donegal Friary, founded in 1474. We also hiked through Swan Park, which is not only gorgeous but has quite a lot of historical significance as it holds the spot where Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen, was arrested in 1798.

We spent an enjoyable, and mostly dry, day in lovely Glenveagh National Park, 16,000 hectares of beauty nestled in the Derryveagh Mountains


We explored Donegal Town and got to step back in time by touring Donegal Castle, which dates back to the 15th century and was built by the O’Donnell Clan Chieftain

The kids playing in one of the massive fireplaces of the castle


We also explored another castle, Greencastle Castle, which has not stood the test of time as well as Donegal Castle but is lovely in its own way

Then, of course, there were the beaches. Our favorite family beach is Five Fingers Strand



Inishowen, Donegal pretty much defines “perfection” for me!




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