Little Walks – The Abbey, Donegal

My wife’s family are from the town of Donegal in the north-west of Ireland. Back in 1991 we took our first trip together to visit family there, and I was introduced to the town and what has become one of my favourite little walks – the Abbey.

Her aunt and uncle lived then, and still do, on Castle Street. It’s a lovely little street, with the River Eske running in front of the house with a low wall to sit on and watch the trout play in the current. On that first visit, the waft of peat smoke and coal fires on a misty evening formed a permanent memory that’s recalled each time I’m there.

The centre of the town is just behind Castle Street, and the heart of the town is The Diamond, a market space surrounded by shops.

It’s a bustling little town on a summer Saturday, with tour buses, farmers on tractors, and families out shopping. Leading out of The Diamond, there is a street running down towards the harbour, and past that on a little tip of land is the Abbey.

Today it’s a ruin, with tumbled stones and partial walls from the medieval Franciscan priory and church to explore, and mixed through the old church grounds are more recent graves because today it’s a cemetery that’s still in use. Many of the town’s old family names can be found here, with the history of lives long-lived along with the little tragedies of young lives lost. Even though it’s close to town, it’s usually quiet and if there’s a bit of sun or a bit of misty rain, it’s quite charming and deeply moving.

On our first visit, I was indulging an enthusiastic photography bug – I would leap from the car at every thatched cottage or picturesque sheep peering through a hedge. When we got to Donegal town and we’d wandered around a bit, I heard the stories about the Abbey and I knew that I had to visit to explore and photograph the ruins and headstones. I must have spent a couple of hours there on that first trip, self-absorbed and utterly content, shooting rolls and rolls of film.

Since that first visit, we’ve returned to Ireland many times and each time we go I try to carve out an hour or so for my favourite little walk – up Castle Street, past the restored Castle and through The Diamond to the harbour and on to the Abbey for a wander through the headstones to see who’s passed on since my last visit. It’s become a ritual for me, recalling the memories of that first trip when I fell in love with the country and the town.

Each time I take that that walk I end by returning to Castle Street and a cup of tea in the kitchen. The warmth of Aunt Nora and Uncle Liam, their charm and sly humour, the chat round the kitchen table with the cousins and neighbours, and the gossip and questions about what I’d seen this time – it’s a gentle domesticity and a throwback to quieter times that we don’t get here in the Big Smoke of Hogtown.

That little walk takes me back in time, and then returns me gently to the present. I can’t imagine visiting Donegal without repeating my stroll, and wouldn’t want to try. Familiar places renew memories and reward the soul, like well-loved friends. Each visit plants new memories, and recalls past charms too. Little walks do that – they reward the comfortable and the familiar, like holding hands with your partner when the fit of each finger is as practiced as breathing, and just like holding hands they bring a warm rush of blood when those fingers squeeze even after decades together.