Approaching the village of Glencolmcille you cannot help but be humbled by its extraordinary beauty.
Meandering roads sweep down into the glen and guide you along some of the most stunning coastlines in the country.
The people of Glencolmcille are doubtlessly resilient — this quality was embedded in their forefathers by the late Father James McDyer.
Father McDyer came to Glencolmcille in 1957 and saw that the coastal community was at its lowest ebb; there was no real employment, no tarred roads and the young were emigrating. He empowered the people by helping them forge their own destinies by creating small community based-industries.
A number of community based-industries continue to thrive and create employment in the area to this day — the fish factory in Meenaneary and the Folk Village, which opened in 1967.
The Folk Village
Margaret Cunningham has managed the Folk Village for 15 years and notes a significant increase in the number of tourists to the area particularly over the past two years due to the success of the Wild Atlantic Way.
“It was opened in 1967 by Father McDyer. Due to the success of the Wild Atlantic Way, we have extended our season until the first week in November, it used to close at the end of September and we are opening earlier as well. We find it much busier,” she told us.
Last year, the Folk Village celebrated its 50th anniversary and at present four full-time staff and eight part-time staff work there on a seasonal basis.
Two years ago, students from the University of Michigan came to the Folk Village and designed the inside of the miniature cottages and they recently returned to design the outside.
Sitting at a table in the Folk Village, Margaret smiles and says that she enjoys a deep connection with the area. Her mother, Rita Gillespie, was from the area and her father, Charlie Cunningham, is from Carrick.
“Father McDyer set up the fish factory and my father worked there all his life and he didn’t have to leave to find work. I have worked here all my life and I didn’t have to leave either so you could say it’s all connected to Fr McDyer,” she said.
Margaret has a keen interest in photography and promotes the area on social media.
“Because we struggled in times gone by, a lot of skills weren’t lost,” Margaret said. Weaving, spinning, net-mending and much more are taught to children and adults.
Paddy Beag Gillespie brings tourists throughout the area
Stone walls pepper much of the land of the parish which houses a population of around 1,500. The land which falls and juts into the wild Atlantic ocean is home to some wonderful megalithic monuments. There is no one in the area who knows more about these structures than Paddy Beag Gillespie.
Walking into the Folk Village, Paddy has a glint in his eye and encompasses a sense of fun and humour that is a rare quality to find in people.
Paddy was born in the area and left, like many, to find work in England in 1963.
“I came back in 1969 and have not left since and have no intention of it,” he declares, leaving no one in any doubt of where his heart lies.
“When I retired from general work another door opened and I became a guide in the area and I love it. I get great satisfaction from it and it does my heart good. I really love to talk about my gleann, beag, aoibheann, álainn. It would break my heart if I had to leave it again actually I wouldn’t do it,” he said.
Paddy attended a course in County Fermanagh which taught how to best use the expert tools he has. His knowledge of the area is extraordinary. Within seconds he can tell you about the stone structures in the area.
“This is one of the areas that is rich in portal dolmens and court cairns. They are authentic and date back to 3000 or 4000BC. There is one thing that is very unique to this area and that is a 700AD chamber built under the graves at the Church of Ireland,” he said.
Paddy said that the secret chamber would have been built by the monks which were left behind in the area by St. Colmcille.
He believes that the underground-chamber was used by the monks to escape raiders.The chamber was discovered in the 1800s when the Church of Ireland brethren built the existing church.
“They went to bury an agent of the landlord and they came upon this on the site of the old monastery. It’s carbon-dated at 700AD,” he said.
An ardent supporter of the GAA, Paddy was recently awarded for his sterling work in this area at Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta.
Oideas Gael - attracting people from across the globe to the area
The Irish language is very much alive in the area. Oideas Gael is established in the area and it attracts people from around the world to Glencolmcille.
The director of the course, Liam Ó Cuinneagáin, said that he is very proud to have had the former President Mary McAleese on his course and has returned each year since.
“We are running a centre for the teaching of Irish to adults. It’s a cultural centre which was built in 1991 after using a local school for a number of years. We are operating it to run courses all through the year for adults and for university students usually from Canada, America and other areas,” he said.
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and international singing star Daniel O’Donnell also attended the course. Fr McDyer was an ardent supporter of the culture of the area and was a close friend of Liam’s father, William Ó Cuinneagáin, who wrote for the Donegal Democrat. They shared a symbiotic relationship whereby Fr McDyer would often benefit from making headlines in regional and national newspapers.
The Woolen Mills - a thriving industry in the Glen
Another thriving industry in the area is the the Glencolmcille Woollen Mill. Emma McCloskey, née McNelis, is in the shop which is bustling and busy: “The shop was founded in 1984 by John and Michael McNelis and Pauline Doogan and Sarah Doherty which were all brothers and sisters. It is a family business and as a result, all of those who work there give it their all,” she said.
Ten full-time staff work on the premises all year around.
“We manufacture hand-loomed knitwear here on the premises. We source the wool locally as well,” Emma said.
Mary McNelis, 93, established the business many years ago: “She is a lady before her time and she was before her time. She could see the potential we have here.”
Leaving the Woollen Mill and heading towards Carrick you are greeted by sheep who also prove resilient and dislike intrusive vehicles.
The Rusty Mackerel - the perfect place for a pint and good company
Along the sides of the road, you bear witness to more industries, turf-cutting and forestry. Peter Leo Boyle, 78, has worked on the bog in Cashel for generations, one of many from the local area who like to ensure they have ample fuel for a turf fire during the cold winter months.
On a road to the right of Carrick village, you will find the Rusty Mackerel a pub, established in 1892, that tourists pass both coming to and leaving Slieve League. It reopened a number of weeks ago and, being a hub for Irish music, renowned for good food, it’s doing exceptionally well. A huge mural painted by Ciaran Dunleavy is worth going to see. The pub came under new ownership but very little changes took place within the famous bar. In fact, a secret snug was found during the works that took place there. One of the walls bears testament to a rich pub culture boasting vintage posters and pictures from decades ago. Food is being served there since this week.
There is something very special about Glencolmcille
As you leave Glencolmcille and face into the meandering roads - you cannot help but find yourself promising yourself to visit the people and the area again. Glencolmcille has something special; it is rare and intangible, but you can be certain that it is there since the beginning of time. It truly is an undiscovered jewel in the crown of Donegal.