“To be a historian is to be questioning, to have a vivid imagination and an insatiable curiosity.” – Anna Whitelock
I realize this might seem like I am trying to define who I have always been using the benefit of hindsight – you know, the way every autobiography ever written makes some kind of broad statement about how so-and-so has always been a natural leader or something of the sort? However, I believe my parents would back me up in this statement: ever since I was a very small child, I have delighted in learning about the past. I went through many phases: Egyptian Pharaohs, Celtic Druids, English Monarchy, Irish Revolutions, etc… but the bedrock of my interest was always the same – I wanted to learn everything I could about how people lived before I existed. How did they go about their days? What could have occupied their minds as much as their very existence occupied mine? Did they think about the future? Or struggle to make it to another sunrise? The study of recorded and analysed history could only take me so far – my imagination always carried me further.
I suppose it is because of this constantly bubbling stream of curiosity, questions, and daydreams that I always have some kind of random historical fact to insert into my travel blogs – wherever I go, I tend to collect what tales I can from a variety of sources, be they Museums, local storytellers, or unexpected signs on the roadside. I don’t think I will ever satiate my desire to learn more about the history of humanity, nor would I ever like to. What would I write about then?
Another habit I have when travelling is that every time I choose a new small town to explore, which I am pleased to report is still a fairly regular occurrence, I find myself looking for a sign to explain why I was drawn to that community in particular out of the thousands of upon thousands of options out there. Sometimes it is as obvious immediately as a particular historical oddity I have already read about (which is what drew me to visit Lanark Village recently and the somewhat-recently renovated Clyde Hall B&B), sometimes it is a quirky local landmark or trait that I am eager to explore further (as was the case when I spent two weeks in Doolin, Ireland to get to know the village known as the capital of traditional music), and sometimes I have no idea why I am visiting until I arrive.
In the case of the next destination on the Gurski Grad Trip, it was a little bit of columns A, B and C. I’ll explain.
When I last wrote on our UK adventure, my sister and I had decided to take a well-deserved break from the rather breakneck pace of the journey up to that point. In our ad hoc planning fashion, we had taken a glance at the North of the Irish landmass (including both Northern Ireland and the upper tip of the Republic) and chosen our destination based both on the name (Dunfanaghy was fun to say) and on the available accommodations (a chance to sleep in an outfitted stationary railway car – “column B”). A quick google search also turned up the suggestion that the hollow in which the place where we would be staying was nestled in was once a pre-Celtic ritual site dedicated to the Goddess Danu and in fact there were over 175 recorded archaeological sites within a five-mile radius of the village – “column A”. Though the bus journey there was far from straightforward, we had set our sights on this quaint little town and one-of-a-kind overnight experience as our next destination and so we figured it out using our not-insignificant powers of deduction and not a small amount of determination.
Before we knew it, we were hopping off yet another cramped bus onto a distant country road with nothing but farmland on either side, hoping we had gotten off at the right spot.
Luckily, our characteristically friendly bus driver had indeed dropped us off where he said he would, and we did not have to walk too far up the road to our home-for-the-night. The only unnerving part of this segment of the journey, however, was the fact that the road we had been dropped off on the side of appeared to be some minor highway and there was not necessarily much room for walking up the road proper due to some rather deep ditches lined with prickly gorse bushes.
We did manage, you will be pleased to hear, and soon found ourselves walking up to a pleasant-looking old stone mill. It took a bit of searching to find the owner but we liked him immediately once we did. And here is where column C comes in.
The owner, it turns out, was a local historian who was working on a very special project which happened to have a connection to us as Canadians. As I listened to him speak with brimming curiosity, he told us about his desire to have a monument erected on a beach nearby to commemorate a particular moment during WWII.
Random Historical Fact #15
On June 16th, 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, a RAF Ferry Command Hudson Aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on Killahoey Beach near Dunfanaghy. Though the Irish Republic remained officially neutral during the conflict, the locals feared the tide would swallow the plane whole if something wasn’t done, and fast. Thus, the village’s residents came out in droves to pull the plane to safety making it possible for the crew of four to successfully deliver the aircraft to Scotland the next day. From what I understood from talking to the owner, though the military headquarters in Dublin was aware of the landing and OK’d the release of the RAF personnel, the people of Dunfanaghy went a step further in treating them with the utmost kindness, even putting them up in a nearby hotel. The fact that they landed safely at all was a miracle as Donegal was the final resting place of many a crashed flight during the conflict due to the rocky shores and unforgiving tides. Had any of the locals’ decisions been different that day – had they elected not to help the crew or treated them as hostile invaders, those men’s lives could have been at worst ended or at best forever altered. Though Ireland never changed its official neutral status, there were similar occurrences all over the island during the war, pointing to the very human desire to help out their fellow man, even when they may not agree with their politics.
From what I have discovered online, so many years since we visited, it looks like they were able to erect the monument to this small-yet-significant moment in human history on Killahoey Beach after all. A wonderful conclusion to all the hard work our host and his friends put into drawing attention to this Canadian connection.
Though we were tired upon our arrival that day, I was thrilled to hear this story and asked what was probably an inordinate amount of questions. I also elected to e-mail a few of my former journalism colleagues back home to bring their attention to this wonderful human interest story (I’m not sure if anyone ever did anything with it, however).
This was the moment I had been waiting for, my column C, the mysterious third force that had brought me to this small Irish village in particular. As the host spun his tale, much more detailed than the sparse summary I wrote above, I knew I had found yet another person with the same insatiable curiosity and vivid imagination as myself. It was a chance encounter with a fellow history enthusiast which I have yet to forget – a wonderful moment of shared interest in the forgotten stories of the past.
I have more to say on the accommodations and the beautiful little town of Dunfanaghy but I will leave you here for now.
And remember, life is beautiful