Special Feature: “Parked up in Portnoo”

This year’s Duchas annual had some excellent articles and from time to time we may highlight some of them.

This article by Gail Park is a beautiful piece, showing why someone would fall in love with Portnoo.

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“Parked up in Portnoo”

By Gail Park

Sitting on a pier, Force 6 southerly winds rocking the car while the brown peaty sea water blows up around me. The whites of the sea explode onto distant rocks with the loud tin can sound of rain on the car roof. I think to myself; how on earth did I get here and what am I actually doing here? I think it all started in March 2020, or maybe it really started in 1931?

15 months ago, July 2020, I packed up for my usual annual holiday to meet childhood friends and family for two weeks in Portnoo. Kayaks on roof, wetsuit, fins, snorkel, mask, boogie boards, firepit and some clothes – just enough for two weeks. The holiday provided a welcome release to seaside freedom compared to that of Dunshaughlin village during Lockdown 1.0. My two-week holiday was filled with the usual swimming, pier jumping, kayaking and beach BBQ’s; at night friends and family gathered around the firepit with the infamous plastic Ikea cups full of merriment to share stories, craic and banter. What’s not to love about this place?

Like many, prior to my holidays I’d been working from home since March 2020, grateful to still have work. One week into my holiday, the KN network guy was installing the familiar black fibre boxes on the road where my holiday harbour cottage was. These little black boxes of magic offered an appealing alternative seaside office. What if I just stayed and worked here for a few weeks?

The fear was real, I felt nauseous. Family and friends would leave, I’d know no one, I’d be lonely, what would I do? Could I cope living so rural knowing nobody? I booked the house for an additional six weeks and went home for two days to get office equipment, more clothes and my furry feline friend: 13-year-old Beckzy! For the next six weeks I had a steady stream of east coast weekend visitors. It wasn’t until October’s Lockdown 2.0 did the fear become a reality, but strangely once the busyness left, the real Donegal transition began. The magic of the Wild Atlantic Ocean had already captivated me.

I got to know a few folks through kayaking and swimming – from mid-September 2020 a small cohort started to swim at 8am before work each morning, a tradition that continued through the cold mornings of winter and is still going over a year later. “Are you not foundered in that tide, hi?”,

“Eh..” I’d reply as I rapidly thought about these new words. In Meath, I lived 45 minutes from my nearest sea swimming spot, and so during these initial few weeks I had this giddy, guilty pleasure each morning as I landed afterwards onto Zoom calls with clients at 9am. How could I ever leave this, especially knowing what life was like for friends back home as we were by then confined to 5km again? Many East Coast friends were envious of my freedom and bravery in uprooting my life and relocating temporarily beside the sea.

“She’s some tight doll, hi.” (I’m still unsure if this is complimentary!). I knew how lucky I was but at the same time I felt so guilty for literally walking out of a life I shared with close friends, family and neighbours. During these quieter lockdown times, the doing became more being and nature was my companion, along with new friends, who shared my love of the sea, coastal walks, and the great outdoors. I’d found my selkie tribe for sure.

Four weeks into my six-week temporary picturesque office relocation, I knew I wouldn’t be ready to face landlocked Dunshaughlin, so six weeks turned into three-months, and three months turned into a house move and eleven months. Each time I extended, I never knew how long I’d last: each week if I was still happy, I’d stay. 15 months and 4 house moves later I am now settled in a new long-term rental which I am so grateful for.

The exciting Donegal weather brings a deeper connection with the land, wildlife, sea and air. The weather isn’t just an event that takes place in Donegal, you’re immersed in it and part of it with only outdoor clothing between you and it. There is something quite magical about walking the beach at night under a pitch- dark star-filled night with the sound of crashing waves in a strong wind. It’s raw and invigorating. Similarly, sitting at the top of Drumboghill with a flask of coffee on a crisp winter’s night watching astrological events over Slievetooey. From spectacular winter sunset swims in Rosbeg, to golden pink, red sunrise swims in Portnoo, from 5.5 degrees icy water in Dawros to 26.4 degrees baths on Narin during the July heatwave – no two days, or swims, are ever the same. From rescuing sick baby seals to full- moon night swims followed by hot drinks and friendly banter. How can you ever compare three swans flying over your head while swimming before work to sitting behind red taillights streaming towards the city, going nowhere fast?

Capturing the great outdoors through the lens of a camera has always made me feel more connected to its beauty. It makes me stop; admire it and study it. The camera helps me explore and to look for beauty within beauty, often capturing it just to bring the joy to others. Being surrounded by the raw unspoiled beauty of this area has reactivated my creativity from Art College days. It started with creating a Portnoo calendar for friends and family last Christmas as so many couldn’t travel due to CoVID. Without too much thought, planning or urgency, I then developed the idea of charity greeting cards and postcards using my photos. These are sold in local shops now whilst raising money for Downstrands Family Resource Centre, Charity Christmas cards are my latest creation thanks to some very pretty photos I got during the snow earlier this year of Narin, Portnoo, Ardara and Tramore. Following encouragement from friends, I started publishing my photos on social media under ‘Gail Park Photography’, it’s merely an outlet to share that raw Atlantic beauty.

I still primarily work online delivering Agile / Lean Training and Consultancy to Software Development & Business Teams in Technology, Environmental, Medical, Aviation, Retail, Banking, & Telecom sectors. There is still a puzzle to solve as to how I will work when these industries return to a post-CoVID new norm involving physical presence in offices. Being self-employed I have more autonomy with my work, so creating work locally could be a necessity should commuting to the East coast become too demanding in the future. As a result, my mind is on a constant search for new business ideas, so I never have to let work come between me and the Wild Atlantic Donegal Ocean!

There is no doubt that Donegal life is different, and not just the lingo! It’s not only a unique part of Ireland but more so the World. It has a culture and an essense of its very own. It’s about slowing down, not rushing and having a better connection with people and surroundings. Folk are so generous, always having time to chat so being on a Zoom-fuelled schedule is somewhat of a Donegal anti- pattern that often leaves me feeling rude when I can’t repay the time so generously offered by many.

“Donegal Time” really does exist it may not be officially recorded anywhere as a time-zone per se, but that’s exactly the point. It can be anything from a few minutes to several months after the initially specified time with no real line in the sand to start with. Making peace with this concept is a journey, and I’m happily progressing!

The East to West transition isn’t insignificant and I continue to seek forgiveness while I adapt. The 6.30am commuter alarm clock has fizzled away in the (what sometimes feels like constant) Donegal drizzle; the fast-paced transactional event-based-life floats into slower calmer weather determined experiences; the planning of life to within a minute slows to “Donegal Time”, and the conveniences of East Coast living are replaced with long, bumpy, windy road journeys and long lists – it is amazing what you can do without, though. In Meath, if I wanted coriander at 10pm at night, it was only two minutes away. During Lockdown, I drove to Ardara three days in a row looking for fresh coriander for my favourite recipe before putting out an APB for anyone travelling further afield. First World-East-Coast-problems are real; but it’s all part of the adaptation process. I grow coriander now whilst the slagging from friends continues.

And so how did I really come to be herein? Well, in the early 1930’s the wider Shepherd/Irwin family came here for a weekend. Captured by the area’s beauty, they continued to visit annually for holidays, returning each year with additional family members and friends who shared an instant love for the place. My own paternal grandfather, based in Letterkenny at the time, first visited in the early/mid 1930’s, and 90 years later the holiday tradition continues, except I forgot to return home! In July 2022, we will gather to celebrate this 90-year anniversary of Portnoo Holidays with possibly well over 100 family members. Little did our family realise what they would start that weekend back in 1931.

Since my parents brought me here on holidays as a baby (aka wain), it’s always represented a place of no stress, non-stop- activities, and fun – this I feel I have sadly lost to some extent. Even though I can do holiday type activities daily, it’s become home now with all the usual daily life challenges, rather than a switched-off carefree place. At the same time, surfing at lunchtime between Zoom calls is an awesome experience, especially during a 5km Lockdown. Having never lived in a holiday resort, I see Portnoo in a new light, especially having enjoyed it so much during quieter COVID times. It’s the contrast between the calm and the manic that really shakes the place up for a few months. It’s lovely to see the beauty being enjoyed by everyone, but I have a newfound respect for the locals who so willingly share their beaches, piers, sea, islands, roads, hills, walks and surroundings. I’ve been genuinely humbled by the kindness, friendliness, inclusion, and welcoming nature of so many folks over the last 15 months – they’ve shared their lives and invested their time in me, a total blow-in. (“Yes, Gail.” … Hmmm… Did I ask a question? Ah of course – you’re just saying “hello”!)

On regular out of season weekend trips 20 years ago, my cousin and I, (mostly after too much wine) would create fictional lives and careers that would permit us to live in Portnoo! I’ve worked in the Technology industry most of my life and clients are primarily based in big cities. Living somewhere like Portnoo remained a fictional story for me and never got any attention for that reason, but then CoVID and the Rural Fibre Expansion Scheme arrived! And just like that, the long forgotten fictional story became an accidental reality.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve stepped into a different country due to the high contrast between Meath and Donegal coastal living. I’m still finding my feet here, wondering if this will be home in the long term, but for now it certainly is home. I miss friends and family so much, and sometimes conveniences, sporting facilities and competition tennis but it’s a trade-off for the beauty, the lifestyle, and different types of facilities.

As life gets back to normal here in Donegal, life also goes back to normal in Meath & Dublin, so there is more to miss but slowly I’m learning what was missing in Donegal during CoVID times too – if I look hard enough, I’ll find what I’m looking for, even if it is a drive away. I’m really enjoying life here and who knows what the future will hold. For now, at least, Portnoo feels like home, and I’m wile happy with my move, even if it was an accidental one, hi!


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