Ah, Donegal!

How can you ever forget the first time you went there! Errigal, covered in mist for 2,490 of its 2,500 feet! A variety of rain like nowhere else in the world: drizzle that stands still and stares you in the face; knives of rain, dollops of rain, buckets of rain, cannon balls, half of the Atlantic recruited by clouds that stretch back to Newfoundland. Gale force winds that carry ozone off the sea and deep into the heart of the countryside.

Suicidal sheep along the sides of the pockmarked roads. Stunning valleys cleft by tumbling waterfalls. Forests, black bogs, Glencolumkille, Bloody Foreland, pubs and pubs, Protestant churches, Catholic chapels, Marian statues at road junctions, Gaelic in the air. A people on a latitude with the North in more ways than one. And everyone from the North wanting to own a little piece of Donegal to which they can retreat and rest and recover.

It has changed in the time I have known it: more prosperous, a people more confident, greatly improved roads. The downside is that there is more traffic and more visitors, some horrible homes, satellite dishes, rave music on the jukeboxes. It is less private and isolated. What hasn’t changed is its notorious weather: the sun fooling you in the morning with the promise of a glorious day only for torrential rain to ambush you in your T-shirt miles from shelter.

But when the rain stops, the indigenous essence of these highlands – thousands of years in the making – arises from glen to glen in blue plumes from the burning turf and suffuses the air like a good tonic, pleasantly, romantically; even after sheets of rain have covered the entire county for days on end and all you could smell was the sky and more sky.

Over Easter four of my grandchildren, my son Kevin and I had a big house about three miles outside of Gortahork. Four days without television – it was great! It was also the first time that myself and the grandchildren had been on holiday together, lived like a family and got a fuller measure of each other – which one might not pick up from a mere visit or an afternoon in the park together. They still live in a world without irony and satire so that you have to wink at them or pull a face for them to understand not to take some of your words literally. And when they get your joke their smiles are worth a million dollars.

So, I watched my son with Paula (10), Aislinn (8), Emer (7) and Lorcan (17 months), the interactions, the affection and dependency, the simple jokes they shared which relied on familiarity and intimacy, and I was so close to sheer innocence again day and daily for the first time in many years that I was surprised at how refreshing it felt.

You look at them and wonder whom they most take after, in looks and traits – and, of course, every now and again that wave of adult anxiety known as worry for the future would spoil the moment when you and they were suspended in joy and grace.

Every day it rained but we didn’t let that spoil things. The three girls and Kevin went horse-riding on the beach at Dunfanaghy whilst I pushed Lorcan behind them; we went to a park/adventure playground at Dunlewey where they could see lots of farm animals and pheasants, ducks, geese and peacocks, and from where we were also able to take a boat tour of Loch Dhunluiche, on deck in-between showers.

At night we ate a big pot of stew or soup and played charades, Emer and I versus Paula and Aislinn, with Kevin chairing (whilst Lorcan the mountaineer climbed the blackboard, the stairs, the cupboards, the mantelpiece…). We drew, of course.

On our last day the skies were blue, the sun appeared, and I took the three girls for a good walk, down the road. Passing a dark, derelict barn Emer said, “Granda. Sure Freddie Kreuger doesn’t live in there, does he?” I told her he wasn’t real, was just an actor, and she said, “See, Aislinn, he doesn’t live in there.”

Na, naa, na, naa, naaaaa.

We stopped at a field where the spring lambs sheltered on delicate legs at the side of their mothers. When we approached the wire fencing the ewes stared impassively at us, trying to work out if they recognised from our odour and routine the one who brought fodder, before suddenly turning away and nosing their sucklings to follow them.

We walked along further and came across a horse that the kids wanted to feed. They plucked fresh grass and nervously fed it as it snatched the straws and stonily watched them through huge eyes. We met the owner, the former principal of Falcarragh Primary School, now retired. He had bought the horse, Rolo, twenty years ago, for his own kids, who were now up and away from home. He spoke about the history of the dry stone walls which demarcated the plots of land and which he considered a national treasure, the labour that had gone into building them to clear the fields. He also said he regretted the generational changes to Donegal, the loss of storytelling and folklore among the families in this glen where he had lived his entire life.

On our return Kevin began packing his own and the kids’ stuff away in his car and we had a light lunch. I had intended staying on for another night and day to do some serious reading and writing. But when we kissed and I waved goodbye and the car disappeared down the winding lane with the kids looking out the back window I felt hopelessly lonely, as if all the beauty of their presence had been sucked from the rooms and it had become once again an empty house.

I packed my bag, locked up and drove back to Belfast.