Into the Darkness

“I’ve got a bus full av 50 sheep farmers from America an’ I’m drivin’ down a road so narrow dat de sheep go single file!”our Irish coach driver, Joe, barked into the cell phone in his thick brogue.

County Donegal shaded dark green. The pink portion is Northern Ireland. Wikipedia map.

Holding the phone up to Joe’s ear was a local farmer who moonlighted as a B&B proprietor. He stood well past the white line at the front of our bus, perched precariously between Joe and our guide, Barry, who occupied the rumble seat. At the other end of the cell phone was another B&B owner, who’s property was so remote it alluded all navigational beacons. We had meandered into a GPS “dead zone”, and there was nary a yard light nor road sign as far as the eye could see. Even the local farmer that had graciously come aboard our coach was unable to point us in the direction of his neighbor’s house.

Things were not looking good.

By this point, the pendulum of our 2010 Sheep Tour to Ireland was in full swing. Our group of various sheep producers, with roots spread across the US, seemed to be embracing their joint venture across the Emerald Isle. Not quite halfway through our 10-day jaunt, this evening of September 16 would become known in our collective memory as that night (or as Joe would say, “dat noight”).

Our evening meal was in the town of Sligo, in the Donegal region of the Northwestern edge of Ireland. Far removed from the big cities of Dublin and Limerick, the air in Donegal had a distinctively wild aroma. No more city lights, no more 4-lane roads. We were in the “old” part of the country—and the best part was we were staying the night.

Fifty American sheep producers in front of Ashford Castle, our regal overnight stop before journeying into the wild.

A glimpse of Donegal by day. Note the narrow road on the left. Irish roads are commonly flanked by rock walls and stone ruins, making two way traffic impossible. Photo by Barry Linton.

Stephanie (my co-planner) and I had arranged for our group to stay at a series of farm-related bed and breakfasts the night of September 16, so our 50 folks were divided into groups of 5-6 people, and each assigned to a bed and breakfast. Our intention was to give our group a taste of the “real” Ireland.

Only running a few minutes behind our carefully orchestrated schedule, our coach left the safety of the restaurant and ventured into the dark Irish countryside around 7:30pm. We came upon the first B&B a few moments later. After unloading a small bit of luggage, our coach journeyed on to the next establishment.

This is when things got tricky.

Joe, our skilled driver, navigating the bus past rock walls and tight turns.

The interior of our coach on a cheerful sunny day.

A lone house in the Donegal twilight.

Despite the best planning efforts by our agri-travel tour company, neither our excellent guide Barry, nor our bus driver Joe had an exact idea of how to locate the remainder of the B&Bs. As our coach meandered down the increasingly narrow Irish roads, a few phone calls were made and directions were given. We ventured on, only to find ourselves, about 20 min later, wedged in a cul-de-sac, with no obvious way to escape nor anywhere near the next B&B. As Joe attempted a 96-point turn, inching (literally) the enormous coach around 180 degrees, Irish farmers were turning on their porch lights, coming out in bathrobes with offers to help.

“Could you kindly point us in the direction of the Ardtarmon House?” Barry politely asked the robed onlookers. “Naw, never ‘eard av it!” each responded.

Thirty-plus minutes later, we were back on the road, with no obvious plan in sight. Joe crept the coach along, pausing next to every intersection, every driveway, hoping for a sign—any sign. Surely there was some sort of signal we could send into the clouds—an SOS for lost coaches—something? Anything?

A car slowly pulled up next to our coach. One of the B&B owners had answered our distress call, and offered to ride along and help us navigate the narrow Donegal roads. He wasn’t Batman (at least I don’t think so), but his offer to help was sincere.

As Joe, Barry and our nameless Batman discussed the plan of attack outside the coach, our group of 50 was left to stare out the bus window into the eerie blackness of the Irish countryside. I have never seen a darker shade of night. Our coach was perched on a high road overlooking what we sensed to be a valley. It felt like we were teetering on the edge of the Earth. Our group was quiet, leaving each of us to relish in our own thoughts. I thought about my maternal grandmother, who was born in Ireland not far from where our coach idled. Although she came to the USA at an early age, she once told me about her childhood in this magical place. She told of riding wild donkeys to school, and about the creatures (fairies and otherwise) whose whispers made her hurry home on dark evenings. I always smiled at her tales, which I assumed were a mixture of blurred memories, local lore and good ol’ Irish storytelling. But on this night, as I stared out into obscurity, I wasn’t so sure.  Through the darkness it felt as if a thousand eyes were staring back at us.

A voice sliced through the silence and jolted us all back into reality. It belonged to a quick-witted sheep farmer from North Dakota. It was answered by a representative from Indiana, followed by Texas, California, Montana, Maryland, Utah…jokes were told and laughter ensued. Maybe we were inspired by the Irish “Gift of Gab”, or perhaps it was because we were traversing the land of the great minds of Wilde and Yeats. To be fair, I must give credence to the pints of Guinness that flowed freely at some tables during dinner. Nonetheless, the true colors of our group were shining through the Irish darkness.

It was nearly witching hour when our bus began to move again. Our laugher turned into cheers when we, against all odds, rolled up in front of the elusive Ardtarmon House B&B. Shortly thereafter all remaining stops were made, and we all crawled into our beds, thankful to not be sleeping on the bus. We had made it.

Prior to our night “lost in the wilderness”, I thought I knew Ireland. I had traveled the island several times before, exploring every nook & cranny that I could find. I considered it a second home, but the eve of September 16 “educated” me. Despite being arguably the most welcoming place on the planet, parts of Ireland were still untamed. The narrow roads of Donegal (the ones left off of maps) were still strikingly wild—enough so to give the “heebie-jeebies” to the most seasoned travelers.

A year later, a subsequent sheep tour found many of the same travelers together again in France. Over good wine and not-so-good food, that night in Ireland was brought up. We all shared a good laugh. What I thought would be the low point of our Irish adventure turned out to be one of the high points. Terribly disoriented and at the mercy of the fairies (or whatever used to chase my grandma), a tight bond emerged amongst those that stared out into the darkness together.