Donegal native Shelia McClay has put together a captivating new book on the stories and characters of Glengad, ten miles from Malin Head and the most northerly point in Ireland. Liam Mac Lochlainn explains further

The truth of this proverb can be borne out by the people of Glengad, ten miles from Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland. As well as providing a living for people there, the sea has also claimed the lives of many fishermen in the area.

Shelia McClay is from Glengad. Her mother died two years ago from Alzheimer’s disease. Shelia was devastated, but her mother’s death inspired a beautiful idea – to go round the older people in Glengad who still had the faculty of memory and write down their memoirs.

Despite only receiving an elementary education in the old local school, Sheila set about her task, talking to elderly neighbours and recording their stories. She thought that she would get enough material for around ten stories that could be published as a booklet. In the event, the project grew, and eventually developed into a 400-page book – ‘Tar isteach, a Walk Down Memory Lane’!
I had the privilege and pleasure of helping with the project by editing the stories.
 Until fairly recent times, Glengad could have been described as a poverty stricken country district. Some people were ashamed to say that they came from there when asked. They gave answers like, “I come from near Malin.” “I’m from Malin Head.” “I’m from Donegal, but you won’t know the place.”

People earned a precarious living from subsistence farming and fishing. Housing was generally of Third World standard in the 1950s: no electricity, no toilets, no running water. Cooking was done on an open fire.

The infant mortality rate was high and life expectancy low. Emigration was high: my own family moved to Scotland when I was four years of age.

 However, as in other parts of Ireland, the local people decided to take their future into their own hands. They set up their own water scheme. A small college (‘the Tech’) was built by voluntary labour and local men learned building crafts. New houses were built, replacing primitive cottages.

There was some improvement in health provision, but the biggest advance was in education, when the old school at Cúil Chaonaigh was replaced by a beautiful new building at Baile Meánach in 1969. Older children were able to continue their education at the new community school in Carndonagh.

Well-educated children became skilled workers, and some went on to university.
The photographs in ‘Tar isteach’ illustrate the dramatic change: there are school photographs showing poorly dressed, bare-foot children in the 1930s, in sharp contrast to photos showing smartly dressed, healthy pupils in Scoil Cholm Cille today.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own