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County Donegal Is Ireland's Youthful Eden

March 15, 1987|BILL GALE | Gale is a New York City free-lance writer.

DONEGAL, Ireland — I heard that things had changed in Ireland since my last visit. For one, it had a "youthquake"; 40% of its people were under 25.

For another, it was said to be greener than ever; the new green being the mint green of money put here by U.S. companies sinking roots into the Old Sod.

That prompted a Dublin friend to enclose this note of warning with his last Christmas card: "Poverty has preserved the character of Ireland, and prosperity is in the process of destroying it. Come over before it's too late!"

Food for thought, but I didn't bite until he sent an invitation to his son's wedding to a girl from County Donegal. The next week I was flying to Dublin.

I arrived on a Sunday in time for brunch at Kitty O'Shea's, Dublin's trendiest pub. It was wall-to-wall with lads and lassies in glorious sweaters and high spirits; not one of them appeared to be over 20.

The next day my friend, Paddy, his wife, Breda; Sean, the groom-to-be, and I set out for Donegal. About 140 miles northwest of Dublin, it's the northernmost county of the Republic of Ireland and its largest Gaelic-speaking area.

No Idle Boast

"Prepare yourself for the most gorgeous scenery in all Ireland," Paddy promised as we pulled away from the curb.

And that was no idle boast. The longer we drove, the greener the billboard-less countryside looked. The 40 shades of green the Irish claim that nature has provided appeared to be almost an understatement as we passed the ghostly remnants of ancient fortresses and square-towered castles.

A donkey-drawn cart came into sight, its wheels and axle obviously borrowed from the rear of an automobile. "Talk about recycled transportation!" Paddy said, as he returned the wave of the farmer driving it.

Farmers' wives hanging clothes took time out to wave to us, and so did children playing in schoolyards within touching distance of grazing sheep.

We spent the night in Glebe House in Dromahair, County Leitrim, 40 miles south of Donegal. A grand 18th-Century house, it's an Irish country inn owned and operated by Andy and Barbara Greenstein, Americans from Rochester, N.Y. "It opened the week of St. Patrick's Day," Paddy said, as we drove up the winding driveway, down which two large dogs raced to greet us ($62 double B&B, dinner $20 per person).

The inn has only eight guest rooms. No numbers, just names such as the Meadown Room and the Dell Room. I had the Blue Poppy Room. Each is decorated with Laura Ashley draperies and quilts, and mine also had a wreath of dried field flowers hanging on the wall and a small bottle of Courvoisier on the bedside table in case I felt like a bedtime nip.

Traditional Breakfast

Next morning over a traditional Irish breakfast of porridge, reams of Irish ham and sausage, eggs and dark bread, Andy Greenstein, a retired lawyer, told us that he had decided, at 53, that, "It was time for a career change. Also, I wanted to live abroad and Ireland is such an accepting place. Americans are well thought of here."

After breakfast, Barbara (nee Flanagan) Greenstein took us on a tour of their nine acres that boast a greenhouse, stables and a hillside swimming pool with terrace that commands a magnificent view of Bonet River in the distance.

As we were saying goodby a van pulled up with a pair of newly bought donkeys. One look and Barbara promptly christened them Yeats and Joyce, which Paddy thought highly appropriate because we'd soon be passing through County Sligo, known as Yeats country.

The air of Sligo soothes like a drug. But according to Paddy, here where William Butler Yeats, Ireland's greatest poet, spent much of his youth, the air is "saturated with legend, blood, wisdom and poetry."

We had lunch in the White Horse Inn in Bally Shannon, the oldest town in Ireland. "Only 4,000 people in this town and it has 22 pubs!" Paddy told me. We were in County Donegal by then, a mere 14 miles from Donegal Town, and Sean was in a mood to celebrate. He ordered us all another pint of lager.

Hairpin Turns

From there on the drive seemed to be up and up as we maneuvered hairpin turns. Below, dazzlingly green checkerboard fields were studded with whitewashed thatched cottages and stone church steeples, with an unbelievably blue sea in the distance, all hemmed in by Donegal's towering mountains.

We rode through tiny Donegal Town and on to the hilltop Glencolumbkille Hotel, 35 miles north, where we would spend the night and where the wedding reception would be held the next day.

A bright sun shone on the bride and groom, and after the church ceremony, guests came to the hotel by car, jaunting cart and one very colorful horse-drawn caravan.

Stellar Attraction

Next to the bridal couple, Father James McDyre was the stellar attraction, a celebrity for having organized Ireland's first rural cooperative in the '50s. A tall man with John Fitzgerald Kennedy's self-deprecating wit and a Kennedy-like thatch of dark hair, he looks a couple of decades younger than his years.

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