While working in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, I met a very lively and energetic girl. She was a member of the Irish mountaineering Club. Already a keen lover of open-air pursuits, I was intrigued by her glowing tales of exhilarating weekends spent climbing the Mountains of Mourne, Co. Down. She invited me to coin. and I did.
At my work, I also made a very special friend in Eithne O’Donnell from Burtonporq Co. Donegal. That year Glenveagh was the chosen venue for the big annual meeting of the Belfast and Dublin mountaineering groups. “Margaret, it’s just a short distance to Burtonport, call and visit my parents, they would love to meet you”, Eithne urged. So after a marvellously adventurous weekend in Glenveagh I set out on my visit. Both teachers, Mr Seamus Donnacha Rua and Mrs Annie O’Donnell were known as the Master and the Mistress. The large impressive house was easy to find. Scarcely having time to knock, the door swung open and I experienced the warmth of my very first Donegal welcome.
Later Mrs. O’Donnell showed me around the house. From the upstairs bedroom window, I drew back the net curtain and was instantly spellbound. Out in the ocean, the sun shone on a little island, a long gleaming sandy beach, and a cluster of white cottages nestled peacefully on the green grass. I felt it beckon and my senses flutter. It was beautiful. Mrs. O’Donnell stood silently at my side observing my rapt expression. “What is the name of that island?” I whispered, “Inishfree” softly came the reply – the spell enveloping us both. “Oh, I would love to go there” came my wistful sigh.
Suddenly Mrs. O’Donnell broke the spell. “Well come now with me and I’ll introduce you to two Inishfree women”. And without more ado, firmly took my hand, led me downstairs and over the road to the house across the way. What a wonderful pleasure it was to meet Mary Ellen Bonar and Bridget O’Donnell and over cups of tea we talked for hours.
My mother, brother Danny and his wife Shirley and I had planned a tour around Ireland. Bridget said her house was unoccupied on Inishfree and we would be more than welcome to stay in it. I was ecstatic.
My family agreed to stay for a few days. Very soon a letter arrived from Bridget. All arrangements had been made. Her nephew Patsy would be waiting with his boat in Burtonport and her sister Winnie and her husband Pat Roddy Duffy would look after us.
It all happened as she planned. The sun shone and before settings out for the island we had such a happy time with our new friends, also having the opportunity to meet Mary Ellen’s sister-in-law Maggie Joe Bonar and family. This was before the tourist industry came into full swing – so we created a bit of excitement. They were delighted with Danny and Shirley, the young married couple, and being of the same vintage thought my mother was wonderful – which of course she was.
I’ll never forget crossing over in the boat, the steady sound of the engine, Patsy pointing out the different islands, the sun dancing on the water and suddenly a seal’s head popping up to see what all the chattering was about.
Pat Roddy and a welcoming party were waiting on the pier with outstretched hands and soft tones of “Welcome to Inishfree”, and Seamus Duffy with his donkey and cart took care of our baggage.
This little world – special and apart from the rest of the world – lobster pots, nets, cosy whitewashed cottages, heather, bog, precious little flowers peeping through the grass, open sky and lapping waves on a silver strand. Yes! My starved soul had been waiting for this and I felt a gentle kinship.
Patsy led us to Bridget’s house. Winnie was waiting to welcome us; the kettle hanging from the crook over a brightly burning open-fire bubbled merrily. The unique and pleasent smell of turf filled the kitchen and we breathed deeply the savour the pleasure. The turf had been cut on the island. On the table was a feast of home-made produc, bread, butter, milk, fresh eggs and vegetables. On this little island we had stepped into a magical aura of notural grace, lightness and warmth.
Winnie was the compete antithesis of her sister. bridget was quiet, all movements slow and dignified, the plait of hair over her head perfectly in place. winnie was spontaneous and outgoing with twinkling eyes. As someone said to me later if a bucket stood on the floor, Winnie would leap over it, Bridget would walk sedately around it – both were kind – both were wonderful.
Winnie brought us up to her home – a big two-storey house (reputedly built by President Ulysses S. Grant’s ancestors) with large portraits of her mother Annabel and paternal grandmother Kit hanging in ‘the room’. Soon we were sitting around the table enjoying chicken which had been cooked in the pot-over over a turn fire. Next day she showed Shirley and me how to bake break in the same manner. The big treat was dessert made from carrageen moss. It was delicious!
Patsy helped us to settle, showed us where to get water and how to light the lamps. Immediately, I felt at home in bridget’s house and loved the whitewashed walls, simple wooden handmade furniture, timber ceiling and the old fashioned dresser and plates.
None of the people in this story (least of all myself) could have envisaged the important role they would play in the direction of my life, that within a year – June 1963, Bridget’s nephew Patsy would become my husband, her house our home and Eithne O’Donnell our bridesmaid.
Nor did Winnie and Pat Roddy ever imagine I would become their daughter-in-law and in later years Bridget held our daughter Mairéad at her christening (proxy for her daughter Ellen Reynolds in America – Mairéad’s Grandmother) and Maggie Joe Bonar’s son Jimmy drove the car.
Mrs. O’Donnell, a remarkable and lovely lady now 107 years old, lives with her daughter Eithne and family near Derry. She always maintains it was she who brought me to Inishfree. A glimpse through her bedroom window set the course of my life.
by Margaret O’Donnell
Taken from ‘Inishfree – A Tribute To A Donegal Island And It’s People