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Doagh Visitor Centre (Donegal)
Doagh Visitor Centre (Donegal)
Date: 07/11/01, updated on 18/11/02 (1628 review reads)
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In common with a great many people, I have always found it to be fascinating to discover exactly what shaped my family, and my community, into what they have become today. I am lucky enough to live within a few minutes walk of a local heritage museum (Summerlee Heritage Park) which details the rise and decline of heavy industry in West Central Scotland - the modern shaping of my particular community.
The town where I live is made up of large numbers of immigrant Irish, and has been so since the mid 1800's - around the time of the Great Famine. Although Summerlee can tell me a lot about how our community has developed since the mass immigration, it does little to give any idea of what happened beforehand. So for me, in steps Doagh Island to give the Irish angle on my heritage. And fascinating it is too!
I first discovered Doagh Island quite by chance a couple of years ago. I had gone for a drive around the Inishowen Peninsula in northeast Donegal. I was in Buncrana and had wanted to call into Moville to see some friends, but having time to kill I decided to drive round the long way along the coast road. Going around the top of the Peninsula I noticed a rather strange mannequin in a field - it was pointing up a small side road. The sign around its neck said 'Doagh Island Visitor Centre' - I was suitably intrigued.
Doagh Island is situated, as I said, up near the top of the Inishowen Peninsula, a rugged and beautiful part of Ireland. The beach and sand dunes alone are well worth going to see even if you aren't interested in the museum, but if you are up there anyway you would be crazy not to pop in! These days it is sign-posted from all around Inishowen, just follow the signs and you won't go wrong.
On entering the 'village' the first thing that strikes me is the friendliness of the staff. Y'know, it's one of those places where people actually have time to chat and take an interest in their
visitors. On the three occasions I have visited I have been greeted by a different member of staff, each as friendly and chatty as the others. It usually takes about five minutes before they remember they are there to take your entrance fee! Oh, the entrance fee, I can't really remember exactly how much it was but I think IR£3.50 - which at the current exchange rates is less than £3 sterling. Considering that the venture has not received any funding from outside sources I think the entrance fee is very reasonable indeed.
Going back to that funding thing then. The visitor centre is a family run affair, run by a family who have actually lived there for many generations. The family dwellings are still standing and form part of the village - the main house being lived in until as recently as the late 1970's (which is hard to believe when you actually see it!). Some other buildings have been recreated to make up a small street of dwellings, each housing different displays. All of this was privately funded by the family, for which they deserve great credit.
The entrance fee includes a guided tour which takes about ten or fifteen minutes, your guide being one of the family members who actually done most of the recreation work! He certainly knows his stuff (arghh, I can't remember his name now!!) and is delighted to answer any questions you may have.
The first port of call is that family dwelling that I mentioned. I use the word dwelling rather than house or home deliberately since it is a rather uncomfortable looking place which incorporated an area for the livestock to sleep (having the added benefit of giving body heat from the animals!). In the dwelling there are examples of the living conditions, including beds, stoves and suchlike. Also, each few days the staff collect fresh seaweed and plants which are displayed along with explanations of what they are and what they were used for. It is fascinating to see all of the different u
ses for natural resources such as seaweed, which can be used for medicinal purposes amongst other things.
One of the other buildings houses a recreation of an Irish 'wake'. The guide tells the history and reasoning behind the wake and it is really worth hearing! Apparently when the family and friends gathered around the deceased they would place a small saucer containing snuff on the chest of the 'corpse'. This wasn't just a self-indulgent thing though. Lead poisoning was commonplace, particularly due to the use of lead in making the illegal poteen stills. Lead poisoning can slow the heartbeat until it is undetectable and effectively make the person appear to be dead. During the wake the mourners would sing and talk and generally make as much noise as possible, they sometimes even hired professional mourners to wail at the feet of the 'deceased'. This was all done in an attempt to 'wake' the afflicted person from what was hoped was a case of lead poisoning or similar. The saucer of snuff would be watched carefully for any movement which would indicate that the person had returned to life. I found it rather interesting to discover that the word 'wake' was actually literal, as were the origins of the phrase 'snuffed it'!
Another building is a sort of mini-museum, which houses all sorts of tools and household items from days gone by. Here you can see old sewing machines, gas lamps, storage jars and generally everything that was needed for day-to-day living. The building next door houses a display of facts and figures about famine and poverty in the word today - a really nice touch since Ireland is now a comparatively rich country, but at least some of the people haven't forgotten the hard times.
Moving out of the village, past the cave of the local fairy Fergus McArt, you then pass through a roofed area which houses reconstruction's of burials, farming and an interesting piece about
the work schemes which were introduced during the famine. Rather than simply provide subsistence for the common people the authorities actually made them work for it. The work could involve breaking and shifting rocks from one place to another and back again, or building 'roads to nowhere'. The idea was that people would actually feel a sense of worth if they were doing something, and this is still in evidence in the poorest countries today.
On leaving the roofed display area you then enter a field which contains assorted models of the buildings and areas in which people existed. There are examples of a hovel (more or less just a hole roofed with some scraps of wood), a scalpeen (created from the ruins of an eviction), an eviction scene, a mass rock and even the house belonging to the landlord. Most of these have been built as miniature models and are very well constructed indeed. The guide tells the story behind each display with great enthusiasm, almost as though he is extremely proud of such a distressing heritage. Perhaps he simply realises just how lucky we are today - I certainly did!
At the bottom of the field there is also a small farm area which houses geese, chickens and goats. Oh, and beside the farm area is a kids playground, nothing spectacular mind, but another nice touch. Which brings me onto the last thing I should mention - tea and biccies! After the tour you can either wander around by yourself for a while or head straight back into the wee village for a cuppa, a biscuit and a wee slice of soda bread. That is included in the price too, although they seem to be economising a bit now - the first time I went I got sandwiches too!
Oops, nearly forgot! I've never been during the summer season, only in May and September. Apparently though, there are live musicians and dancers during the peak months of June/July/August. Also, at Christmas there is a grotto and Christmas show where Santa actually comes down a real ch
imney! How cool is that?
Umm, do I have any tips? Yeah, take a coat if you go off-season - it can be freezing! In fact, take a coat anyway, it's a rather exposed place. Cameras and video cameras are allowed, indeed encouraged. Apart from the Christmas period the visitor centre does occasionally shut down during quiet periods to allow new displays to be built, roofs to be re-thatched etc. If you find it is closed do give them a 'phone (numbers below) and they will be delighted to open up for you. Err, and when you have finished seeing the visitor centre don't rush off! Just across the road, at the other side of the car park, is the most beautiful stretch of unspoilt beach. Perhaps you could take the walk a few hundred yards up the road to the dunes and see if you can find evidence of the entire village that is reputed to have been covered when the dunes were formed, a modern Pompeii. As I said, don't rush off, the surrounding area is a great place to chill out for a while.
I'm going to leave you with an extremely pungent quote from the promotional leaflet. "Ireland today is among some of the richest economies in the world. Today, famine is rife in Sudan, Biafra and Ethiopia. We can see by television the problems that exist, yet do we bother to do anything about it? These places are our Irelands - we are their landlords". Hmm.
So, that's it, that's Doagh Island. Do go if you get a chance, it really is a very interesting place. I've been three times now - and I'll be going back the next time I'm in the area. I'll maybe see you there then!
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