One May we rented a house on the shore of Lough Swilly in Rathmullen, Co. Donegal, within sight of the cove that launched the famous Flight of the Earls.
Just after dawn one morning, as my wife and granddaughter slept, I grabbed my camera and car keys and slipped into sweat pants and a plaid shirt and went out the door into the fresh Irish morning. I drove north up the coast road for four or five miles then turned off onto a narrow lane that disappeared between bight yellow hedges of gorse into the Donegal back-country. For an hour I poked my way up and down the quiet roads, stopping to photograph the gorse and sheep, horses and cottages in the bright morning sunlight that slanted in from the East. Finally I decided to head back. I knew the bay was less than a mile or so to the East and I could see down into the valley to the road that led to the coast.
But every road I tried ended in dead ends or construction barriers, or back to intersections I had just been through. I found myself passing the same cottages for the second or third time. Generally speaking, I knew exactly where I was, I could see the road in the valley but could not find my way to it.
I came across a freshly paved road that curved away in the right direction. I took it 50 yards around a bend and discovered to my disappointment that it ended in a farm yard between an old stone cottage and a low, dingy stone barn. A black and white sheep dog, its chain stretched to the limit, stood on alert.
Frustrated, I put the car in reverse and began backing out the narrow winding drive. Driving on the “wrong side of the road” can be difficult but I find backing up next to impossible. I crept backward, sensed that I was getting too close to the left hand ditch and turned the wheel to bring me back into the center of the road. Slowly, gently, my left front tire backed off the road and into the ditch. Oh no! I gave it a little gas but I was totally hung up.
I opened the door to step out of the car and found to my horror that I was 18” off the road! Climbing down I saw the enormity of my problem, the car was cantilevered into the air, the right rear wheel lifted high off the road. The left front wheel was hanging in air over a small but briskly flowing creek! I fought despair and, standing on the narrow road, in the middle of nowhere, I recited the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, etc.”
A cloud of gloom hung over me as I headed back down the drive toward the farm cottage around the bend. When the dog saw me he began barking furiously. As I approached the cottage an old man in rumpled clothes appeared in the doorway, blinking his eyes in the sunlight.
“I’ve done a stupid thing,” I told him. “I’ve gone off the road and into a ditch and I’m hopelessly stuck.” He nodded. I said, “I need to call somebody.”
“Wait out here,” he said in a heavy rural brogue, and turned back into the dark cottage. I realized that I didn’t have my wallet, no money or identification, nothing. I was practically in my pajamas.
I did thank God for two things though: one, my wife wasn’t with me, and two, I wasn’t wearing my fuzzy slippers!
From inside I could hear the whirring and clicking of an old rotary phone being dialed, and then he was talking… I couldn’t understand a word he said, I realized he was speaking Irish.
Then he called out to me, “Come on in.”
I entered the cottage and it was as humble, as “mean,” as any poor crofters cottage I’d ever read about. Dark, the walls sooty, a simple wooden hutch, a tiny window across the way, the Sacred Heart of Jesus framed and hanging from a nail on the wall. Through the door into the kitchen I saw a cast iron stove, flames visible through the round left-front grate.
He stood in the kitchen doorway holding the phone out to me, “He’s bringin’ a tractor, tell ‘im where y’are.”
I panicked, I didn’t have the faintest idea where I was!
As I reached for the phone I asked him, “What’s your name?”
He answered with something like, “Gharrrrahough.”
I hadn’t the faintest idea what he’d just said.
I put the phone to my ear and heard a voice, “Where arr’ ya?”
“Gharrrrahough,” I replied.
“Be there inna wee bit.”
I hung up the phone. Dumbfounded.
“Thanks so much,” I said to the old man, “I’ll better walk to the car and wait there.”
Back at the car I stood in crisp morning air, surrounded by lush green fields, birds singing in the hedges, and my rental car, it’s hind leg lifted like a urinating dog. Urinating on me, I thought darkly. And I had decided not to buy the extra insurance! After a few minutes a red van sped past the top of the lane, stopped up the road and backed up. A man in a workman’s uniform climbed out and walked down to me, “How did ya go off the road?” “Ah, you were reversin’.” After I told him that help was on the way, he said, “Well I’ll be goin’ but I’ll check back on ya.” No sooner had he left when I heard the faint putt-putt of a tractor in the morning stillness.
The tractor came down the lane with a young man at the wheel who parked it and climbed down. I heard a car door slam and saw a white van stopped up the road, two men in Wellingtons walking toward me. Then the red van reappeared and parked at the end of the lane, and behind me the old man from the cottage, fully dressed now, came towards us.
In no time the five smiling men were standing in the creek, studying my predicament, and talking away in Irish. I stood there silently watching, understanding nothing, helpless. One of the men turned to me and spoke in English, “It’s hung up on a rock and if the tractor pulls it out it will scrape the bottom of the panel.”
Before I had a chance to tell him that I didn’t care if it destroyed the car, just get me back up on the road, he turned away and rejoined his friends and their Irish-language discussions.
Then he was back, “If we all lift the left front of the car as the tractor pulls it back I think we can get it back on the road without any damage.” In a minute the tractor was hooked up to the rear bumper, three of the men were standing in the creek ready to hoist the car, and I was seated at the wheel.
“One… two…three!” The tractor pulled, the men lifted, and… nothing!
“The hand brake!" a voice called out, "The hand brake!”
Chagrinned, I released the brake and a second attempt was made. Back, lift, and suddenly my car sat on the road as if nothing had ever happened.
There was not the tiniest scratch on the car. A miracle! I climbed out profusely thanking my saviors. They were gracious and friendly, no sign of “Who is this moron Yank?”
“I want to take a picture of all of you, my Irish angels.” Grinning, they posed in front of the car for a photo I'll always treasure.
One of them gave me instructions on how to get to the road in the valley. “See where the white van is parked, go down that road to a cottage with new construction across the way, and just past there at the fork take the left fork and then the right fork at the ruin and that will bring you to a road which takes you to your road. “Do you have that now?” I nodded, but he repeated the directions again, the cottage, the fork, the ruin, the whole bit.
I drove away, following the instructions carefully… and three minutes later found myself dead-ended in another barnyard! God help me! I carefully turned around in the narrow space and headed back out the lane. Around the bend ahead, coming into the farm, came the very tractor that had just pulled me out of the ditch. He edged partially off the road and as I squeezed past him, the young man looked down and waved, a broad smile on his face. I grinned and shrugged. My humiliation was complete.
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