"" Writer's Wanderings: County Donegal

Friday, November 11, 2011

County Donegal

With Derry as our base for two nights, we were off to explore the area known as County Donegal. We had planned a route that we realized now was a bit too ambitious so we sat down and readjusted our expectations. The day before, on our way to Derry, we had stopped by Belleek Pottery which is just over the border of Northern Ireland from Donegal and gone on their tour. Watching the artisans at work took me back to my days in college as an art major working in my pottery class. Only we never worked with porcelain.

Much of the Belleek porcelain is made from slip, a more liquid clay than the red clay we had to work with and pound the air out of. The slip is poured into a mold and sets for a bit until it coats the mold with a thin layer. The excess is poured out and then it's left to dry before going into the kiln. There are several other steps including some glaze and adding decorative flowers and such made from a more solid porcelain clay.

The flowers that were added on to the vases were being made by one lady who was turning out tray after tray, each flower looking as good as the next. She was quite practiced at it. At another station, two women were using thin strings of clay that had been extruded through a machine (we always had to roll our clay into strips) and making open weaved porcelain baskets. Another was painting, with an extremely steady hand, shamrocks on a table full of dishes.

My walk through the retail area was short after a few glances at the prices. I kind of like my 40 year old stoneware that was a giveaway at the grocery store. If it breaks, it's no big deal.

Our day in Donegal was going to cover a few of the things originally on our list starting with Newmills Corn and Flax Mills. Fortunately we arrived a day before they were to close for the season. Unfortunately, the mill was not working because they were putting everything into winter storage. Still, we could not have asked for a more thorough tour.

The guide took us through the corn mill first explaining how things were done back in the 19th century. It was all very interesting but I was really wanting to see how the flax was prepared for weaving into linen. I know the process for cleaning, carding, spinning, and weaving of wool but I'd never worked with flax in my fabric arts class.

The flax plants had to be pulled out by hand so that none of the fiber inside the stems would be wasted. It is soaked in water and then spread out to dry. This does something to the pectin inside the stems that helps to loosen the fibers that will be extracted. The dried flax is put through fluted rollers to break up the outer bark of the stems. The broken bits that cling to the fiber are called shives. To remove them, the flax is put through a shiving machine which has rotating wooden paddles. If a shiver wasn't careful, he could loose a finger or two.

The flax fiber is then combed in preparation for spinning and then weaving. The mill only took it as far as the shiving. It was then shipped off to another place to be made into linen. One of the most amazing things I learned during the tour was that linen was used in the wings and fuselage of WWI and WWII planes. The reason? Linen was an extremely strong material yet when a plane took several bullets, they would pass through and the material would still hold its shape allowing the plane to hold together and hopefully land safely.

From the mills, we drove to Glenveagh Castle and were able to enjoy the gorgeous landscape and gardens during a sunny afternoon. The castle was built in the late 1800s and as all castles, has a lineage of owners. For more of its history, visit this site.

With the sun shining brightly, I spent a long time strolling through the gardens that were beginning to show the effects of the change of the seasons. There were still lots of brilliant blooms though and several butterflies. I could have lingered longer but we had one more spot we wanted to visit before going back into Derry.

Just outside of Derry, on a tall promontory, was another ring fort. But this time we really weren't there to see the ring fort. We were there to enjoy the view--even at the risk of being blown away, literally. The wind was so strong it was almost hard to stand against it. The fort was hard to find and we were aimlessly wandering down side roads until a lady pulled up along side us and got out to see if we needed help. When we told her what we were looking for, she started to tell us how to get there and then said just to follow her. I'm sure she wasn't headed in that direction but she went out of her way to be sure we found the right road to the fort.

That's how we found most of the Irish people. Willing to go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. They are a charming lot.

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