Aussie Rules: The World Game

It was July 1987. I should have been enthralled with the football season but I was elsewhere.
We stopped the old Fiat at the top of a hill overlooking the valley district of Glencolumkille (Gleann Cholm Cille). I was with Laurent, a suave Frenchman I had met a few days earlier in a youth hostel in Killybegs.
Laurent was a lady killer with a Fiat looking for a travelling companion. I was a young bloke looking for fun and a lift. Fortunately we hit it off. We had to develop a system as we motored through the Irish countryside because Laurent’s Fiat was left hand drive. So whoever was sitting in the passenger seat had to give the all clear when it came to passing the local farmers plodding along the lanes on their clapped out tractors. We had some close calls with the indigenous cattle (which liked to graze on the side of the road) and on one occasion we took evasive action, clipped the road’s edge and careered into the middle of a field. I’m sure Laurent was swearing but I don’t understand French. It took me a while to get used to this strange contraption. With each gear change a puff of smoke and dust came up through the gear shift and into the cabin. And, being a left hand drive car, on more than one occasion I made the mistake of grabbing at the window winder on the door rather than the gear stick to my right. But we worked it out.
We spent a good amount of time sitting on the side of the road (when we couldn’t be bothered driving anymore) and in pubs puffing on our pipes. Our view was that no one in Ireland seemed to be in a rush so there was no reason why we should be. Unfortunately this lacklustre approach did result in us having to spend some nights in the cramped car as we often arrived in small towns only to find the youth hostel closed up for the night. The pubs became something of a refuge. I have fond memories of some “lock-ins” (the publican would lock the doors and windows at 11pm and open them again at 6am).
Glencolumkille is located on the far western reaches of County Donegal in the north-west of Ireland. The valley is protected by rolling hills and pointy crags that face the wild ocean like a natural wind break. Cliffs plummet into wild seas right next door to protected sandy beaches. Grassy rises tinged with the rusty colour of the local heath overlook fishing boats that roll to the ocean rhythms, and country lanes wind their way around the district’s farmlands like veins on the back of your hand.
The cliffs catch your eye. They rise up cracked and tortured in stark contrast to the impossibly green landscape; central characters in an ancient story of struggle. The locals reckon that if you listen carefully enough you can hear the rocks telling stories when the wind whistles through the crevices. These ocean crags have been relentlessly battered and sculptured by the blustery weather for countless centuries. Their faces are haggard and pock marked like the tip of an alcoholic’s nose.
What beautiful country. Truly beautiful. When the sun breaks through the stubborn cloud cover it drenches the landscape in an endless variety of lush emerald hues and the view from atop of Napolean’s Point is vast and breathtaking. I felt connected with it all, perhaps because I wanted to be or perhaps because the connection was real. Some of my ancestors worked these lands. This is O’Donnell country.
You only go the Glencolumkille if you want to go there. It’s not on the way to anywhere, or the way back. We were making our way out there for the same reason that Neil Armstrong went to the moon; because it’s there. But the exquisite landscape made the travelling easy.
Below us, at the end of what appeared to be a needlessly winding roadway, sat a peaceful village.
“Let’s go there” we decided. I had no clue as to its name. It wasn’t on our rudimentary map.
We got to the main street, such as it was, and found it to be in total darkness. Except for one little light at the top the shopping strip. As we got closer we saw it was a pub. As I recall, the sign hanging over the front door read “Peg McShane’s”.
We could hear music and laughter and raucous banter. This was the place for us.
Upon entering we found ourselves in a smoke filled room about the size of a conventional lounge room. A few heads turned but no one took any particular notice of us. The place was packed.
I could see the bar off in the distance. Our chances of getting there were as remote as this valley. We were obviously floundering.
“Ya fancy a point?” the bloke in front of me asked.
“Ah, yeah” I replied, not entirely sure how he could help.
He held out his hand. I put some coins in it, and he handed them over to another bloke in front of him, who handed them to a bloke in front of him, who handed them over……..and so it went. They disappeared. He smiled at me. I wasn’t sure what to do next.
“So did ya know Michael, did ya?” the bloke asked.
“Michael?” I thought. “Who’s Michael?”
Before I could muster up an answer two pints of Guinness were making their way back across various heads in our direction. This was a process oft repeated over the next four or five hours.
“Dare ya go” the bloke said as he triumphantly handed the drinks to us.
I looked around the room. There were old timers with button mouths muttering to each other in their mysterious brogue under peeked caps, loads of kids swirling amongst the adult legs, weathered young lads who’d come straight from the farm to the pub, women in tight chatting groups, adolescent girls pointing and giggling, and awkward boys all red faced and pimply.
This was a wake.
We were made to feel very welcome. Extraordinarily so. We were strangers, blow-ins, gate crashers. No one cared. I left Laurent to his own devices. He was in deep conversation with a woman who was furiously introducing him to blushing lasses. I think Laurent promised his hand in marriage about six times that evening.
I made my way to an adjacent room to get closer to the fire. The wind off the ocean made the evening breeze a biting one despite the fact that we were in the height of summer. An older woman was sitting next to the fire in a wicker chair. She asked where I was from.
“Australia” I said “Melbourne.”
“Ah, Melbourne” she said, “I have a daughter living in Melbourne. She lives in a flat on Toorak Road. Works as a nurse. She follows the Hawks. She thinks they can win this year.”
And there it was. Football. I was in remote north-west Ireland. I was in a pub the size of a shoe box in a town the size of a kindergarten at the wake of a bloke I never knew. I was handing money to strangers who were delivering it across a crowded room and returning with the most delicious Guinness one could ever drink. I was navigating a left hand drive Fiat around this remote land with a Frenchman who was probably running away from something – or someone. And I was talking football with a woman who I was sharing a fire place with.
For some reason this is a memory that sticks with me. I wasn’t really missing home at that point until she mentioned football. It jarred somewhat. It didn’t belong here. But it was also welcome; a little reminder of home in an isolated place. And if a young, keen chap hadn’t left these parts one hundred and twenty years ago to try his luck in Australia, perhaps another version of me would have been a local farmer around here, oblivious to football and Australia, celebrating Michael’s life.

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. That yarn was going really well until you mentioned the ‘diapers’ Dips.

  2. Apparently Tadgh Kennelly was heard singing this after the GF Dips.

    “Whack fol the dah now dance to yer partner around the flure yer trotters shake
    Wasn’t it the truth I told you? Lots of fun at Orforn’s Wake “

  3. Phanto – From the Clancy Brothers:

    “When we were savage fierce and wild
    Whack fol the diddle fol the di dol day
    She came like a mother to her child
    Whack fol the diddle fol the di dol day
    Gently raised us from the slime
    Kept our hands from hellish crime
    And sent us to Heaven in her own good time
    Whack fol the diddle fol the di dol day”

  4. “There’s whiskey in the jar”

  5. John Harms says

    Dips, you are as Irish as the weave in an Aran sweater.


  6. Barkly St End says

    The whole tale is a twist on the controversial sounding title – well done, had me till the end.

  7. Great piece Dips.

  8. The Clem Jones Stand says

    Having been in Killybegs about 12 days ago and still cleaning the Guinness stains out of my jumper I could really relate to the story. Although I must admit I found the pubs hot and stuffy, no matter how cold the wind was outside. Twenty-four years on the Irish do love/hate the AFL, “pinching all our best young players”.

  9. Dan S de Merengue says

    A man will climb a mountain because it’s there. Neil Armstrong went to the moon because he could. (A subtle difference.)

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