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A returning emigrant's first impressions of the Swilly

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Michael McGowan was born in Cloghaneely in Co Donegal in 1865, and went to America in about 1885. He made a small fortune in the Klondike gold rush, and returned home in about 1904. Sean O hEochaidh recorded his story in 1941, and it was published in English as The Hard Road to Klondike. This is his first encounter with the Burtonport Extension, which had recently opened when he arrived back in Ireland.


As soon as we put our feet down on the quay at Derry, we

saw that there had been big changes since we had left home.

We went towards the hotels and the one we went into

was fairly full. We ordered a drink of ‘The Derry Hag’ as the

old people used call Watts’ whiskey. There was a man in our company

that got very friendly and it wasn’t long until he started to

tell us about the changes that had come over the country since

we had left it.


‘You don’t have to walk to Cloghaneely this time,’ he said,

‘as you and your fathers had to. The train goes now and you’ll

be able to take it as far as Cashelnagor.’

‘It’s good to hear that,’ we all said together.

‘And what‘s the reason for this sudden change?’ I asked the



‘I’ll tell you that,’ he said, ‘if you have time to listen to my

story. A Board was set up called the Congested Districts Board

and some years ago a man named Balfour visited your parts.

He enquired about the condition of the people and when he had

done that, he conferred with people in authority about schemes

to help the poor districts that stretch from here westwards to the

sea. As a result of that, the railway between Letterkenny and

Burtonport was started.’


‘It couldn’t be that this work took very long,’ said one of

my friends. '


‘It didn’t,’ said the gentleman, ‘and that's where the

workers did themselves damage. They were so enthusiastic at

the work that it only took two years to build the railway.

Gangs of them all worked together and they tore hills away and

filled in little valleys and it wasn’t long until there was silence

again all over the place. If they had had any sense, they could

have made the work last much longer. And the pay they were

getting wasn’t even all that good—they were working from

dawn to dusk for a half-crown a day.’


‘What way did they bring the railway?’ asked Hugh



‘They brought it out the very cheapest way for themselves,’

said the gentleman, ‘and they’ll rue it for more than today.

They built it as straight as they could over hills and dales and

it doesn't go within miles of any village from here to Burton-

port. If they had built it along the coast, as they should have

done, the land would have been dear but instead they bought

the cheaper land and built it around by the foot of the hills.

Of course, from the tourists’ point of view, it goes through some

of the loveliest countryside in Ireland.’


‘The fishermen of the Rosses have benefited by it,’ said a

man from Burtonport who was in our company.

‘You could say that,’ said the Derryman, ‘and it will do

this town good too. It has done so already. There’s a man in

this town that has made a. small fortune out of clocks since the

railway started—a man named Faller. He began making

clocks and selling them for a pound each and there isn’t a house

between here and Arranmore that hasn’t a clock now.’


Next morning, we left; Derry. We were longing to see the

old home itself. The train wasn’t in too much of a hurry, even

if it was new. If you were a good walker, I’d say that there

were many stretches where you’d have had no trouble keeping

abreast of it. There were times when you’d have the urge to

leave it altogether—-like one man who went to America long

ago and who grew impatient with the sailing boat he was on.

He said he'd be better off walking - that he’d get there quicker.


Once when one of the two men who were in charge of the

train came into our compartment, I asked if it wasn’t possible

to make it go a bit quicker. He didn’t answer but sat down for

a minute at my side.


‘Did you ever hear of Columbkille’s prophecy?’ he asked.


‘I did, surely,’ I said.


‘Well,’ he said, ‘it was about the Black Pig's race: that the

day would come when the black pig would race from Deny

Bay to Burtonport. This is the black pig of the prophecy—and

you never saw a pig going fast!’

He got up then and went off roaring wit.h laughter.

In the end we got to the station at Cashelnagor and I don’t

suppose anyone ever got off a train feeling as good as I did then.

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