There is a place in Donegal that‚??s very dear to me. ¬†In fact it‚??s a place of which 3 generations of Pattons ‚?? from my grandparents to my siblings and cousins ‚?? have many a fond memory. ¬†In 1971 Grandma and Grandpa built a holiday home in Portnoo, a little village with a grocer and not much else. ¬†At one stage there was a posh hotel for the ‚??moneyed‚?Ě people, but that‚??s long since been abandoned (just this week the locals got the happy news that a demolition order had been granted, so the eyesore will soon be gone). ¬†While The (Celtic) Tiger was roaring a few more houses were put up. ¬†Truth be told I was worried that, in the decade since I was last here, the place might‚??ve lost its unspoiled charm that to my family is so sacred. ¬†Happily it hasn‚??t. ¬†Portnoo remains an utterly enchanting dot on the map, a dot that‚??s so magical you want people to share in its splendour ‚?? but at the same time, a dot that you want to go unnoticed, in case that character is forever lost. ¬†And once it‚??s gone it‚??s gone.
Where‚??s the link to golf in all of this? ¬†Well. ¬†From the kitchen and lounge windows of our old house you can see ‚?? about a mile or so across the bay ‚?? a huge archipelago of dunes. ¬†Behind and through those dunes are tucked 18 holes of paradise: Narin & Portnoo Golf Club. ¬†Narin‚??s the name of the neighbouring village, which the course more or less adjoins. I never quite figured out where Narin starts and Portnoo ends; the two really blend into one another. ¬†The umbrella term ‚??Portnoo‚?Ě has always been used in the family, probably because that‚??s where The House was. ¬†Enough of the semantics though.
[View from the driveway at the house - GC in distance]
[The Auld Hoose]
[Views across the beach from road, just outside church]
Every summer (and some Easters) we‚??d jump in the old Saab and drive from Kirkcaldy, across Scotland and Northern Ireland, to Portnoo. ¬†Usually for a week or so, occasionally two. ¬†Often Grandma and Grandpa would join us (they were retired by the time I arrived on the scene); and if we were lucky the cousins would be there too. ¬†A festival of Patton madness. ¬†Because the Portnoo visits were ‚?? relatively speaking ‚?? so frequent, it‚??s hard to isolate memories as being from one year or another. ¬†There were epic games of backyard cricket, or life-and-death episodes of leading younger brother up cliffs that he couldn‚??t get down ‚?? or even sibling feuds so venomous that mum would worry if we‚??d ever speak to one another once we flew the nest. ¬†Nearly all of the memories though are profoundly happy ones, some of the most vivid and dear snapshots of our childhood (at least of mine anyway). ¬†
Within all of this there were a few constants, rituals that were synonymous with Portnoo. ¬†Things like epic Monopoly battles, cards, the burning of peat, fishing for crabs in rockpools, jellyfish fights, leaping off the harbour wall. ¬†And, of course, golf. ¬†Golf above all other things is what I associate with Portnoo. ¬†My poor sister Fiona, who doesn‚??t care much for the game, would be stuck at home while the rest of us Pattons toddled down the road for a whack. ¬†It was a lively issue up for debate every holiday, about how much golf was permissible. ¬†The weather no doubt had a bit to do with it ‚?? at least in the eyes of my seniors. ¬†I at that stage was dying to get out come rain or shine; dad was quite happy to read the paper on a ‚??Grand Soft Day‚?Ě, as they call it here. ¬†With enough nagging I‚??d eventually get someone to take me down for a game (or drop me on the putting green for a few hours, to get me out of their hair).
The Golf Club was, and still is, the pulse of the village. ¬†A place where all congregate: young and old; local, semi-local and foreign; moneyed and destitute. ¬†In those halcyon summer evenings you wouldn‚??t find better craic anywhere (except maybe Barrett‚??s Tavern over the hill!). ¬†And now, that I‚??m of age, I can report you‚??d be hard pushed to find a better pint of the black stuff anywhere too. ¬†I‚??ll get to the course shortly. ¬†But it‚??s the people of Narin & Portnoo Golf Club that make it something special.
For many years a wonderful gentleman possessed of a good Irish name and a gentle face, Sean Murphy, was The Man At The Golf Club. ¬†You‚??d invariably find him behind the bar serving pints and club orange, but he‚??d also be involved in the golf side of things ‚?? taking green fees and the like. ¬†A kinder soul you would never meet. ¬†I‚??d perch up on a barstool and chat to Sean about football or golf or how terribly annoying my siblings were. ¬†He would refuse to take my hard earned pocket money for a Canada Dry, slip me a packet of tees, or even a sleeve of Maxfli MDs ‚?? with a wink. ¬†I‚??d protest and tell him I wasn‚??t taking his gifts, but he‚??d insist, firmly if necessary. ¬†A real gentleman. ¬†I ended up befriending his son Enda, and even spending a few days down at their house down the coast at Killybegs on one occasion. ¬†Sean was good to my family too; on one occasion ‚?? after Grandpa had given his membership away, knowing that in a few months they‚??d be emigrating to New Zealand ‚?? he refused to take his money for green fees, saying ‚??Tommy Patton, you‚??ll never pay a green fee at this club‚?Ě (or something like that). ¬†So you see, Sean became synonymous with Portnoo too. ¬†Sadly he‚??s no longer at the club, since there was a reshuffle a few years ago. ¬†I hope he‚??s doing well anyway.
Where Sean left off, a very decent chap has picked up. ¬†Connor Mallon‚??s not the barman-cum-club-steward, but the Head Pro. ¬†The roles are all separate now, you see. ¬†Connor however is a cracking lad, and was very good to us on our visit. ¬†He even gave the very earnest Mr. Goldstein a free lesson! ¬†Despite the fact that the club had a big tournament on the day we hoped to play, Connor & his assistant Darragh squeezed us off early, at 6.45am. ¬†We were furnished with yardage books and embossed pitch mark repairers. ¬†After the golf Connor had a local photographer come down to take a snap, and he invited us into the sheds for breakfast ‚?? a kind offer we had to politely decline. ¬†You couldn‚??t describe it as anything other than First Class Donegal Hospitality, and the Captain was in on the act too. ¬†I was almost embarrassed.
Before I get onto the course, I want to say a word or two about our hosts over this amazing little visit. ¬†Carmel & Henry Cahill bought our old house, ‚??Portnoo‚?Ě from my grandparents in mid-2001 shortly before they emigrated to The Antipodes. ¬†When they met Tommy and Margaret, and signed on the dotted line once all the pleasantries were complete, they did something that not many people might do. ¬†That is, Carmel & Henry extended an open invitation to our family to come and stay if/when we were ever back in this neck of the woods. ¬†A tremendously generous gesture. ¬†So, this journey being what it is, I fired Carmel an email: would it be convenient for us to swing by for a couple of nights? ¬†Right away a warm response bounced back: we‚??d be most welcome. ¬†Smashing.
Our time with The Cahills was a real delight. ¬†Given the dynamic, both parties might have been forgiven for having apprehensions. ¬†Happily though the encounter couldn‚??t be described as anything other than special. ¬†It was a pleasure hearing about how they‚??d enjoyed times at the house with their kids and grandchildren, and about their feelings for Portnoo in general. ¬†They‚??re keen golfers (and gardeners) too, particularly Carmel ‚?? so in many ways it was like spending time with my own grandparents under that same old roof. ¬†I won‚??t labour the point, but it really was a treat to get to know them ‚?? lovely people.
The golf? ¬†A few changes have been made to the course in recent years, but to a large extent it seemed just as it was a decade ago. ¬†Bags of charm; huge fun to play; and some of the most stunning views anywhere, really. ¬†Because of the hour, it was just the two of us darting around. ¬†Even Carmel who would rarely refuse a game decided better of it, at that hour. ¬†Teeing off the light was dull to say the least, but by the 2nd that big ball of gas was starting to make its presence felt. ¬†By the 6th we found ourselves rejoicing in a beautiful morning (luckily we got the best of the day). ¬†
I won‚??t go through the course hole-by-hole, or bore you with the changes (as nearly all of you will have no idea what the course was like beforehand anyway); suffice to say, it‚??s been strengthened considerably. ¬†Weak par 3s have been taken out and replaced with testing par 5s, bunkers have been cut into doglegs. ¬†It‚??s a much tougher golf course than it was. ¬†But Narin & Portnoo won‚??t beat you up. ¬†If your score isn‚??t what it might‚??ve been, it‚??s because you‚??ve been ankle tapped rather than floored (unless the wind really was a-blowin‚??, as it sometimes can). ¬†
For as long as I can remember ‚?? and certainly on my last visit ‚?? the greens were surrounded by electric fences, to keep the cattle and badgers off them. ¬†Like Brora, the stock kept the grass under control. ¬†Lamentably the animals have moved on to greener pastures and the fences have been removed (I used to relish the challenge of avoiding shock for an entire round). ¬†No longer do you find your ball lodged deep into a fresh cowpat in mid-fairway. ¬†In every other sense though, Portnoo is just as charming as the first time I remember playing it. ¬†On holes 7 thru 9 (formerly 8 thru 10) it‚??s hard ‚?? particularly on a bonnie, calm morning ‚?? to imagine being distracted by sights any more magnetic than the views across the salt water. ¬†The peak of Mount Eragill (correct spelling?) rises up in the distance; huge cathedrals of sand and tussock guard over the beaches that stretch for miles; and there are a thousand ample sites from which to leap from the rocks. ¬†In fact, just behind the 8th (formerly 9th) tee is a rocky outcrop on which I‚??m having my ashes scattered when I depart from this realm. ¬†It‚??s that beautiful, that spiritual.
Along the back nine your view is instead one across to The Island (which may have a proper name but I‚??ve never known it to be called anything different), and beyond to the white houses of Portnoo. ¬†Nowhere are they more arresting than from the Postage Stamp 16th tee. ¬†At 110 yards or thereabouts it‚??s a real gem. ¬†
The photos below will paint more of a picture than you‚??ll get from the ineptitude of my pen. ¬†So I‚??ll leave you to explore for a few moments the joy that is Portnoo. ¬†I hope you get a chance to visit what is a very special place indeed. ¬†If you do, Connor will look after you.
[Uphill par 4 5th, fierce contours]
[Looking out 6 fairway]
[View across the bay from 6 fairway]
[View back down 6 - a new hole]
[Breathtaking 7th hole, formerly 8 - many a ball gobbled up by the ravine]
[From 7 green down to 8]
[From 8 tee back down to 7 green]
[The 8th - maybe my favourite hole in the world; at least my favourite view...]
[Hitting only decent drive of the day]
[Looking across the 10th and the beach]
[walking back to 8 tee - THE MOST PICTURESQUE TEE IN THE WORLD!]
[The best place to relieve onesself...anywhere...]
[Postage stamp 16th]
Carmel & Henry had a wonderful big brunch cooked for us on our return from golf. ¬†We picked up a copy of The Irish Times from the old grocer that I‚??ve known for as long as I can remember, sat in the Cahills‚?? company in that wonderfully familiar living room for a few hours, chewed the fat, and read about what‚??s going on in the world. ¬†As therapeutic as therapeutic can be. ¬†The view out that big living room window has hardly changed a bit. ¬†Nor has that faint waft of peat smoke ‚?? which over the years must‚??ve been absorbed into the fabric of the walls and ceiling ‚?? faded in the slightest. ¬†Not that they need my endorsement, but for what it‚??s worth the place is in good hands.
Sadly Carmel had to leave the three lads, back to base camp in County Kildare (grandchildren duty). ¬†Henry took us pair down to The Clancy Sisters‚?? lovely new pad down by the harbour to watch our first game of hurling. ¬†(They‚??d kindly invited us down since The Old House doesn‚??t have a TV, even though they were out for a walk themselves). ¬†It was the All Ireland Final, between Kilkenny (going for their 5th consecutive title, which would‚??ve been a record) and Tip‚??. ¬†Luckily for us it was one of the best games in recent history, at least according to the experts. ¬†What a spectacle! ¬†The underdogs won in a gripping dispay of grit and skill. ¬†I‚??m hooked now... ¬†
The party moved on down (back) to the golf club (as is customary) for fish and chips and a few pints. ¬†The world was put to rest and many an interesting word spoken. ¬†Y‚??er man The Captain was even kind enough to mention us in his closing speech, after the prizegiving, rounding off the glowing welcome we‚??d received over the course of 24 hours. ¬†Only one thing could‚??ve possibly made the experience a richer one: Sean pulling the pints, and giving us a bit of chat. ¬†Notwithstanding his absence though, a special time indeed. ¬†
Huge thanks to Carmel & Henry; to Connor and the team down at Narin & Portnoo GC; and to The Clancy girls, for making one of my most anticipated days of the year what it was. ¬†Capturing it effectively is a tall order, because the experience was so close to the bone and so evocative of times gone by. ¬†But we do what we can. ¬†As they say down here, t‚??anks a million!
Posting comments has been disabled.