Donegal defies major storm with a feast of Irish music

Facing some of the worst winter weather to hit northwest Ireland in many years, the inaugural ‘Letterkenny Traditional Week’ in Donegal ended on a high note this weekend with a capacity audience at the town’s Regional Cultural Centre (RCC) enjoying two of the nation’s finest folk singers.

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Featuring a spirited and playful Nashville-based Grammy nominee Maura O’Connell, formerly with DeDanaan, and Karan Casey, who fronted for Solas and has released six solo albums, the songs – in Gaeilge, English and even Spanish – ran the gamut of emotions from sad and poignant to top-tapping lively and light-hearted. They also traipsed across musical genres, with jazz, blues and old-time music hall tossed in for good measure.

And that was just the singing part.

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Equally wonderful was the music of Dublin-based Martin Tourish on accordion, whose latest album is entitled “Under a Red Sky,’ and Bath-based guitarist, Ed Boyd, a founding member of folk group, Flook. So smooth and nimble was Tourish’s playing of the Brazilian choro tune, ‘Tico- Tico no Fubá’ composed by Zequinha de Abreu, it was like watching fingers dancing on ice.

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The weeklong feast of traditional music also hosted the recently-formed Usher’s Island with includes Irish folk veterans Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny and Sea Road Sessions, a Swedish-Scottish-Irish six-piece band. Organised by venue co-ordinators, Shaun Hannigan, director of the RCC, and Patricia McBride, director of An Grianan Theatre, the festival was supported by director Traolach O’Fionnan at the Donegal County Council Cultural Services, the Arts Council and Music Network.

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Highlights included two tender ballads, ‘Annie,’ written by Casey as a tribute to her mother, and a touching interpretation of ‘Down by the Sally Gardens,’ a poem by W.B. Yeats, sung by O’Connell who described it as “a theme song for regret.” Reflecting their virtuosity the duet then invited the audience to join in on the choruses of the lively, rakish ‘Mick McGilligan’s Ball.’

Aside from traditional music, Letterkenny provided us a feast for the senses in many other ways.

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A short walk from the RCC along the main street, The Yellow Pepper Restaurant,  owned and operated by Carol Meenan and Kieran Davis boasts a warm, homey ambiance with a rustic combination of natural wood floor and bare stonewalls. Impressive lines of wine bottles catch one’s eye upon entering and together with a generous choice of craft beers, including some from Donegal’s two local breweries, stamps a mark of quality on the drinks menu.

Early evening, the downstairs room emanated a cheerful atmosphere with couples, families and a large group enjoying each other’s company.

Local produce is the hallmark of this well-established restaurant, so much so that the owners grow their own vegetables and salad leaves in their garden and tend to their own beehives.

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Not only, but Donegal being renown for its coastal fishing, the seafood served is purchased locally, including oysters. Starters of thin sliced squid dusted with salt and pepper with a lemon and garlic dip and an evening special of pan-seared king scallops were enough to convince us of its authentic freshness. The former was lightly-pan fried, creating a thin crust whose texture contrasted nicely with the soft, tender squid rings while the taste of the chargrilled scallops was complemented by a hint of spicy paprika in accompanying chorizo slices.
Being informed the meats are aged in-house, we chose sirloin and fillet steaks for our mains, both served on wooden boards.

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Accompanied by roasted root vegetables and cherry tomatoes bursting with flavor, the sirloin, well-done, presented a tender, fibrous texture, while the fillet, medium-rare (exactly as we’d ordered), was of finer consistency, its juices sealed seamlessly by light charring.
Word of warning: beware the homemade wheaten bread. Being deliciously seductive you could end up regretting the inconvenient lack of stomach space for desserts in the forms of either soft, creamy vanilla cheesecake with a ball of ice-cream on the side or a quaint Irish pudding made with carrageen moss, which grows in abundance around the Donegal coastline – creating what is, in effect, the local equivalent of crème caramel.

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After a delectable dinner, thirst-quenching drinks and entertaining music, the ultimate bonus is to find a suitable hotel that offers not only a comfortable bed and hot shower, but a few of life’s little luxuries such as a Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and swimming pool. Look no further than the 120-room Clanree Hotel, which as luck would have it, is located immediately outside the bustling downtown area and a mere five-minute drive from the Regional Cultural Centre and the main shopping street.

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Recently renovated, the hotel features a spacious lobby with a large iron-lace chandelier and central carpeted stairs. It also boasts the ‘Aileach Restaurant’ and a pub, McGettigan’s, serving a lunch and dinner menu including hamburgers and fish and chips, within an impressive décor of walls lined with books and lighted, three-dimensional Nature portraits hanging from ceilings.

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Breakfast is buffet-style, with full-bodied, aromatic coffee, and even porridge with whisky on the side, a key additive to allay Ireland’s infamous winters. Service from our waiter, Tawit from Thailand, was both pleasant and attentive, without being intrusive.

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With a lively arts scene, a choice of fine food and efficient, friendly service, there are many reasons to spend a few leisurely days in Letterkenny.

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