Tucked into the rugged landscape of Southwest Donegal, Gleann Cholm Cille (or Glencolmcille) has been a symbol of hope and success to other emigration-drained areas since the 1950s.
Here, by valuing both tradition and innovation, a small community has maintained its cultural vitality.
Gleann Cholm Cille is a joy to visit at any time of the year. Both shore and hills change dramatically with the seasons, heightening the attraction for the walker.
At night some of Ireland’s leading musicians play in quiet pubs and accomplished singers draw on an extensive repertoire of local song.
Long after the bow is put away, when the dancing feet are still and the last song sung, you will remember Gleann Cholm Cille.
A place apart…Glencolmcille is situated on the Sliabh Liag Peninsula at the south-west point of Donegal - an area starting to be known as the Donegal Highlands and part of the Wild Atlantic Way coastal drive.
The area is bound on the south by the mountains of Slieve League (Sliabh Liag) and Leahan and on the north by Slieve Tooey.
To the west lies the restless Atlantic Ocean. Glencolmcille is a place of tremendous natural beauty and changing colours ... mountains, lakes, sea cliffs and beaches; a place of quiet roads, stone walls and fuschia-bordered lanes.
It is an ancient corner of Ireland witnessed by the sites of dwellings and the tombs of the Megalithic period and by the cross inscribed stones of early Christianity (Gleanncholmcille.ie)
Indeed, Glencolmcille is a very special place. I got my baptism of fire in Pairc na nGael, Glencolmcille when I came on as a substitute 43 years ago as a Robert Emmetts player. It was a tough senior debut for a 16-year-old. This is the home of Naomh Columba GAA Club.
Along with its natural and spectacular beauty, Glencolmcille has a fascinating and rich history. It is, like a few other Gaeltacht regions in Donegal, a remaining stronghold for the Irish language, Irish folklore and our unique and valuable traditions and culture.
As Ireland becomes another lapdog for the European oligarchy, we have been losing sight of our historical past and in the process losing that in-depth feeling of what it means to be Irish.
I’ve always loved Glencolmcille for its traditions, Gaelic football and mostly the people. There’s a sincerity and inquisitiveness about the natives but at the same time there’s a cuteness that makes you ask the question “Who’s taking a hand at who”?
On the football field they had nothing to learn and it was in places like Glen that I learned my trade.
Back then I knew nothing about St. Columba, Sliabh Liag or Sliabh Tooey, Silver Strand Beach or Doonalt Beach, and not even Malinbeg or Malinmore. I know more now but only took an interest in recent years because I have more time on my hands.
And to be perfectly honest, if the ‘lockdown’ didn’t happen, I may have remained ignorant about the many jewels that exist in Donegal.
We don’t see the forest for the trees and perhaps we take what we have for granted.
Glencolmcille’s remoteness in the most westerly part of Donegal adds to its exclusiveness. It is a long drive to anywhere from Glen and I often think of the arduous journey that many successive Naomh Columba inter-county players made to training in Ballybofey two or three times a week.
This is a testament to their passion for Gaelic football and the tremendous contribution that the club has made to the various successes in Donegal GAA.
Glencolmcille is famous for its wealth of archaeological sites and artefacts dating back to about 3000 years B.C. The actual history of the area goes back 5000 years to Stone Age times when the first farmers worked the land.
Court cairns, where the dead were buried, can be found at Malinmore, Cloghanmore and Farranmacbride.
The next settlers to leave traces of their existence were the Celts in 300 B.C. Remains of their Dúns, Raths or Liosanna can be seen above the Silver Strand at Malinbeg and on the cliffs of Doonalt.
It is said that St. Columba brought Christianity to the Northwest of Ireland and “lived in Glencolmcille for two years before leaving for Iona where he set up a monastery” (colmcille.org).
‘Turas Colmcille’ or Colmcille Pilgrimage is famous in Glen.
“The Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolumcille) Turas is a religious procession that incorporates 15 different stáisiúin (stations) within nine different townlands of this stunningly beautiful spot, at the western edge of Co. Donegal, where, as they say, “the next parish is Boston.”
These stations are all ancient stone monuments, some of which may have been associated with pre-Christian practices. The Turas leads the pilgrim along five and a half kilometres (3.5 miles) meandering path up into the hills and down thorough the valley. It has evolved through several distinct stages.
More than a millennium ago it began at a time when this remote slice of Ireland, hemmed in by mountains and the sea, had its own way of perceiving the world… Turas Cholm Cille is dedicated to St. Colm Cille, the 6th-century missionary who, according to local tradition, had a monastic centre in the valley of Gleann Cholm Cille. It is today the longest turas still practiced in Ireland (voicesfromthedawn.com).
Many famous people are associated with Glen. Though I could mention several it would be remiss of me not to mention Fr. McDyer.
He was born in Kilraine, Glenties on September 14, 1910 and came to Glencolmcille in 1951.
“Years of official disinterest and an almost complete absence of paid employment had taken their toll. There was no industry, no electricity, no public water supply and few tarred roads. Young people were emigrating when they left school… over the next thirty years Fr. McDyer campaigned tirelessly against official neglect of Gleann Cholm Cille and similar communities throughout the west.
“At a time when central government saw multinational corporations as the solution to the spiralling unemployment and emigration, he championed the right of rural people to forge their own destinies and emphasized the importance of small community-based industries which developed local resources and skills.
“He helped establish weaving, knitting and vegetable-processing factories and campaigned successfully for electricity and piped water schemes.
“The fish-processing factory in Mín an Aoire which provides seasonal employment to 200 people is a direct result of Fr. McDyer's work…
“The Folk Village was founded in 1967 as part of the cultural revival inspired by Father McDyer.
“Fr McDyer recognised that tourism could play a key role in revitalizing rural Ireland but stressed that it must be both environmentally and culturally sensitive. In 1967 he was the driving force behind An Clachán, (www.glenfolkvillage.com) - a museum representing three hundred years of domestic life in south west Donegal.
“The museum has proved to be highly successful with over 30,000 people visiting it each year.
“In 1968 Fr McDyer inspired a local co-operative to build a "Folk Village" of traditional style houses for visitors to rent during the summer. These houses continue as holiday homes to this day with families returning every year to spend their summers in Gleann Cholm Cille” (glencolmcille.ie).
The Naomh Columba GAA club is the heartbeat of the local community. On June 29, 1924, Glencolmcille invited Kilcar into Glen for a challenge match. Naomh Columba hadn’t yet been formed.
“Naomh Columba, in their current existence were founded in 1964” (Wikipedia).
On that summer Sunday ninety-six years ago the two parishes of Kilcar and Glencolmcille descended upon Glencolmkille strand adjacent to the current pitch in jaunting carts.
A massive crowd attended the game where make-shift goals were erected. Apparently, Kilcar won the game but the score line is disputed. I am told that the referee was from Kilcar.
That fierce but friendly rivalry between these two great and famous clubs exists to this day.
Glen won two county u-14 championship titles in 1965 and 1968 respectively. This was the launching pad that catapulted the club into three Junior finals in 1972, 1973 and 1974.
They lost the first two to St. Nauls and Termon respectively. They finally succeed in 1974 when they defeated Cloghaneely.
Naomh Columba went on to win the Senior Championship in 1978. That year was special because they won the League, Comortas Peile na Gaeltachta and the U-21 title too.
Naomh Columba were one of the big hitters in Donegal then, reaching six senior county finals in nine years between 1990 and 1998.
Their second county Senior title came in 1990. The club has won two Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta titles and seven Division 1 League titles.
This impressive club won county minor titles in 1975 and 1986 as well as two U-21 crowns in 1978 and 1987. This is an incredible record for the Glencolmcille parish.
Emigration has cost Glencolmcille dearly throughout the ages and up to the recent past. The GAA club has lost many players who have been forced away to seek employment.
The Glen people are very proud of their club and have had quite a bit of success down the years. They are currently rebuilding and have come up the ranks from Division 3 to the second tier which bodes well for the future.
The focus currently is on the youth. I spoke to Naomh Columba Chairperson Roger Curran who was very enthusiastic and hopeful for the years ahead but lamented the scourge of emigration.
Roger said, “Emigration still takes its toll on Glen because of a lack of good employment in the area. Most of our young people have to go to where the work is.
“A lot of good work is being done now with the underage as results would show from the Tech in Carrick over the last few years.
“Facilities at the club would be as good as could be found anywhere as awards over the last couple of years would testify to this.
“ The club would be very proud of its achievements over the years and while we are a Division 2 club, the aim is to get back to the top flight over the next couple of years”.
Glen also has ladies teams who are faring well which is very positive for the club. “Our girls teams are competing well having a couple of good years under their belts now” Roger added.
I urge you to take a look at the donegalgaa/naomh-columba website. It has loads of current information on the club along with some great photographs of various underage teams.
I’d like to thank the Naomh Columba Club for their help in writing this article. I would like to wish the club plenty of success for the future.
Go mbeannaí Dia sibh.
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