Between the Rock and the mountains

Finbar Rock on poetry, pens and his lifelong love of Donegal

Between the Rock and the mountains

Finbar Rock on Errigal Mountain - He loves long distance walking...whether it be The Camino or Morocco, but his favourite is In Through

Little did I think that over forty years after hearing the poet Michael Hartnett give a mesmerising performance of his ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ in Listowel, that I would hear it quoted with equal passion in ‘Simple Simon’s’ in Donegal town.

“Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but púcas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.”

I’m having coffee with owner Finbar Rock and not only delighted that he is a poetry lover but I share reminisces about the late Michael, who became a dear friend and a great influence on my subsequent love of verse.
Finbar calls Hartnett ‘a real File’ but the first poem that ‘impacted’ with home was Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’.

Finbar pictured in Morocco

Heaney himself recalled that: “The day I entered St Columb’s College, my parents bought me a Conway Stewart pen. It was a special afternoon, of course. We were going to be parting that evening; they were aware of it, I was aware of it, nothing much was said about it.
“But we went with a driver who was taking us to the school - a friend of my father’s - we went from Derry, where the school was, over the Border into Donegal, and in a shop there bought this Conway Stewart fountain pen.
“And the poem about the fountain pen links back to that day of uncoupling from the parents, being left behind at the school; it’s about the breaking of a link as much as anything else. And the use of the pen to establish a different kind of link.”
Coincidentally, Finbar collects Conway Stewart fountain pens, and as we chat, the busy entrepreneur note takes with a flourish as he accepts phone calls and messages.
Life began for him on the Falls Road in Belfast. He went to St. Teresa’s Primary School and one of his earliest memories is the local priest riding a white horse sidesaddle!
Although he recalls vividly the onset of the Troubles, he concedes: “For youngsters it was also very exciting.
“My father was from Ballymena and mum was from Dublin. They were trade unionists so I grew up acknowledging their philosophy of uniting the Catholic and Protestant working classes.”
Donegal played a crucial role in the lives of family and neighbours. “Friday evening, you headed to Donegal. It was the bolthole...the escape. In the 1970’s the county was in your blood.”
Little surprise then that he would settle here eventually. Before that move some 20 years ago, he packed a lot of experience and geography into his life.
He spent 16 years in Guernsey where he met his Geordie wife, Mary. Son Jack is multi-linguist who has worked in Madrid, the Vatican, currently in Vietnam and can speak all the relevant languages. Daughter Toni runs the very popular ‘Toni’s Bistro’ in Donegal town and ‘Simple Simon’s’ Health Food Store is up and running almost ten years.
He puts its success down to the commitment and ‘passion’ of the staff and there are plans afoot to extend the front of shop to facilitate the increasing popularity of coffee and chat.
He loves long distance walking...whether it be The Camino or Morocco but his favourite is In Through… “Port to Maghery. It’s simply the best!”
As regards Donegal town, he compliments it for location,a great business centre and crucially… “People have time for one another”.
Finbar and Seamus Maguire are also launching a really exciting initiative to coincide with Earth Hour on Saturday, March 30.

Earth Hour is now the world’s largest grassroots movement for the environment, inspiring millions of people to take action for our planet and nature.
They are proposing to use the money that might otherwise have been spent on single use plastic posters to donate an indigenous Irish tree for each and every child in the Donegal Municipal District of primary school age.
As Finbar says: “We are all aware of the devastating effects of accelerating climate change and staggering biodiversity loss and how this threatens our planet. Earth Hour 2018-2020 endeavours to spark never-before-had conversations on the loss of nature and the urgent need to protect it.”
Before we part, Finbar once more reminds me of the beauty of Michael Hartnett’s poem: if Kathleen Ni Houlihan is a metaphor for Ireland, then Hartnett’s Irishwoman sums up beautifully all that we have lost, yet must retain, in our collective memories and imaginations:
“She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.”

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