Michael Durning lives with his wife Bridie on the Main Street in Dunfanaghy. During his lifetime he has spent time living and working in big cities such as London and Glasgow. His childhood was spent living with his parents Paddy and Nancy in the remote and lovely landscape of The Ross in Horn Head overlooking Sheephaven Bay.
Michael was born in The Ross on Good Friday in 1935. His mother used to make the Cross and Breastplates for the local undertakers when someone died. It was full day’s work making them both. If it was a Cross and a Breastplate that had to be made Nancy would walk into John Montgomery’s house in Dunfanaghy and make them. She would then walk home again. Her pay was 10 Shillings. She also worked for Denis and Tom Durning who made coffins where Muck’n’muffins is now. She was self-taught and one of the signs can still be seen above the door of Molly’s Bar in Dunfanaghy.
At that time there was no tarred road around Horn Head indeed the track that was there did not go all the way around. Then Michael remembers that a grant was obtained to complete the road. There was only one machine used and the lorry on the job was supplied by David and Bobby McElhinney from McElhinney’s Garage in Portnablagh.
John Joe Langan from Creeslough was the driver and he went on to drive a Lorry for Donegal County Council for many years. There were local men employed on the project and among them was Michael’s father. Michael recalls travelling with John Joe in the lorry during this work. He remembers his father making the lane down to their own house in The Ross and he was paid £12 for making it. He made it with a pick and shovel so that a car could travel down it. The first car to go down to the house was a van driven by Eric Stewart (The Butcher) from Faugher.
Michael recalls that when he was younger there were more people living in Horn Head. At the time there were big families living in small houses. There were often double houses under the same roof, and this was the case for the Durnings, and their neighbours the Blairs with the two families living in both houses. The Morrows, Willie and Jimmy used to live in one house and then Jenny, Charlie, Alan, Maggie and Andy Blair lived in the other house. There was no road down to the house just a small track. This house in now just a wall stead like so many of its type in rural Ireland as families either died out or moved away.
In the Durning house Michael lived with his sisters Annie and along with their parents Paddy and Nancy. Danny Durning an uncle of Paddy’s lived in one house. Danny Durning had no clock and he used to tell the time with the sun. He could tell the time by the position of the sun on a mark on the wall. Clocks were not as common then as now and most people bought them on hire purchase for 25 shillings and paid it back at half a crown per month.
Bridie Durning also remembers Columba Boyce from Carrigart selling clocks through the countryside. In the other Durning house in the area lived Tom and his sister Sophia. Tom was a veteran of the Boer War in South Africa and used to tell Michael about his war time experiences. In South Africa, Tom would have seen fierce hand to hand combat, and Michael said he still carried his Military attributes in civilian life where he would judge men and animals on their ability to fight. He used to grow Rhubarb and made a lot of Rhubarb soup. Nearby the Strains lived in the next house, Hughie and Hannah and their son Patrick and Hughie’s sister Una. Every two houses had a hundred-acre farm attached to them. There was not much work locally but then as now there was were schemes where you could work for a week or two days a week.
In Michael’s time the men were employed building the wall around the forestry and before that they were planting the Bent to prevent the sand blowing. Michael also remembers the men breaking the stones to make the road. They would bring some straw to sit on and break the stone with a club hammer. There were a lot of small quarries along the road at that time many of which can still be seen today.
Michael and his siblings had a long walk to National School which was located at that time in the old Fever Hospital now The Gallery in Dunfanaghy. It was a steep three-mile journey in Winter and Summer and if the tide was out you would be able to cross the strand which would cut a bit out of your journey. They also used to go in the Church Lane which located beside Holy Trinity Church on the Hornhead Road. This would take them out beside where the Ozanam Centre is now and would also reduce their journey.
In the wintertime it would be dark in the morning when the children left home, and dark when they would return. The children from Muntermellin who went to the Robertson school in Dunfanaghy would wait on the Durnings, and they would all travel home together. Sometimes they would raid an apple garden along the way or take a turnip out of a field and divide it up and eat it among them. There was no time off for bad weather. You either went and got wet or stayed home and got a scolding the next day. Michael’s teachers were Master Cannon and Mrs Ramsay. School was hard going, and he remembers that he missed a lot of time off school. When Michael and his late Sister Annie were confirmed they had to walk from Hornhead to Doe Chapel which was a distance of nine miles. They did this all while fasting.
Michael liked ploughing with horses and began ploughing when he was only 12 years old. Durnings had a horse and Durnings had a horse and the two houses would use the two horses for ploughing usually using them for two days each. Michael says that he used to enjoy going down to Campbells as the woman in the house was a good baker and he would get a slice of scone bread. He says there were far more crops around then and most of the fields were set out. Michael would have worked with most of the local farmers helping them with their crops and cutting and saving turf in the bog. He made a few bob here and there, and they all counted.
There was also a lot of fishing being done from the rocks, and at times you might not be able to get space to stand on the rocks. Lug Worms were dug on the strand to use for bait. The women in the area used to take time off every year to pull the dulse off the rocks. They would come from as far away as Cleggan to pull dulse in the Ross. Michael remembers the Fleetwood trawlers coming into Sheephaven. His father told him of seeing the Fleetwood trawler Malaga, known as ‘Darkie’, sinking in Sheephaven Bay in 1935. The boat had been sheltering near Dunfanaghy one evening. It left to catch the early market in Fleetwood but got caught in a hurricane and all the crew perished. Michael also recalls the Minesweepers which used to come into Sheephaven Bay after World War 2. They were sweeping minefields off the Donegal coast.
Around the same time a plane landed on Killyhoey Strand. Michael wasn’t at school and had been working at turf with his father and mother. He was afraid of planes and his father knew by the sound of the engine that this one was in trouble. It flew towards Creeslough and then back again before landing on the beach. The plane was filled with fuel, and pulled to the top of the beach by horses, before taking off again. Master Cannon was in the LDF and when he was attending to his duties at the plane, some of the older boys took their chance to go home early. But when they returned to school the next day, Michael said they got hammered.
Michael also remembers the country house dances, as well as the Convoys or American Wakes which used to be held when people were emigrating. He didn’t believe it made much sense for those who were going to America, to be heading off first thing in the morning after been up all night singing and dancing. He felt that there were a lot more characters in the Dunfanaghy area at that time. They used to sit in the window in the corner of Dunfanaghy, and there are still nicks in the windowsill where they sharpened their knives.
Michael also remembers skinning Seals and bringing it into the Garda Barracks where the Garda would certify it and authorise the payment. At that time hunting rabbits and foxes was permitted. Rabbits could be sold, and this helped to pay the weekly grocery bill. If you were lamping rabbits with dogs and did not get to the rabbit in time, the dog would shake him and break his back. The meat would turn black and he would be no good for selling. To counteract this, the boys would run a bicycle spoke up the rabbit’s spine, and it would be as straight as rush, and the unsuspecting buyer would pay for them. They also caught Coley fish and salted them for the Winter.
You could also get money for killing foxes, but not Badgers. When Michael was 10 years old he caught 10 Badgers. He also caught a fox and went to the local Garda to get paid for it. He mentioned that he had also had the badgers. The Guard said “You must surely mean that you caught Foxes” and put the badgers through as foxes and Michael got paid. He went down the street to Gerald Sweeney who had a bicycle and barber shop where the Corner Butchers is now. He wanted to buy a second hand bicycle and Gerald asked him what he hand to spend. Michael told him the amount, and the local postman John Herrity was coming down the street on a bicycle hired from Sweeney. Sweeney promptly took the bicycle of him and sold it to Michael! Michael could not ride the bike so he carried it home across the strand to avoid getting salt water on it. This was his first bike and it was a big difference in getting to and from The Ross, although he still had some big hills to climb every time to get back home. He says that no matter how late he went home he never felt tired although the stories that he would have heard about ghosts would have been fresh in his memory on long winter nights!
Michael that there was probably nothing in the stories which were told around the kitchen fires at night and there were probably bits added on to them by each storyteller. Michael does believe that himself and a number of other people heard the Banshee at a house in Hornhead. At that time country dances were common, and Michael and some members of a local band were going to a neighbouring house to play music. They all heard the banshee’s wail, and it was a sound that Michael says would still make the hair stand on the back of his head even now. He says there was about 10 people present that night and they all heard it. Hearing the Banshee was supposed to be a sign that there was going to be death in the locality, and it was supposed to follow families beginning names beginning with the letters Mac and O.
Michael also remembers playing with Geordie McLaughlin and Jimmy Robbie in Jimmy’s house in Hornhead; it was a windy night and in the middle of the dance the front Door and Door Frame landed in the middle of the floor with another man who also lived in the house lying on his hands and knees on top of it. Needless to say that ended that dance. On another occasion the band were playing in the same house when someone tied the front door and they couldn’t get out. Michael being the smallest was sent out the window and when he was half way out people started firing sods at him.
Like most young men of this era, at 18 years, Michael emigrated to London along with another man from Raymonaghan. They couldn’t get work there, so they went to Glasgow and worked on building sites for a while. He travelled over and back to the UK for the next 10 or 12 years. During this time, he spent a while working in the Clyde Tunnel. He says that the work was not so hard, but you were working in compressed air all the time. Before entering the tunnel, workers had to go into a room and take on thirty two pounds of compressed air before going into the tunnel which was also at thirty two pounds. After each shift the workers had to be decompressed. Workers were also given badges with the inscription saying that if found they were to be taken to a place of medical help. After Michael left the tunnel there was a man from Creeslough killed in it and it was closed for a while. After this there was an explosion in it, and it blew picks and shovels up into the Clyde. Michael says that he saw blood coming out of men’s and noses whilst getting decompressed.
The last place that he worked in was London and among the places that he worked in there was the Zoo where he spent a year, and a month in Buckingham Palace where they were replacing stone stairs. He also watched the changing of the guard ceremony there. It was during their stay in London whilst living in a flat that they composed the song “Dunfanaghy” about their native area. Michael also spent time fishing on the Foyle, this was a major seasonal employer and many men from the area went there every summer for the Salmon fishery. Michael says that the Salmon were plentiful but that prices were poor.
Along the way Michael met his wife Bridie nee McFadden from Roshine in Dunfanaghy and the couple were married in 1967 and recently celebrated their 52nd Wedding anniversary. They have five children Ann Marie, Breda, Hugo, Patrick and Michael.
Michael is very interested in the sport of boxing and was instrumental in the setting up of Dunfanaghy Boxing Club which he has been associated with since the very beginning. Michael says that boxing was stronger in the county in earlier years and there were more tournaments. Nowadays most boxers seem to drop out of the sport when they come to their mid-teens and leave the sport whilst in the past they stayed on longer. The first night that the Boxing Club started they had over forty in the hall. Malcolm Parke was the Trainer. Their first tournament was in Kincasslagh and among the boxers who took part that night were Eddie Harkin Seamus Sweeney and Tommy McGinley. The club is now going 41 years.
When Sammy McGarvey was installed as Lord Mayor of Dunfanaghy Michael arranged through the late Ernie McClure to get Charlie Nash to open it. He was the British Champion at the time and worked for Ernie in a printer’s in Derry. Their first tournament that they organised was against a Derry Club coached by Paddy Kelly. Dunfanaghy did not know much about organising tournaments at that time. The other team was much more experienced but Dunfanaghy beat them 10-2. The Club has come on in leaps and bounds over the years, and through trainer Eddie Harkin, who has been involved since the beginning, it has produced multiple Irish champions. It continues to go from strength to strength. Michael’s heart is still very much in Dunfanaghy Boxing Club and he was honoured both here and in America for his lifelong dedication to the club and the sport. He seldom misses a training session in the Ozanam Centre in Dunfanaghy.
Nowadays the Ross in Hornhead welcomes thousands of visitors each year as part of the Hornhead drive along the Wild Atlantic Way. But in reality, little has changed. When the tourists move on all that can be heard are the sounds of the seagulls and the sheep. The area still boasts one of the most spectacular views in Ireland, and Michael has very fond memories of the way of life and the people that he knew in the area when he was growing up.