Dawn on the Foyle

Stephen Joyce remembers Golden Days in Donegal

In the following extract from Stephen Joyce's Golden Days in Donegal he recounts the excitement and magic of sailing from Scotland to Lough Foyle in the 1950s for the school summer holidays.


It is dawn. It is June 30th. It is 1955. Fifty long years since the Lairds Loch swung round the Antrim Coast that day, taking me back again into the Foyle and up to Derry. Taking my mother, brother John, sister Bridget and myself back to Inishowen, so that we could once again head down the road past Culmore, through the customs at Muff, into Quigley's Point and then on to the Ruskey Road at Whitecastle.

'John' I shouted to my brother as I held up our old pair of binoculars to him.

'We're nearly there. I can see the Foyle. I can see Portrush and over there to our right - I think it's Kinnagoe Bay - and look ! I think I can see Shroove beach.'

But my brother John, my mother and my sister Bridget were all still half asleep and had put up with numerous false alarms and false sightings of the hills of Inishowen - ever since we had skirted the edge of the Antrim coast in the early hours of the dawn.

It had indeed been a long night - a long, glorious, chaotic and magical night.

It was almost twelve hours now since our eldest brother Paddy had seen us safely off from our tenement home near Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow. With our dad out all hours working on building sites to bring in enough to pay the bills, it was Paddy who was always there, looking after us, organising sailing tickets and buses or taxis and making sure that we got away safely on our Summer break. He knew that my mother, just recovering from major surgery, needed the healthy air and quiet life of her own Inishowen cottage.

But now he was there as always on the quayside - waving, before heading back to his own shiftwork as the the Lairds Loch cast off . We knew Paddy and our dad were with us in spirit as the Lairds Loch slowly made her joyous, relentless way down the river Clyde - past the clattering shipyards - down past crowds waving from the shore at Anderston, Clydebank, Dumbarton and Greenock - and then picked up speed as she headed confidently out into the Irish Sea.

But the chaos and noise and lack of sleep had been swept away as we passed Paddy's Milestone and our Irish songs rang out and the children laughed and the adults reminisced. And we all sang and danced and endlessly wandered around the ship in an ecstasy of fascination and delight. As the strains of Carn Fair and Danny Boy and The Hills of Donegal drifted out from the ship and across the waters towards the disappearing Scottish Coast, we were in a kind of time warp.

And as the night closed in and the sounds of the singing and the laughter and the tears died down, our eager eyes glanced out the portholes a thousand times. As sleep came and went we took eager turns to catch the first glimpses of the outline of the Irish Coast.

And now we were nearly there. As the sun broke out and the early morning mist vanished and the boat 's relentless bow wave took us ever and ever closer to the Foyle, my heart raced and I had to get everyone up and ready.

I knew ( and they knew ) that it would be an hour, maybe nearly two, before we eased past Culmore lighthouse. But this was the one part of our journey home that we would relish and savour as every minute passed and every eye scanned the coastline for familiar sights and sounds. With the white glimmering outlines of Portrush and Portstewart fading behind us on our left, we saw the dazzling Magilligan sands come into view.

I eagerly carried a large cup of tea to my mother who gently encouraged us to go on with our excited preparations to get upstairs and savour dawn on the Foyle - and the sights and sounds of our first Inishowen morning. We shook off our night tiredness, quickly gathered our belongings as if we were just about to disembark in minutes - and clambered up the double rows of stairs to catch our first glimpse of Moville.

I can still remember that first view of its long white wall, weaving and twisting along the Green. Then the church spires and every now and again the drifting ribbons of smoke, as fires were lit and the cold wind of dawn started to bring life, not just to us on the ship, but to the families and friends and shopkeepers on our Inishowen coast.

Tiny punts chugged their way back across the Foyle after their night's fishing, desperate to get to their shelters in Greencastle before they were caught up in the swell of the ship as she moved steadily up the Foyle and past the Moville light.

But now, up on the Inishowen hills to our right we could see beyond the Redcastle light and up towards Whitecastle with its solid, sentinel house on the shore - a relic of our ancestors the McLaughlins who had fought their battles and won their lands there centuries before. I now trained my old binoculars on the patchwork of criss -cross fields just beyond Drung and up towards Ruskey.

I thought of the fire being lit in uncle Johnnie's cottage and could make out the row of sheets flapping their welcome along the rodden which ran along the field in front of the house.

We were trying to take in everything now and savouring every moment, hoping that somehow we could stop time and keep these moments for ever. As the sun rose higher, the fields seemed closer, the fires were lit and our destination of Derry grew close. In the hurly burly of crowded decks now, we were past Quigley's Point and the Greenbank Hall and up facing Ture. Ahead of us, as we cast furtive, last glances back down the Foyle, we could see the narrowing of the river and the lighthouse at Culmore.

Gently the ship slowed and eased through the narrows and, as she swung towards the quay, we could see the towers and the spires of Derry and the narrow, cobbled slanting rows of streets running up from the waterfront. We made our way along the deck - exhilarated and exhausted - vying to gain the best positions to get off the boat quickly and make our way to Great James Street for the bus if my mother's cousin Neil Smith wasn't on the quayside to meet us.

As the Lairds Loch swung round at the Derry quayside to face down the river again, I gazed in awe at the silent, unknown, timeless men who grasped the ropes in their roughened hands, ready to use them to pull over the long, thick cable ropes that would tie our ship to the quay.

Then suddenly with a thud we were moored at the Derry Quay and we struggled and half stumbled down the gangways with our luggage. So, the first magical part of our journey was now over. We were safely in Derry in the stillness of the early dawn as the city roused itself again. That first year, no car had come, so we wait uneasily but exhilarated until the first bus at 7.55 trundled into the depot in Great James Street and we would slump down on our seats and head down the Derry to Moville road.