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We are three hours away from a stone cottage in Dunkineely, County Donegal, which we’ve booked for four nights from Friday. Today is Wednesday and we’ve decided to check in today. Jo has been feeling under the weather. Yesterday she ate only five chocolate digestive biscuits and seven baked beans. And it’s not a good time of the month for her which is always challenging in the van.

As we drive back across the island I see a tour bus adorned with images of The Banshees of Inisherin. You can visit all the key locations and probably feed finger sized carrots to a donkey called Jenny. Back on the main road to Sligo we’re tuned to Cillian Murphy’s Limited Edition radio show on BBC Radio 6. The Irish actor and his producer have put together an eclectic selection of tracks old and new across a mix of genres that are a real pleasure to listen to. Cillian loves a good cover version. Jo says he plays some really weird stuff which is true. His hushed, intimate voice has accompanied us for hours in the van across Ireland

Abandoning the van early feels like a dereliction of duty and a weakness of character. But we remind ourselves that it’s autumn in Ireland and after last night’s gales the prospect of a warm bed and a peat burning stove is too good to turn down. 

Dunkineely is a small village in southwest Donegal near the coast, midway between the village of Kilcar where Noel and Laura are getting married and the town of Donegal where the wedding reception is to take place. We were invited back in February during a raucous evening of whisky and curry in Madikeri, Southern India. ‘We’re getting married in October in Donegal. You must come.’ said Laura. ‘Definitely. We’d love to.’ said Jo. We have a photograph of Noel holding up a napkin with ‘October 7th. Watch us.’ written on it. In the bright light of the next day’s hangovers we thought the offer delightful but probably not serious. Modern Irish weddings are grand family and friends affairs. There can’t possibly be places for a middle aged couple recently encountered in Asia.  But our doubts were misplaced. The four of us had established a rapport. Jo kept in touch with Laura and the formal invitation arrived in August.

At the end of a rising one mile single track lane with grass growing down the centre, is a single storey detached stone cottage with distant views of Donegal Bay. We unpack the van, fire up the stove with peat and take hot showers. After a week in the van these simple acts impart pleasure way in excess of their merit. I pour a good sized Jameson whiskey and glow in front of the stove.

Thursday morning and it’s raining very hard. Jo is in Donegal having her nails attended to and I’m sitting, reading by the stove. After only a relatively short spell in the van I’m luxuriating in the space and warmth of this little stone house.

This evening there’s a pre wedding Kennedy Carr family gathering in Kilcar to which we’ve been invited. There’s lamb stew, wine and great hospitality in a cottage on the outskirts of the village. It feels like only a week ago that we met Laura and Noel in southern India. We’re introduced to parents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces before the short drive to Kilcar House pub in the heart of the village. Locally known as Kennedy’s pub and run by Noel’s brother Kenneth, it is a proper, popular local that doesn’t sell food and supports Liverpool FC. We meet the groomsmen, Terance and Micky and sit down to a continuous flow of music, Guinness and some very fine whiskeys including a rare Midleton Irish whiskey that sleeps in a lined presentation box. It’s spicy, creamy, herbal, aromatic. With this we all propose a toast to Noel’s late father, Michael. At a late stage in the evening I have a brace of Guinness and several whiskies arranged in front of me. I should pace myself but I’m not setting the pace!

I’ve made the fatal mistake of mixing my drinks and spend an uncomfortable night tormented by reflux and hiccups with which no antacid can cope. The rocking of the bed keeps Jo awake for hours. Noel will tell me that if I must rock the bed, there are more enjoyable ways of doing it.

On Friday morning there is mist and drizzle interspersed with heavy downpours. In the afternoon we drive through the big fishing port of Killybegs, Ireland’s largest. The harbour is full of gleaming super trawlers but, mostly due to the imposition of EU fishing restrictions, it’s eerily quiet with deserted quaysides and hushed fish processing plants.

We stop at the rugged and beautiful Muckross Head overlooking the vast Donegal bay where I scan the ocean with binoculars looking for any sign of the whale that Jo’s manicurist has told her is visiting. But the light’s not great and it is a very big bay. On the clifftop facing west over the Atlantic is the word EIRE marked out in white limestone. This was intended to warn World War II pilots that they were approaching the neutral country of Ireland, not the UK or occupied France. Initially I’m confused. Why would this sign face west over the Atlantic, a direction from which German planes would not approach. I’m later informed that the sign was intended for allied airmen approaching from the United States. The rain briefly stops and we walk along the cliff and watch fat, healthy oystercatchers feeding on the rocky shoreline. But we don’t linger and are lured back to the cottage with thoughts of a warm peat fire, dinner and an early night in bed with a book.

It’s Saturday 7th October just before noon and we’re in our finest wedding get-up loitering outside McGuire’s bar in Dunkineely waiting for Pauric and Mary, who have kindly offered to give us a lift to the church in Kilcar. Several vehicles pass through, obviously carrying wedding guests, until one slows down and flashes its headlights. Mary is driving. Pauric, like Laura’s father, is a retired Donegal Garda officer, and like us he’s looking forward to this day and his enthusiasm is infectious.  

The morning is overcast but the weather dare not threaten rain. Noel and the wedding guests are gathering outside the church of St Cartha in Kilcar. Noel is a tall man and looks imposing in a three piece maroon Louis Copeland suit. 

The guests drift into the church which is adorned with beautiful wild autumnal flower arrangements gathered and arranged by Laura herself. She’ll confess to me later, ‘I snuck over the garden walls of abandoned, and some not so abandoned gardens to snip a few stems.’ The nave is filled with the sound of traditional music from the fiddle of Zoe Conway and her husband guitarist John McIntyre. Noel is at the head of the aisle, anxiously looking back down it for the first sighting of Laura. We can hear the sound of a bagpipe in the distance. There’s a lone piper accompanying the bride, arriving on foot with her father and bridesmaids. Later, I ask Noel if he was, at any time during the day, nervous. ‘Yes.’ he replied, ‘I was nervous when I heard the bagpipes start up. For I knew then that Laura was coming.’ I know it’s a poor simile for a blissful wedding but this reminds me of the ancient Scottish ritual of putting the fear of God into their adversaries in battle by leading their advance with a piper’s lament.

All heads turn to see Laura. She’s wearing a fabulous long white dress, the most remarkable feature of which is the train or are they sleeves? But they aren’t really sleeves at all because her arms are bare. The material falls off her shoulders to the ground and loops up to her waistline at the back. If she wants to (and later she will), Laura can use these sleeves to give the impression of wings. She’s holding a bouquet of autumn flowers and foliage.

Father Gerry is in charge of proceedings. Whilst remaining relaxed and informal, he’s very efficient. He’s memorised the Christian names of all the participants including the little page boys and flower girls. In his homily he references all sorts of literary luminaries; Toni Morrison, George Bernard Shaw, William Shakespeare, Sally Rooney, Friedrich Nietzsche, Desmond Tutu. Jesus and his disciples don’t get a look in. He invites the congregation to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic which most are willing and able to do. It’s wonderful to hear.  

After the wedding service we’re gathered outside for greetings and congratulations before a short walk back to Kilcar house pub for more music with Zoe and John, canapes and a few pints. 

The goodwill in the room is tangible. So many guests approach us to ask if we’re being looked after and if we’re having a good time. Pauric is keeping an eye on us and tells us that Mary is with her sister and will be back soon to drive us to the reception at the Mill Park hotel in Donegal.  A guest’s silver, long wheelbase Land Rover Defender is the married couple’s transport and they’re off to a nearby beauty spot, in the now warm sunshine, for wedding photographs.  

At the hotel’s open reception lounge in Donegal there are more canapes and an open bar after which several hundred of us move to the function room for an excellent formal dinner, very good wines, speeches and then dancing for the next eight hours. It’s a grand affair, not for the faint-hearted.

There are speeches after the meal. Not the reluctant words of the duty bound, they are deeply heartfelt words. Laura and Noel speak passionately about their family and upbringing in Kilcar, about Noel’s father Michael and about Noel’s love for Laura. The best man, Noel’s brother Kenneth has a good line about the impressively bearded Noel not even being bothered to have a shave this morning.

There’s a dance band here from Belfast playing covers of rock and disco classics. They have their own take on these, with post bridge interludes of guitar and synthesiser solos. Even if you don’t dance they’re very entertaining. The disco kicks off at midnight and Laura takes flight, often looking like the Statue of Liberty, with a Guinness cleverly balanced in her right hand. She and Noel take to the stage to dance to AC/DCs high octane anthem, Thunderstruck. It’s spectacular. I catch her for a chat in the early hours. She still looks serene but her wedding dress is now shaded with splotches of Guinness. From what I’ve witnessed there’s no way these were self-inflicted.

It’s virtually impossible to sit down and watch the party from the wings. There’s no English reticence, everybody charging about the dance floor. Terrence the groomsman is a disco dancer on amphetamines, rounding up slackers and cajoling them to boogie. Any reluctant souls are physically encouraged up, or with a piercing glare, made to feel the guilty and miserable spoilsports they are. As Laura is a doctor, the wedding feast is well supplied with great drugs. In the Gents is a wicker basket with Gaviscon, paracetamol and rehydration tabs.

There’s a 2am bus back to Kilcar, stopping at Dunkineely where we’ll tumble out. We’re seated in good time and watch our fellow passengers stagger on board. The driver goes off to round up lost sheep some of which he will not find. We depart at 3.30am with comments like, ‘Sure I’m sure Seamus will be fine’ and ‘I wonder what happened to Pauline? I saw her go off into the bushes a while ago.’

Sunday is a day of rest, recovery and preparation for more craic in Kilcar House this evening. If you think getting married is all love and photographs, forget it. It’s all about organising people and making sure they’re ok, and preparation, serving and clearing up. Laura is in the pub kitchen prepping plates with French goat’s and cow’s cheese. There’s a burger van out back and the stage is ready for a band called The Minertones to play a set.  But The Minertones is actually many bands; throughout the night numerous guitarists, drummers, and vocalists are called forward from the bar to play. The setlist is a mix of rock, disco and traditional Irish numbers. Noel plays bass guitar and amongst his many talents he has a fine voice, put to good use on a little known (in the UK anyway), catchy, post punk, punk number called Where’s Me Jumper? by the Sultans of Ping. The place is rocking, the dance floor is heaving and after all the celebrating so far the energy levels are terrifying.

Rule 23 of campervanning is ‘Have respect for your partner in a closely confined space of the van.’ Over the next ten days Jo will break this simple golden rule by screaming ‘Where’s Me Jumper? Where’s Me Jumper?’ first thing in the morning. As I say, it’s catchy.      

There was an incident in the Mill Park Hotel in Donegal last night that, with hindsight, is causing much amusement. Noel’s beautiful young niece Maria did not appear for breakfast this morning.  She was staying in room 114. Noel went to her room, the door of which was unlocked, Maria’s bag, clothes and shoes were there, but no Maria. He alerted the other guests who began searching the grounds and premises. The police were informed (it took them 90 minutes to respond). Eventually Maria appeared, unharmed, wondering what all the fuss was about. She has a history of sleepwalking and, with the excitement of the day and plenty of alcohol she’d gone walkabout and checked into Room 121. Panic over.

As the band is doing their sound check, the vocals mic is being tested, ‘One, Two. One, Two’ One, Two, One’. ‘Hey, 121, That’s Maria’s room.’ shouts some wit. ‘Your room is ready.’  Later I see Micky at the bar, looking across towards Maria. He raises a finger to the side of his nose, then two fingers, then one again. He’s mischievously signalling 121. Maria is not being allowed to forget her midnight ramble. 

It’s a misty Monday morning. We’re on the road to Slieve League for some fresh air and a walk. The Glengash Pass road is closed, there’s no network signal and the diversion signs are unhelpful. With our deserved hangovers, we’re slightly lost. But we don’t really care and the mist is lifting. We see the Rusty Mackerel pub restaurant – a hair of the dog beckons.  We’re waiting for our fish lunch and Guinness when Jo leaps from the table.’ I don’t believe it. Look who’s here. I’ve just seen Laura and Noel.’ And Laura’s sister and family and Micky. Noel is drinking coffee, a sure indication that the festivities might be over. The mist has lifted, it’s a very bright blue afternoon, perfect for a booze clearing uphill walk to Sliebh Liag cliffs.

For the next stage of our Irish journey please visit Sligo in 1976.

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