The hitchhiker on the outskirts of Ballyshannon was a large man and cleanly dressed. Tall, broad-shouldered under sun-bleached hair behind an engaging smile, he looked interesting by the standards of the day. That was once the way that drivers assessed hikers. Would they be interesting to talk with? Today we might put safety first and rarely offer a lift to a stranger.
He put his back-pack in the boot and we drove north towards Donegal Town.
Most hitchhikers I’d encountered had been continental European or Kiwi. This Joe was American and I was enjoying the cartoonish drawl of his Georgian accent. We got on well enough that I suggested a pint and a sandwich as I dropped him to wait at the bus stop for Killybegs.
I’d told him what a great bus ride it was and that he should go all the way out to Glencolumbkille if he could. I’d described a recent white knuckle ride I’d made on the same bus. The enthusiastic driver was training for driving Andean switchbacks in Peru. 1976 enthusiasm = 2020 recklessness. This would become the holiday memory two well travelled Canadians were discussing and constructing while bouncing fearlessly a few seats ahead of me.
The pint became two when the bus failed to arrive.
Meantime, Joe was developing an interest in Lough Eske where I was doing a geology mapping exercise as part of my studies. I must say that I disliked mapping precambrian metamorphic rocks. I was useless at it and my supervisor, who didn’t like me, was unable to assist let alone inspire me. Even worse, the rocks remain buried in Tertiary glacial till and the main exposures, think sparse clues, were in river cuts. The more recent limestones covered about 10% of the area and were homogenous, seriously boring and the primary interest of my supervisor. In short, I could never find a way to engage with the project and embarrassingly, I gave up that 5% of my degree.
I was explaining some of this as best I could to Joe while talking up the area. Lough Eske back then was gorgeous, so lovely that I dreamed for thirty years of a having a reason to visit and stay there. My dream died when I returned to see where I spent that summer. I understand the need for rural jobs but I’m sorry that it was allowed to be changed. Wind turbines have destroyed the scale of the landscape. The distant, big hills are reduced to nearby bumps under the yardstick of a windmill. I regret that Lough Eske Demesne could become the resort of Lough Eske Castle. Perhaps this is a better outcome than was predicted by 1976 rumour and gossip. In that gossip, the future had been bought by a Japanese sewing machine manufacturer. The rumour was that they were buying adjacent properties too, all with the hope of building a Disney-type resort. It was expected to become a sanctuary for those caught up in The Troubles which, in the end, destroyed regional tourism on both sides of the border for two decades.
Joe had decided that Killybegs wasn’t happening and that he’d head to Buncrana for the Fleadh Ceoil he’d heard so much about. He was a fan of acoustic music, especially bluegrass. He said music was his primary reason for coming to Ireland and attending the Fleadh was the main attraction.
I’d heard locally that the 1975 Fleadh was a huge success and having it in the same place in two successive years (and not Listowel) sounded like a recipé for well practiced fun. I said take a few days off. I had the car. I’d drive us to Buncrana.
And I did. He stayed that first night in the lakeshore campsite where myself and my classmate lived. My classmate was away that week so there was room in one of the three tents we’d pitched among trees. An idyllic setting by the lake in fair weather. It sat on a forested promontory on the west of the lake, on the edge of the Demesne. It had rained for the entire first month which had been muddy grim. In that first month, we’d even got a visit from the Special Branch to confirm we weren’t republicans in hiding or on the run.
Joe and I chatted by the campfire and I got a tiny look at of some of Joe’s lurking demons. They were there, for sure, peering out from time to time. I grew up among people with mental illnesses and let’s put it this way, you get to be able to sense the demons.
Next day, we set out early, taking one the tents to Buncrana. We pitched it in a public campsite on the edge of the town, down by the shore of Lough Swilly. The place was already hopping. We got stuck in before lunch and it was incredible fun. We enjoyed an enormous musical pub crawl while we were entertained by people randomly pulling out pipes and bodhráns for impromptu performances on the pavement.
The number of people from across the border was staggering and encouraging and intimidating all at once. It was as if there was no war taking place less than 20 kilometres from the popular beach in Buncrana.
Joe had told me a bit about himself and I wasn’t as concerned as a 21 year old might be today. He’d come back from Viet Nam and needed hospitalisation for what we’d call PTSD today. He called it a breakdown. He’d seen things and done things he’d had difficulty accepting once he’d left the company of his fellow soldiers. He was in a few facilities for several months at a time. This European summer trip was his finally getting over it and getting ready to get back to college. Joe was one of hundreds of thousands of badly damaged vets from another failed American war.
The incredible fun in Buncrana was heightened by the response of people to Joe. They loved his accent, his claim that he came to Buncrana especially for the music and his clear love of the music. We had to explain this at least twenty times, once or more in every pub. Neither of us got much from watching the dancing but the music on the streets and in the pubs was great. Joe loved anything that involved a fiddle but he said he’d never be able to play one himself. I later learned that he meant ‘he’d never be able to play again’. The revelry and generosity was incredible. We had people pouring pints into us both because they loved Joe. I have no idea how many pubs we visited but the weather was glorious, the music wonderful and Joe was an asset.
I remember that we ate soggy chips wrapped in newspaper as Joe told a few stories of travel in Asia, stories that didn’t mention war. When he did talk of war, he sounded unengaged, like an observer, more like a war correspondent than a soldier. I recall that it was still bright when Joe’s mood changed. He turned taciturn, sullen and gloomy. I heard how he hated the gook. He hated his officers even more. He needed another drink. And another.
Eventually, we staggered downhill to the campsite. The road was barely wide enough for us. That kind of stagger. And back to the tent where I slept the sleep of the dead.
I awoke the next morning to another bright, sunny day. Slowly, I was feeling tender, very slowly, it dawned on me that I was seeing the sky through a portal. We were in my bivouac so there should have been two layers of fabric above me. Instead, the fly and tent sheet had been cut open and I was looking at the sun. Desert dehydrated and looking into the sun.
Joe was outside. He was sitting crosslegged trying to open a tin of something or other. He said that a few weird things had happened during the night and that he wasn’t fast enough to catch the guy who cut into the tent to steal my shoes. He said that he scared the guy off and was surprised I hadn’t woken. He was really sorry the guy stole my shoes. All the time, he continued using quite a large blade to punch holes in the tin. Beans, we had cold baked beans and a few cigarettes for breakfast.
I found my shoes several metres away from the tent, cut into ribbons. Shredded. The soles had been stabbed repeatedly.
I dropped Joe just over the border in Derry because he had decided to catch a bus to Belfast. It was quite weird to cross the border with Joe who was interested in the soldier’s defensive positions. The soldiers were interested in me. They spent some time questioning me because of my car registration, my age, long hair and I presume I looked like a tramp, confirmed when I walked around the car barefoot. Oddly enough, they never spoke to Joe nor heard him speak.
Once past the checkpoint and onto urban streets, Joe was agog at the openly hostile graffiti, the walled messages threatening to shoot people, to smash H-block and get the Brits out. I explained the significance of the colour-coded kerbstones while feeling increasingly nervous as we got closer the bus station.
I left Joe in front of the bus station and rushed back to the border where, a second odd thing, I was waved through by the soldiers who recognised the car. They’d questioned me fifteen minutes earlier but didn’t care there now was no Joe. I can still feel the relief I always felt when crossing back to The Republic.
Despite my belief that Joe had slashed my tent and shredded my shoes, I was sorry to see him go. I’d seen the injuries to his fiddle arm and a tattoo that would forever be the visible legacy of his conscription. He was good company. I wasn’t sure how messed up he was and I remain pleased I was only shoeless and that he hadn’t stabbed me during the night.