In my years as a political activist I have had the unique opportunity to travel to many far flung places around the world.
I once flew in a tiny plane up the coast of Maine in the USA with its hundreds of off-shore islands. It was a bumpy, scary, white knuckle journey in a small two propeller machine. The scenery was reminiscent of the west of Ireland.
I have watched the colours change on the lakes of upper New York State, in the deserts and hills of Texas and Arizona, on the Rockies of Canada, the mountains of the Basque country, and the veldt of South Africa.
On one memorable visit to the outback of Australia I persuaded our hosts to let me walk alone some distance into the trees and scrub of the outback outside of Perth. The intensity of different smells from the flowers and trees and the sounds of birds and insects was truly amazing. And the snakes left me alone.
But if truth be told I love West Donegal. That’s not to say that I don’t love west Belfast. Or Louth. The Belfast Hills are terrific. So is Sliabh Foy in the Cooley Mountains
But there is nowhere quite like West Donegal. The hills and the mountains of that part of our island, from Muckish to Errigal, are among the most stunning in the world. The glens and rivers and lakes, the seascapes of Bloody Foreland, the islands, the long walks along Donegal beaches, and the music, the Gaeilge and the people, all combine to make Donegal as close to perfect, as perfect can be, in this imperfect world.
As some of you may know last Friday was my birthday. Go raibh maith agaibh to all of you who sent best wishes. Or presents. Or if you didnt dont worry I wont refuse late offerings. Now that I have reached the age of soixante-neuf- 69 - I intend to have a birth month so you still have time.
I remember Martin McGuinness saying once that he never thought he would live beyond his 25th year. I was the same. Most of our peer group were probably like that. Now I am in my 70th year. Poor Martin is gone. It’s a funny old world.
So at the weekend I escaped to Donegal for two days of gardening, singing, cooking, reading and walking. The autumn colours were everywhere. The heather clad highlands were resplendent with the textures of tweed. The big skyscape kept changing its shades from light to lighter and back to light again. OThere was a nip in the wind and the occasional rain – it is Donegal – but the weather for me was perfect.
The beauty and peace of Donegal is unrivalled. The history of Donegal can be found in every town and village, castle and big house, and in the ruins of homes long deserted, and thatched cottages from another time that have been preserved for this generation.
My first recollection of Donegal is travelling there with my Saint Mary's class mates to stay for a month with the Boyle family in the Gaoth Dore Gaeltacht. We went there to practice our Gaeilge. I am still practicing over five decades later. And like so many others I keep returning to Donegal.
I wouldn’t care if I never saw another plane for the rest of my life. I have no wish to travel outside of our little island ever again. But travel I will. God spares me I know that. If you sign up you have to march.
But wherever my political wanderings take me the Hills are the place I want to be. I enjoyed my birthday. It was great craic. I am very lucky. For many reasons. But especially because I got to begin this week and my 69th year in the place I love.
'I just dropped in to see you all.
I'll only stay awhile.
I want to see how you're getting on
I want to see you smile
I’m happy to be here again
I’ve missed you one and all
For there is no place else on earth
Just like the homes of Donegal'.