Local History by Seán Beattie


Malin Head folklore

On Easter Monday I stood outside Docs bar and shop, the old home of Barney Grant. I first met him in 1965 when he was preparing provisions for the light keepers on the island who were changing shifts. The bar had a large collection of crockery bottles and he told me his mother had buried several bags of them in a field behind the bar many years earlier. At recent auctions crockery bottles sold for 50 euro each.

Below me the pier was quiet with only one trawler going to sea. Opposite the pier I noticed the remains of the old boat house used by the fishermen. The residence close by was owned a century ago by a Mrs Quigley who is described in the census as a sail maker, a trade that once flourished in coastal communities in Donegal. I found this of interest as in 1904 the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction set up a Lace School here in an attempt to revive cottage industries for women. Someone was aware that textile skills were present in the community and believed they could be revived. Little has been recorded of the sail making women of Donegal who also carried out repairs of sails. Women rarely gave an occupation in the census returns so the exact number will never be known. Traditionally women have been associated with knitting, crochet and embroidery but clearly sail making skills were transferable.

Two place names caught my attention. The first was Slieveban, the townland above the pier. Slieve = hill but this is a corruption of the original name of the place which was Sli-ban (sli = path), the white path. So the earlier inhabitants of the area would have pronounced it Slee-ban.

Jutting out of the sea between the bar and the port is a rock which old fishermen called Carry-dubh. Such rocks are normally called “carraig” but this one is different. The Irish word means a rock surrounded by white water, according to Dineen’s dictionary. The word “dubh” refers to the colour of the rock itself.

A larger rock to the left is Carraig-a-caoin, which simply means the Keening Rock. It was here that women known as keeners assembled as funerals headed across the headland to the burial place. Keening ceased in the mid-nineteenth century but the name of the rock has survived to remind us of this unique custom. Such women were professional keeners and received a small compensation but were not related to the deceased. Their wailing added to the sense of grief especially when a child died or several persons were lost at sea. The location of the rock would have enhanced the sound of mourning as the cortege was carried by.

The houses to the left of the bar are all modern but some of them have the ruins of the old cottages to which the Inistrahull people returned in 1928 when they vacated the island. Among the residents was Barney McGonigle, the last King of Inistrahull. Wallace Clarke, the Upperlands linen maker and sailor, wrote in great detail about his sailing skills  in his books about sailing around Ireland. His tall tales kept children in the area amused for many decades and his house was a regular port of call for fishermen.

Fortunately, Doc’s restaurant carries on the fishing traditions by offering a superb menu of  seafood which is worth a visit. As diners sample the baked oysters, which  are pretty unusual, the places I have mentioned can be clearly seen and give room for thought of times past. Thanks to Jim Quiqley, former geography teacher in CCS, whose father, grand-father and great-grandfather all taught pupils in Malin Head.



  1. VRJ

    I know no Irish but in Scots Gaelic surely Dubh means black with a secondary meaning of hidden.Compare Sgian Dubh and dubh-sgeir which means hidden knife and hidden skerry respectively.

    • Comment by post author

      Agreed – rock is black; waters surrounding it are white ie the black rock surrounded by white water and that’s how it looks.

      • VRJ

        Yes that makes sense anyway I will be there myself in the summer so i’ll take a look.Last weekend i caught sight of The Donegal Atlas in a relative’s house in the UK East Midlands,very impressive production I’ll have to save some pennies.I like your site,it makes my annual visit to Inishowen more enjoyable.

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