Pól Ó Muireasáin’s the kind of guy who’s hard to miss – especially in a quiet, rural place such as Gaoth Dobhair sweeping down to the islands of west Donegal.
He’ll talk to anyone – no-one being above or below his broad radar of interest.
Walking with him from A to B means inevitably stopping off at G, H, K and Z as he meanders this way and that to chat with most men or women who happen to come within his quite well-developed range of vision.
Not that you’d want to miss him anyway cos that’d mean you’d suffer the loss of hearing his colorful, homespun tales about wildlife and ghostly sightings; his abiding interest in the intricacies of the Irish language; his poetic lyricism on the beauty of the local landscape; and his whimsical descriptions about esoteric delicacies he manages to find hidden along nearby shorelines.
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp and snakelocks anemone – these are just some of the lesser-known foods uncovered on the solo ‘search-and-find’ missions that Pól Ó, a committed, skilful ‘sea forager,’ conducts around the islands of the west Donegal Gaeltacht.
Wearing waders, a waterproof vest and carrying an aquascope, an underwater viewing device, the exploits of the Derry native now living in Bunbeg and a guest speaker at this weekend’s annual Gola Island Festival (Féile Ghabhla), have now attracted national and international attention, with Der Spiegel, the German national newspaper, despatching a photo-writer team this week to profile him and Raidió na Gaeltachta’s ‘Mo Ghrá Thú’ featuring him in a special.
“There is as much nutritional food underwater than there is above and we haven’t even really begun to understand it,” claims Ó Muireasáin, a youthful-looking 49, who worked for two years as the first Irish language proof-reader in Legal Services at the European Commission when it was granted official status in 2007, before moving to Gaoth Dobhair. “It’s sad when one reads about world food shortages and the lack of a nutritional diet, especially when so much healthy ‘cuisine’ exists in our seas and oceans.”
An island lover, Ó Muireasáin, whose local nickname is Pól a’Bhicycle, spends much of his time on Gola. In fact, he was the official island guide during the recent Wild Atlantic Way, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ at Teac Jack, which featured former CNN news editor, John DeDakis.
“Needing to take time out to contemplate what was important in my life, I went seeking solitude,” he explains. “I wild-camped and developed an avid interest in sea-foraging, enjoying a calm convalescence, observing and listening to nature at close quarters. Doing so helped me appreciate the important things in life – mental and physical health, giving help to others and receiving help in return, smiling and making others smile and having a deep gratitude for simply being alive.”
As for the obscure foods he finds on his foraging trips, Ó Muireasáin refers to the Atlantic Ocean as “freesupermarket.com,” adding, “All you need to know is which aisles to wander down for whatever type of seafood you want. The Japanese convert sugar kelp into crispy snacks, the Spanish deep-fry snakelocks anemone which they call ‘ortiguillas de mar’ (little sea nettles) in olive oil for a tasty dinner. You can also boil shrimps or prawns with sea lettuce for a nutritious meal or make a fine stew from limpets, not to mention using both types of duileasc – dillisk or creathnach – in a whole range of culinary ways.”
During his sojourns on Gola, near the dilapidated Teach Charlie Uí Fhrighil, the polyglot, fluent in five languages, has undergone a number of intriguing experiences, including ghostly apparitions in the dead of night that sent him scurrying like a madman out of his tent (though where he could scurry to on an isolated island, alone, without a boat or a paddle is beyond me), as well as his sighting of a six-foot conger eel sunbathing off Portacrin Pier. “Experiences I’d hardly get in Brussels,” he said, smiling, recollecting some of his adventures on the ‘high seas.’
Ó Muireasáin voices admiration for many local people who’ve befriended him since his arrival in west Donegal, including Gareth Doherty with Selkie Sailing, who organises training in water-sports and eco-tourism trips and has lobbied for greater protection for stranded sea mammals. Ó Muireasáin describes him as a “a committed and deeply knowledgeable environmentalist.”
Both men passionately believe environmental tourism coupled with the rich cultural history of the Gaeltacht can bring strong economic benefits to the marginalized rural area, describing the Donegal islands as a “a paradise of wildlife.”
“There’s dolphins, both bottlenose and Risso’s; otters, porpoises, whales, especially Minke; you’ve even got eels that travel around seven thousand miles from the Sargasso Sea,” said Doherty. “Not to mention diverse birdlife – sandwich and arctic terns, the largest migratory birds in the world; puffins, around two thousand on Tory Island alone, the most westerly of colonies; sand martins, skua, corncrake, as well as manx and sooty shearwaters, which fly about a million miles during their lifetimes.”
Adds Ó Muireasáin, “There is tremendous potential here for attracting international visitors, especially from landlocked areas of countries such as Germany and the US, but local people need to pull together. They can’t act like islands.”
Ó Muireasáin, who studied Celtic languages and literature at Queens University before completing his Masters in Irish translation studies, teaching at the University of Ulster and working for the Department of the Gaeltacht, also admires Eddie Joe Mac Aoidh, the ‘Uncrowned King’ of Gola (Rí Ghabhla). Eddie, born on the island, has set up a café there to cater for visitors, many of whom travel over on ‘The Cricket,’ a ferry service organised by Captains Sabba Curran and his son, Daniel, of Gola Ferry Service.
They’re all hoping this weekend’s island festival and the promotion in Der Spiegel, RnG and other media outlets will provide a welcome tourism boost and bring greater focus on the traditional Donegal island way of life.
See feature article on page 28 of today’s Donegal News.