In the fields of Donegal

The reporting was terse, taking perhaps three column inches to tell the tale. It must be fully ten years ago since I read it, but I remember it still.

Indeed, I have fully recreated it in my own mind’s eye. Because it was the saddest story I had ever heard.

It happened here, in Donegal. This county that is exactly like any other part of Ireland, only more so.

It sometimes amazes me that young men make it through to full adulthood at all.

From the age of about 16 through 24, the complexity in their lives ramps up to an enormous degree.

There are many strands to these challenges: deciding what to do with their lives, how to build a career, how to stay popular with mates, how to break out and become men – separate from their parents, how to connect and be seen to connect with women, how to deal with difference – be it anything from baldness through sexual orientation, how to cope with absences, of a parent or grandparent.

Then, they have the added burden of expectation – heralded by our society as princes, young men are expected to be joyful as they play out their lives to an adoring public.

And all of this whilst they are emotionally still maturing, and operating with the planning functions of the cerebral cortex some years away from full development.

It is no cake walk for young women, of course, but they have the support of a friendship network and a culture which celebrates communication. Young men, and indeed men in general, tend to go it alone.

Our laws declare adulthood at 18 years old. In truth, maturity is not reached until 25. Between the two, many risky decisions are taken.

There is a three kilometre coastal stretch of Leitrim which lies as a buffer between the coastal counties of Sligo and Donegal. It reminds me of Poland.

Cycling along a very narrow byroad on this gloried coast, an incident occurred.

A revving car slowed behind me. For about 10 metres the driver waited, impatiently, for opportunity to pass me.

Then, enough of that.

He began, unrelentingly and aggressively, honking his horn; again, again. His message: cyclist be damned, I’m in a hurry!

He forced me off the road (well, almost) and passed by. Just then, the road widened, but he was already in Donegal.

Viewed from the side, he was perhaps nineteen years old. I started swearing like hell and then I thought…. Youth.

Youth does strange things, and has its own logic.

It happened, all those years ago in Donegal, in winter. I know this for sure, as there was snow on the ground. Loads of snow; deep snow. Indeed, that was the principal problem.

The young man in question had been out on a Saturday night. It was a big night; many drinks were had, but he was young and it was the weekend. The world was his oyster.

He had taken a lift into town with one of his mates. The four kilometres in took longer than usual. The snow was falling again, temperatures had dropped. But no worries. It was a big night out. Worth it.

At 12.30pm, and for reasons not fully explained, he decided to leave for home. His friends did not do much to dissuade him; they too were drunk.

It must have been only when he stepped out that he realised how cold it was. But by then he was committed.

There were no taxis. He walked.

With just a light jacket, and in sub-zero temperatures, the young man made for home. He knew the area well, of course, yet it was transformed by the snow. An altered land.

Two kilometres in, he was deeply cold and wondering why he had chosen to walk home at all.

We know this because that was when he made a fatal error.

He decided to take a short-cut, through the fields.

The snow continued to fall, more heavily now, and he marched into the dead of the dark night.

It was only in the early afternoon of Sunday that the alert was raised; his mother did not miss him until she went to awaken him for lunch.

His body was found, curled up, in a ditch.

The snow had stopped falling before daylight that Sunday morning.

For this reason, they could track his final movements, traced out on a canvas of white.

Across two fields he had gone, on his short-cut, ending up less than 800 metres from home. And then – disorientation.

His tracks became erratic, confused.

Finally, his footprints told a sorry tale: the young man ended his life trudging around the same field in massive circles. Around. Around.

In the end, he did not know where he was. He simply lay down, assumed the foetal position, and died.

His story stays with me although I do not even know his name. It is, for me, emblematic of those vulnerabilities we carry until we fully mature into ourselves.

As I cycle through exotic and beautiful Donegal, in the height of summer, I will spare a thought for one of its young men who lay down and died in its fields.


Brian McIntyre. August 2013

About Rothar Republic

My name is Brian McIntyre. During late July and August 2013 I am cycling the coast and borders of the Republic of Ireland, and using the opportunity to raise money for charity (The Peter McVerry Trust).

In the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of 1916, I’m interested to see how our little country is doing. Cycling its perimeter, observing and talking to its people, is my own way of taking the lie of the land.

I figure this is a 27 day-long expedition covering about 2,200km.

All monies go directly to the Peter McVerry Trust which supports young homeless people in Dublin to break the cycle of homelessness and move towards independent living.

If easier, consider sending me a pledge through private message.

Many thanks.

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