Monday, November 20, 2017
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BRIAN McCALDEN takes a short break in the famed McGrory’s Hotel in Culdaff, County Donegal…

BACK in the mid-1960s, heavily industrialised Belfast was busy, smoky, polluted and noisy, with green spaces limited mainly to the more affluent suburban areas.

It was no wonder then that the (much) younger me took to the McGrenahans’ isolated farmhouse like a duck to water.

Cattle grazed nearby, the family’s sheep were frequently hassled by the farm collie - when off duty from his professional role – herding them for the farmer.

The family’s youngest son, Colm was the sole child to stay on the farm as his siblings has all gone to England or the USA for work. He was a fantastic playmate and guide to the wonders of rural life, even with his bad leg, a consequence of polio.

A nearby river teamed with fish and the village of Culdaff, just a mile or so from the house in the townland of Kilmaroo, was a revelation in itself.

A village ‘square’ - actually a diamond-shape – was its hub, with a few shops, two pubs, and an old style spirit grocer laid out around it. The biggest attraction though was the fabulous Culdaff beach which was just through the village, and of course the local tidal harbour, where small fishing boats landed their catch, and I caught my first ever fish!

The fact that the poor flatfish was accidentally hooked by the tail while swimming past was no matter – it was still my first catch and celebrated as such! People still fish off the wee pier to this day, but few could enjoy the experience as much as I did back in the day.

This time round there are two aims. One is to enjoy the hospitality at a small, rustic ‘boutique’ hotel that has been enjoying fame as both a fine dining experience and an entertainment venue for some years, McGrory’s. The second was to meet up with Colm again.

McGrory’s was originally what is referred to today as a general store, a shop that stocked not just groceries, but most things from a ‘needle to an anchor’.

Some visionary work over the last decade or so by the family who now own it has seen the building transformed into a small hotel, where each bare rock-walled bedroom is different from all the others. That this led on to the place becoming a somewhat unlikely entertainment hub developed at the same time as the outstanding cuisine In common with so many such establishments in County Donegal, breakfasts are famed for their quality and use of local produce. No one could better their poached egg, which on our visit was done so perfectly as to be worthy of the iconic McCalden Award for Fine Egg Dining (which I just invented), but that menu choice and the associated ‘full’ breakfast option are only the start.

Head chef Gary McPeake and his team offer local seafood, excellent steaks and chicken dishes, with bespoke vegetarian options also available. A carefully selected wine list by John Wilson, one of Ireland's wine experts and James Nicholson Wine Merchant, are available to accompany a meal.

Indeed the chef, a Scot, takes the time to come out and speak to his customers, but as a matter of choice rather than just courtesy. The food is remarkable, with his perfect poached egg being just a personal favourite.

So change, but ‘no change’ then, as five decades ago, wholesome, well-cooked food was a major highlight on our holidays to the McGrenaghan’s farmhouse and tasted marvellous, being fresh and locally sourced.

When Mrs McGrenaghan ‘put the pan’ on to cook breakfast on the huge turf-fired kitchen range that was a joy to behold in itself.

But today’s menu at the modern McGrory’s has enough to please the most pernickety of palates, offering an uncomplicated, but discerning range of dishes to tempt my older, more discerning (or jaded) pallet.

On ‘Tasty Thursdays’ there’s even a low price three-course menu that includes some main menu favourites, such as the Mulroy Bay Salmon, with spinach that is highly recommended.

All produce, including the Sirloin, is from (very) local suppliers, such as the memorably-named Ronald Boggs Butchers in nearby, scenic Malin.

So there’s much to enjoy in cuisine, and of course, the famous ‘Back Room’ where many big name artists and many lesser but equally enjoyable entertainers have played.

That alone has certainly ‘changed’ Culdaff since 50 years ago, but only on the margins, as the village still has its authentic charm and lovely setting with golden sands a wee dander away as well as a great deal to see and enjoy in the vicinity.

Colm McGrenaghan has also changed a bit in 50 years (as have I) but again, only ‘in the margins’ as he is still as much fun to meet as before. This time it’s over a pint in the local Culdaff Arms that is much favoured by the locals, rather than playing in the yard of his parents’ farm at Kilmaroo.

He has his own grown up family now, and a trade background as a joiner too, and has even befitted from an operation to sort out his previous lameness.

This is the new ‘improved version’ of Colm, whose demeanour has changed little – just like the village of Culdaff itself. Access to the ‘new improved’ Culdaff is also easier - as my first trip was via train to Londonderry, a tea-room lunch and then a bumpy Lough Swilly Bus service - to the end of the lane.

Today, while the main access for drivers is along much the same route and takes around two hours from Belfast – there is a romantic alternative – via the (seasonal) Foyle Ferry Service, from Greencastle, near Moville. This must rank as the shortest international crossing by sea in the world, taking around 10 minutes to reach the Point Bar ferry landing at the Martello tower at Magilligan in Northern Ireland.

It could only really happen in Donegal which is to say the least, a place apart.

In another 50 years, that’s still likely to be the case – as the world changes around this iconic and accessible part of County Donegal – but leaves very little in the way of change in this most friendly of places.

Indeed, from General Manager, Suzanne McFeely – who met us as an old friend would, sharing anecdotes of people we both know or worked with – to the bar staff, waitresses and the entertainers it’s just like coming home to old friends.

When we holidayed at the McGrenaghan’s farmhouse all those years ago, the McCalden family was told that if no one was home, to go on in – put the teapot on – relax and make ourselves at home, which we did on several occasions.

Today, at McGrory’s there’s much the same welcome, in the new, improved, but little altered Culdaff. Long may that last!


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