Originally written in September 2018

Maybe it’s just me but have you ever taken the time to notice what Donegal people converse about most and wonder what factors influenced the creation of these talking points?

Be it at a bar counter, a supermarket aisle-way or a casual chinwag with a friend on the street, it might be no harm to pick up on the themes that so often seem to continually ressurface during a casual chat with a friend or a colleague: sport, pop-culture, politics and the weather probably spring to mind and here’s how. 

By Jonathan Foley

Firstly, let me take a wee second to explain how the idea for this week’s article came about. I recently sat down to read a book called ‘Sport and the British’ by well-respected historian, Richard Holt.

Through a study of the history of life in the United Kingdom and throughout the British Empire – of which we were once an occupant of – he presented a wonderful case for how certain parts of these islands and the world adopted certain cultures and traditions through sports. 

Without reciting the whole book, he shows the reader that the strongest nations in international rugby and cricket are all former imperial regions who took up these games during the colonisation process. 

This rings true when we see how much interest there is in rugby amongst the people of Australia and New Zealand while cricket still gathers mass popularity in places like India and the West Indies. Even this weekend as England and Scotland locked horns in The Calcutta Cup, it’s all linked to that period. 

Similarly, Holt draws a parallel with Britain itself by showing how the Industrial Revolution era of the 19th Century combined with increased leisure time and trade union laws helped develop soccer as the ‘game of the working class,’ so it should come as no real surprise that the game has thrived in cities such as Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester amongst others. 

Those who could afford the facilities required to play lawn tennis and golf in these times were often those of the higher classes. 

Moving closer to home here in Ireland, something that we can take great pride in is that, as a nation, we do possess a strong love of sport be it through gaelic games, boxing, soccer, rugby or horse-racing in particular. Yet we are not exempt from how certain parts of the island developed somewhat differing sporting interests and this is down to a number of factors that link to things such as regional culture, social-class, geography and sometimes, reasons of religion and politics or even mass-influenced media. 

Before focusing in on Donegal, a more general look at Ireland is perhaps necessary. As popular as hurling is in this country, there’s still no doubt that it thrives mainly in the south-eastern region and that’s no coincidence. 

To play the codified version of the game after 1884, there was the requirement for soft flatlands and in these parts where the ‘Garden of Ireland’ exists and where there were better relations between landowners and tenants, our national game could begin to flourish more down there.

Gaelic football took more of a precedence in the western, midland-based and northern counties (possible exemptions for Antrim and Galway) as it made more sense to play with a ball through the hand and foot when contending with playing areas that were often more bog-based and inclined than those of the south. 

It also become a form of national expression in a more hostile environment which was not something rugby faced as much in such affluent places like south-Dublin or the wider Belfast area.

In Donegal today, there still remains a tremendous interest in sports across the board. How often do we hear of people chatting or debating away about soccer for example? 

To remonstrate this point further, we certainly do a lot more than persons from the likes of Mayo and Monaghan. Celtic FC have a huge following and the majority of that is down the history of cultural migration between here and the west of Scotland – for both fans and players – but here’s why English soccer has taken such a hold here. 

Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have had a large support here for a long time. 

Some have shunned others for their decision to follow them and as one former unnamed publican in the town said to me last week, there is more to it than what meets the eye. He believed it was down more so to the access, or lack thereof, to the coverage of sports on television and radio during the eighties and nineties. 

His theory was that prior to this era, people in Donegal didn’t care all that much about cross-channel soccer, but with the lack of Scottish and League of Ireland football being televised, people began to slowly but surely turn to English leagues and Match of the Day viewings for their enjoyment. 

With this county and town being located where it is, we were always able to pick up BBC transmissions much more than west Donegal, so it’s no real surprise that the popularity of the EPL grew hugely.

The proverbial explosion of Sky Sports and the volume of their subscribers here during the Celtic Tiger years added to this greatly. 

Moving aside from sport, other topics of conversation often come to the fore here and one of those is politics. There’s no doubt that Donegal people often become irate when we often get asked are we “from Northern Ireland or the Republic?” 

As much as we proclaim the latter, it’s maybe not always right to condemn such questions as ones being asked by the ignorant. At the end of the day there’s something that we share with only a few other counties and that is that we do have a profound interest in political matters of both regions. 

Ireland has been an island for 6000 years and less than 100 of those years have seen a line drawn on a map with our neighbour counties to the east. 

Living in the hinterland of a place that does gather so much media attention across the world – particularly during The Troubles – it seems inevitable that we should keep an eye out for what’s going on there. And yet because we are a county of the Republic, matters of interest in Dublin’s Dáil Éireann will also receive our attention. 

Thus another conversation ice-breaker arises. 

Thirdly, popular entertainment has always had a stronghold here and in all truth, it so often comes from either American or British influences. 

US sitcoms and Netflix series regularly pop up in conversations in staff rooms and in other meeting places while still on the normal everyday TV set, British-based soaps, comedies, dramas, reality shows and chat shows often dominate conversation and this trend is nothing new. If anything it’s generational. 

Some people of Letterkenny can still fondly tell you of times growing up through the years when Fawlty Towers would come on  BBC Two on a Sunday night and even for more regional-based shows like south-London’s Only Fools & Horses or Glasgow’s Still Game or Rab C. Nesbitt, we are able to understand the contextual humour and diallectual tones of these shows just as much as any local from the aforementioned cities could. 

And because we were one of the few regions in Ireland who had access to UTV for much longer periods than that of the rest of the country, that’s why, unlike others, we can remember what The Gerry Kelly Show was like or how ‘Julian from the UTV’ introduced a given episode of Coronation Street. 

Modern times have seen more topics be brought about with discussions of The X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent or I’m a Celebrity; Get Me Out of Here. None of which bare any official link to this part of the world. 

In conclusion, as Irish as we are and will always be, there’s little denying that advances made in technology and that of popular sport and entertainment have altered the course of casual conversations we often discuss in this country. 

Come to think of it, that’s always been the way! Even as far back as the time when Celtic Tradition came here from Eastern European tribes or even in the sixth century when Saint Patrick came here from Wales to preach the Christianity that was born in the Middle East and given momentum from the Roman Empire. 

We’ve always had things from afar to discuss and debate about so what I’m discussing here is nothing new really. 

Focusing closer to home, both Ulster and more national politics have gripped us and the sports and entertainments we follow most are there because of geographical, socio-political, technological and even trendy factors. 

Even through all this of course, it’s not be forgotten that we always have time to bring up the one thing we simply can’t control and that of course is the weather. Born from our tradition of agriculture, where weather plays an utmost important role, there’s always time to bring how ‘that day would clean founder ye!’ 

Having said that however, here’s hoping that as the month of March edges closer, we’ll soon be seeing a ‘grand stretch in the evenings, hiy!’