Saturday 10 May: Malin Head, County Donegal to Castlebar, County Mayo
For one week in May 2014, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams is travelling around Ireland to hunt down stories of faith, life and reality. Each day, she will share her journey and introduce the people she meets along the way. Visit VOX magazine on Facebook for more photos and to take part in our competition to guess how many miles she will travel this week!
It's shortly before 8am on Saturday 10 May 2014 and after a final mad dash to pack the car, we set out for Ireland's most northerly point - Banba's Crown at Malin Head in County Donegal. For this first part of the journey, my husband Andrew is joining me (yay). There is something special about standing at the very 'top' of Ireland. After taking a few photos and making a quick video, we take a few moments to pray before heading south.
First stop is Buncrana (home!) where I say goodbye to Andrew for the week (sad face) before heading west. As the weather turns nasty, I drive through the the Donegal hills. Dotted with vivid golden whin (gorse bushes) and scarred with gashes where peat is dug for the winter fires, this is a wild, windswept landscape. Mist shrouds Mount Errigal yet there is a fierce beauty here, even under the darkening sky. For me, it feels like a deep breath!
This is the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht and I'm headed for Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair) where I'm to meet Noel Boyd who will guide me the final 20 minutes of the journey to Carrickfinn on the west coast. By now the rain has become a torrential downpour as we pass Donegal airport and cross onto what was once an island. The Boyd family have lived here for over 300 years!
In the farmhouse, I'm greeted warmly and stop for a cup of tea and a chat with Margaret Boyd. A retired teacher, now Margaret devotes her time to working with the Church of Ireland as a diocesan reader. "My faith means everything to me, and I try to live that out in the community," she shares with a soft smile.
Margaret admits the family has faced their fair share of troubles. "We've lost a nephew and a grand nephew who both died at a very young age (cancer and heart problems) in recent years. I think without my faith I would have found that very difficult."
It comes as a surprise to learn that Margaret is a scientist. "I used to teach physics and maths," she says. "Some people think that is odd. They say, 'Don't you find that science and God don't agree with each other?' But the more I learnt about science, the more I came to believe that God had a hand in it."
Time is racing and after chatting briefly with David - another Boyd who is a young farmer - I'm back in the car for another two hour stint, through more breath-taking Donegal scenery and then on into Sligo. I call in to Sligo Baptist Church where Deborah Davitt has been running a coffee morning and clothes collection to raise money for Tearfund. It is a chance to meet four generations of one family and to help the lorry with bags of clothes.
But there is also an opportunity to chat with Deborah and her grandmother, Margaret Barker and a moving story emerges. "My grandmother and grandfather came over to Sligo from England with three young children in the 1960s and started the Baptist church. The church began meeting in their garage. On some Sundays, I can remember smelling granny's roast dinner through the door!" Deborah smiled.
Heartbreak struck in the 1990s, when Margaret's husband Alan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and rapidly deteriorated. "In our day, there was no support," Margaret shared. "I used to spend a lot of my time crying! At first, I felt bitter and asked, 'Why me?' Alan had worked so hard for the Lord. But then I realised, 'Why not me?'"
After Alan died, Margaret was determined to make sure other families did not got through such a terrible ordeal without support. With the help of her family, she set up a day care centre just outside Sligo.
"One of the nurses who cared for Alan told us about an old school and we rented that for €25 a month and eventually we bought it." Margaret shared. "Out of something that seemed appalling, something really good has happened," Deborah said.
From Sligo town, it is a short drive to the village of Coolaney where I've been invited to share an evening meal with John and Joanne Fitzsimmons and their two lively boys. John is the pastor of Sligo City Church. Both from the North, the couple met at Belfast Bible College. Feeling God had called them to work in the Republic of Ireland, they fell in love with the West - working first in Castlebar before moving to Sligo three years ago.
I chat with John about the church in Sligo, enjoying the antics of his two boys as they let off steam before bedtime (Thomas the Tank Engine and several dinosaurs feature strongly). John shares his own faith journey and talks about the importance of his study and the beach! He is passionate about studying the word of God. "There is always something new to discover. I like digging into the Bible but not just for knowledge. I want to see God and experience Him through the text. But if I want to be alone with God, I head off for the beach and go for a walk!"
After a wonderful meal, it's time to climb into the driving seat once again. The one hour drive to Castlebar takes one hour and I'm happily patting myself on the back for being spot on with my scheduling when I suddenly realise (not for the first time) that Googlemaps is not all its cracked up to be. The last five minutes stretches to 40 as I go round in circles!
Switching of the engine for the final time, I'm greeted warmly by Andrew and Genesis, an American couple who have been helping to launch a new church in Castlebar. There is a lovely room and a cup of tea waiting, plus the promise of wifi to finish my blog.