Monday 19 August 2019

Kathy Donaghy: How serving coffee to tourists on Donegal's Malin Head brought me back to a summer in France

Serving coffee to tourists on Donegal's Malin Head reminds Kathy Donaghy of a long-ago summer job on a gorgeous French island that introduced her to coffee, tough work and the local bad boy

Kathy Donaghy serves coffee at Caffe Banba on Malin Head. Photo by Lorcan Doherty
Kathy Donaghy serves coffee at Caffe Banba on Malin Head. Photo by Lorcan Doherty
Sláinte: Barista Claire Doherty with Kathy. Photo by Lorcan Doherty
The beautiful views at Malin Head. Photos by Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy

The smell of freshly ground coffee greets me as I arrive at the country's most northerly point. I drink it in along with the views of the Atlantic swelling and swirling all around me.

Banba's Crown, the northern tip of Malin Head, is named after the goddess of the mythological Tuatha Dé Danann tribe. In recent years, more visitors have been coming to this rugged spot in the far north, many drawn by the force of Star Wars which featured Malin Head in its latest movie instalment.

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But even in places like this - where you feel like you're on the edge of the world - it's possible to get a good cup of coffee. With mobile coffee truck - Caffe Banba - in situ, visitors to the head can sit down to drink their brew of choice on the rocks while soaking in the wildness of this place.

Barista Claire Doherty (21) makes me a double-shot Americano. I pay attention as she grinds the beans, tamps them into the portafilter, before slotting it tightly into place in the machine. I'm spending the day with Claire, observing the comings and goings of life at Malin Head while serving up coffee and cake to the visitors.

Sláinte: Barista Claire Doherty with Kathy. Photo by Lorcan Doherty
Sláinte: Barista Claire Doherty with Kathy. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

It's a long time since I've used one of these coffee machines - 27 years to be exact. In the summer of 1992, I travelled from Ireland to an island off the coast of Brittany in France to work as a "stagiaire" and got my first introduction to European coffee culture.

Student placements or a "stage" were part and parcel of the language student's life. I was 18 years old and studying French in university at the time. To earn your degree, you had to spend six months over the three-year course in France. Under the "stage", your bed and board were covered and you were paid a pittance for a summer's work.

The dreamer in me was sold on Île-de-Bréhat when I heard mention of the beautiful sunsets viewed from the famous Paon lighthouse in the north of the island. Little did I know I'd be working so hard I'd see very few sunsets.

The job in the Hotel Bellevue et les Terrasses, a stone's throw from where day trippers alighted from boats ferrying them to the island, was to do a bit of everything. From chambermaid to waitress, washer of dishes and toilets, to server of beer and coffee - it was hard graft.

In the mornings before anyone had surfaced, I had to cycle to the boulangerie to fetch the bread and croissants for breakfast. It sounds idyllic but try stacking a giant sack of bread on a rickety bicycle on cobbled roads and see how you get on.

I was banned from cycling to the bakery after I skidded one day close to the hotel, sending the baguettes flying and knocking myself out. Thereafter, I walked to the boulangerie and had the humiliation of ferrying the bread back to the hotel on a small handheld cart. It was even more rustic than the bike.

The beautiful views at Malin Head. Photos by Lorcan Doherty
The beautiful views at Malin Head. Photos by Lorcan Doherty

Mainlining espresso

It took me a long time to get to grips with the coffee and how people could drink it so strong and black. I don't remember being much of a coffee drinker or coffee even being "a thing" in Ireland back then. By the time I left Bréhat, I was mainlining espressos to keep me going through 12-hour shifts.

Sylvie, who ran the bar, gave me a demo on how the coffee machine worked and the different types of coffee people would ask for. I don't think I got it. It's not that I didn't understand what she was saying, it was just that Sylvie was probably the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. With her perfect bobbed hair, her husky voice and box of cigarettes in the back pocket of her jeans, she oozed impossible French glamour from every pore. I felt awkward and clumsy beside her. I did manage to get to grips with the coffee, but Sylvie's brand of confidence would forever elude me.

I ended up sharing a cabin with Sylvie and Mary, another Irish girl. Sylvie moved into the cabin with Mary and I after her relationship with one of the chefs broke up. One morning we woke up to find him sleeping on the front steps of our cabin.

There are no photographs of me from that summer in France. It seems strange now in an age where everything is Insta ready. If there were, I've no doubt I'd look miserable in them. My diary from that summer - which I drag out now and again for its pure entertainment value - is a record of complaints about how hard I had to work and my relationship with local bad boy Jean-René, which existed mainly in my own head.

Back on Malin Head, and in between serving customers, Claire tells me she loves being back home in Donegal for the summer. A student of maths and Irish at Maynooth University, she's waiting to get the results of her degree, and this is her third summer working at Malin Head - she grew up in the townland of Ballygorman not far away.

"A lot of my friends were going off on J-1 visas. I felt I should do it, too, but I prefer being here. It's quieter here than in Maynooth. I love that I'm outside and I get to view this view every day. Even though I'm looking at the same thing, the view is constantly changing," she says. Caffe Banba owner Dominic McDermott pops by to check in. He also runs a café on the Malin Road in the nearby town of Carndonagh that's famous in Inishowen for its good coffee.

But when Dominic first moved to Ireland in 2007 with his wife Andrea and their two young daughters, Caragh, now 14, and Áine (12), coffee culture certainly hadn't arrived in this part of Donegal. Having left big jobs in telecoms and in the hospitality sector, Dominic and Andrea were looking for a different way of life. Andrea's roots in Malin Head saw them set their internal compasses to extreme north. They bought a coffee van and brought it up to the head. The couple had two more children, twins Aoibheann and Roan (10) after they moved to Ireland.

"At the time, we were the only coffee van around. People thought we were crazy - they just didn't think about coffee. It was happening in Brighton, where we had been living. When we set up the van, I thought there'd be lots of local bakers, but there was nobody doing home baking at the time. We built a tiny bakery in our house and we keep it really simple and natural," says Dominic.

When he and Andrea first took on a small premises in Carndonagh in 2011, they started by only opening Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Very soon, people were coming just for the coffee. All the young people who had travelled to work in the US, Canada and Australia had returned with a taste for coffee and it wasn't long before the McDermotts outgrew the small premises and moved to a larger one.

As midday approaches, the number of visitors to Banba's Crown increases. As Claire gets an order in, I am transported back to another July - to France's Bastille Day - on July 14. On that day in 1992, all boats to Île-de-Bréhat were cancelled. A storm blew up with torrential rain all day. That night, as it finally abated, we watched the fireworks on the French mainland and I remember feeling homesick for Inishowen.

Bastille storm

Because Bastille Day was such a washout, an impromptu fête was organised in Le Bourg, the island's main village, a few days later. I finished my shift in the restaurant early and made my way to the square where trestle tables had been set up and crêpes with jam and bottles of beer were being served. A Spanish band played in the background and a few of us from the hotel chatted. It was perfect until Jean-René, the object of my affection, drunkenly burned my hand with his cigarette in a rather clumsy almost-clinch. I still have a small scar on the back of my right hand.

Back at Banba's Crown, the Bartels family from Maryland in the US file out of their car looking for coffee and putting paid to my trip down memory lane. For them, this place is special at any time of year. Twenty two years ago, John Bartels proposed to his now wife Debbie. The couple now have two boys - 17-year-old Davis and 16-year-old Bennett - and they come back to Malin Head every chance they get to visit family.

They drink their coffees and take in the view which has continued to draw them back year after year. John's grandfather was a Doherty from Clonmany. Given the sheer number of families with the surname Doherty in Inishowen, his family were known as the Davis Dohertys and this is how their eldest son got his name.

At the souvenir stand nearby, Martina Quirke is holding the fort for her brother Shane Glackin. "I love working up here," says Martina, who works in a pre-school. But when school's out she's regularly found up at the head meeting people "from all the corners of the earth". "Everyone has a story to tell," she says.

Perched on one of the small outbuildings nearby, her niece Courtney O'Connor (15) plays fiddle for the tourists. She comes up when the weather is good and there's a chance to make a few euro and enjoys talking to the visitors. The chat may stand her in good stead when it comes to studying psychology after she finishes school.

Visiting Malin Head for the first time are Linda Redmond and her mother Mary Ogilvie, Mary's sister Nancy Morrissy and her husband Des. Linda wasn't meant to be on the trip. Her father Gordon, who had planned the entire trip meticulously, passed away in January and she stepped in to go in his stead.

As we get them coffee, we learn that it's a pilgrimage of sorts for the family - they're going to all the places Gordon had planned for them to see together. They explain that they'd been told about the beauty of the place and that it didn't disappoint, although the experience is marred by the pain of their loss.

As the afternoon rolls on, the cars keep coming. There's no room to park at Banba's Crown and drivers park their cars a bit further down the road, walking the last bend up to the tip of the island.

Pink rocks

On my French island adventure, I remember hiring bikes with a few others who were working in the hotel. We cycled the length of the island to the famous lighthouses I'd heard about. My memory is of riding along country paths, the island becoming less inhabited as we travelled further north, and the smell of wood smoke from the evening fires filling the air.

The phare du paon or peacock lighthouse was as beautiful as I'd heard about. The rocks around it glowed pink in the evening sunlight. By then it was almost time for me to travel back home to Donegal for a couple of weeks before heading back to college. I left the island and didn't look back.

During that summer, I'd learned a lot of French and a little bit about life and about people. My heart had been broken and I had worked harder than I'd ever worked before. I was ready to go home. But a new love affair had begun that was more than a holiday romance - my love of good coffee, preferably strong and always black.

Next week in our Summer Jobs series: Journalist Kim Bielenberg remembers his first scoop - working in an ice-cream parlour

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