Swallowed by a Donegal Ditch: Mishaps in Irish Travel

This week, I asked our readers to share their Irish travel mishaps, and when this one came in from Barrie Maguire (…with photos!), I knew I had to share it straightaway. I think it’s a testament to the generosity of the people of Donegal and the ferocity of those Ulster ditches 😉

Thanks for sharing Barrie! If you have a mishap… large or small… you’d like to share, email me.

In May of 2006 we rented a house on the shore of Lough Swilly in Rathmullen, Co. Donegal, just a hundred yards north of the cove that launched the Flight of the Earls.

Just after dawn one morning, as my wife and granddaughter slept, I grabbed my camera and car keys and slipped into sweat pants and a plaid shirt and went out the door into the fresh Irish morning. I drove north up the coast road for four or five miles then turned onto a narrow road that disappeared between bright yellow hedges of gorse into the Donegal back-country.


An Unexpected Tour

For an hour I poked my way up and down the quiet roads, stopping to photograph the gorse and sheep, horses and cottages in the bright morning sunlight slanting in from the East. Finally, I decided to head back. I knew the bay was less than a mile or so to the east, and I could see down into the valley to the road that led to the coast.

But every road I tried ended in dead ends or construction barriers or back to intersections I had just been through. I found myself passing the same cottages for the second or third time. I knew exactly where I was, I could see the road in the valley, but could not find my way to it.

A Very Wrong Turn

I came across a freshly paved road that curved away in the right direction. I took it 50 yards around a bend and discovered to my disappointment that it ended in a farm yard between an old stone cottage and a low, dingy stone barn. A black and white sheep dog, its chain stretched to the limit, stood on alert.

Frustrated, I put the car in reverse and began backing out the narrow winding drive. Driving on the “wrong side of the road” can be difficult but I find backing up next to impossible. I crept backward, sensed I was getting too close to the left hand ditch and turned the wheel to bring me back into the center of the road.  Slowly, gently, my left front tire went off the road and into the ditch.  Oh no!  I gave it a little gas but I was totally hung up.

I opened the door to step out of the car and found to my horror that I was 18” off the road!  I climbed down and saw the enormity of my problem, the car was cantilevered into the air, the right rear wheel lifted high off the road.  The left front wheel was hanging in air over a small but briskly flowing creek!  I fought despair and, standing on the narrow road in the middle of nowhere, I took a deep breath and recited the Serenity Prayer:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, etc.”

A Bit of a Dilema

A cloud of gloom hung over me as I headed back down the drive toward the farm cottage around the bend.  When the dog saw me he began barking furiously.  As I approached the cottage, an old man in rumpled clothes appeared in the doorway, blinking his eyes in the sunlight.

“I’ve done a stupid thing,” I told him.  “I’ve gone off the road and into a ditch, and I’m hopelessly stuck.” He nodded.  I said, “I need to call somebody.”

“Wait out here,” he said in a heavy rural brogue, and turned back into the dark cottage.  I realized that I didn’t have my wallet, no money or identification, nothing.  I was practically dressed in pajamas.

I did thank God for two things though: one, my wife wasn’t with me, and two, I wasn’t wearing my fuzzy slippers!

Calling the Rescue Party

From inside I could hear the whirring and clicking of an old rotary phone being dialed, and then he was talking… I couldn’t understand a word he said, he was speaking Irish.

Then, “Come on in,” he called to me.

I entered the cottage, and it was as humble, as “mean,” as any poor crofters cottage I’d ever read about.  Dark, the walls sooty, a simple wooden hutch, a tiny window across the way, the Sacred Heart of Jesus framed and hanging from a nail on the wall.  Through the door into the kitchen I saw a cast iron stove, flames visible through the round left-front grate.

He stood in the doorway holding out the phone out to me, “He’s bringin’ a tractor, tell ‘im where y’are.”  I panicked, I didn’t have the faintest idea where I was!

As I took the phone I asked him, “What’s your name?”

He answered with something like, “Gharrrrahough.”  I hadn’t the faintest idea what he’d just said.

I put the phone to my ear and heard a voice, “Where arr’ya?”

“Gharrrrahough,”  I replied.

“Be there inna wee bit.”

I hung up the phone.  Dumbfounded.

“Thanks so much,” I said to the old man, “I better walk to the car and wait there.”

A Plan for Liberation

Back at the car I stood in crisp morning air, surrounded by lush green fields, birds singing in the hedges, and my rental car, it’s hind leg lifted like a urinating dog.  Urinating on me, I thought darkly. And I had decided not to buy the extra insurance!  After a few minutes, a red van sped passed the top of the lane, stopped up the road and backed up.  A man in workman’s uniform climbed out and walked down to me, “How did ya go off the road? Ah, you were reversin’.”  After I told him that help was on the way, he said, “Well I’ll be goin’ but I’ll check back on ya.”  No sooner had he left when I heard the faint putt-putt of a tractor in the morning stillness.

The tractor came down the lane with a young man at the wheel who parked it and climbed down.  I heard a car door slam and saw a white van stopped up the road, two men in Wellingtons walking toward me.  The red van returned and parked at the end of the lane, and behind me the old man from the cottage, fully dressed now, came towards us.

In no time the five men were standing in the creek, studying my predicament, and talking away in Irish.  I stood there silently watching, understanding nothing, helpless.  One of the men turned to me and spoke in English, “It’s hung up on a rock and if the tractor pulls it out it will scrape the bottom of the panel.”

Before I had a chance to tell him that I didn’t care if it destroyed the car, just get me back up on the road, he turned away and rejoined his friends and their Irish-language discussions.

Then he was back, “If we all lift the left front of the car as the tractor pulls it back I think we can get it back on the road without any damage.”  In a minute the tractor was hooked up to the rear bumper, three of the men were standing in the creek ready to hoist the car, and I was seated at the wheel.

“One… two…three!”  The tractor pulled, the men lifted, and suddenly my car sat on the road as if nothing had ever happened.

There was not the tiniest scratch on the car.  A miracle!  I got out of the car profusely thanking my saviors.  They were gracious and friendly, no signs of “who is this moron Yank?”

“I want to take a picture of all of you, my Irish angels.” Grinning, they posed in front of the car for a photo I will cherish forever.


The heroes of the day.

Author: Guest

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  1. This was a lovely story. So glad it turned out well, and you managed to get home eventually.

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  2. Gee, that’s impressive! The best I can do is taking off the side mirror on a post van. We didn’t take pictures of that.

    I should clarify…the side mirror was on our rental car, not on the post van. We paid 9 Irish Punts for repair. The good ol’ days!

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    • I had a tire dive for the ditch and needed a local pull me out once, but it definitely didn’t look like that scene.

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  3. I think everybody who’s ever driven in Ireland has their ditch story…LOL! Mine involved a huge mama of a hole filled with rainwater and liquified cow poo, which made a very impressive brown tsunami all over the back of the rental car when I hit it. I was on the way to return the car to Dublin airport at the time, and when I got there and was standing at the return desk, I tried to look as nonchalant as possible while the agent was outside inspecting the vehicle. But…it’s Ireland, and I’m sure mine was not the first poo covered car they had ever seen, so the agent came back in and said, “Ok then, everyt’ing’s fine!” LOL

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  4. We told the car rental place in Dublin that we would be traveling in the Burren on one of our trips. The friendly staff member blinked, turned to another friendly staff member and switched up some paperwork, then took us out to a car with a hole gouged into the front bumper. “There ya are, then. We haven’t fixed it up yet, so no one will notice if ya bump something. Just bring it back in one piece.”

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  5. That was an absolutely great story. I have entertained the idea of renting and driving in Ireland, but this gives me pause. It was a happy ending, but that’s more adventure than I would want on a vacation!

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    • Chiara you haven’t fully lived until you have driven on an Irish back road! Next time your over visiting us you gotta get yourself a car to experience the roads and see the best scenary!

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  6. Fantastic Story! 😀 Thanks for sharing!

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  7. I have done this in a 4×4 and it is really scary! Glad all turned out well 🙂

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  8. Great story! Wonderfully written! Thank you for sharing!

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  9. I really enjoyed your story, I particularly your photos! Next month I’m going to Ireland for the first time, completely alone, renting a car and driving all the way around the island. Fingers crossed my trip will be a lot less exciting than this!

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    • Sherri,

      I’m sure you’ll do great… just take it slow, and if you need to ask for help… well, just think of the interesting people you’ll meet 🙂

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  10. I don’t have a ditch story but I do have a tale.
    Going to Ireland by myself for the first time, I expressed to my lovely guest house owner that I was a little nervous to be driving myself for the first time. She smiled and said ” ah sure you have nothing to worry about. I’ll be right back.”
    A few minutes later in walks a uniformed Garda and says “Now darlin’, me wife tells me your here alone driving for the first time. Now don’t you be a-worryin’, just thik left and hold your ground. If you are still concerned, just stop. After all you can’t be blamed if the other hits you and you aren’t moving.”
    It was the best advise I ever got. I’ve been back 15 times and always as the driver.

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  11. Loved the story! Great memory – now that’s over and everything turned out well. lol Makes me “homesick” to go back to Ireland and drive those winding narrow country roads again! After ll, I haven’t tried backing down one yet! lol

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