In the saltmarsh fringing where the Ballyboe River dissolves into Trawbreaga Bay, a little egret wears its plumage like a windblown stole. Our car swoops across the 10 arches of Malin bridge and we park along the village green. Malin is almost as far north as you can get on the island of Ireland. It was a “planned settlement” that emerged from the Ulster plantation, a colonial project that “planted” the region with people from England and Scotland during the 17th century. Along the base of the green’s triangle are the tree-lined grounds of the local Church of Ireland (Anglican communion). The modest church building is the foundation on which the green, and thus the village, stand. Jackdaws spill from the bell tower, which is oriented not, as you might expect, towards the village but rather towards Malin Hall, the former landowners’ family home.
Driving north-west, the estuary appears trapped between low‑slung hills and a ridge of high dunes. On a narrow lip of land, almost within the tide’s grasp, is the splash of whitewash that is Malin Presbyterian church. Unwelcome in the village because of the 17th-century penal laws that suppressed Protestant dissenter and Catholic congregations, the original meeting house was reputedly built on shifting sands below the high water mark. Graceful as the hull of an upturned cutter and gleaming like the inside of a razorshell, this church both defies and answers to its raw location. We get out of the car to a chorus of wildfowl: the drib-drib of brent geese, the piping of oystercatchers, the shrills of wigeons.
The road leads on to another whitewashed church, hunkered at the edge of the dunes. My first thought is that the penal laws must have banished St Mary’s Catholic church to this wasteland. The truth runs deeper. In the graveyard, a brambly slump of stones is thought to be the ruins of a medieval church, probably destroyed during the plantation. St Mary’s, built in 1784 as the penal laws began to ease, restored an important place of worship for the Indigenous population.
We walk to the beach that flanks the narrowing of Trawbreaga Bay into the Atlantic. Waves seethe to a far horizon. From the soaring cliffs of the Knockamanny Bens, a party of choughs – black and shiny as curates, cardinal-red legs striping their bellies – dance on the wind.
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