It's 1998 and English journalist Lawrence Donegan is drawn back to the promise of idyllic rural living in the village of Creeslough in County Donegal. He documents a year of exploring the local community through his job at the bi-weekly Tirconaill Tribune newspaper in his book No News At Throat Lake.
This humorous memoir was one of a number of books suggested by commenters after I posted a review of Tom Rachman's newspaper novel The Imperfectionists.
Following a spell as the bass player in a couple of bands, Lawrence Donegan has spent long periods of time living in unusual places and experiencing unusual professions before writing about his insights and experiences. Over the years he has caddied for a poorly ranked golfer, a used car salesman in the US, a steward at the Ryder Cup, and in-between these adventures he writes for the Guardian.
His initiation into working on a Creeslough farm involved helping a farmer and the vet to take the horns off some cattle.
I had already been sick three times, a fourth helping from the pit of my stomach wasn't going to make much difference. He pointed at the hole in the cow's head where the horn used to be. I looked inside and at the end of a narrow, swirling tunnel of bone, I could see something red and alive. [Its brain!]
But an ex-Guardian hack was ultimately more suited to working for the disruptive community voice, the Tirconaill Tribune. Its editor John McAteer singlehandedly opposes local public bodies like the Council and the Gardaí. Articles are cutting; editorials are angry.
With a tiny staff but a growing readership, Donegan writes up stories about local folk and threats to the community (mobile masts and beached whales), joins pilgrims on a trip to Knock, as well as marking major cultural moments (like the visit of Newt Gingrich to curry up favour with Irish-American voters, and the attendance of his idol Meryl Streep at a Donegal film première).
Donegan trains with the local Gaelic football squad, attends the wake for his boss' mother, upsets local monarchists with his disrespectful poem about Lady Diana, and starts attending mass.
I hate to admit this, but I felt strangely euphoric. I'd actually enjoyed the experience of going to mass - not the religious part but the act of attending. I think the reason was this: the occasion had a sense of a whole community coming together ... Mass seemed to be as much a social event as it was a spiritual one. people were pleased to see each other and their happiness was infectious. I felt as if I belonged.
Woven around the normal comings and goings in Creeslough, Donegan investigates the truth behind Bernard Lafferty's involvement in the (financial) affairs of American millionairess Doris Duke. Her butler and executor, "outrageous claims that Bernard murdered Doris Duke were never proved".
Eventually, the lure of the mainland pulls Donegan away from the editorial excesses of the Tribune and the happenings around Creeslough. I wonder whether fifteen years on Lawrence Donegan ever returns to the village to catch up with the success of his GAA team and to check the circulation of the Tribune.
It's an easy read, and most of the unsuspecting cast come out of the book well. Having holidayed in Buncrana last summer, No News At Throat Lake feels quite familiar. Yet its rural focus overlooks the pressures - even back in 1998 - on the less than bustling towns and remaining industry in Donegal.
Next time I'm across in Donegal, I must try to pick up a copy of the Tirconaill Tribune!