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Road trip to Donegal

Occasionally in winter a high pressure zone builds up over Europe and envelopes Ireland in its cold, dry, crystalline embrace. Thus in recent days some of our harbours and rivers have been coated with thin ice, and the water in Dublin Bay, which James Joyce memorably called the ‘snot-green sea,’ changed in color to a Mediterranean turquoise.

I took a couple of foreign visitors for a long drive to Donegal, the mountainous and often rain-drenched northwestern county, to savor the unbroken sunshine and spectacular sunsets. We stayed in an old manor house converted into a country hotel where for 50 euro ($67) each we shivered in the icy bedrooms but enjoyed a magnificent Irish breakfast by a roaring log fire.

We were the only guests. Everyone in Donegal we met was gloomy about the future of the local economy, which relies heavily on holiday-makers.

Tourism in Ireland has been hard hit by the weak dollar and the recession in the United States. Last year the number of U.S. tourists was down by nine percent and their spending by 18 percent, according to Shaun Quinn, chief executive of Failte (Welcome) Ireland, in his annual report last week.

This year will be worse. Many hotels and B&Bs in the west of Ireland will likely go out of business. Up to 25,000 tourism workers have lost their jobs, many of them Eastern Europeans who came here in the boom years but are now going home. The upside is that some of the outrageous prices that have given this country a reputation as "rip-off Ireland" may be forced down.

Before leaving Donegal we experienced the sort of kindness that justifies the word Failte in the title of the national tourism board. A brake pad on my imported U.S. car gave way in the town of Ballybofey, shortly after negotiating a dangerous switchback road to Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe.

A garage owner, Peter Dunnion, had new pads couriered from nearby Lifford and filed down to the car’s specifications in a couple of hours, and got us back on the road. As we waited, his wife Angela said, “Our house is next door. Come in for a cup of tea. I’ll leave the front door open for you.”