Bags packed, car loaded up for an Ireland vacation, Seamus O'Murchu takes a road trip around the vast, rugged wilds of Donegal in the faraway north west of Ireland.
Donegal is a county that in some ways lags behind the rest of Ireland but is much the better for it. For such a large county as Donegal its amazing that there are really only two main roads through it, the N15 primary road which winds through the low lying valleys of the east of the county and the secondary N56 that skirts the outer perimeter of Donegal weaving in and out of its intricate coastline revealing splendid stretches of golden sands and sharp twists around sheer cliff faces.
The centre of the county is marked by a rugged stark, landscape of sweeping peat bogs and wild mountain valleys, reminiscent of the more remote parts of the Scottish Highlands or the Hebridian Isles, which indeed have many cultural links with this part of Ireland. Dun na nGall the county's Irish name means ‘fort of the foreigner' and was so-called as the Celtic tribes moved to here and the Western areas of Scotland around Argyll-'gyll' being a version of Gall.
Roughly one third of Donegal's population live within the Gaeltacht area of the north west coast of the ‘Bloody Foreland' around the rural settlements of Gortahork, Derrybeg, Bunbeg and Dungloe. Here Gaelic/Irish is the first language, but it's a dialect that lies closer with that of Scots Gaelic than that of Munster in the south of Ireland. All the road signs and town names in this region are in Irish and mostly with no English translation, which requires a good bit of linguistic gymnastics when you're passing by at 100kmph!
I'm taking the N56, the slow road to everywhere, to the village of Dunfanaghy on the north western coast set beside Killyhoey Beach, a secluded bay of vast sandy stretches. My plan is to stay here tonight and use it as a base to explore this rugged area around the Glenveigh National Park and the Gaeltacht - I might bump into Gerry Adams who has a holiday home in Gortahork and get out to Tory Island and meet Ireland's only Monarch, Patsy-Dan Rogers. A painter and a publican Patsy-Dan was voted to the post by fellow islanders in 1995 and by all accounts does a much better job the monarchs who imposed themselves on Ireland from overseas. But unfortunately the town was booked up and I got booked into a hotel in Donegal town in the south of the county. It'll be alright I think, it'll mean some driving but it doesn't look that far on the map...
After stopping by Arnolds Hotel in Dunfanaghy - a very nice establishment who arrange a huge range of activities, with their own riding paddocks, golf course nearby and have painting and photography workshops, I head down the road and cut back into the interior to the Glenveagh National Park. This 16,500 sq-km area of mountainous terrain set around Lough Beagh and the majestic Glenveagh Castle modelled on Balmoral, is a scene of outstanding beauty that is worth the rather steep entrance fee.
The land itself was owned by the Brooke and Adair families until the 1920s when this part of Ireland gained independence from Britain. When Scottish landowner John George Adair got his hands on the land in 1861 he promptly evicted his 244 tenants that very winter to set up a park for hunting deer and earning scorn for himself and his generations of ancestors. The land was later acquired by a succession of wealthy Americans in the early 20th Century before it was gifted to the Irish State and now it is them that charge the earth to enter it.
After a tour of the rooms I head back towards Dunlewy, here I find the atmospheric ‘Poisoned Glen' in which is nestled the picturesque village of Dunlewy with its roofless church over looked by the mighty mount Errigal. The story behind the Poisoned Glen is steeped in folklore, legend has it the glen was poisoned by the blood from the eye of a giant Cyclops. But the more comprehensive story is that when an English map writer noted the glen he miss spelt it from its original An Gleann Neamhe meaning the ‘Heavenly Glen' to An Gleann Neimhe meaning the ‘Poisoned Glen'. So in truth its was poisoned by an i of sorts from someone who was short sighted.
From here despite the fact that time was getting on I decided to take a loop around the peninsula of the Bloody Headland via Bunbeg and Derrybeg, with a lovely stretch of beach that has been a bit overdeveloped. Rather than the rustic cottages that once dotted the landscape of this romantically remote Gaeltacht, there are now lots of modern looking bungalows overlooking the sea. That's progress for you though it still has a certain backwater charm.
From here I headed to the Gaeltacht area known as Na Rossa around Dungloe a place of eerie beauty that really has remained attractive and untouched. Here you'll find secluded little bays and tucked away little inlets from the sea and in late July early August the place is full of good looking women called Mary. This is the local beauty pageant and 10 Day festival ‘the Mary of Dungloe', usually hosted by native crooner and grandmas' favourite Daniel O'Donnell. Also around these parts you may find retired Irish television legend Gay Byrne. Just a quick note to underline the status of Gay Byrne, for those that don't know he was the presenter/iconic chat show host for that most intrinsically Irish of shows the Late Late show. Gay Byrne became the longest running presenter on a single TV show ever in the history of television and when he retired in the late 90s RTE (the main Irish TV channel) actually paid him to stay retired rather than sign up with one of their rivals. Now that's what I call a pension plan!
From Dungloe I cut inland across the less travelled but nonetheless beautiful Finn Valley to Ballybofey a pretty town with a made up sounding name before hitting the final stretch through to Donegal Town and finally getting into my hotel at 9.30pm. Who says this job isn't hard work?
Next day I decide to devote myself to a small drive around the south area of Donegal, drop by and see a cousin of mine out on the snake like peninsula in Donegal Bay of St John's Point, before getting to my next port of call a B&B in Ireland's seaside resort Bundoran for 6pm - shouldn't be a problem....
First port of call is Donegal Town a pleasant enough town that serves as the administerial centre of the county. On a rocky outcrop in the centre of town is the 17th Century Castle from which the various rulers of the region ruled. From the O'Donnells of the old Irish order, to the English Brookes (who also owned Glenveagh), who took over after the Flight of the Earls. It's a pretty little town situated at the head of Donegal Bay and built around the Diamond. At the centre of this landmark is the Diamond Obelisk a great stone slab commemorating one of the most important written works of early Irish History - the Annals of the Four Masters. Fearing that the arrival of the English in the 15th Century would wipe out Celtic culture in Ireland (and they certainly did their best to) four friars at the Franciscan Friary in Donegal set quill to parchment and wrote down the entire history and mythology of Ireland from the early legends right up to 1618. One of the reasons why Irish culture is so punctuated by such rich folklore is because of this documented heritage, but if you want to see it you'd have to travel to the National Library in Dublin.
After I amble around Donegal Town for a while, in and out of the touristy trinket and tweed shops, and such like and after a quick guided tour of the castle I get back in the car to run down to the Sandhouse Hotel in Rossnowlagh - an aptly named hotel given the impressive 5km stretch of golden beach it overlooks. It'd be a great spot for families in the summer who can just let the kids loose on this fine stretch of Blue Flag beach. Then I double back on myself to Harvey's Point Hotel beside Lough Eske just outside Donegal Town. In the process of major new building work at the time of visiting, that should establish it as one of the best 5 star hotels this far north when it is finished. Then I decided to take one of those short country drives, through the Blue Stack Mountains - just because the name sounded nice - on to the town of Glenties.
I Must admit the Blue Stack Mountains were more barren than rugged and not half as mountainous as I'd have expected and Glenties wasn't nearly as picturesque as its reputation in the national tidy towns competitions would suggest. Maybe I'm being unfair, maybe it was just having a bad hair day. Just a quick note on Tidy Towns in case I'm loosing you - right across the Republic of Ireland there is a competition for the tidiest town. This breaks down into categories of village, small town, and large town, kind of like a weight category for boxing but without Don King motor mouthing his way in. It's a great idea, it galvanises local pride, keeps towns tidy and looking pretty for the tourists and wins the town a lot of kudos.
After treating myself to an ice cream in Glenties, I hit the road just as the rain starts to come down in sheets. Heading to Glencolumbcille I come via the Glen Gesh Pass, a winding road cutting through a deep valley before rising up around 500m to overlook the sandy beaches of Glen Bay and the beautiful little hamlet of Glencolumbcille. This couldn't be a greater contrast than the desolate bog land I'd just passed and just as I reach the outskirts of the village the rains stops as if it had skirted around the quiet bay.
The name of the village translates as Glen of Columba's Church and it was here that St Colmcille, one of Ireland's big three saints, established a monastery in the 6th Century, before the ones in Derry and Iona. It is certainly a peaceful and serene little place and the stretches of beaches in sheltered little coves are wonderful and virtually deserted as I settled down for a moment of quiet contemplation.
Then I get a text message from my cousin asking me what time I'm coming around I'm going to struggle to get to the B&B in Bundoran by 6pm as agreed, but if I'm going to be late does it really matter how late? So I stick to the long winding coast road and I'm blessed with the sun all the way. At the pretty little coastal village of Teelin I follow the signs for Bunglass and the viewing point for Slieve League, which at 600m, are the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The road up is a real donkey track, winding ever up around narrow bends with steep rocks to one side and a steep drop to the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Needless to say it's a careful 5mph all the way. The sight of these sheer cliffs climbing out of the crashing ocean is hugely impressive and well worth the journey. The Lonely Planet Guide lists a walk along the treacherous peaks of these cliffs going back towards Glencolumbcille, its called One Man's Path - I think for obvious reasons, but I'm in a bit of a rush so I think I'll give it a miss thanks.
I take the coast road again out to Killybegs, its an amazingly scenic drive, snaking its way around the sheer cliff face and I'm barely managing more than 50kmph. When I reach Killybegs, it's around 7pm and I'm starving, but the smell of the fish processing plant in this, Ireland's most important fishing port, is turning my stomach so I renege on my plan to eat fish and chips here and head on to where my cousin Catriona and her family are staying out in St John's Point. When I get there Catriona, her partner Martin Ogg (ogg is kind of the Irish version of Junior) and the two kids Maria and wee Molly, have just come back from fishing and they've a handsome catch of mackerel, good, fresh and plump from Donegal Bay - as easy as catching a cold they tell me. In fact Martin admits he's never fished before, you see, they're on holiday here from Derry and not native Donegal fisher folk.
By the time I leave them it's 8pm and I'm already 2 hours late getting to the B&B, I'd ring her but I don't have the number, so its pedal to the metal stuff from Dunkineely right around the other side of Donegal Bay to Bundoran and I make it in around an hour. When I get to the place I apologies for being late, ‘oh no bother it's ok, I thought you got lost', the owner says, then tells me see has to head out. The poor women must have been waiting to head out for the past three hours, I feel real guilty.
Next day I take a look around Bundoran, there are some spectacular beaches here and the waves crashing against Tullen Strand make it apparently one of Europe's prime surfing spots where in April the Irish National Surfing Championships are held. But as a typical bucket and spade resort Bundoran has become a victim of its own success, littered with amusement arcades fun fair and tacky souvenir shops, but nonetheless fills up with holiday makers, mostly old folk and families from the North.
The lessons to learn when touring in Ireland are; not to underestimate distances and leave your self a little leeway in time. Ireland is a country that is only pretending to be small and though places may not look that far apart on the map, the roads wind up and down and in and out, they are often in bad condition, filled with a range of hazards from potholes, and heavy laden tractors, to females of all ages and sizes out in their tracksuits, power walking along the country lanes. And that's not to mention the splendid scenery that will have you hoping out of your car, camera in hand, every kilometre, on your Ireland self drive tour. So it's certainly worth taking your time.
until this time next month...