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Driving Through Donegal

donegal shoreline

Donegal shoreline - photo by Max Ule

by Suzanne Barrett


Donegal, Ireland's northernmost county, extends along much of the northwest coast. Spectacular, ever-changing scenery makes this county a visitors' paradise. In this brief virtual journey, we'll take a look at some of Donegal's attractions.

Bundoran, located on the Sligo/Donegal boundary, is the town through which most northbound traffic passes. It is one of the principal Irish seaside resorts and is bounded by Donegal Bay to the south and the hills of Donegal to the north. A range of cliffs carved into interesting shapes by the pounding surf borders each end of the Strand, a fine sandy beach.

Glengesh PassBundoran is a well-established resort town favored by people in Northern Ireland as well as surfers for which the rolling Atlantic breakers provide excellent resource. The town offers ample accommodations and amenities. Not far away in south Donegal, north Sligo and north Leitrim are spots of exceptional beauty. Sport and recreation offer fishing, golf, bathing, and dancing.

Several walking tours are available. One such walk begins at the Promenade and continues along the cliffs of Aughrus Head to Tullan Strand, a sandy beach one and one-half miles long.

A few miles north, rising on the steep banks of the River Erne, is Ballyshannon, South Donegal's largest town. Nearby is Assaroe Falls and the meager ruins of the Cistercian Assaroe Abbey.

St. Anne's Protestant church occupies Mullaghnashee, a lovely rounded knoll on the north of the town. The poet William Allingham is buried here. A plaque marks the wall of the Ballyshannon house where he was born.

O' Donnell's Castle occupied the now built-up grounds north of the Market Yard. In 1597 its garrison of eighty (including six Spanish Armada survivors) defended the castle for three days against an English army of four thousand. Upon the arrival of Red Hugh O'Donnell and his reinforcements, the English under Sir Conyers Clifford were soundly defeated. The castle was demolished in 1602, but was rebuilt after 1601 and finally demolished about forty years later.

Kilbarron Castle ruins stand on a rocky promontory two miles southwest of the little seaside resort of Rossnowla. Built around the thirteenth century, the castle, when it was confiscated in 1609, belonged to the O'Clery family.

Pettigo, to the east, is split in two by the Termon River, with one half the town in the Irish Republic, the other half in Northern Ireland. It is a quiet little town lying in a hollow amid small low hills near the northern shore of Lower Lough Erne.

A little over four miles farther north lies Lough Derg, a lonely lake, surrounded by moorland and heathery hills. It is famous for St. Patrick's Purgatory, the greatest and most important of Irish pilgrimages, and has a history of more than 1500 years. Station Island is one half mile from the shore, an area occupied by buildings pertaining to the pilgrimage which last for three full days during the June 1 to August 15 season. At that time only serious pilgrims are allowed on the island.

Donegal Town is an excellent center for touring the southern side of the county. It was the area most affected by the 1921 Partition. The eastern portion has the most fertile land and is settled by Protestant farmers and shopkeepers who look to Northern Ireland as their authority. Derry is the regional capital to the people of the north Donegal area, many of whom are Irish speakers.

Donegal coastDonegal Town is a thriving market town, pleasantly situated at the head of Donegal Bay where three main roads from Derry, West Donegal, and Sligo converge. The ruins of Donegal Abbey, which was founded by Nuala, wife of Red Hugh O'Donnell, stand beside the River Eske as does the ruin of Donegal Castle. The castle was the stronghold of the O'Donnells. A massive rectangular gabled tower with two bartizan turrets remains.

Seventeen miles west of Donegal Town lies Killybegs, possessing a fine natural harbor, and the major fishing port on the west coast. Flocks of gulls following the fishing fleet home is a common and beautiful sight. Nearby Kilcar is the center of the Donegal tweed industry, and further yet is the village of Carrick, the base point for the ascent of 1972 foot high Slieve League, and the magnificent cliff scenery of the adjoining coast. Warning: the ascent should not be attempted by less than the physically fit. The trail is narrow and steep, with an 1800 foot drop into the sea on one side. However, the hardy--and brave--will be rewarded with a spectacular view of five counties from the summit.

Farther west lies the village of Glencolumbcille, worth a visit, for this area is rich in monastic remains and monuments pre-dating Christianity. Also of interest is a folk village and craft center.

Traveling north, the most interesting route goes through the town of Ardara and Glenties. The latter has won the Tidy Town award numerous times. It is picturesquely set where two glens converge. A knitwear and hosiery industry is located in the town. From here, the road north covers miles and miles of rock-strewn land, known as the Rosses or "place of many islands." Dungloe, of festival fame, is its "capital." The nearby Burtonport lands more salmon and lobster than any other fishing port in Ireland or Britain. A regular ferry service runs from Burtonport to Arranmore Island, three miles offshore. This is the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht, with its pulse in Gweedore Parish.

Gweedore gives the appearance of being larger than it is. An industrial estate has been created here by the Gaeltacht in an attempt to provide employment at home. (Many of the men seek part-time work in Scotland.) It includes a theater and the regional studios for the Gaeltacht radio service. The popular singing family, Clannad, hails from Gweedore.

Glenveagh National Park is a natural paradise in northwest Donegal. Acquired in 1981, it is the latest addition to Ireland's parkland system and was officially opened in 1986. It covers 24,000 acres and extends east to west with the Derryveagh Mountains covering its breadth. It was once a private estate with strong American links.

Glenveagh is host to badgers, otters, stoats, foxes, and a 500 head herd of red deer. The trees abound with wood pigeons, fly chaffinches, and tits, while peregrine falcons join grouse and ravens on the moorlands. Nearly sub-tropical vegetation is the result of laborious coaxing of the forbidding landscape.

The gardens were begun by the American-born widow of John Adair in the late 1880s. When the estate was bought in 1937 by Henry McIlhenny of Philadelphia, he continued the planting begun by Mrs. Adair, returning the the estate every year for forty years. From every corner of the world, he bought ornamental plants for the estate until today it is a garden of paradise in the austere wilderness of the Derryveagh Mountains. No trip to the north would be complete without a visit to Glenveagh.

Tory Island sits off the coast north of Gweedore. A boat trip to the island is turbulent, even in summer, however, it is interesting to see how the island community struggles to retain its identity and way of life in the face of bureaucratic resistance. The visitor might find Tory island the highlight of an Irish trip.

Letterkenny is the county town and is the best center for touring north Donegal. It is also the ecclesiastical capital of the county, standing on high ground overlooking Lough Swilly. It's main street is one of the longest in Ireland. Just north of the town lies Lough Gartan, the birthplace of one of Ireland's remarkable men--St. Columba (dove in Latin). He was born in 521 from a branch of the Uí Néill dynasty known as the Cenél Conaill, the family which produced many kings of Ireland. St Columba (Colm Cille in Irish) was the first to leave his country to preach abroad. The slabstone at gartan where he was born is said to have been slept on by numerous emigrants before their departure so they could endure their own exile with a lighter heart. The Colm Cille Heritage Centre at Gartan has a copy of St. Patrick's and St. Columba's cross as its centerpiece. The Centre is open daily from May until September (Tel: 074-3706).

From Letterkenny we travel toward the Inishowen Peninsula, stopping along the way to visit rocks and holy wells. Seven miles west of Letterkenny is Doon Rock, the inaugural place of the O'Donnell's, chieftains of Donegal until the beginning of the seventeenth century. From the top of the rock, a short climb, it was possible for the chieftain to see the borders of his kingdom. Doon Well, nearby, is a "blessed" well, believed to have certain curative powers. Pilgrims attach a piece of clothing to a nearby bush for blessing and luck. This practice exists today.

Malin HeadMalin Head is the most northerly point on Inishowen and one of the most desolate. A well-posted, 100-mile drive around the mountainous peninsula is both scenic and educational Buncrana is the main town here, a popular seaside resort, and much favored by Derry residents visiting the scenic peninsula. It is sheltered on three sides by hills and has a mild climate with good recreational and amusement facilities.

Ten miles south of Buncrana is a most interesting relic of antiquity in Ulster--Grianán of Aileach. Grianán means "sun-palace" and is a circular stone fort atop an 800 foot mountain. It was built about 1700 B.C. and was at one time a residence of the O'Neills.

Malin village, to the north, is another Tidy Town winner. It is typical of Donegal towns, neat, clean, and somewhat austere.

Moville, on the western shore of Lough Foyle, is also a popular Inishowen resort town with an abundance of beautiful scenic areas, fine tourist facilities and many amenities including excellent lodging. The village of Greencastle, three miles north, provides an excellent bathing beach, while Green Castle ruins, on the rock overlooking the entrance to Lough Foyle and the nearby fort with its Martello tower, now transformed into a hotel, are worth a visit. Another side trip might include the graveyard at Cooley where stands a ten foot high monolithic cross, ruins of an ancient church, and several ring forts and megalithic tombs.

I hope you've enjoyed this virtual tour of County Donegal and are inspired to see its many sights for yourself.

Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

Until next time.

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Donegal Castle

Donegal Castle - Max Ule


Other photos courtesy Bord Fáilte



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