A Walk for the Weekend: Ireland’s most northerly point at Malin Head
Gannets, rugged cliffs, a Hellish chasm and a history of battles dot this sea side journey
This circular walk around Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland, starts at the car park close to Lloyd’s Tower, at the highest part of the headland. The tower has had a busy career, first as a signal tower during the Napoleonic Wars, then it was a Marconi signalling station in 1902, and later Lloyds of London used it to observe shipping and reported on it by telegraph to London. West from here the cliffs of Donegal recede into the haze to Horn Head. The tilted slab of Tory Island is often visible on the horizon.
A good path drops westwards from the car park towards the rugged cliffs, made up of some of Ireland’s oldest rocks, featuring white strips of quartz and under siege by Atlantic waves. Shortly after setting out keep an eye open for, down below the path, a 30m deep chasm through which the sea roars, called locally Hell’s Hole. A wooden cross stands on a small plinth nearby, in memory, I am told, of a French tourist who fell into the sea here. Strangely, like an established shrine, the plinth is covered with offerings of coins.
Soon the gravel path comes to an end, and after a sign warning about the cliffs, a more natural meandering path continues to the extremity of Malin, a place called Banba’s Crown. The ancient Book of Invasions says that Banba, with three men and 150 women followers, was the first woman to invade Ireland, and her name has become one of the ancient names of the island, the others being Fódla and Éire.
It is wonderful to sit on the clifftop, in the midst of the seapinks and watch the sun descend into the Atlantic. Legends say that Tír na nÓg, the land of permanent youth and health, lies to the west, in the path of the sun. You are at the most northerly point of Ireland. To the southeast the rounded mountains of Inishowen roll westwards to Dunaff Head, while to the north, over the horizon, only the Outer Hebrides interrupt a straight line to the Arctic.
Watch out for gannets skimming the Atlantic swells beyond the cliffs. These graceful birds, with a wingspan of up to 2m, are the largest seabirds of the North Atlantic, and live for an average of 35 years. The birds you see at Malin Head are probably from Ailsa Craig off Scotland, more than 100km to the east. This is an excellent place for spotting whales, porpoises and dolphins.
Leaving Banba’s Crown, head west along the cliffs until you can go no further, then go towards the nearest bungalow, near the shore. Passing another home, a modern flat-roofed house, pick up a gravel track and follow it east. Reaching Tarmac continue on and turn left at the next junction, ascending back to the tower and car park.
The little concrete observation post near the tower was used to watch and report on many battles offshore between Allied convoys and U-boats in the second World War. In the midst of words marked in stones on the clifftop below, you can make out “Eire” in large letters. This told aircraft they were flying over a neutral country. Beside the Eire signs dotted along the coast was the number of the nearby observation post. Unknown to the Germans, a map of all the posts was given to the US airforce so pilots of bombers being ferried across the Atlantic to England not only knew they had reached Ireland, but exactly where they were.
This is the best place in Ireland to see the spectacular Northern Lights.