Destination Donegal

 

Donegal, often referred to as the forgotten county, is fast becoming fashionable, says native ALANNA GALLAGHER. Here’s 10 things to do if you’re heading to the northwest...

DONEGAL offers a real disconnect, both physically, given the long border with the north, and literally. The county still has mobile phone blackspots and regular public transport links are rarer that the sound of the corncrake.

It might be hell for the locals, but a it’s big plus when it comes to holidays. You have to let go of electronic gadgets, unwind and really drink in the surroundings.

The atmosphere of Donegal is part of the Clannad sound, says singer and band member Moya Brennan. “There’s a haunting, surreal beauty and an earthiness to the old land. Because it’s almost surrounded by the Border it has been a forgotten county, which now serves it well.”

This is its unique selling point. Insiders such as Lonely Planetwriter and Newstalk broadcaster Fionn Davenport, who’s been visiting Dunfanaghy since he was 15, believe the county is all the better for it.

As one local puts it: “Down here, and it’s always down rather than up, we don’t call holidaymakers tourists. We refer to them as visitors. And that distinction is important.”

The discretion in Donegal also appeals to celebrities. With the forthcoming release of Sex and the City 2you can’t mention the county without referring to one of its best-known visitors, Sarah Jessica Parker, who while on holiday swops designer shoes for hand-loomed fisherman’s sweaters she buys in Kilcar.

It is worth remembering that Donegal is a huge county. Hiring a car is essential. You need to drive to explore the place. Stick to the coastline as that’s where you’ll find the real wilderness.

Bracing beach walks

Donegal has 650 miles of unspoilt coastline. Clear your head with a windswept walk on any number of golden sandy beaches. If you fly into Carrickfinn, then start the holiday with a limb-loosening stretch on nearby Carrickfinn Beach, a five-minute walk from the airport. Bring goodies and have an impromptu picnic. Magherclogher Beach in Bunbeg featured in the Clannad video for In A Lifetime. Singer Moya Brennan favours the adjacent Port Arthur. Fionn Davenport loves Tramore and Ards Friary. Blue Flag beaches include Rossnowlagh, Murvagh, Narin, Killyhoey and Marble Hill.

Swilly saunter

Grianán Aileach, an impressive stone ringfort and surrounding earthworks on the summit of Greenan Mountain outside Derry is thought to have been a place to worship the sun and is one of only five Irish locations marked on Ptolemy of Alexandria’s 2nd century map of the world. The heritage site has commanding views across Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly.

Grianán Aileach, 074-9121160 dun-na-ngall.com/grianan.html) Entrance is free. Open daily from 10am-7pm.

The art trail

Much is written about Glenveagh Castle and National Park and its undoubted beauty, but less known and equally interesting is St Columb’s House and the Glebe Gallery, formerly the home of British painter and Donegal resident Derek Hill. Hill presented the house, its grounds and his art collection to the State in 1980. View works by Louis le Brocquy, the Tory Island painters and ceramics by Picasso. The gallery is reopens with a an exhibition of work by Jack B Yeats and Peter Blake.

St Columb’s House and the Glebe Gallery (074-9137071, heritageireland.ie), Churchill, Letterkenny, reopens on May 27th and is open Saturday to Thursday 11am-6.30pm. Admission: adults €3, children €1, group/OAP €2, family €8.

Historic castles

Donegal is O’Donnell country, a clan who can trace their lineage back to Niall of the Nine Hostages in the 5th century. Donegal Castle, on the banks of River Eske was the clan’s central seat of power. Following their defeat by the English at the Battle of Kinsale the O’Donnells left Ireland in what is known as the Flight of the Earls. The castle was “granted” to captain Basil Brooke’ who made extensive additions to the structure.

Donegal Castle, Donegal town, 074-9722405, heritage ireland.ie. Open daily from 10am to 6pm. Admission: adults €4, children €2.

Take a boat cruise

Dunlewey Lakeside Centre offers a story-telling trip on the lake. As the drama unfolds Errigal Mountain rises into view while on a clear you’ll see Poison Glen from new angles. Included in the price of admission is a farm visit and guided tour of weavers cottage.

Dunlewey Lakeside Centre, 074-9531699, dunleweycentre.com. Admission: €5.95, a family of two adults, and two or more children cost €20.

Feel the music

Music is at the heart of any Donegal experience. Ballyshannon-born Rory Gallager is celebrated at goingtomyhometown.com, an annual Rory Gallagher annual tribute festival, which runs from June 2nd-6th. Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden plays with Gallagher band members Davy Levy and Rich Newman.

Moya Brennan has launched a series of gigs at Leo’s Tavern in Meenaleck as fundraisers for the Alternative To Pylons – Save Our Scenery campaign. Brian Kennedy, The Celtic Tenors and Frances Black are playing in Leo’s Tavern on June 3rd. Other gigs are planned for July and September. Tickets cost €25 and are limited as the venue is small. Contact Cameron Campbell on 085-8351828. For more on Leo’s, call 074-9548143 or see leostavern.com.

Other great bars for music are The Olde Glen Bar, Glen Carrigart (074-9155130), Nancy’s Bar (074-9541187) on Front Street in Ardara, the Singing Pub (074-9155176) on Atlantic Drive, Downings, the Harbour Bar (074-9155920) in Downings, Rose’s Bar in Creeslough (074-9138268), Teach Hudi Beag (074-9531016) in Bunbeg.

Savour the scenery

The sea cliffs at Slieve League are some of the highest in Europe and in terms of visual impact are easily on a par with the Cliffs of Moher, says Highland Radio talk show host Shaun Doherty. They also made this year’s Lonely Planet Discover Ireland list. Other scenic sites include Ards Forest Park (074-9121139) and the nearby Ards Friary, both outside Creeslough and both offering spectacular sylvan walks, as well as golden sandy beaches. A horse ride on Killahoey Strand offers Horn Head and wild Atlantic swell, while Muckish and Errigal Mountains will frame any holiday snaps.

Five-star pampering

Stay put and enjoy luxury at Solis Lough Eske Castle (074-9725100) outside Donegal town. The hotel has gorgeous Victorian gothic-style public rooms with lots of place to sink down in front of a roaring fire. The bedrooms are big and airy with four-poster beds and vast bathrooms. A separate block holds a spa and swimming pool. There’s plenty to do in the area from hillwalking in the Blue Stack mountains to playing golf.

Two nights BB and one evening meal plus a round of golf at nearby Murvagh, a course loved by Nick Faldo and Darren Clarke, costs from €235 pps midweek. For more see solislough eskecastle.ie

Spiritual retreat

Retreat to Lough Derg and enjoy a period of introspection. It is one of the oldest places of pilgrimage in the Christian world and one of the few remaining penitential pilgrimages. It’s also known locally as purgatory. A one-day retreat from the world costs €30, including boat and lunch, three days cost €55 including meals and accommodation,

Lough Derg, St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, Pettigo, Co Donegal, 071-9861518, lough derg.org

Go surfing

Surfing has lost is hairy hippie image and gone upmarket. Surfers now stay in four-star hotels, where they can change into their wetsuit in the comfort of their own room and being picked up at reception by their instructor. Rossnowlagh is the surf capital of Donegal, but Bundoran, Inisowen and Creeslough all offer exciting breaks as well as schools for beginners. See isasurf.ie/Donegal for a listof the schools and locations.

Aer Arann (aerarann.com) flies to Derry and to Carrickfinn. Cars can be hired at both airports.

Bus Eireann (buseireann.ie) and John McGinley (johnmcginley.com) offer daily services to the north and south of the county. Donegal is a three-hour drive from Dublin