Donegal’s Wild Atlantic Way closes after ‘huge influx’ of cross-Border tourists
‘Busy summer’ visitor numbers led to Sliabh Liag facilities closure amid Covid-19 concerns
Lisfannon beach in Co-Donegal, where the local council had to block off the beach with concrete blocks and warning signs. Photograph: Margaret McLaughlin
Padraig Mac Lochlainn knows there is an irony in a Sinn Féin TD telling people from Northern Ireland not to cross the Border into Donegal. But the Buncrana-based politician is adamant that for now, for safety reasons they must not.
Margaret Rose Cunningham is manager of the west Donegal Glencolmcille folk village who normally devotes a lot of time to promoting her native county. But a few days ago she set up a Facebook group called “Don’t visit until after Covid 19 but here’s your daily fix of home”. It is targeting people with Donegal connections around the world who are welcome to visit “but not just now”.
Endurance athlete Jason Black, an Irish Red Cross Global Ambassador, tweeted his outrage at those visitors beating a path to Donegal last weekend who “can’t have got the memo - stay the f.... at home and social distance”.
The outgoing Donegal Person of the Year who has climbed Everest and K2, believes we all have a mountain to climb now and those “who did not respect the instructions”and swarmed into beaches all over the country last weekend, were being disrespectful to frontline health staff and those struggling to keep their vulnerable safe.
None of these Donegal natives expected to be discouraging visitors to the county, dubbed “the coolest place on the planet” by National Geographic a few short years ago, to the delight of its tourism providers. But while the county is reputed to have the highest proportion of holiday homes in the country, the stomach-churning reality of life in the shadow of a pandemic has changed everything.
Last Tuesday Donegal County Council issued a statement advising that “following the escalation of the COVID 19 pandemic” visitor facilities at Sliabh Liag were being closed until further notice. Sliabh Liag is breathtakingly beautiful with the highest sea cliffs in Europe , “higher than the cliffs of Moher” as people in Donegal will proudly point out.
One of the key attractions on the Wild Atlantic Way, it gets 190,000 visitors annually and was expecting to see that figure soar following a €6 million investment in a visitors’ centre and ancillary facilities last year.
But the council acted following “a huge influx of visitors” last weekend which they say gave rise to “genuine fears for residents who live in the immediate vicinity”. It has been estimated that 800 people were there last Sunday.
Elsewhere in the county, Lisfannon beach in Inishowen – another stop on the Wild Atlantic Way – was also blocked off by the county council with concrete blocks and warning signs.
Deputy Mac Lochlainn says that he can’t put into words the outrage and upset all over Donegal last weekend when visitors thronged the county’s many scenic hotspots, with day-trippers, holiday home owners and regulars to caravan parks arriving in their droves.
“It was seen as giving the two fingers to the local community. That is how people felt,” he said.
“We are asking people to make extraordinary sacrifices to protect their families. It was Mother’s Day last Sunday, and people couldn’t visit their mothers and yet the beaches were packed.”
The holiday atmosphere was what upset many locals, affronted for example by an ice cream van doing a roaring trade on Rossnowlagh beach with little attempt at social distancing among those queueing for their cones.
“The stupidity of that, the handling of cash and the queues, when local pubs , shops and businesses were closed, really annoyed people,” said Independent councillor Niamh Kennedy.
She was inundated with complaints about the crowds at Sliabh Liag, where the gate has to be opened by hand to control access because farmers who own the mountain graze sheep there.
“Locals were coming to me and saying this cannot go on. They do believe their lives were being put at risk”, said Kennedy. There was also concern about the fact that hand rails lead to Rossnowlagh and Silver Stand beaches leading to fears about potential contagion.
There has been a tradition of people from Northern Ireland owning holiday homes throughout Donegal, but despite Boris Johnson’s announcement of a lockdown throughout the United Kingdom last Monday, there is a lingering fear in the county.
One worry is that with Easter approaching, a combination of good weather and lockdown fatigue might see the visitors return. Niamh Kennedy says the immediate worry is that the events of last weekend may lead to a lot of cases of Covid-19 in the county.
“I really do think it will go wild now. People were not adhering to social distancing”.
Jason Black is also concerned that so far we are seeing “only the tip of the iceberg” and says that it will be another week before any impact from the Mother’s Day visits will be seen.
He’s adamant that there is no “them and us” cross-border divide and says those Donegal people heading north to Derry and other shopping destinations for retail therapy or just to pick up their weekly supplies must also call a halt.
“It was going both ways” said the endurance athlete. The refusal of so many to obey instructions to stay at home and limit contacts was “disrespectful to frontline staff working every hour” and also disdainful of those who have had to shut businesses and let staff go, he says.
“Donegal is very isolated and we hve only one hospital which in normal circumstance is at 100 per cent capacity if not above,” stressed the Donegal man who says his comments have been misinterpreted as “sectarian” in some quarters.
“This is not a North-South battle,” he said. “It’s about doing what the authorities advise in order to curb this bloody pandemic.”
Paddy Byrne runs boat trips around the cliffs at Sliabh Liag .
He took a spin on his motorbike last weekend and says the traffic on the road was akin to the busiest summer days like July 12th. “The mountain itself is open but they were tripping over each other in the car parks and local shops,” he pointed out.
Determined to abide by whatever the authorities urge, he had hoped to be back in business by Easter but acknowledged “that could change with one sneeze”.
Byrne lives 500m from Sliabh Liag but says no one has any business going up there for now, except farmers with sheep on the mountain.
Byrne says he feels sorry for people living in cities who are “cooped up”, some with children in apartments with no gardens, but he feels they must stay put until the danger is over.
“It’s human nature. Some people will toe the line and others think they are above all that and they will do what they want, just like what happened with Cheltenham”.
The boatman wants checkpoints set up around the county to ensure people are not flouting the rules.
Deputy MacLochlainn says gardaí were called to places like Buncrana beach last weekend. After he issued a statement calling on people to remain in their primary homes, rather than second homes, mobile homes or caravans, there was “a wee bit of soreness”, he said.
The Sinn Féin TD wants an All-Ireland approach to this crisis and believes “political failings have added to the tensions”.
He knows that there were some raised eyebrows that a Sinn Féin TD was telling people not to cross the Border. I believe in a United Ireland. It is ironic,” he said. But he says there is a logic to the pleas to stay at home and to stay local “and I think people understand that now”.
Margaret Rose Cunningham says she was taken aback by the numbers arriving in Donegal last weekend “but I understand that nobody is thinking straight and I know people just wanted to get away, to escape”.
But for now she is hoping that the “Don’t visit until after Covid 19” Facebook forum with its photographs, memories and shared experiences will be enough for those yearning for Donegal, until the emergency passes.