Hike it, bike it, drive it: Savour spectacular views on a tour of Donegal

For an off-grid, away-from-it-all experience, head into the Bluestack Mountains in deepest Donegal

Graced as a child with grandparents near Courtown, Co Wexford, and a godmother in Salthill, Co Galway, I was pretty much sorted for seaside holidays. But as a true son of the North, the lure of the Donegal Riviera proved irresistible, so many a happy holiday was spent in our no-mod-cons caravan on Cruit island, connected by a causeway to the mainland at Kincasslagh. Toilet facilities were very much off-suite, in the long grass.

So Lough Eske Castle, set in 47 acres of serene grounds dotted with sculptures just outside Donegal town, is at the other end of the scale if not the other end of the county. Welcome to the lap of luxury. The O’Donnell clan once kept a rival chieftain captive on an island in the grounds for three years. Such is the hospitality on offer in this five-star establishment, you will find it just as hard to leave. As well as the grand castle bedrooms, there are courtyard chalets and a picture-postcard-perfect lakeside gate lodge, which is privately owned but can be rented through the hotel.

This was my third visit, so I was able to reminisce like an old hand at the front desk about the chef, now sadly retired, who used to man the omelette station at breakfast time. Breakfasts, happily, are still epic, three-course affairs, after which those calories can be worked off in the gym, swimming pool and sauna or by borrowing one of the hotel’s complimentary bicycles — whose wicker baskets seem to be crying out for a Blytonesque picnic — and circumnavigating Lough Eske (a distortion of Loch Iasc, or Fish Lake). A little out of practice and out of puff, I dismount for the steeper gradients, saving my breath for singing Freewheel by Duke Special on the downward slopes.

The area is steeped in literary tradition. Part of the Annals of the Four Masters was reputedly compiled here, while William Allingham’s poem The Fairies — “up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen” — was inspired by a stay at Ardnamona House beside the Fairy Glen. Isaac Butt’s novel The Gap of Barnesmore was mainly set in Lough Eske Castle, while Brian Friel’s masterpiece Translations was inspired by the Ordnance Survey mapping of Donegal. One of its characters, Lieut Lancey, shares a name with the officer who surveyed the local area.


The play’s subject, the coloniser’s overwriting of the Irish language, carries an echo of the demise of the Gaelic way of life, symbolised by the Flight of the Earls in 1607. Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tirchonaill, fled from Lough Eske Castle that September, sailing from Rathmullan with his fellow Northern clan leaders, O’Neill and Maguire. Between the hotel and the lake there stands a massive restored Famine pot, one of many donated by Quakers to help feed the starving. Locally, it was used to cook Brachán, a vegetable or grain porridge.

The castle’s most obvious cultural attraction, however, is the Father Browne photographic gallery, which doubles happily as a bar. The Jesuit famously photographed the Titanic’s maiden voyage before being ordered by his superior to disembark at Southampton, probably saving his life and enabling him to establish his reputation as an Irish Henri Cartier-Bresson. Visit when the bar is quiet so you can appreciate the images — mostly of Ireland but also England, Egypt and Australia — in every nook and cranny.

The Bluestack Mountains are right on your doorstep and they have a wonderful off-grid feel to them. The land is agriculturally poor, borne out by many deserted cottages and outbuildings, but the scenery is priceless. Check out the American author Bob Bernen’s Tales from the Blue Stacks and The Hills, stories based on the years he spent among his adopted hills. There are walking trails you can follow — a friend based in Barcelona spent three happy days trekking in the hills, savouring the 50 minutes in every hour when it wasn’t raining almost as much as the hard-earned pints each night. Alternatively, you can roam the roads by car, exploring every other turn-off, wondering as the tarmac deteriorates if this is a through road or a private lane. It is certainly off the beaten track. You are in deepest Donegal here.

The other must-see destination nearby are the magnificent Sliabh League cliffs, among Europe’s tallest. You used to be able to drive up almost to the top and — whisper it — you still can, but only after 5pm. Otherwise you either park at the bottom for €10 and walk up or park further back and get a bus to the top, €12 for a family ticket. Call me cheap, call me lazy, call me impatient, but we decided to come back after 5pm, by which time it was raining so of course, while getting into position for the obligatory clifftop photo, I slipped on the muddy grass and fell on my backside, giving my daughters the kind of holiday souvenir money cannot buy.

The rest of the day, however, was a triumph. Donegal town’s own castle is worth a visit. Burned down by O’Donnell on his departure, it was rebuilt by his successor, Basil Brooke. There are lovely walks by the water and you can take a 75-minute cruise out into the bay with Donegal Bay Waterbus, the highlight of which is the sight of a basking sea colony. Driving along the coast takes you through the fishing port of Killybegs. Silver Strand beach at Malin Beg is a must-see. Glencolmcille Folk Village, a recreation of rural life over the past three centuries, is worth a visit. (Comparisons are odious but the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra, Co Down, is superior. Curiously, both opened in 1967, the year I was born.)

If you do not stop to savour the fabulous views as you drive through the Glengesh Pass, you are in too much of a hurry with your life. Arriving in Ardara, go straight to Nancy’s pub, run by the McHugh family for seven generations, with its maze of intimate rooms and order something from the wonderful menu — chowder, say, and a plateful of delicious oysters, with a medley of different dressings.

Further north is the magnificent Glenveagh National Park, set in a beautiful, remote valley. The estate was created by John George Adair in 1857, who built Glenveagh Castle, modelling it on Balmoral, but evicted his tenants and replaced them with sheep. The favour was returned when a donkey was thrown into his grave on the day of his funeral as a mark of disrespect. Henry McIlhenny, curator of Philadelphia Museum of Art, bought it in 1937 and developed its 27 acres of gardens, whose luxuriance contrasts with the austere surrounding wilderness. The castle is full of fascinating detail and history, including the original chest McIlhinney’s grandfather emigrated with before making his fortune by inventing the penny gas meter. Famous guests included Greta Garbo, Percy French, Princess Grace and Yehudi Menuhin, known locally as Hughie McMenamin.

If you are crossing the Border, I’d recommend driving through the Barnesmore Gap and fording the river Finn via the picturesque Clady Bridge.

Martin Doyle was a guest of Harcourt, which offers a four-night Northern Escape package for two people, with two nights’ accommodation in the Titanic Hotel Belfast and two nights at Lough Eske Castle, from €840. titanichotelbelfast.com

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times