I am unapologetically stealing the motto from West Virginia to describe County Donegal in Ireland. Yes, they have their own motto, which is “Up here, it’s different.” This motto applies just as well, but it doesn’t convey the sheer lonely and stark beauty of the place, in my opinion.
I fell in love with Donegal the first time I visited, in 2011. It’s tracts of forsaken beauty and pockets of friendly, charming villages spoke to me of all that I had imagined Ireland to be. I’d already been to Ireland several times before this – it was my fourth trip, after all. And there are parts of Ireland that are teeming with culture, people, and industry. There are other parts that are well-touristed and full of amenities for droves of said tourists. There are also parts that are lonely and beautiful, just like Donegal… but this is a whole County of it!
Tucked into the northwest corner of the island of Ireland, the only part that is farther north than Northern Ireland, Donegal feels cut off from the mainland in more ways than one. Only about 160,000 people live in this area of almost 1900 square miles, the fourth largest county in Ireland. Before the Potato Blight in 1846, the population was almost twice that. A few modest cities and tons of villages and hamlets dot the land, scratching out a living from the bogs and the rugged coastline.
If the isolation gets too much, Letterkenny is a decent sized city, with about 20,000 people, and offers all the normal amenities. If you need something more, go across the border to Derry for a larger city (around 85,000).
Several towns are worth visiting, such as Donegal Town, with it’s Triangle downtown of touristy shops, Buncrana on the scenic Inishowen peninsula, or Bunbeg in the Gaeltacht.
However, the true charms of Donegal are it’s wild places, in my opinion. Some of my favorite experiences include:
- Driving the Inishowen 100, a scenic road around the northern peninsula.
- Exploring Glenveagh National Park, a 35,000 acre nature reserve with mountains, boglands, lakes, woods and its own castle.
- Grianán of Aileách, a 6th century tower with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, built by the Uí Néill clan.
- Sliabh Liag cliffs (Slieve League) on the southern coast, 900 foot sea cliffs that make you feel as if you are on top of the world, surveying all before you.
- Glencolmcille, a folk village set up with cottages portraying life in several time periods.
- The Wild Atlantic Way, a 1500 mile scenic drive around the rugged and labyrinthine coastline of west Ireland, offering stunning views and pristine beaches. It starts in Malin Head of Donegal and ends in County Cork in the south.
- Malin Head, the northernmost point of mainland Ireland, the point of which is called Banba’s Crown. Banba was one of the mythical queens of Ireland, one of three sisters who halted the Celts as they came to the land. Just off the Inishowen 100.
- Fanad Head, a lovely, stark corner of the northern coast with a fantastic lighthouse.
- Donegal Castle guards the river Eske, and dates to the 15th century. Fully restored and with guided tours, it was built by the O’Donnells.
- Carndonagh High Cross dates from the 7th century, flanked by two carved stones on pillars, depicting Goliath and David.
- Ardara Town, a charming village with a history of making tweed, near to Maghera beach, sea caves and Assaranca falls. Also home to Nancy’s Bar, the most welcoming place I’ve known, owned by at least four generations in one family. I loved the place so much, I even set a good chunk of my first novel in this town, in 1846.
- Beaches, so many beaches! It’s hard to list them all, but there are some beautiful (cold!) beaches in Donegal. Tramore, Culdaff Bay, Fintra, Stroove, Portsalon, Rossnowlagh, Carrickfinn, Maghera.
- Doagh Famine Village, an open-air museum with thatched cottages set up about the 19th century, and the results of the potato famine.
- Dolmens and stone circles, such as Beltany Stone Circle and Kilclooney Dolmen, offer a window into the Neolithic history of the area, a step back 5,000 years.
- Tory Island, the northernmost Gaeltacht area with its own king, round towers and forts.
- Leo’s Tavern, if you are a fan of Clannad or Enya, is where they got their start. In fact, the owner, Leo, is the father of both Enya and Maire Brennan, the lead singer of Clannad.
- Mount Errigal, an eminently climbable and photographable mountain near Gweedore.
- Celtic Prayer Garden in Muff, a delightful escape to a lovely place filled with plants, dedications to Irish saints, and a good dose of peace. Even in November, it was a beautiful place.
Traditionally the home of the O’Donnell clan, or the Clann Ó Domhnaill, second in power only to the O’Neill clan in Ulster. They ruled the area until the 17th century, and the Gaelic influence is still strong. Several areas are still considered Gaeltacht, places where Irish culture and language are still strong. I was able to speak Irish to some folks in these areas, and they were kind enough to not laugh (loud enough for me to hear, at any rate) at my feeble attempts and horrible accent.
If you travel to Ireland, please do yourself a favor and sample this incredibly stunning landscape. Meet the people, taste the food, and enjoy the wild landscape. It’s well worth the trip.
Some more photos I’ve taken along the way…