I had the good fortune to one day find myself in County Donegal, Ireland to open my eyes and breath in the air. I am also fortunate to still be breathing, since that day when I was delivered at The Rock Hospital in Ballyshannon. The late and legendary blues guitar player Rory Gallagher had the same beginning in life, in 1948, possibly in the same ward as me, although he did manage to go on and conquer the world as a musician. My sister was even luckier in that I arrived precisely 365 days after she did, so a very happy first
birthday to her! I can’t exactly recall my thoughts that day in my new surroundings in Ballyshannon but I was later to go to school there at the building across the street, and also learned that the town is steeped in history.
It is widely believed that some of the first people to reach Ireland came ashore on Inis Saimer in Ballyshannon. Some Neolithic sites have been discovered and excavated around the town. A castle was constructed to overlook the river in the 15th century by the O’Donnell clan. Some of the ruined walls remain to this day. Ballyshannon became a crossing point on the river Erne, and until recently the main bridge was the only physical connection between most of County Donegal and the rest of the Republic of Ireland. A new bridge has been built to take traffic away from the narrow streets. Its location is very near to the Cathleen’s Falls hydroelectric power station.
Aside from Rory Gallagher, Sean McGinley is a renowned native of Ballyshannon, who has graced many national stages in his acting career, and has been in numerous films. Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley was born in Ballyshannon, and although she may not have been famous, her son certainly was and still is. She was the mother of Bram Stoker, creator of “Dracula”. The former Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair used to visit his grandmother near Ballyshannon as a young boy. The town also produced a well known poet in the 19th century, William Allingham, who is still held in high regard by the local people and was honored by having the older bridge named after him.
Six miles north of Ballyshannon sits a little village called Ballintra which according to the 2011 census report has 209 people calling it home, and although not famous for anything, it is actually a fine place to be from! It does have two fine local watering holes for a glass of cold something! Stop in to Jamesie’s or The Bay Bush Bar. On the main road out of Ballintra going towards the wild Atlantic to the west is a little hill, and on this hill sits the remnants of what’s called a ‘ringfort’. A mound of stone and earth was built in a circular formation around the crest of the hill, possibly sometime during the iron age. It would have contained a structure for dwelling, but was also meant to be a defensive location. Officially named Ard Fothadh, (pronounced ‘FO-HAH’) and known to locals as McGonigle’s Fort after a family who lived nearby and probably owned the land at one time, it is said to have been the one-time seat of the High Kings of Ireland. It may also have been a burial site for kings, queens or lords during the 5th and 6th centuries. Little information is known about Ard Fothadh as is the case with lots of other historical sites in Ireland. Unfortunately Ard Fothadh is now just somewhere for the cattle to walk over. Quite a few of these ringforts can be spotted on the hill tops throughout the Irish countryside although many are overgrown with trees and bushes.
Back in Ballintra there is a little known legend about a man who used to roam the dirt roads and country lanes of the area a few centuries ago. He played a set of pipes that he carried with him and he used to entertain people as he went from place to place. Being what we would now call homeless, he would seek refuge and shelter where ever he could find it, and supposedly one of the places he would sleep in was a cave by the Blackwater River behind Ballintra. The piper disappeared, possibly while there was a great flood in the river and was never seen after that. A skeleton was found much later in the cave. It is now said that occasionally pipe music can be heard playing in the cave by anyone brave enough to venture inside. That is something that I have yet to do, but maybe in the future. From a leisure point of view there is a golf links three miles away for anyone who fancies a round as the sea air sweeps in, and quite often so does the spray from the waves. Donegal Golf Club at Murvagh is regarded as one of the top links courses in the country and draws a steady flow of players of all levels, and from many places. It is located along the sand dunes next to Murvagh beach, and the exposure to the elements can greatly test a player’s resolve during inclement weather. (It’s in the Irish blood to persevere in bad conditions.) Nonetheless, people are out chasing the little white dimpled ball throughout the whole year. On good days, the links and the beach are perfect for relaxing. It’s quite safe for swimming on this length of golden sand because the water is shallow for a long way out.
Rossnowlagh beach is around the shore in a southerly direction, past the ‘blue bank’, and can be reached safely on foot when the tide is out. Known as a surfing beach which regularly is the stage for international competitions, the two miles of strand can get packed during the summer, and the waves get much stronger and more challenging than at Murvagh. There are a small number of bars and restaurants around Rossnowlagh for a refreshment including the impressive Smuggler’s Creek on the cliff top with an amazing panoramic view of Lower Rossnowlagh. This fine establishment sits between the coastline and a very modern Franciscan Friary, with a church, a dance hall, a museum and some neat gardens. Finnegan’s Shop and post office is there also to take care of any needs during the day. Rossnowlagh is half way between Ballintra and Ballyshannon.
Being Irish, and being more famous than Bono is a major accomplishment, but Saint Patrick may just hold that distinction. As an Archbishop in the 5th century, he worked throughout County Donegal and his name appears in many places; on churches, schools, wells, and on many of the boys and men who were born in Ireland over the years. The best known location associated with St. Patrick is Lough Derg which is close to the village of Pettigo, near the border with Northern Ireland. It is about an hour driving from Ballintra. On a small island in the lake sits a basilica, at the place where St. Patrick is believed to have fasted and prayed. ‘Lough’ is the Gaelic translation for ‘Lake’, and ‘Derg’ or ‘Dearg’ means ‘Red’, because legend says that St. Patrick killed a large serpent on the lake and it’s blood forever colored the water. The island is an extremely popular site among Catholics who make the three day pilgrimage to do penance as Patrick did.
Throughout the farms and fields of Ireland can be found a multitude of ‘holy’ wells which are traditionally named after Saint Patrick and many other saints who traveled around the country centuries ago, and these were basically places where people could get a drink of water from an underground stream. Too many of them have been forgotten about or neglected by younger generations who are less in touch with the rural lifestyle. A little secret here is that Patrick was actually born in Wales and was taken to Ireland as a slave to work as a farm boy. We claim him as our own nevertheless.
Donegal Town shares its name with the County and is situated a further six miles north of Ballintra. The name ‘Donegal’ translate from the Irish language as ‘Fort of the Foreigner’ which possibly dates back to when the Vikings were in control of the area. The highlight of the town from a tourism aspect is the O’Donnell castle on the banks of the river Eske which dates back to around the end of the 15th century. Located a short walk down stream, towards the mouth of the river, is a Franciscan monastery which was constructed around the same time.
Only a few walls remain of the monastery but the castle has been expertly restored and hosts visitors and cultural events for most of the year. Both are deserving of a visit by anyone who is traveling in the area. Donegal Town is well equipped to cater for those who plan to spend a night or two, with a number of high standard hotels, many guesthouses and B&Bs both inside and outside the town, and two hostels for the budget travelers. The center of town is called ‘The Diamond’, where most of the established businesses are, even though it was built in a triangular shape! The recession along with rising taxes and costs have hindered the tourist trade in the last two years, so a large number of shops and guesthouses have had to close down for good.
Further evidence of these problems can be found a short distance to the west, along the coast from Donegal Town, in Killybegs, which had been recognized as Ireland’s most important fishing port. Unfortunately politics got heavily involved and most of the fishermen suffered from drastic cuts to their fish quotas which left them legally only allowed to catch a fraction of what they usually caught. These measures were then added to by reports of dwindling stocks among some species of fish. When the business was at it’s peak, Killybegs was home to some of the largest trawlers in Europe if not the world. A few of these giant vessels were even too big to offload their catch at their home pier, which meant having to dock in Norway or Scotland.
When a community relies heavily on one industry as Killybegs does, and it’s not just the boats but processing plants and transportation companies also, these types of cuts have a major impact on the overall success of the area. Still, the tourists who do visit Donegal have the opportunity to take day trips on fishing boats to experience some deep-sea angling at its finest. Along this stretch of coastline, which is as picturesque as any in the country, there are a number of small harbours where fishing on the Atlantic is a continuous way of life, albeit on a tiny scale compared to Killybegs. One of the nicer piers is at Teelin which is set in a beautiful rural location.
The narrow Teelin Bay reaches inland for a couple of miles like a craggy old finger and is bridged at Carrick village. The community of Teelin sits on the north side of the bay, and is overlooked from the south side by the well known and very efficient Derrylahan hostel, which makes an excellent base for exploring the more remote points in south west Donegal. On crossing the bridge at Carrick and driving into Teelin, one change occurs that most visitors won’t be aware of. Some of the older generations here do not speak English. The Gaelic language, native to Ireland and Scotland, remains as it has for many centuries. In fact this and other western areas of Donegal have schools for the promotion of Gaelic, such as Oideas Gael in Glencolumkille, to which people travel from as far as the USA and Canada to learn the language and feel the culture. Making a right turn in Teelin, the road climbs over the mountain to the stunning Sliabh Liag (pronounced ‘Sleeve League’), argued to be the highest sea cliffs in Europe, although that debate goes on. Along the ridge atop Sliabh Liag is a walking trail narrow enough to be called ‘One Man’s Pass’. Not for the faint hearted, it can get very treacherous due to the ever changing weather conditions along the exposed coast. All too often the walking trail becomes a crawling trail.
After spending a day taking in these sights of rural Donegal, nobody should be allowed to leave without continuing on from Carrick to Glencolumbkille. Situated in a valley between two mountains, and with the sea on the west side, this is one of the most charming little towns in Donegal. Numerous sites have been discovered in the region dating to Neolithic times. With 4000 to 5000 year old burial tombs and the Martello towers along the cliff top, it is an archaeological treasure trove around Glen. Apart from the historical attraction, the natural beauty of the landscape is amazing. The cliffs are extremely rugged and breathtaking on a sunny day. However when a storm comes in, the sheer destructive capability of the ocean is both awe inspiring and foreboding. The Donegal coastline is a magical sculpture in progress, with the wild Atlantic taking the place of Michelangelo. If any further proof is needed, then around the cliffs to the north hides a little cove with a deserted village which was once a small fishing community called Port. It can be reached by hiking over the mountain from Glencolumbkille or by driving around it. This is a hidden gem in my opinion, which takes a little bit of time and effort to reach but it is so worth it.
The scenery is spectacular and is augmented further by the remote location, and the emptiness of the homes, and the thought of being miles from the nearest people. It almost feels like being at the edge of the earth, and it is worth spending a while to take it in, because I believe that this caps off an ideal trip through south and west County Donegal. It may not appear in the guide books as prominently as Dublin, Galway or the Cliffs of Moher, but our county is truly special.
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