I’ve been here before. The hardest time was a few months before my mother died. Then, I was travelling alone and desperate for the biting winds of the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ at Malin Head to blow right through me. This time was going to be different. It was the same time of year of course, it had to be if I was to exercise the ghosts of last January but today I was not alone. I was on my way to the Inishowen Peninsula, Meat Loaf was singing his wee heart out on my car radio and I was joined by a chorus of excited nature loving hill walkers.
If you’re a fan of ‘the elements’ there’s no place like Donegal to serve up exactly what you need, whenever you need it. For me it’s the promise of exposed walks, turf fires, rolling mists and glorious isolation alongside unlimited traditional music, rich storytelling and public houses that slowly heal the soul. In my view this most northerly tip of Ireland has been carved out by millennia for exactly these occasions. A place to get lost and a place to be found.
Donegal is the perfect venue for touring hill walkers. In summer we favour the west coast gateways of Ardara, Glenties and Portnoo. You can’t beat ‘The Corner House’ for traditional atmosphere and inspiration. In winter Moville, Greencastle and Redcastle are a bit more weather accessible. Buncrana offers a bit more of a population and for the rest of the year I suggest Glenveagh National Park and everywhere else in between. Sliabh Leag 596m (Pilgrims Path) on the west coast remains one of Ireland’s hidden gems boasting some of the greatest cliffs in Europe, higher and finer than the popular Cliffs of Moher. A superb walk with the reward of an ancient monastic site at the summit. Top tip: when in doubt, if an Irish hill walk has a religious connotation of any kind be warned …it was most certainly designed by pilgrims to be truly penitential and therefore strenuous!
Smells from sod fires intoxicate the Donegal air and you can’t help but feel that you’ve entered another land. Dolmens, cairns, standing stones, famine ruins and Marconi World War II look-out posts litter the landscape and every single one of them is free, accessible with a compelling story to tell. There are saints and scholars, pagans, Christians, Celts and fairies, nature reserves of global scientific importance (Sheskinmore Lough) and the purest sandy beaches that stretch for mile after secluded mile.
My favourite winter walk at Inishowen Head starts at Shrove Lighthouse and loops its way around the headland using a mix of hill top tractor paths and local roads that take you back to the beach car park. Allow 2-3 hours for this 10km walk. There’s a picnic table being swallowed by the peat bog roughly half way along, near the top of the hill, it’s perfectly placed so bring a yummy lunch and breathe in the views.
Another great find nearby was the ancient Cooley Graveyard and Cooley Cross. A fascinating place, quietly recessed about a mile uphill from the main road at Moville. For an easy walk try the concrete coastal path between Moville and Greencastle that over looks beautiful Lough Foyle. We had a few seal encounters as we meandered along this route, so keep your eyes peeled.
If you’re new to the area, driving in Donegal is definitely some craic! Not because it’s busy but because it’s not! To give you some perspective, on one occasion the road just about fit the width of my tiny Toyota Yaris, for both directions! Luckily, it was January, so there wasn’t another vehicle within a ten mile radius but the prospect of meeting one is enough to keep anyone’s heart racing.
Beyond the rugged northerly coastline, settled beneath the ocean, rests the Spanish Armada alongside more recent twentieth century military might. Here the currents are mighty and can tell stories of their own. Hard core surfers and technical divers roam this coast seeking the best and lesser known drop in points, which once found are rarely shared.
Donegal is a cracking place to visit, if you are prepared to explore. It’s just a few hours from Belfast but a million miles away from life here. It’s raw, historical and full of basic home comforts. So if that’s your thing, then pack your big bag. You’ll likely stay longer than planned.
And just for the craic, I have to include this song ….sorry Donegal but it’s a cracker!