We had had a great time in Northern Ireland and had decided our first Irish motorhome tour would be in the South so, this being Ireland we headed north.
Let me explain, the most northerly point of the island of Ireland is Malin Head. And politically it’s in the South, in Eire. You’ve probable heard of Malin Head. Charlotte Green on radio Four usually features it in the early morning and late night coastal weather forecasts.
We crossed the border just outside Derry or Londonderry, but the story of this town’s two names is for another time. Today there is no real border and certainly no formalities. Suddenly the phone boxes and post boxes turn from red to green – welcome to Eire.
Our first port of call wasn’t actually Malin head but the second most northerly point at Fanad Head. We had heard the views and beaches here were even better than Malin.
So we headed for Letterkenny; a large and bustling market town, soon to be a city we heard, with supermarkets, banks, and every thing else you need to stock up for the coast.
From here we took the beautiful coast road up the western side of Loch Swilly. It was our first taste of what would be miles and miles of waterside driving in Donegal.
At Rathmullan we stopped for a history lesson. The Flight of the Earls Centre tells the story of Ireland’s last two Celtic Chieftans Hugh O’Niell and Hugh O’Donnell who were forced to flee from the harbour here in 1607. After all that learning we decided to head for the beach.
The Sunday Observer travel pages declared the Blue Flag beach at Ballymastocker Bay the second best in the whole world. Some reputation, and one we needed to check out. It’s certainly a spectacular setting and the tawny sands give a warmth sometimes missing from the water or the sun.
Swimming here is bracing but the gentle waters of Lough Swilly are very safe, something not always true on the beaches in the west of Ireland.
Having awarded Ballymastocker our own blue flag we headed north to Fanad Point itself. Donegal is almost all made up of rocky fingers that point out into the North Atlantic. Each presents a real hazard to shipping and a chain of spectacularly sited lighthouses warn seafarers of the dangers.
From Fanad Point the dramatic and well signed Atlantic Drive took us to Downing and our first stop for the night. Casey’s CaravanPark is right on the beach; over a mile of hard silver sand firm enough to drive and park on.
We pitched for the night and walked to the pub for our first half of real Irish Guinness. Apparently it’s even better than Ovaltine for a good night’s sleep.
Up early next morning we set off for the wonderfully named Bloody Foreland. As this is Ireland we knew there would be a great story behind the name.
Would it be a Pirate Queen who made a dozen sailors walk the plank because she didn’t fancy any of them? A place where a Galleon from the Spanish Armada had been dashed on the rocks with the loss of all hands?
Or perhaps a tiny secret sandy cove where, back in the 1920’s republican gun-runners had been ambushed by the notorious Black and Tans?
Sadly it was none of these. Just a geological reference to the bright red rocks and soil hereabouts. No sex? No violence? Bored, we moved on.
Mount Errigal; highest peak of the Derryveagh Mountains at over 750 metres was our beacon as we headed for the Glenveagh National Park. The house and gardens here are spectacular in their lake side setting but they have a dark history.
Landowner John George Adair built his rural idyll to look like an Irish castle in the 19th century. His wife Adelia planted the gardens and introduced red deer to the estate while her husband blasted the Golden Eagles out of the sky and into extinction.
The nearly 250 tenant farmers on the estate were a problem. Not to put too fine a point on it they simply spoiled the view. Adair evicted them all. Today the eagles are back but the tenants never returned.
Some say they formed a secret society the Molly Maguires, they certainly hated the Adairs. When John George died the funeral arrived at the cemetery only to find his freshly dug grave already occupied by a dead donkey.
After the Adairs the house had an even more interesting history. The IRA occupied it in 1922, a Harvard professor acquired it in 1933. He promptly disappeared in mysterious circumstances presumed drowned in the lake only to pop up in Paris some years later.
Finally American Millionaire Henry McIlhenny bought and restored it entertaining the glitterati here. Greta Garbo had her own room.
In 1975 McIlhenny sold it to the Irish Nation and today its top of the list for Donegal coach parties. But the tenants still fight back. Their local descendents in the shape of midges bite everyone who comes near the estate.
We spent a long time at Glenveagh and you will too, but we had a date tonight and we had to hurry along.
Leo and Baba Brennan must be proud Irish parents indeed. Three of their children, Maire, Claran and Pol were the backbone of the hit traditional vocal group Clannad who had much success with the haunting theme from the TV film ‘Harry’s Game’.
Sister Enya is one of the biggest names among those who have bought Irish popular music to the world’s stage.
Leo’s Tavern is one of the best places to see traditional and other Irish music and there is a handy campsite within easy walking distance making a late night at the pub no problem.
The tiny and undulating lanes of Donegal make for interesting driving add to that the frequent live sheep and tractors that share the route and travel can be slow. Indeed we came across a new unit of measurement the ‘Irish hour’ – about 120 minutes it seems.
This strange and flexible unit was quoted to us when we asked a local how long a journey would be likely to take. “A couple of Irish hours” she said with a smile. “You should be their by four o’clock”. My watch told me it was just noon!
But who cares when you have a never ending panorama of incredibly beautiful views at every twist and turn of the journey.
If the roads are like this today how did people travel about rural Donegal in the past? Next morning at Finetown we found the answer. CountyDonegal Railways (CDR) had an amazing network of narrow gauge branch-lines that covered the whole of the North of Ireland including crossing the border.
Diesel railcars eventually replaced the huffing and puffing steam trains and you can still rattle along in an original red and cream railcar from the 1950’s down the beautiful valley lines on the shores of Lough Finn from Finetown station. (www.antrean.com).
One of the freights carried on the railways was fine Donegal tweed. It was hand woven on ancient looms. It still is today at Ardara.
All over the town you can see the old wooden looms clacking away producing wonderful tweeds in all the colours of a Donegal hillside. Of course something in tweed or perhaps a hand knitted sweater is a great reminder of your trip to Donegal.
Another, sadder freight on the county’s railways was people. Impoverished Donegal sent away its greatest asset – its youth. One such was a young Donegal priest named James McDyer.
He left Ireland in 1937 to work in war torn London. In 1951 he returned to his native Donegal and became the priest in the little coastal village of Glencoloumkille.
He decided something had to be done to stop the mass emigration of young people from the area. This turbulent priest, socialist, Irish Nationalist and devout Catholic lobbied and organised. More than once he was warned to stop his rabble rousing and stick to preaching.
Today modern Glencolumbkille is a lively tourist destination. Natural features like the highest sea cliffs in Europe at Slieve League just up the road help but the Folk Village, community owned holiday flats and hotel bear witness to a remarkable man of the cloth – Father James McDyer.
Killybeg’s is Ireland’s biggest fishing port, twenty years ago it was the largest in Europe. Huge colourful trawlers land their catches of herring and mackerel at the harbour and today more and more other more unusual species are landed too.
Killybegs is building a fine reputation as the Gourmet capital of the north of Ireland and a handful of restaurants in and around the port do battle for the custom of those looking for a fine fish supper.
And so we reached Donegal Town. Perhaps an appropriate finishing point for a time in this part of Ireland.
We took the trip boat round a harbour that had said a final farewell to so many Irish people leaving their homeland forever as they set out to find fame and fortune all across the world.
We saw the White Star booking office that sold the £2 tickets to America, and the deep water anchorage where the coffin ships waited for their passengers to be ferried out.
We knew half of them would never make it across the ocean and perhaps we had just a tiny taste of the sadness emigration brings.
After all we were leaving Donegal too.
This article is based on an article first published by Practical Motorhome Magazine.