While the hills of Donegal haven’t yet been turned into the gambling den of Ireland (check out Goats Don’t Shave – Las Vegas (The hills of Donegal), the county has plenty to offer.
How we get to Donegal
We normally travel across from Belfast and often head to the south of the County around Murvagh Bay / Donegal Town area. Consequently, our route takes us along the M1 and through Fermanagh. There are various options, this way, for the exact point of crossing the border. It all depends where you are going. If heading further north in Donegal, then it is better to take the route towards Derry.
The other way we travelled up to Donegal was from a further south. From Galway, we followed the N17 (great song also by the Saw Doctors), past Knock, Sligo, and then up the N15 into Donegal.
Feels like home
Indeed the Folk rock songs and Celtic ballads pay testament to the pride that locals have, and the draw that outsiders feel, for Donegal.
The place is like a second home for us. As you’ll see, we’ve travelled extensively through the county.
Coming into County Donegal from Derry, Turn right, and drive straight through Muff to access the most northerly point on the island of Ireland. Always blustery, Malin Head is a rugged and beautifully cruel coastline that demands plenty of Lighthouses and respect.
Movie buffs at Farren’s Bar
The dramatic scenery attracted Holywood bosses to use here as one of its locations for some of the new Star Wars movies.
This delighted Hugh Farren, Owner of Farrens Bar. Farren’s Bar is the most northerly bar on Mainland Ireland and sits just before Malin Head. The cool, green Yoda stencil on its wall was a draw for me as I (Knox) made use of the photo opportunity. The Clouds sat thick in the sky, and the continued precipitation yielded the suggestion to Miko about having a wee pint, just to see if it ceased. Miko received the proposition well and we made a dive for the door.
Enthusiastic Host gives a warm Donegal greeting
Hugh’s excitable self was happy to regale about the Star Wars filming that was shot nearby and how lead character, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), had popped in for a pint and a bit of craic. He was in the papers, on the news, a youtube sensation. Star Wars paraphernalia adorned the drinks cabinet behind the bar to go with the foreign money collection, an accordion and a hurl.
Through his flow, Mammy, ever the hard worker, got on her knees to fix the cans and bottles in the glass fridge. “Come on, Mammy, don’t embarrass me. Up ya get.”, “It needs done, son. I’m ok. It’ll only take a minute.” And with that, Hugh chuckled as he remembered how his “daddy” also embarrassed him when he had clambered up before jumping into the large bin, “a 76 year old man”, to squash the rubbish down to create more space. “I’m helping you out, son”. It was amusing how he didn’t get down on his knees to help.
Donegal’s warm embrace
We felt instantly at home in Farren’s. It’s hard to put your finger on one particular aspect of why, especially as the feeling washed over and was absorbed as soon as one walked through the door. It was just cozy, unassuming and snug. Being the centerpiece of the surrounding cottages, the smell of turf wafted through the nostrils as it lingered in the air around this close knit clachan, isolated by the very nature of its climate and geography.
The scene was etched for the memory. The warmth inside, while not stifling, was appreciated. A short hall opened up into the main saloon with the bar in front and a pool table to the right, where a couple of young local lads played a game. A wee nook, behind the pool table, provided comfy hearth seats beside a toasty fire. A few seats lined the windows on the right and, past that and the bar, was an open doorway through to a small lounge ornamented with local curios and mementos.
We saddled up on the stools at the bar. Hugh Farren and Mammy were the familiar characters behind the bar. Mammy, the strong matriarch with a glint in her eye, and Hugh, the adult son with the surface barely concealing a kids mischief under the skin, happily served us our drinks. Mammy took the opportunity to reveal how they had just received their Guinness delivery today as the last keg had run dry. The unspoken message to her son being that “You got lucky this time”. Hugh was pleased as punch, if also a little relieved, about the perfect measuring of his customers’ needs.
I remarked on a brightly coloured kite, hung on the wall, inscribed with “Malin Head Kite flying club”. This had Hugh chuckling as he meandered off into another tale. The club, as described, was fictitious and that was their only kite. Dreamed up by the bored and easily amused minds of Hugh and his friends, the Kite club had once been invited to teach kids how to fly kites at a festival being held at Dunluce Castle, or so he says. Of course, the invitation had to be declined. The yarn was vouched by a local who had recently joined our assembly. A boat/drinking trip to Islay, Scotland, by the “members” had brought the women folk to a pseudo protest outside the bar. There had also been a Putin style power grab as Hugh was declared president of the club while others were out of town.
Turning Left from Derry, a 21 mile drive will bring you to Grianan of Aileach, an ancient hillfort outside Letterkenny. From the car park, walk up the gravel path to the circle of stone walls sat atop its mound. We ducked through the doorway, on our visit there, and stood in the inner grass circle. It was peaceful amid the light mizzle and stiff breeze. The stones stairs were wet so we had to take extra care to climb to the 360 views of this part of Donegal. Even in the dusk, and with the misted air, the scenery was impressive.
Glenveagh National Park
Inland lies Glenveagh National Park with its 19th Century Castle set in alluring and haunting wilderness. Truly a scene for a gothic tale. There are numerous walks, including rugged hill and heath hikes, in the area of various degrees. We took the semi woodland path, towards the castle, that runs beside lough Veagh.
The castle grounds open up to beautifully maintained botanical gardens. The area may be isolated, but the landscape is stunning. Looking at it, one can understand why the inhabitants chose here to live.
Driving southwest from the park, you will come under the shadow of the mystical Mount Errigal. This is Donegal’s highest peak. Here, the mists can roll in abruptly to trap the careless soul. We were wanting to climb the slopes on one of our passings. However, we weren’t particularly well attired for a hike after the showery weather.
Consequently, I (Miko) slipped in a sheugh (a watery, muddy ditch at the bottom), which called the operation off. Indeed, Knox was highly amused but I eventually saw the funny side!
The Wild Atlantic Way – Donegal coast
Its at the North of the county that The Wild Atlantic Waybegins and trails along the west coast of Ireland in dramatic style.
The counteract of the cragginess and wild hills are the beautiful beaches. There are many along Donegal’s coastline for you to discover. With this in mind, we’ll just give you a wee taster of a few.
The long strand of Murvagh bay is a beautiful example of Donegal’s beaches.
It’s located 5 miles south from Donegal town.
Murvagh Bay is a special place for me (Miko), as my Mum’s ashes where scattered here.
Golden and white sand dunes mound along the left side of the coastal lane.
The flowering plants of beachgrass and bentgrass spike up through the powdery, sandy earth, waving back and forth through the whistling wind.
The Atlantic ocean blankets out beyond the dunes. Typically ocean blue and fresh, its wild waves crashing on the shoreline. The west coast’s usual tempestuous, blustery wind spits white foam into the air. Park up and cross the dunes to enjoy a healthy walk along this gorgeous stretch of unspoilt heaven.
On the right side of the lane from the coast, a thick green, magical, fairy like pine forest sits in contrast to the opposite dunes.
The sky seems to turn a darker, moody blue and black as ancient trees planted in dark rich soil marvels in their surroundings.
Once we hung colourful message ribbons in memory of mum on a tree by the wooded entrance.
Surprisingly, the storms hadn’t brought them down even after two years!
On occasions we drove down with some of our family crew. We’d lay flowers or just flolic about in the sands, thinking our own thoughts of mum or nanny, and at the same time enjoying each others company.
Venturing in, a small passage gives way to what seems like an endless route to another mystical dimension. On the beach, the breeze rarely lets up so its a great place to bring a kite!
Portsalon is a coastal townland in Donegal.
Voted one of the best beaches in the world, you can see why with its clean golden sands. Breath in the fresh sea air and enjoy a stroll in this little slice of paradise.
If you are a golfing enthusiast, the renowned Portsalon Golf Club is also close by to practice your swing!
Portsalon beach is situated on the scenic Lough Swilly and if you’re in the area you must stop by to check this gem out!
Just a few kilometres from Killybegs, Fintra beach is Ireland’s premier fishing port.
The water is clean and clear and worthy of its blue flag reward. It offers plenty of scope for walking on its soft sand at 1km long.
There’s a handy car park right beside the beach.
Maghera Beach – with caves and Assaranca Waterfall
On one occassion, we stayed in a small cabin at Bunbeg. From here, we called into the close by beach of Maghera.
On the drive down to the car park, we saw Assaranca waterfall in good flow. Actually, it usually is as there isn’t what you would call a DRY season in Ireland! The golden sands of Maghera are backed by a good dune system. The intrigue of the strand lies at the southern end, where caves will draw you in. If you talk to some of the locals, then they may have a smuggling tale or two to whisper in yer ear. Do be careful of the tides though, as the water can block some of the cave entrances.
Bundoran, or Belfast by the west coast (a lot visit from Belfast), is a lively holiday town. south of Ballyshannon, and on the border with County Leitrim. The winter months can be harsh and quiet as the storms batter the west of Ireland. Come Easter, the town comes alive as people descend on their caravans and holiday homes. There is a great strand and dune section for some beachy horse riding. We rode out from Donegal Equestrian Centre. On top of this, there’s lots of other seaside activities to keep you occupied.
Don’t forget to visit the Legendary Fairy Bridges and wishing chair. There’s a whole ritual to get the luck.
The county is named after the town of Donegal. The main square is a bustleing hub for locals and tourists alike. Arts and craft shops, flowerists, and local knitware retailers sit alongside the hotels, restaurants, and bars. There are plenty of restaurants in this small town and the bars love playing lively music to entertain you after a long day exploring. We have enjoyed delicious meals in The Olde Castle Bar and La Bella Donna. One of our favourite haunts to dance the night away is McCafferty’s Bar and its adjoining warren of pubs.
Accomodation in Donegal Town
There are plenty of options in Donegal town to lay yer hat for the night. We have stayed in both of the main hotels in the square before. There are also many guest houses and rooms available on other platforms.
The Abbey and Central hotels location mean you’re in the heart of the action. They sit side by side in the main square and are usually bustling as both have in house bars and restaurants. The back of the hotels have views over the bay to help you escape from the hustle of the square. The rooms feel a bit dated, in their classical styling, and both are a tad pricey for what you get. They are comfortable and location is important.
We have also stayed in The Gateway Lodge on the north outskirts of the town. The location is decent as its still only a 5 / 10 min walk to the square. It is a relatively modern hotel with a mix of motel style rooms as well as main rooms within the main body of the hotel. Good deals can be found here.
Other options in Donegal Town
We checked Airbnb as an alternative to the traditional hotels to see if they could provide more homely and economical options. Through this platform, we found Pat and Hugh’s lovely home and have used it often. The welcome is warm, the room is nicely decorated and super clean, the scenery is relaxed countryside, and the all round service is top notch. Hugh will even give you a lift into town.
Sometimes, when I (Miko) want to feel close to my mum, we have been known to kip under the stars at Murvagh Bay. The darkness affords wonderful nightscapes, when the clouds clear, and we feel blessed when we spot shooting stars sparking across the sky.
If you liked reading, you may like our piece on Belfast born and bred!