From Northern Ireland, we moved west and south to Donegal. Donegal County promised to be the “wild child” of Ireland and the road less traveled, at least according to our Lonely Planet guidebook. It lived up to expectations. Rolling countryside, rugged cliffs, sloping grass and rock covered mountains and plateaus rising up like massive sleeping cows. Little villages, sheep and goats grazing around nearly every corner. If you wanna get away, this is a good place to do it.
On our first day, en route to Donegal, we stopped off in the Glenveagh National Park, Ireland’s second largest, and walked the path to Glenveagh Castle. The Castle itself was closed still from COVID, but the beautiful gardens and trails to the overlooks above were open. The castle was built by John George Adair in 1857. Old John was not, however, a welcome addition to the neighborhood. He captured the “trespassing” livestock of his neighbors who were then evicted from their homes on the surrounding property. In a case of karma, John died suddenly not too many years later. Before he could do so, his wife created the gardens which still thrive today. After a brief occupation in the 1920s by the IRA, Harvard professor Kingsley Porter purchased the property. Fate was not on his side either, as he mysteriously disappeared on one of the islands, never to be found. Realizing we should retreat before some ill fate befell us, we took our leave to take in the view from above before returning to our trusty Duster to continue on our way.
I’d read about Maghera Strand beach and caves in the aforementioned guidebook. Just near Ardara about 10k down a windy and very narrow road you reach a waterfall with goats and sheep grazing above, a swimming hole below and a few solemn gravesides around. Stop and dip in the cold cold water and then keep going, you’re only just getting started. The small parking lot for the beach cost €3 per car and was well worth every penny. The wee lad collecting the fee was almost apologetic when he gave us the rate. If you arrive at low tide, you’ll be well rewarded. Pass through the grass adorned and wind whipped dunes to the beach proper. Head to your left towards the caves. The mix of browns, yellows, greys and blacks on the rocks of the cliffs descending to the beach and sea where the last high tide left algae on their banks is breathtaking. Multicolored tidal pools and rivers stream back towards the sea and the firm, wind sculpted sand makes walking easy as you admire the designs of black, light brown and yellow sand left behind when the sea receded. Pictures don’t do it justice.
From Maghera, we ascended over the mountain to take in the Sliabh Liag cliffs which are among the tallest in Europe, descending 600 meters to the sea below. You can pay to park in two hour increments at the top of the steep winding road and then walk the rest of the road to the trailhead. The trail takes you up to some overlooks and continues on to the top of the cliffs. It was foggy and rainy at the very top, so we opted to go only part way past where most pedestrians stopped and were outnumbered by grazing sheep about 10 to 1. If you want to do the full hike, pay for a whole day at the lot, you’ll need it.
Heading back towards Donegal town for dinner, we wended our way along the Donegal portion of the Wild Atlantic Way scenic drive through intermittent rain and sun showers until it opened up to a view of a small beach haloed by a rainbow. A perfect bookend to a perfect Irish day.
We stayed outside of Donegal town, which is a great little village with a bustling town square and lots of pubs and restaurants. We tried to get in at the Castle Pub but the chef apparently cut off all dinner service at 7:15 for any late arrivals. I guess we’ve been in Portugal too long to think that a 7:15 dinner was late. We opted for some of the best Indian food we’ve ever eaten from Chandpur Indian Restaurant on the recommendation of our Castle Pub bartender.
Our accommodations were on Lough Eske, a beautiful and remote lake 9km from the town. As mid August weather turned to what felt more like a New England or Colorado fall, it was an ideal location from which to explore Donegal County.
Donegal County may wind up being our most favorite part of Ireland. It’s wild. It’s remote. It’s weather is hit and miss. Warm then cold. Wet then sunny. Windy then… well, I guess that’s Irish weather, but it adds to the charm. Wild cliffs, pristine beaches, untouched land for miles. The sheep definitely rival the human population. We loved it and we can’t wait to return just to here and for longer.