Discovering Donegal

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Charlie Fuller isn’t necessarily the kind of name you’d expect to encounter in the heart of Ireland’s Gaeltacht, the scattered enclaves where Irish language and culture are passionately preserved and where perplexing road signs like “Gleann Cholm Cille”, as I found in southwest Donegal, reduce navigation to guesswork.

From the shoulder of a steep road that wound down to the village of Glencolumbkille (as the English spell it), farmer Fuller was barking orders in Gaelic to his border collie, Darkie, busy harrying sheep down a lush hillside decorated with heather and golden gorse.

A fine mist rolled in from the North Atlantic and deep in the glen, a sun shower veiled a rare patch of brightness as it sprayed across the pretty village, still and seemingly lifeless on a sleepy Sunday save for the muffled squeak of a distant fiddle.

A kindly man with a shock of white hair and sheep on his mind Fuller paused to smile, shake a stranger’s hand and offer a welcome to the lovely coastland at the remote western tip of County Donegal that had been his home for 72 years.

“We call this the back of beyond”, he said pointing west at the dark blue ocean. “Because the road ends here.”

“The road” was a dizzying drive west from Donegal Town through verdant valleys and fragrant fishing villages, curving around mountains, spongy peat bogs and along the edges of precipices like the great cliffs of Slieve League, at 600m, the highest coastal cliffs in Europe.

This is a region of craggy, sometimes barren and desolate beauty dotted with whitewashed crofters’ cottages and great blanket bogs where turf-cutters stack piles of early-cut peat for the next winter and then pray, often in vain, for fine weather to dry them out. In the west of Ireland, fine weather is considered a treat.

At the end of the road, Glen, as the locals call Glencolumbkille, is a quiet little village with a fine sandy beach, the Glen Folk Village offering a glimpse of local heritage and fine old traditional pubs where Donegal musicians are regular performers like Roarty’s, Glen Head Tavern and Teach Biddy’s which is currently up for sale. If you have a lazy $700,000, Teach Biddy’s could be yours.

But the quiet little village became a bit famous in 1984; it was where the resurrection of the Irish language in Donegal began when Liam O’Cuinneagain founded Oideas Gael, an organisation dedicated to promoting the revival of traditional language and culture.

It was one of the great success stories of the Gaeltacht.  From an attendance of 34 in its first year, it now attracts hundreds of students from across Ireland and abroad who come to learn Irish at all levels and attend other courses run by the centre during the summer months including archaeology, painting, folklore, traditional dancing and fiddle school.

Driving around Ireland is a patient traveller’s dream, quiet country roads bordered by ancient stone walls and hedgerows, heart-stopping scenery, cute white woolly sheep with black stockings owning the road, luscious wild blackberries (in season), convivial little village pubs and the occasional lorry or bus that will slow progress to a crawl.

To the east of Glen, on a thin road designated the L1125, street-savvy sheep vastly outnumbered traffic as it snaked through the sweeping majesty of Glengesh Pass to the tiny textile village of Ardara.

Set between beautiful coastal and mountain scenery, Ardara produces the finest wool fabrics, tweeds and hand-knits for export at local factory outlets like John Molloy’s, weavers of Donegal tweed and hand-knitted, hand-fashioned Aran fisherman sweaters and accessories.

Molloy’s supplies knitwear to labels like Benetton, Armani and Hugo Boss and quality garments are on sale to the public at about 30% off regular retail prices. Manager John Molloy is proud of the clothing his family company produced.  “I’ve yet to see anybody come in here and not go out smiling,” he grinned.

Though the factory is fully computerised, there are some 700 hand knitters still working around Ardara where knitting is an important part of the school curriculum for both boys and girls.  “It’s in the culture of the local area,” Molloy explained.

East of Ardara, the N56 curled around the Atlantic coast where waves smashed against granite walls and on through a desolate region known as The Rosses, great folds of brown bogland rising and dipping like a solid extension of the ocean swell stretching to the eastern horizon.

This is Gaeltacht country too and the cradle of some famous Irish musicians.  It is the homeland of crooner Daniel (Wee Dan) O’Donnell and at Dungloe where he was born, people came from as far away as Canada and Scotland in May 2012 to see their idol cut the ribbon to the new Daniel O’Donnell visitor centre.

Until the year 2000, hundreds of O’Donnell fans had flocked to his home up the road at Kincasslagh every year to share a cuppa with the great man and his family at what became known as the Annual Tea Party. Now the house is on the market,

These days the most consistent partying around The Rosses happens in a chummy tavern in the humble little village of Meenaleck, near Crolly.

In the 1950’s Leo Brennan, son of a musical family from Gweedore a few kilometres away, formed a Glenn Miller style swing band. When interest in swing faded and Leo’s family grew he bought the pub in Meenaleck where he could raise a young brood and still play to an audience.

The brood became Clannad, one of Ireland’s most successful traditional bands and included a couple of uncles and the ethereal Enya, Leo’s beautiful raven-haired daughter who subsequently split from the group to pursue an even more successful solo career in London.  Occasionally, she and her siblings work a shift behind the bar at Leo’s Tavern when they come home to visit the folks.

As the sun disappeared and a chill settled on The Rosses, I settled into Leo’s with a foaming Guinness for what turned out to be a thoroughly warming experience. The walls of the bar were about as long as a cricket pitch and festooned with Enya’s platinum discs and numerous other Clannad memorabilia.

The generously large lounge began to fill with local families from surrounding farms and nearby villages and hamlets Crolly, Loughanoran and Killindarragh to dine on Irish stew, Guinness Pie and fish and chips.

When Leo donned his accordion, mounted the small stage and burst into spirited song he wasn’t alone; everyone knew the words, everyone knew the tunes, everyone could sing and everyone did, generating hours of wonderful, comforting Irish craic.

This was karaoke with class and at stumps they all rose dutifully when Leo finally wound things up with the Irish national anthem.

A few kilometres from Gweedore, Glenveagh National Park is a 10,000-hectare slice of Donegal’s wildest scenery with kilometres of hiking trails and stately red deer. It was once owned by brutal landlord John George Adair, chiefly remembered for evicting 244 tenant farmers just after the Great Famine in the winter of 1861.

On the shores of a peaceful lake were the beautiful gardens of Glenveagh Castle where, beneath fairytale turrets, the Blue Bedroom had once been the luxury lodgings of Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly and a young Princess Diana.

In the north of Donegal, a network of 72km of scenic roads known as Fanad Drive winds around Fanad Peninsula.  It links villages like Rosnakill, Portsalon and rollicking Rathmullan, the departure point for the Flight of the Earls when Irish clan leaders like the Earls of Donegal and Tyrone surrendered to the invading English and fled Ireland.  Their story is revealed at the Rathmullan Heritage Centre housed in a 19th century seafront fort.

This is a village of buoyant waterfront pubs, fine restaurants and the ivy-covered remains of a 5th century Carmelite monastery on the shores of languid Lough Swilly.  Fanad Drive runs north from Rathmullan to Portsalon on Ballymastocker Bay with its swimmable beaches and a challenging nine-hole golf course open almost all year.

The road climbs around Knockalla Mountain revealing fantastic views across Lough Swilly to Dunree Fort and Dunaff Head on Inishowen Peninsula to the east.  At the tip of Fanad Head there is a holy well covered with offerings, a curving cliff called the Great Arch and a lighthouse perched right on the cliff’s edge.

Fanad is strewn with farms, rocky cliffs and beautiful white shores like Balinstocker Beach that could be mistaken for parts of the South Pacific. It’s one of the country’s prettiest regions and to many, including yours truly, the crown jewel of the Emerald Isle.

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)

2 thoughts on “Discovering Donegal

  1. Loved your post! You were spot-on with describing the way I pictured Ireland and its people. I’d love to be able to visit and possibly even bring the dog (an Australian Shepherd) to herd the sheep (shepherd willing, of course).

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