Discover the Delights of County Donegal from Derry
To the north and west of Derry, across the border in the Republic of Ireland, is the county of Donegal, famous worldwide for its natural beauty. And for those who find their journey beginning in the vibrant city of Derry, the wild landscapes of Donegal are tantalisingly close, offering a myriad of experiences that contrast and complement our beloved coast. Donegal boasts craggy cliffs, serene beaches, and age-old Gaelic traditions, serving as a natural extension to any exploration of Northern Ireland’s treasures. Whether it’s the sweeping views from Slieve League or the folklore echoing in the Glencolmcille Valley, Donegal promises memories that linger long after the journey ends. Join me, a seasoned wanderer of the Causeway Coast, as I unveil the must-visit spots of Donegal for those venturing forth from Derry’s historic gates.
GLENVEAGH NATIONAL PARK
Just north of Donegal’s most lively town, Letterkenny, is the Glenveagh National Parks, where visitors can enjoy some of Ireland’s finest scenery. Nature walks guide you through the 10,000 hectares of glens and mountains, and there is also Glenveagh Castle, with its beautiful gardens to be explored. The park is open every day between St Patrick’s Day and the first Sunday in November, from 1000 to 1830.
T: (0035374) 9137090 / 9137262;
To the north of Derry is the Inishowen Peninsula. This rugged but beautiful part of Donegal derives its name from the 5th century when Niall, the High King of Ireland, gave this region to his son Eoghan (Owen). Hence, Inishowen – ‘the island of Owen’. The ‘Inishowen 100’ is a well-signposted, 100-mile scenic drive around the peninsula and is highly recommended.
GRIANAN OF AILEACH
Just 10km west of Derry is Grianan of Aileach, The Fortress of the Sun (from the Irish Grianan – sunny place, and Aileach – fortress). This ancient fort of the Northern High Kings is perched on the 240m height of Grianan Hill. Dating from c.2000 BC, it is said to have been built for Dagda, the Tuatha De Dannan king.
In pagan days, it was used as a temple of the sun and later as a refuge for the womenfolk when the men went to war. St Patrick is said to have preached at Grianan in 450 and baptised Eoghan, founder of the O’Neill clan, who later controlled most of the present counties of Derry, Tyrone and Armagh.
The original fortress was largely destroyed in 1101, and the current structure dates from restoration work between 1874 and 1879. The view from atop its 3.6m thick walls is breathtaking.
Looking north: to the left is Lough Swilly, to the Centre lies the mountainous Inishowen Peninsula and to the right is Lough Foyle. Looking east, the windswept scenery of County Donegal joins with the sweeping hills of Derry’s Creggan district in Northern Ireland.
On the main approach road to Grianan is the beautiful circular St Aengus’s Church (Burt Chapel), voted Irish building of the last millennium.
BURT CASTLE & INCH CASTLE
The O’Dohertys were the Gaelic rulers of Inishowen, and the remains of many of their fortifications are scattered throughout the peninsula. Between Newtowncunningham and Bridgend, the imposing ruins of Burt Castle (right) can be seen. This was a 16th-century fortress of the O’Doherty clan, one of four guarding the southwest approaches to Inishowen, and in its day was a place of great strategic importance. Further on at Inch Island is Inch Castle, built in the early part of the 15th century and another stronghold of the once-powerful O’Dohertys. Both Burt and Inch castles fell into the hands of the English after Sir Cahir O’Doherty’s short-lived rebellion in 1608 failed. A few kilometres later, the road emerges from the hilly terrain and swings at Fahan. The visitor can fully appreciate the beauty of Lough Swilly at this point – right up to Dunaff Head and Fanad Head.
ST MURA’S CROSS, FAHAN
In the 6th century, St Columb founded a monastery at Fahan, of which St Mura became the first abbot. He was later revered as the patron saint of this monastic settlement, which developed into a centre of piety and learning. The settlement survived for seven centuries until its final abandonment in 1266.
St Mura’s Cross, a magnificent example of early Irish art, is supposed to mark the last resting place of the saint himself, whose death is recorded as 645. It stands over 2m in height and is shaped like a headstone with a pointed top. St. Mura was also the patron saint of the O’Neill clan, and their close links led to the destruction of the abbey at Fahan in 1101, the same time as the destruction of the O’Neills’ fortress at Grianan.
The ruins standing in the graveyard now are those of a Protestant church built during the Plantation at the beginning of the 17th century and used until 1820 when the new church of St Mura was constructed across the road.
In the new graveyard, behind the new church of St. Mura, is a carved cross and memorial to mark the grave of 68 victims of the sinking of the Laurentic, which struck a mine off Malin Head in January 1917. Over 350 out of a crew of 475 lost their lives. The Laurentic carried gold bars worth an estimated £5 million, most of which were salvaged.
RATHMULLAN & RAMELTON
Looking across Lough Swilly from Fahan, we can see the expansive Strand at Rathmullan. 1607, one of Ireland’s most historical events occurred when Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, was forced to flee the country with other Irish leaders to escape further English retribution after the Battle of Kinsale in 1603. This event, ‘The Flight of the Earls’, marked the end of autonomous Gaelic power in Ireland;
The Donegal Ancestry Centre in nearby Ramelton is County Donegal’s official family history research/Genealogy Centre. It provides a comprehensive research resource for those exploring details of their Donegal ancestors.
DOAGH VISITOR & FAMINE CENTRE
The Doagh Visitor Centre in Inishowen provides a variety of exhibitions telling the story of Famine and Eviction. It is also where the people of Inishowen’s customs, traditions and history are preserved. This attraction is redesigned to become Ireland’s Lapland in November and December.
T: (0035374) 9378078
Six kilometres from Fahan is Buncrana, the chief town in the peninsula. The city’s name comes from the Irish Bun Cranncha – the mouth of the Crana, the river (below) that enters Lough Swilly in the town.
There is a strong local tradition that it was to Buncrana Castle that Wolfe Tone, the ‘father of Irish nationalism’, was taken after he was captured on board the French warship Hoche in 1798 at Lough Swilly.
The ship was later repaired and renamed HMS Donegal and subsequently fought under Nelson’s colours at the Battle of Trafalgar. A visit to Buncrana would only be complete with a walk through Swan Park, a beautiful woodland pathway along the lower reaches of the Crana River. Also in Swan Park is O’Doherty’s Keep, a medieval tower house originally owned by Sir Cahir O’Doherty.
NED’S POINT & FATHER HEGARTY’S ROCK
From Swan Park, a path leads onto a walk along the beach north of Bun – crana. About 800m along the path, beside Buncrana Lifeboat Station, is Ned’s Point Fort, a military structure designed to counter the threat of French invasion.
The fort has been restored and is now open to the public. Further along, about 3km north of the town, is Father Hegarty’s Rock, named after a priest said to have been martyred there in penal times. His grave lies on the inland side of the path; a plaque marks the year of his death, 1711.
DUNREE HEAD & FORT DUNREE MILITARY MUSEUM
Arriving at Dunree Head, there is a magnificent view of the beach, mountains and sea. The 18th-century fort at Dunree now houses a Military Museum. This helps capture and recreate both the importance of the Swilly as a safe anchorage and the role played by the fort in coastal defence over 200 years from the Napoleonic era to the Second World War. The Fort Dunree Military Museum is open June to September 1030-1800 (Mon-Sat) and 1230-1800 (Sun).
T: (0035374) 9361817;
CLONMANY & BALLYLIFFIN
The view from the top of Mamore Gap in the Urris Hills is enriching. From here, the road winds its way to Clonmany. This village is well worth a visit, as is the waterfall on the Clonmany River at Glenview. Not far from Clonmany is Ballyliffin, which has a 3km stretch of golden sand known as the Pollan Strand. At the north end of the Strand stands the remains of Carrickabrackey Castle, the second oldest in the peninsula
Carndonagh is 10km off to the east. This thriving market town is the hub of Inishowen. On the approach to the town, we see the famous Donagh Cross standing at the entrance of the old graveyard. Also known as St Patrick’s Cross, it is one of the oldest in Ireland, dating back to the 7th century. It is regarded as one of these islands’ most important monuments of early Christian art.
Ireland’s most northerly point, with its breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean, is Malin Head at the tip of Inishowen. About 32km southeast is Kinnagoe Bay where, in 1588, La Trinidad Valencera, a vessel of the Spanish Armada, foundered while fleeing the English fleet. The wreck was discovered by local divers in February 1971, and its artefacts are currently housed in the Tower Museum in Derry.
GREENCASTLE, THE INISHOWEN MARITIME MUSEUM & PLANETARIUM
On the road back to Derry, we pass through Greencastle. The castle (below), which gives this quaint fishing village its name, was built here in 1305 by Sir Richard de Burgo because of its strategic position at the mouth of Lough Foyle.
Sir Richard’s grandson, William, imprisoned his cousin Walter de Burgo in the castle where he starved to death, an event commemorated on the coat of arms of the City of Derry.
In the harbour at Greencastle is the Inishowen Maritime Museum and Planetarium. The museum contains numerous exhibits depicting the village’s historical connections to the sea, including a fully rigged ‘Greencastle Yawl’, the area’s traditional fishing boat, a nineteenth-century rocket cart used to aid survivors of shipwrecks, and examples of traditional Fanad curraghs (rowing boats) made from hazel rods and canvas.
The planetarium, one of only three in Ireland, focuses on how mariners could use the stars for navigation and boasts the ability to show the stars on any date and the changes that have occurred during the last two thousand years. Recently refurbished with theatre-style seating, it also presents a laser light show at the Summer weekends and is open all year round. Family and group rates are available.
T: (0035374) 9381363;
Just along the coast is Moville, which comes alive in the Summer months with throngs of visitors, especially in the week of the regatta, which begins on August bank holiday Monday. It is also said to have one of the oldest bridges in Ireland, situated on the grounds of Gulladuff House. The coastal path extends the entire distance from Greencastle to Moville along the shores of Lough Foyle.
CAIRN VISITOR CENTRE
Situated in Drumaweir in Greencastle, this Centre brings to life, through imagery and lighting, the changing heritage of Inishowen against the backdrop of Irish history – from the Celts to the Vikings and the Great Famine to the recent past. A craft shop
IOSAS CENTRE & CELTIC PRAYER/PILGRIM CENTRE, MUFF
The Island of Saints and Scholars (IOSAS) facility in Derryvane, Muff, is a six-acre prayer garden and visitor Centre where the ‘pilgrim’ is invited to reflect on the Irish saints and their relevance today. It is sponsored by the Columba Community of Prayer and Reconciliation.
T: (0035374) 9368370;
The journey from Moville to Quigley’s Point provides a closer view of Lough Foyle. The Foyle has a course of 19km before reaching Derry City. According to tradition, Eoghan, named after the peninsula, was buried in this area around 465. His youngest son was drowned in the lough, and his body was buried in this area, which commands extensive views of the lough. The son’s name was Febal; thus, the name was Lough Foyle. The final journey back along the western shore of the Foyle takes us through Muff, a small village on the border between Donegal and Derry.
For further information on the Donegal area, contact North West Tourism, Letterkenny.
T: (0035374) 9121160;