Monday 5 December 2016

Donegal: How the northwest won a first-time visitor's heart

Northwest passage

Published 15/08/2016 | 02:30

Slieve League, Donegal, Ireland
Slieve League, Donegal, Ireland
Silver Strand, Co. Donegal: One of several silver strands scattered around the Irish coastline, this beautiful nook is stashed way out west on the Slieve League Peninsula near Glencolmcille. Snorkelling, swimming and sunbathing are all gorgeous here, and the out-of-the-way location means you'll only have to share it with crowds on the sunniest of summer days.
St John’s Point is a stunning drive with breath-taking views across Donegal Bay and towards Sligo, Mayo and far beyond
Cyndi Graham's weaving studio
The Slieve League Cliffs in Donegal, one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe.

Campbell Spray takes his dog Sam on their first ever visit to Donegal. Better late than never...

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A man and a dog go into a pub. The barman comes up and asks him what he wants to drink. A pint is poured and the barman goes up to the dog.

"Ah, I see he has cataracts," he observes.

"Yes," says the man, "we were thinking of having an operation."

But the barman demurs: "Where I come from there's an ointment that sometimes does the trick."

And that's how we came to visit Donegal this summer.

Not for a cure for Sam, his eyes were too far gone. But because Oisin in The Back Page in Dublin's Phibsborough that night re-ignited my feeling that the county was something special and my guilt that in the 37th year I have been in Ireland I had not visited the most north-western county.

This was especially bad as so often I was told that the county would remind me so much of the Scottish Highlands, my ancestral home.

The county and the people didn't disappoint. Ok, we were warned that the weather might make or break the trip. It didn't, but to say it was mixed was an understatement. On any given day we could have gales, lashing rain and the most beautiful sun ... sometimes, it seemed, all at the same time.

Cyndi Graham's weaving studio.

The greatest surprise was the speed in getting there from Dublin. It always had seemed forbiddingly far away. However once we had bitten the bullet, packed the Volkswagen Tiguan, arranged for the cats and house to be minded by the lovely Sinead and settled Sam on the back-seat, it all seemed very manageable.

Flying up the A3, the M3 and on through Virginia, Cavan and Enniskillen - while making stops for coffee, Sam's walk and a visit to Belleek Pottery - we were still across the border into Donegal's Ballyshannon well within three hours and on the Wild Atlantic Way.

We decided to "do" Donegal in two parts; staying in the South for three days and then heading North for another three. It would be a bit of a tasting experience so we would know where we would like to come back for a longer stay.

This article will deal with the days spent around Killybegs, Donegal Town and the South-West of the country. A later article will have us based in Rathmullan and the Inishowen Peninsula.

Sam was an important part of the holiday. He is of the age to get anxious if he is away from us and we were determined he would travel with us. But finding accommodation that takes dogs isn't that easy and a number of planned excursions, including one to a lovely garden, fell at the first "no dogs" hurdle.

Silver Strand, Donegal.jpg
Silver Strand at Malin Beg, Co. Donegal.

However, there was no issue when it came to going out from Killybegs for some fishing with Brian McGilloway Snr. owner and skipper of M.V. Meridian (; 087 2200982). Sam was more than welcome on the 40-footer as we went for some mackerel. He got his sea legs faster than I did.

By the time we called it a day, it had been one of the most enjoyable experiences for years. I felt like a child as I brought fish after fish onto the deck until we had a good bucketful. Brian has knowledge, humour and some great tales built up over 30 years' experience in charter angling. It is a must.

Donegal Town surprised us. It was a bustling atmospheric town with plenty to do and see. We started with a visit to the Donegal Craft Village just outside the town and took it in turns to go in to the different studios which are a showcase for contemporary arts and crafts. Lunch was taken sitting outside the craft village's award-winning restaurant where the staff could not do enough for us. In a trip where my partner struggled to get good vegetarian food, this was a beacon of hope.

In the town itself, the castle is a must as is the lovely Protestant church across the street. My nerdish side got full expression in the Railway Museum, based in the former station of the county's noted narrow-gauge railway, which, apart from a couple of very short hobby routes, has vanished.

Castle Murray House.jpg  

We were lucky to be staying at the renowned Castle Murray House Hotel (, above), which is on the road to St John's Point, one of the longest peninsulas in the country and home to the splendid lighthouse, which is one of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland.

It is a stunning drive with breath-taking views across Donegal Bay and towards Sligo, Mayo and far beyond. You must visit the pretty, almost pink, sands of Coral Beach.

Just a few minutes from the hotel in a picture-postcard cottage, Cyndi Graham weaves her brand of magic on an 1890 loom. Her scarves, bags, rugs and waistcoats breathe beauty. Last Sunday, I gave my son Marcus the long scarf I bought from Cyndi. The delight in his eyes was only matched by the swiftness of his sister's hands as she wrapped it around her neck.

Castle Murray, with its wonderful views across the bay, was the perfect place to stay. A quick walk down the drive brings you to the shore, a small lagoon and the ruins of McSwyne's Castle. The views from the restaurant are magnificent and only topped by the standard of food which draws fans from all over the region, including Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker.

But what stood out along with the food, although once again vegetarians miss out, was the friendliness of the staff of this 10-bedroom boutique hotel and the willingness to do anything they could to make our stay enjoyable.

Slieve League Cliffs.jpg  

Out past Killybegs and there is a stunning coastal drive which brings you to the beautiful sandy beach at Fintra Bay, then Muckross Head and on to Slieve League Cliffs (above), said to be the one of the highest and finest marine cliffs in Europe.

We then travelled to Glencolmcille Folk Village to see how people would have eked out a living on one of Ireland's most westerly points. We ended our tour of south-west Donegal at Ardara, a heritage town of some style which is awash with artists and designers. And if you're not driving you can become awash with Guinness and oysters at the cosy Nancy's Bar, a real treat of a pub which has been owned by the same family for over seven generations.

I'd love to have spent a night there, I might never have left.

There was an infectious warmth throughout Donegal. On two occasions butchers ran out of their shops to give Sam a bone, everybody was friendly and delighted to pass the time with you.

We hadn't visited the big holiday destinations of Bundoran or Rossnowlagh Beach. They wouldn't have necessarily been our scene. More intimate places won our heart and revitalised our souls.

Get there

Castle Murray House Hotel is situated on the N56, 8km from Killybegs, 20km from Donegal Town on the coast road to St. John’s Point; first left outside Dunkineely village.

The Wild Atlantic Way is the longest defined coastal touring route in the world stretching 2,500 kilometres long from Inishowen in Donegal to Kinsale in West Cork. Campbell Spray explored St. John’s Point, Donegal Town, and Killybegs in Donegal.

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