So County Donegal is way up in the northwest part of Ireland. It’s part of the Republic of Ireland administratively, but geographically, it’s more like Northern Ireland. I mean, Donegal is barely even attached to the Republic. There’s like a 5 mile border between Donegal and County Sligo to the south.
Anyway Donegal is simply a bit different. It’s wilder, more rugged, more remote. This is one of the last places that fell to English rule. So you can imagine the people here are pretty strong, independent and aren’t taking your shit! I like people like that.
Add to the mix a long coastline, a beautiful interior with mountains and bog land, some of highest sea cliffs in Europe, gorgeous islands, ancient stone circles and some charming small towns…well, I’m ready to pack my bags. Is it spring yet?
Here are some fabulous reasons to make the extra effort to get to Donegal.
Located in the southwest part of the county, these sea cliffs are said to be some of the tallest in Europe.
They rise to 601m and are actually about 3 times taller than the more famous Cliffs of Moher. Aaaannnddd you probably won’t see as many folks here even though these cliffs are one of the biggest attractions in Donegal.
There are walks around the cliffs, but you’ll want to be sure you’re an experienced walker to tackle these trails.
As you can imagine, the views are stunning.
Here’s another interesting fact about Slieve League: there are ruins of a Christian monastic site, with a chapel and some beehive huts on the highest peak. And you’ll also find some ancient stones that hint it was a pilgrimage site in pre-Christian times.
There are quite a few up here in Donegal. Then again, Ireland tends to have loads of historical sites and even those that are ancient (think Newgrange).
Grianan of Aileach is one that’s high on my list. It’s a stone fort over 23m in diameter with walls 5m high. Believed to be built in the 1st century, but on an existing site that dates back to around 1700BC, it’s pretty damn old. It was actually one of 5 Irish sites to be marked on Ptolemy of Alexandria’s map of the world (dated to the 2nd century). So it must have been important!
And it was. The Grianan of Aileach, Stone Palace of the Sun, was the royal seat of the Ui Neill rulers from the 5th to the 12th century. The Ui Neill’s were some badass Celtic folks.
Anyway, this fort sits up on hill so it has stunning 360 views. You can see across Lough Swilly, Lough Foyle and the beautiful Inishowen Peninsula (see below). It’s a must!
I’m big into stone circles
I believe the ancient people were so in tune with the natural world and that these stone circles are really special. There are a couple in Donegal that are calling to me.
The first one is Beltany Stone Circle. It’s thought to have been built between 1400-800BC. There are 64 large stones that encircle a kind of low earth platform. Of course, we don’t really know what the area was used for. Perhaps some sort of religious or spiritual rituals. Or maybe something else. In fact it’s often thought that the name Beltany comes from Beltane which is a Celtic festival of fertility that usually takes place on May 1. It’s still a festival that is widely observed throughout Ireland and Scotland. I love that they hold onto these so-called pagan traditions!
The other stone circle is Bocan. This one is located on a hill on the Inishowen Peninsula. So yes, fabulous views. No one is exactly sure when it was built — anywhere between 1500-3000BC.
Bocan is a bit more in ruins with many of the stones no longer standing. But I tend to be okay with this, as I use my imagination. There are about 7 stones still upright, so just enough to entice.
This stone circle is thought to have been a sort of sun temple. I love to picture what kind of ceremonies or rituals the ancient people of this area might have practiced.
There are some castles in Donegal as well
Doe Castle is one that was built around the 15th century. It’s surrounded by water on 3 sides as it sits on Sheephaven Bay. It’s a gorgeous location.
Doe Castle belonged to the MacSweeney clan for about 200 years. These folks came from Scotland but helped out the local O’Donnell clan. The castle changed hands over the ensuing years ending up in the hands of the Irish Land Commission in 1932. You can visit the castle for free.
Glenveagh National Park is actually a combination of castle and nature
I like this idea — a gorgeous building fit for a queen sitting in a spectacular natural setting.
The park itself is made up of over 16,000 hectares of mountains, lakes, valleys and woods. The Derryveagh Mountains are located within the park and make for some great hiking. There are some easier and shorter trails if you want a leisurely walk. The scenery is dazzling.
Glenveagh Castle sits on the shores of Lough Beagh, the largest lake in the park. It was built between 1867 and 1873, so it’s not as old as Doe Castle. It was created by John Adair, a wealthy land speculator who from County Laois. He wasn’t a very nice guy. But he did build a fabulous castle.
The gardens of the castle shouldn’t be missed. They’re said to be some of the most gorgeous gardens in all of Ireland.
The castle eventually was sold to Ireland’s Office of Public Works in 1975 which lead to the creation of the national park.
So now we get to visit this incredible castle in its stunning location, enjoying the natural world as well as the man-made one.
The highest peak in County Donegal is impressive to look at although not all that tall at 751m. It’s just one of those peaks that is perfectly shaped and seems to always be shrouded in a cloud of mist. The glen below Errigal is beautiful — with Dunlewy Lough the star of the valley.
I’d love to hike this peak as the views are supposed to be gorgeous. It’s about an hour to an hour and a half to summit. From the twin summits you can take in the glen below and the Derryveagh Mountains of which Errigal is part of. If the weather is good, you may even be able to see out to the coast of Donegal. But it’s Ireland, so don’t count on it!
Top of my list? Probably. This is the peninsula that reaches the farthest north in Ireland thanks to Malin Head which is the very tippy top piece of land of Inishowen.
This is the most remote part of Donegal, but the part you don’t want to miss. Grianan of Aileach and Bocan Stone Circle are here. But there’s more!
There are more ruined castles and forts here. There are tons of birds. Small towns and villages with friendly locals, cozy pubs and warm beds dot the landscape. There are beautiful stretches of sandy beaches. In fact, there are even some impressive sand dunes here. There are golf courses (hey, this is Ireland)! You’ll find some lighthouses here as well. And the scenery is simply stunning!
It’s even more wild, rugged and remote. But so worth the time to go just those few extra miles (or kilometers) to visit this area. Inishowen even has its own special drive called the Inishowen 100. This is a 100 mile signposted scenic drive that takes you around this beautiful peninsula. Sign me up!
I could go on about more reasons to visit Donegal
I haven’t even mentioned some of the islands that lie off the coast: Arranmore, Tory, Inishbofin, Inishfree, Inishtrahull, Owey, Gola. They all offer all kinds of fun things to do. Donegal has some wonderful artisans and craftspeople. And there are some great festivals to attend as well. The food is fabulous too with some incredibly fresh seafood. Yum!
So are you thinking about going somewhere a little off the beaten path for your visit to Ireland? I think you should. While it’s just a little bit further away, the treasures in Donegal are worth it.
For me I have no doubt I’ll spend some time here next spring. Donegal has been on my list for a while. It’s time to find out why “it’s different up here.”