The most remote county in the Republic of Ireland is receiving some much-deserved attention this year. National Geographic Traveller described Donegal as being “in a real sweet spot- off radar and hard to access, but on the cusp of a breakthrough.” And, as any good Star Wars fan knows, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi filmed on the Inishowen Peninsula last spring, which is sure to bring movie fans to the farthest northerly point of Ireland.
You’ll want to rent a car to explore Ireland’s most north-westerly county as you’ll not see many tour buses traversing the roadways. And plan to spend a few days exploring- Donegal is not a county that you drive through on the way between tow spots, but a destination unto itself.
Donegal, Dún na nGall in Irish, translates to ‘fort of the foreigners’. Lying in-line with Northern Ireland, Donegal shares a small border with only one other county in the Republic of Ireland, County Leitrim. Because of this ‘geographic isolation’, Donegal has a unique cultural identity and remoteness you don’t find in other parts of Ireland.
Amazing Donegal Destinations
Grianan of Aileach
The origins of this large stone ring fort, or cashel, date back to 1700BC, before the Celts came to Ireland. Through time it has been used as a pagan temple of the sun, a refuge for women and children when men went to war, the fortress of the Northern High Chieftans, and a refuge for Catholic mass during the years of Penal Code. It is even said that St. Patrick preached here in 450AD and baptized Eoghain, founder of the O’Neill clan.
Though highly restored in the 1870s, the fort, built mainly without mortar, is impressive, not only for its structure, but for its placement. Situated on a hilltop 250 meters above sea leave, the views stretch to Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, and over land across Donegal, Derry, and Tyrone. On a clear day you feel as if all Ireland lays within your gaze.
The road leading to the Grianan is both steep and narrow, so do drive with caution. And take your time during your visit; this is a ‘thin place’ and you wouldn’t be the first to feel those who came this way before you.
History on the Inishowen Peninsula
The Inishowen Peninsula reaches far into the chilly North Atlantic, the most remote part of this already remote county. Plan a full day (or two, if you stop often like I do!) to circle the peninsula along its 100 mile coastal route, known as the Inishowen 100.
Buncrana marks itself as the ‘Gateway to Inishowen’ and has a lovely heritage trail that leads you through time- from the 15th through 19th centuries.
Amazing coastal walks and a wonderful military museum are found at Fort Dunree situated on the high cliffs overlooking Lough Swilly. Control of the fort was given to the Irish Free State just prior to World War II, a very historic event as it was the last British held fort in the Republic of Ireland.
In the heart of the Mamore Gap you’ll find a Holy Well to Saint Columcille and, as you descend toward the ocean, one of Ireland’s magic roads, an optical illusion that makes you feel as if your car is being pulled uphill.
The Doagh Famine Village is so remote that neither electricity or running water was installed here until 1986. Original cottages, which the owners were raised in, have been restored to bring Ireland’s past to life. The village is set up as a walk through time and leads you through life in a cottage, an Irish wake, the Penal Laws, religious persecution, and life in a Travelling community. Really, a stop here is a must if you want to see, and feel, Irish life through the years.
Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point, has long been a communication point for ships as the coastline has proven to be some of the most treacherous waters in the world. Today you’ll find ruins of a Napoleonic Tower and signaling stations at the highest point while the flat plain below still clearly shows the EIRE navigational marker used by pilots in World War II (as well as a few not-so-official stone markers).
As you drive along the route watch for small sign leading to craft shops, historical sites, or other interesting stops. You’ll find plenty along this route!
Tip: take cash! You’ll find few places that accept credit cards of have ATM machines on the Inishowen Peninsula!
Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny is a great central location for touring the northern part of County Donegal.
Take a look at our stay to learn more!
Glenveagh National Park
Tucked along the Derryveagh Mountains in northwestern Donegal, Glenveagh National Park is a wonderland of lakes, woods, bogs, and mountains. Much of the parkland holds a very wild and untouched feel as cars are not allowed past the visitors centre; any exploration of the interior of the park is made on foot or bike, with the exception of the minibus that runs from the visitors centre to Glenveagh Castle along a 7km lakeside route or the weekend ‘Trail Walker Bus’ to marked walks within the park.
The visitor centre has a lovely restaurant (open from Easter thru September), park information, walking trail maps, restrooms, and a playground. Park guides are on hand to answer any questions you may have. Bike rental is available from June thru September 4 via GrassRoutes Ebikes.
The walking trail from the visitor centre to the castle is 4km, though my personal opinion is that was measured ‘as the crow flies’ and not as the path meanders. It is, however, a lovely walk and if you choose to you can purchase bus tickets one way for your return to the visitors centre.
Glenveagh Castle was built in the late 1850’s and is a marvelous, magical creation. Surrounding the castle are a beautiful network of informal themed gardens filled with twisting pathways, ‘hidden’ sitting areas, and beautiful views of both castle and lake.
Slieve League Cliffs
Rising nearly 3x higher than the famed Cliffs of Moher, the Slieve League (or Sliabh Liag) Cliffs are among the highest in Europe. A very unspoilt area, you won’t find an interpretive centre or services at the cliffs. The cliff viewing point lies just over 2km from the parking area; this walk is relatively easy and provides a stunning view of Donegal Bay.
More experienced hikers will enjoy the challenge of One Man’s Path, which passes an early Christian church and hermitages as it loops to the summit of Slieve League before passing a Napoleonic watchtower at Carrigan Head on the return.
The Slieve League Centre is the ‘last stop’ before arriving at the cliffs. This small family business has everything you’ll need for your visit- including information, restrooms, food, and wifi.
Sliabh Liag Boat Trips offers a view of the cliffs from the water. If you’re lucky you’ll also see dolphins, seals, and basking sharks during your cruise.
Do you have a favorite spot in Donegal? We would love to know about it! Share your tips in the comments section!
All photographs by Jody Halsted, IrelandFamilyVacations.com except Slieve League Cliffs, Creative Commons license By Photographer: Thorsten Pohl Thpohl – Photographed it myself in august 2003, Public Domain, Link