Three weeks in Ireland…touring County Donegal

By Caitlin Kelly

Sunset at Burtonport, County Donegal. The time? 10-:15 p.m. Yes, really!
Sunset at Burtonport, County Donegal. The time? 10:15 p.m. Yes, really!

There are only a few regions left in Ireland known as the Gaeltacht, where the Irish language dominates — without a bilingual map (which we have), you’re toast! Only 2.1 percent of the country’s population now speaks Irish, according to the 2006 census.

County Donegal, where we’ve rented a house for a week outside the town of Dungloe, is one of these areas.

How did we choose this most northwest, rural, tourist-free and wind-swept county for our vacation?

All over the land are bits of loose wool. Pre-sweater!
All over the land are bits of loose wool. Pre-sweater!

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the seaside town here of Rathmullan, which my father and I visited a few years ago. So we re-visited the town, which has a huge, beautiful beach on Lough Swilly, and chatted with a local woman who hopes to buy the schoolhouse and use it as a holiday home for her visiting relatives.

I found the house we’re renting, (3 bedrooms, two bathrooms, two floors, flooded with light from huge windows and multiple skylights) on Google. Fingers were crossed!

We love it. Designed by the owner’s cousin, and only seven years old, the house is lovely. Absolute silence, great views, a deep bathtub right in front of a window with fab views — and no close neighbors.

The light here so far north is also relentless — it is fully light by 4:00 am, (our bed is right below an unscreened skylight!) and the sky is not fully dark until midnight or so.

Best of all? No wifi or phone access.

That’s a vacation.

If we want (as we do, sadly) to be in touch for blogging, email and Twitter, we have to get in our rental car, (a VW Golf, diesel, which we like a lot), and drive 5 minutes into town to a pub or restaurant and order some food or a Guinness.

But what a blessing to be torn away from the seductive tyranny of the computer.

One night we settled in at The Corner Pub to hear live music, a young woman who carried her accordion in a specially-designed backpack, and Martin, who played banjo. It’s not yet tourist season, so it was just us, a couple from Switzerland and the locals — like the newly-retired schoolteacher who cheered “Goodbye tension, hello pension!” — and covered her face with embarrassment when we toasted her.

The young woman asked us where we’re from (Tarrytown, NY, a small town 25 miles north of NYC.) “Oh, it’s lovely!” she said — she knows our area well, and will be playing two local venues near us in mid-July with her band, Cherish The Ladies. Then touring all the way to Minnesota with them; she plays piano. CTL is a very big deal, a 30-year-old band I’ve heard of for years, so this unlikely meeting was huge. (Her cousin owns that pub and her parents live locally.)

We’ve spent our time here making day trips. We went across the county to Rathmullan and enoyed a warm, sunny day.

Fishing lines at rest, Burtonport, Co. Donegal
Fishing lines at rest, Burtonport, Co. Donegal

We drove south to Slieve League, the highest cliffs in Europe — and watched a huge cloud coming towards us across the sea. Suddenly we were enveloped by mist, and everything disappeared. So mysterious! Only after we were settled in with a cup of tea and a scone, in a shop at the bottom of the cliffs, did the sun come out. We’d already done a vigorous 1.8 mile round-trip hike to the top of the cliffs (not the absolute top.) We were sweaty and pooped!

Look at the size of this! We were soon enveloped by it at Slieve League, Co. Donegal
Look at the size of this! We were soon enveloped by it at Slieve League, Co. Donegal

The cliffs were astounding, covered with sheep of all ages and sizes, so accustomed to tourists we got close enough to take lots of photos and listen to them grazing.

IMG_0416

We went out another day by ferry, (15 minutes, 45 euros for 2 people and car), to Arranmore, a nearby island. There are 600 people living there and many well-kept houses. But we spent five hours there driving the few narrow roads, and discovered a totally different character to every side and angle around every curve of the road. Some hills were barren moonscapes with piles of cut peat drying in the sunshine. Some were lushly green, dotted with sheep. Some were granite-studded. I lay down in the sunshine on one with thick, spongy vegetation — a perfect natural mattress! — and napped.

Sunburned in Ireland? It’s possible.

Today, as I write this from Doherty’s, a Dungloe restaurant, it’s cool and rainy. A rest day. It’s tempting to rush out every day and see moremoremoremoremore. But we’re a little overwhelmed by the beauty we see here and want time to just rest, read and savor it before our final week back in Dublin.

Jose went to the local barber, ex-boxer Patrick Quinn. His haircut was 5 euros.
Jose went to the local barber, ex-boxer Patrick Quinn. His haircut was 5 euros.
Vertigo, schmertigo...
Vertigo, schmertigo…

13 thoughts on “Three weeks in Ireland…touring County Donegal

  1. this whole trip looks wonderful, and i love the pics. i have a friend here who grew up in that area and talks about how lovely it all is. you’re right, it’s nice to be away from the 24/7 tech tether. there is a certain freedom in being able to choose when you want to be connected to the world and at your own pace.

    1. It will be hard to leave — we drive back to Dublin tomorrow morning for our final week here. This morning we played nine challenging holes of golf on a seaside links course.

  2. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

  3. Thanks for sharing your vacation. I hope to go back to Ireland, went in 2004 with my mom – she died later that year – it was a magical trip and your story has flooded me with memories.

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