Flying Visit to Donegal
I have visited Donegal many times, as often as not to the less attractive eastern part of this most scenic of Irish counties. It’s a bit of a long drive up from Dublin to the far flung dramatic and rugged coastal areas, and my favourite visits have been by air – landing a mere 45 minutes later right in the midst of an area of immense beauty. Should there be a sufficient break in the cloud the descent is a real treat, beginning over the mountainous area and routing over the western seaboard which is graced with a delightful array of islands, golden beaches and gleaming inlets. The plane touches down on a runway overlooked by the high sand dunes of Carrickfinn’s Blue Flag beach, and it is a mere five minute walk from the terminal building to the emerald waters lapping the white sands. I have watched uniformed air crew gleefully kick through the sand as they take a break from flying duties.
Coming up to the St. Patrick’s weekend I took the morning flight which is currently operated by Loganair, a Scottish airline which has long served the Islands and Highlands of its native country. I insisted on seats 2A or 2C, which are the only ones with decent views from the low wing Saab 340 aircraft. Row 3 has no window at all, and further back all you can see is engine or exhaust fumes. A cup of coffee and biscuit is thrown in with the ticket. The clouds broke as we vectored to intercept the VOR radial at Bloody Foreland for the northerly approach, giving me about 5 minutes worth of coast-spotting.
On arrival I picked up my rather expensive hire car from the only agency in town, Enterprise. The VW Golf auto diesel compensated by being immensely frugal on fuel. I started by finding my way, courtesy of my own satnav, to secret coves I had discovered during my Google Streetview explorations. Fortuitously it was low tide and I was able to walk way out over shiny sands to come across some very special rock formations which I photographed, including one which bore uncanny similarity to the profile of a human face. There were square rocks weathered into perfect blocks, almost laid like nature’s own patio with the sand as grouting. They were pink and gray and carpeted with generous overlays of brown and green seaweeds. This is the craggy area called the Rosses, famed home to the musicians Daniel, Enya and Clannad.
The weather during this spring has been memorable for its unseasonable coldness, its dampness and helpings of snow. I have to confess I was relatively lucky during much of my 4 night stay in the western Gaeltacht of Donegal. There were plenty of bursts of sunlight and swathes of blue sky studded with cloud formations as interesting as the rocks. It didn’t snow, and I was lucky not to be exposed to too much in the way of rain. The landscape benefits from a dazzling quality of light when the sun makes any effort at all to shine.
My first two nights were spent in the homely three star Caislean Oir hotel in Annagry, nearest village to the airport. I was pleased with my stay here, nearly more so than the latter two nights which were spent in the four star An Chuirt Hotel in nearby Gweedore. It’s a bit of a tedious story why I ended up booking into two different places, but I enjoyed the variety nonetheless. An Chuirt had smaller rooms and was not as friendly, but its shining star was the excellent leisure centre with separate adult and children’s pools. I was able to while away a miserable wet St. Patrick’s morning in the hydro pool whilst waiting for the day to improve whereupon I found myself driving as if I were one of the exhibits in the midst of a village parade in Bunbeg.
The roads in most parts of the county are very demanding to the driver and even more so around the coastal areas of the North West. I was glad of having the automatic to negotiate the constant hills and bends. Many of the views were outstanding, but sadly it was sometimes difficult to get a photograph as there were few places to pull in and stop. A good idea is to set out and walk or cycle along the myriad of way-marked trails along pathways and infrequently used roads.
My main aim on this weekend was to achieve a day trip to Ireland’s most remote island, Tory, which is served by a modest but tough little boat from the exposed pier at Machaire Rabhartaigh. This was less than half a half hour drive from my hotel. The sea beyond the pier was looked fairly disturbed as is normal for the Atlantic Ocean. A fuel lorry and vans laden with island essentials such as artists’ canvasses waited at the quay. Tory Island is famous for its primitive artists, a movement which was founded by Englishman Derek Hill. Several of the locals found great occupation in painting scenes from their island life, and have exhibited in galleries beyond their island shores.
The boat rose and sank at high frequency through the Atlantic swell, which in places was covered with foam that gave me the impression someone had thrown in tons of washing up liquid. A couple of travel sickness tablets kept the worst of the nausea at bay, but I was more than pleased at the end of the fifty minute crossing. Bidding “Failte” (welcome) to each passenger at the island harbour was celebrated King of Tory, artist Patsy Dan Rogers. I got speaking with him later outside his house, and this highly articulate and personable man told me he was hoping to have assistance with writing his biography. Like many people in his situation he had missed out on literacy education in his childhood.
The sun shone brightly through my three hour visit to the island, and I walked much of the island enjoying the warm friendly atmosphere where everyone greeted me as I passed by. It is a piece of Ireland from times long past, with most houses being modest dwellings which have seen many harsh winter storms. There is hardly a scrap of decent land here, most of being bare of soil. A blind elderly man passed me by with the assistance of his guide dog. Even he gave me a warm greeting. There is a strong young population here, but alas I heard the young children speaking English among themselves as they played in this island which I believed to be a sturdy outpost of Ireland’s native language. With social media sites like Facebook, I see little hope for the future of Irish as a living language and believe it will be sooner rather than later become merely a hobbyists language.
Little was open at this early time of year. The hostel, restaurant and hotel were closed, so I had to rely on the kindness of a local who had keys to the hostel so that I could use the toilet in its beautiful ensuite bedroom. I was offered use of the kitchen to make a cup of tea, but graciously declined lest I should need the facilities again.
It was fortunate I had confirmed the time of the return boat; the website had stated 3.30pm, but in fact it departed at 3pm, and indeed five minutes earlier than that. The voyage back was smoother as we were “going with the swell” rather than against it.
The area has many other islands to offer, including the fairly large and lively Aranmore which I visited on a previous occasion. There’s also Gola which has a summer ferry service, and some more sporadic services to other islands about which you can enquire locally. During my St. Patrick’s weekend I also toured south to Glenties, and the beautiful seaside villages of Naran and Portnoo, which have a magnificent white beach and quaint harbour respectively.
I have reserved much of Donegal for future visits, including Glencolumbkille and the south-west as well as Dunfanaghy and the Rosguil peninsula which look delightful in photographs. It is such a highly indented county that there is always somewhere left unvisited!