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Wild & Stunning Northern Donegal – Wild Atlantic Way – Part 2

The Wild Atlantic Way - Part 2

Northern Donegal

A series of articles about locations along this 2500km marked tourist route, which runs from Derry in the north to Kinsale in the south

Dunlewey (Lugh's Fort)

The little village of Dunlewey (Dún Lúiche) might otherwise be just another village if not for two great facts, one visible and the other not so visible. The first refers to the majestic sight of Mount Errigal, sitting dominantly beside the R251 road running through the hauntingly beautiful landscape of the Glenveagh National Park and the Derryveagh Mountains. This has to be one of the most magical places in Ireland and a great place to start your journey around Northern Donegal and this wonderful stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way.

Mount Errigal in Dunlewey, Northern Donegal, Ireland.
Mount Errigal in Dunlewey, Northern Donegal

At 751 metres it may not sound like much of a mountain to any hardcore mountaineers out there, but with its distinctive conical shape giving it the illusion of a volcano, and its status as the tallest peak in the Derryveagh range and the tallest in Donegal, it certainly stands out among the rest.

I’ve always found the light and the landscape in the northwest of Ireland to have a magical, silvery quality to it. Often when I have travelled here in bad weather, I’ve watched as shafts of light have broken through and illuminated the silvery mountain peaks that seem to beckon you on through the rain like a beacon of hope. It’s possibly the reason why many monasteries and shrines have been established here.

The silvery glow is actually the quartzite, which is the whitish-grey rock that forms the mountains here. Errigal’s conical shape and silvery glow has no doubt lured many a weary traveller over the centuries, not least of all the great warrior and Celtic demigod, Lugh of the Long Arm: so named because of his exceptionally long reach with a sword.

Lugh was the grandson of Balor of the Evil Eye, the wicked leader of the Formorians whose stronghold was on nearby Tory Island. Lugh was cast into the sea along with his two siblings because of a prophesy that foretold of how Balor would be slain by his grandson. But Lugh was rescued by Manannán mac Lir, the Sea God, and grew up in Spain. When he returned to Ireland he established a fort here under Errigal, known as Dún Lúiche (Lugh’s Fort)

The village is known today as Dunlewey. It’s a small place with a lakeside visitor centre and the Errigal Hostel. A walking trail starts from the back of the hostel and leads to the summit of the mountain. There is also another shorter trail that starts from the road further east of town.

The Poisoned Glen

The nearby area is known as the Poisoned Glen, just a short walk from the village. The area apparently got its name because of a typo, which resulted in an error when it was translated from Irish to English. The glen is a truly idyllic location surrounded by beautiful mountains and containing a lake with an old ruined church all backed by the majestic sight of Mount Errigal. Locals named it “An Gleann Neamhe”  – (The Heavenly Glen), but when an English cartographer drew a map of the area, he wrote down “An Gleann Neimhe” – The Poisoned Glen.

However, I prefer this version of how the name came about. There are many stories of Balor’s death, one tells of how Balor came to Dunlewey one day and boasted about slaying his own grandchildren, unaware that Lugh was one of those children. Lugh became enraged and grabbed a red hot metal rod from the furnace and thrust it through Balor’s eye. The land ran red with his blood and the poison from his evil eye ran into the lake forming, and naming, the Poisoned Glen. Fulfilling the prophecy.

Views across the Poisoned Glen in Northern County Donegal, Ireland.
Views across the Poisoned Glen.

Hiking and cycling

Dunlewey is a great starting point for a journey around Northern Donegal County. There is a huge network of waymarked walking trails that will lead you through the Glenveagh National Park and onwards to the coast. It’s also a great location for a cycling holiday.

Grianán of Aileach

From Letterkenny you can take the N13 towards Derry. However, just before crossing the border turn right at the sign for Grianán of Aileach. The road leads up onto Grianán Mountain overlooking the main road where a huge circular stone enclosure sits on a flattened section of the hill surrounded by three earthen embankments.

Although it looks like a ring fort, experts actually believe it was an amphitheatre rather than a defensive structure. The present structure was rebuilt in the 1800s.

The inner diameter is 76 feet, and the outer wall stands 17 feet high and 13 feet thick. Local legend says that it was built by the Dagda in 1700BC as a temple of the sun. But this more than likely refers to the original earthen structures it’s built upon. From the 5th to 12th century this was the inauguration point of the Uí Neill clan.

Malin Head

Northwards is Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland. Along the way, stop at the village of Carndonagh, where three ancient stone crosses sit outside the present day church. St. Patrick’s Cross is the tallest at 8 feet, and the other two are dwarfed either side of it. Each cross is carved with simple figures depicting a mixture of Pagan and Christian symbols.

Fanad Lighthouse

Fanad Lighthouse in Northern Donegal, Ireland.
Fanad Lighthouse - Image by David Porter from Pixabay

If you head back down to Letterkenny and take the R245 and R246 northwards you’ll soon be on the fabulous Fanad Peninsula. Keep going to the top and you’ll arrive at the equally fascinating Fanad Lighthouse.

Fanad is probably one of Northern Donegal’s most photogenic lighthouses and locations. It has been a working lighthouse since 1817 and open to the public as a tourist attraction since 2016.

If you would like to spend the night up here and really experience the rugged, wildness of this region then the lighthouse also offers unique overnight accommodation in three beautifully restored lightkeepers’ cottages.

The Bloody Foreland

Head back down from here and rejoin the N56. Continue northwards to Falcarragh and then to Gortahork. From here you can take the R257 coastal road along the Bloody Foreland to Bunbeg. This is a dramatic, rocky place where the reddish brown coastline lies like a serrated knife overlooked by wild and untamed hills. I never tire of driving along here.

The Bloody Foreland, Northern Donegal, Ireland.

Many of the islands off this coast have contained the remnants of villages that were abandoned decades back when the Irish government relocated the inhabitants to the mainland. This is a lovely place to just spend time walking along the empty beaches, exploring the rocky inlets and just enjoying the wonderful views of this rugged and unspoiled part of the world. Here you will feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of life.

Gweedore

As you head further west you’ll arrive in the area of Gweedore, which is one of the many Gaeltacht areas (Irish speaking regions).

This is a lovely corner of Donegal and contains some of the most incredibly pristine sandy beaches in Ireland. If not for the weather, you could well believe you were on a tropical island.

Bunbeg

The little village of Bunbeg has always been a personal favourite of mine, in particular Bunbeg Harbour. There are many places to stay in Northern Donegal, but the best place in my opinion is Bunbeg House. This charming guesthouse is located at Bunbeg harbour and run by Andy and Jean Carr. Andy will entertain you in his bar by night, and take you out on his rib boat during the day.

Bunbeg House at Bunbeg harbour, Northern Donegal, Ireland.

This is an ideal base from which to explore the rugged Northern Donegal Coast. Andy will even take you out to one of the islands where you can see the abandoned villages up close. From Bunbeg you can also take a ferry out to Tory Island.

Wild Atlantic Way Part 1

Wild Atlantic Way Part 3

My Ireland Book

Read the story of my first ever trip around Ireland in my book, Hot Footing Around the Emerald Isle.

With just a backpack as a home, a guidebook in one hand, a bizarre travelogue in the other and very little money in my bank account, I leave my home and set off to this little country that has always been my neighbour, yet overlooked by myself for many years as I pursued dreams to travel to far and exotic countries. However, I was soon to learn that one of the most beautiful places in the world was right on my doorstep.

The stone of the Divisions (AKA the Cat Stone) on the Hill of Uisneach in County Meath is is possibly the most signifcant ancient monument in the whole country. Firstly, legend say that this is the burial place of Queen Eriu, Queen of the Tuatha de Danann (A powerful, magical race that inhabited Ireland before the Celts). She was defeated and mortally wounded in a battle with the Celtic King, Amergen granted her a dying wish. He promised her that the island would bear her name forever – The Gaelic name Eriú was later changed by the Vikings into “Eriú’s Land”, or Ireland. This 30-ton stone looks more like a giant bolder that has been cracked into several pieces. The splits are believed to represent the ancient divisions of Ireland. A book called Beneath the Shadow of Uisneach, says that it was from here that the five ancient provinces of Ireland met, symbolising this as the centre of Ireland. The stone’s Irish name depicts this: Ail na Mireann (“Stone of the Divisions”). The division were first made by the Fir Bolg. It is on this hill that the first fire was lit for the ancient festival of Bealtaine. It was said that a fire lit at the summit here could be seen all over Ireland, and that all fires were lit from this one. This hill was also the gathering place of the kings of Ireland.
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