Even though I'm from the west of Ireland, neighbouring Donegal has always been a mystery to me. Perched at the tip of the Wild Atlantic Way – a 2,500km route that spans the length of Ireland’s west coast - busier, (meaning: closer) destinations such as Kerry and Clare always pipped it to the post. With no train or motorway access and weather that oscillates from emergency to effervescent quicker than you can change into waterproofs, it didn't seem like an obvious choice. Now its wilderness is precisely why I want to visit, to hike its undisturbed landscape.
I’m not the only one late to appreciate Donegal’s charm. The stone-cold beauty caught National Geographic’s attention, as it declared Donegal ‘the coolest place on the planet’. From my base in the UK, I propose a road trip and bundle my partner and two Ireland-virgin friends into the car.
This being Ireland and land of the terminally afflicted bungalow with small front wall syndrome, the choice of interesting accommodation is on the limited side. Imagine Ireland comes up with the goods and we arrive at a charming stone cottage at sunset, 20 minutes from the harbour town of Killibegs. Inside the owner tends to an aga churning out a peat-scented fire, an apple tart heating inside. The Irish tourist board couldn’t conjure a better first impression. He leaves us with homemade treats, pub recommendations and maps marked with the best walking routes.
The Irish coast was made for walking. And over a couple of days that’s exactly what we do. We decide on part of the the Bluestack Way: in its entirety a 65km circuit that skirts the Bluestack Mountains. We aim for half to fit in an additional route. Beginning not far from Killibegs town, the trail directs us through the rugged Eglish valley, surrounded by imposing towers of granite that guard the way to the heart of the mountains. We find ourselves chatting about change: how Ireland has changed more in the past 15 years than in the previous 100. Marriage equality, the abortion vote, a clearer separation from church and state; while Irish literature, arts and crafts have evolved too. Tradition is still important but the country is no longer beholden to it. Over several hours as we talk of change, the wild and bracing landscape remains reassuringly constant.
Our route leads us towards the banks of Lough Eske, where nearby Harvey’s Point hotel marks the spot for a late afternoon lunch. Over chowder, soda bread and Guinness (a winning combo) we agree that Donegal people lucked out on nature. From our outdoor seats we spy the crumpled mountainside reflected in the pristine, glassy waters of the lough. The waiter tells us that on a clear day you can spy golden eagles soaring.
The next day we make our way to Slieve League, some of Europe’s highest sea cliffs that tower above the more frequently visited Cliffs of Mohar at three times their height. You can’t avoid rain in Ireland, so we dress for the inevitable and pleasingly, emerge at the top of our chosen trail, the 10km Pilgrim’s Path loop, in a spot of glorious sunshine. A wide stone path narrows around 2km up and from there the rest of the ascent is boggy and uncertain. The last 400m is along a steep, narrow ridge called One Man’s Pass, which we dutifully follow in single file. Once we reach the top the land opens up again, and so we find a safe spot to sit arm in arm and absorb the view. On a clear day you can see the outline of seven counties, but our attention is fixed on the cliff’s razor edge with the Atlantic crashing on every side, a black cloud suddenly overhead.
Although neither trail is too technically challenging, a decent level of fitness is required along with a map as both routes are scant on signposting. We want to end the walk with a reward, and Nancy’s bar in the charming craft town of Ardara answers the call. A traditional family pub spanning seven generations, it has all the hallmarks of granny’s house, tastefully done. Whilst my Guinness is setting, I pop next door to Eddie Doherty’s tweed shop. Eddie has been a weaver for forty years and generously chats Donegal craft and how hand weaving is a diminishing craft in these parts. “You learn to weave over a lifetime, it’s not something you do on a 10-week course. So why would youngsters want to weave when they can work out in Silicon Valley?”. Taking in the shop’s hand-woven blankets, I understand how the landscape and its rich earthly colours are woven into the yarn and the lives of the people who live here.
I’m still thinking about this wild, big-hearted place when I return to Nancy’s, a fire roaring in the bar. As we settle in for the evening, traditional music spontaneously erupts in the main room. Change is as vital to a country as tradition, but for a brief moment we enjoy this freezing of time, taking a hand to dance.