Difference between revisions of "County Donegal"
Revision as of 21:02, 11 May 2011
Towns and villages
Donegal is the English translation of "Dún na nGall", literally "Fort of the Foreigners", the county taking its official name from the town of Donegal, where this fort was located. It was also known as Tír Conaill, which translates to "Land of Conal", a more ancient name, referring to its links with the Uí Neill and Ó Domhnaill clans who ruled the region. Irish language speakers tend to refer to the county by its older name of Tír Chonaill.
There are very deep connections between the people of Donegal and Scotland, Glasgow in particular, due to the economic need for emigration in the past and the strong ties forged over the generations as a result.
The Donegal mainland coastline is the longest in the country at 1,134km and constitutes over 17% of the total national coastline. The main inlet is Lough Swilly which extends 30km inland from the north coast to Letterkenny.
The county consists chiefly of low mountains, with a deeply indented coastline forming natural loughs. The mountains (more famously known as the "Hills of Donegal") consist of two main ranges, the Derryveagh Mountains in the north and the Bluestack Mountains in the south. Mount Errigal, at some 750 metres, is the highest peak. The Slieve League cliffs are the highest sea cliffs in Europe and Malin Head, in the Inishowen Peninsula, is the most northernly point on the island of Ireland.
The climate is temperate and dominated by the Gulf Stream, with cool damp summers and mild wet winters. Average air temperatures are between 4°C and 6°C in winter and are between 14°C and 16°C in the summer. Temperatures in winter can be as low as minus 5°C and as high as 30 deg C in summer. The average annual rainfall in Donegal is between 1,000 and 2,000mm and rain is common even during the summer months.
Donegal natives often say that Donegal is the forgotten county of Ireland as they feel that it is cut off from the rest of the Republic of Ireland, both economically and geographically. Its proximity to Northern Ireland means that it suffered from a lack of tourist numbers during the recent troubles there and has been heavily influenced by that province's economic fortunes. Much of its border is shared with Northern Ireland, with only about 20 km of land connecting it to the Republic, on the Bundoran to Sligo road.
Thus, Donegal is not as accessible as other tourist-oriented places in the Republic of Ireland, such as County Galway or County Kerry and this means it is not as commercialised in the tourist sense. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your expectations. If you are looking to get away from over-commercialised tourism, Donegal can offer unspoilt scenery (apart from over-building of holiday homes and chalets in areas like Dunfanaghy and Downings) and cheaper prices. To combat the overdevelopment of holiday homes, Donegal county council has adapted a plan whereas only one in five houses will be developed as holiday homes in the future.
The downside of not being as commercialised as other Irish counties is that facilities and amenities are not as readily available in Donegal and travelling out-of season will restrict your options. On the other hand, if you are into fishing, walking, rock-climbing,water sports or golfing, and you are prepared to "rough it" at times in the less developed and populated areas of the county, then Donegal has a lot to offer the more adventurous visitor. Donegal's rugged landscape lends itself to active sports like climbing, hillwalking and surfing. Many people travel to Donegal for the superb golf courses - long sandy beaches and extensive dune systems are a feature of the county, and many links courses have been developed.
The pastime of rock climbing is of very high quality and still under-developed in the county. The complete Donegal climbing guidebook  is available at the Colmcille Climbers  website. There is a wealth of good quality climbs in the county from granite rocks in the south to the quartzite and dolerite-based landscape in the north. There are long mountain routes in the Poisoned Glen and boulder challenges of excellent quality in the west of the county and in the Inishowen Peninsula.
Surfing on Donegal's Atlantic coast  is considered to be as good as any in Ireland. Donegal has hotel facilities as good as any other in Ireland in its major towns, as well as top class restaurants.
As with the rest of the Republic of Ireland, Irish/Gaeilge is the official first language, and is used as such by many in the north and west of the county, unlike most of the rest of the island. Donegal is home to the largest Gaeltacht area in Ireland. However, a thick accented English is spoken fluently by the entire native population.
The form of Irish spoken in the area is noticeably different to that in the rest of the country, although it is an accepted dialect, and is used on the Irish language television and radio services.
Locals refer to Donegal as part of "the South", distinguishing it from "the North" (i.e. Northern Ireland), even though it is geographically north in relation to the rest of the island. This is because it is indeed politically part of "Southern Ireland" (i.e. the Republic of Ireland), even though it only shares a few miles of its county border with "the South"!
The county is not served by any motorways. There are three primary routes into Donegal, depending on where you are travelling from. The N15 links the county with Sligo via Bundoran and Ballyshannon. The N2 from Dublin, via Monaghan, links with the N14 to Lifford and Letterkenny while the N13 links with Derry.
The road network within Donegal is notably poor, even compared to the rest of Ireland, with only the national primary and national secondary routes between major towns being of what most people expect as acceptable quality. Some of the towns are bypassed, such as Donegal Town, Ballyshannon and Bundoran. In rural areas, roads are often one lane with passing places, or barely two lane. Meeting a wider vehicle, such as a 4x4, truck or bus on these roads can lead to reversing into the nearest gateway to clear the carriageway. Cycling on these roads is best left to the fit and the courageous, as narrow roads over mountains are often the only way from one place to another.
Road signs in the Irish speaking, or Gaeltacht regions of the country are in the Irish language solely, however, even when directing to places outside the region. Due to this, place names in this article are listed bilingually, as often no obvious connection exists between the English and Irish forms. Road signage in Donegal is often extremely poor, so a recent map of the county is advisable. Distances on road signs are officially in kilometres, but a mix of old signage and poor conversions have left distances often in miles, or completely inaccurate.
Allow plenty of travel time when planning itinaries and don't underestimate the distance you need to travel. Remember that the roads are poorer and travelling will be slower than expected. A tour of the Fanad Pennisula takes at least half a day, and the Inishowen Peninsula is best experienced over a full day if you are driving. Similarly, touring the Rosses region, taking in Glenveagh National Park and Mount Errigal, will take a full day.
A private bus operator, Lough Swilly Bus , operates services daily to the Northern half of the county from Derry City and Letterkenny, albeit infrequently, with services to Malin head on Saturdays. The Dungloe route passes through Kilmacrennan, Dunfanaghy, Creeslough, Falcarragh, Gweedore and Burtonport, among others. There are also daily services to Fanad, passing through Ramelton.
Feda O'Donnell Coaches  have a twice daily service between Crolly and Letterkenny, which passes through the same route as Gallagher's. This bus continues to Galway via Ballybofey and Donegal Town.
In the Southwest of the county, McGeehan Coaches , in conjunction with Bus Eireann  have a twice daily service between Letterkenny and Glencolumbkille, stopping at Fintown, Glenties, Ardara, Killybegs and Kilcar. Another service travels between Dungloe and Donegal Town, stopping at Glenties, Ardara, Killybegs, Bruckless, Dunkineely, Frosses and Mountcharles. Feda O'Donnell  also has a weekly service between Annagry and Galway, passing through Dungloe, Glenties, Ardara, Killybegs and Donegal Town.
Bus Éireann  have regular buses between Letterkenny, Stranorlar, Ballybofey, Donegal Town, Ballyshannon, and Bundoran, which continue on to Sligo and Galway. There are also bus links between Strabane and Lifford, Letterkenny and Ballybofey, as well as local routes linking Raphoe and Convoy with Lifford and Letterkenny. There is a nightbus service at weekends between Letterkenny and Ballybofey.
Donegal, with its many quiet country backroads provides excellent opportunities for cycling. It's hilly geography and sometimes potholed roads can be a challenge. A good map  is essential, as road signs can be confusing. Bike hire is available in Letterkenny, Donegal Town and Ardara .
Pretty much the entire county is scenic, with stunning sights to be observed along the coast, and in the mountain ranges. Mount Errigal, is a quartzite-topped mountain is in the Derryveagh mountains to the north of the county, with the Bluestack mountains to the south.
A preserved railway , with an operative original railcar open for public journeys, is located at Fintown in the centre of the county; when restoration is complete this will link to Glenties in the west of the county. In addition, a separate museum  for a separate part of Donegal's now-gone but formerly extensive narrow gauge railway network is in Donegal Town, located in the towns former station house.
An operative corn and flax mill  is preserved at Newmills, outside Letterkenny, with the county museum  being located in the towns former workhouse. Another former workhouse, at Dunfanaghy, has been partially restored as workhouse museum.
The county's two main offshore islands are both still inhabited, and both worth a visit. In addition, some of the smaller islands are worth seeing, if you have the means to get to them. Most of these are uninhabited during the winter and lack power, water, or any other means of life for anybody but temporary visitors.
Arranmore , the larger and closer inland of the two, has two hotels, 7 pubs, some watersports activities and mountain trails for hikers; and is accessible by a regular, multiple times daily car ferry service. A pre-Christian hill fort as well as ruins of a coastguard station, 1700's lighthouse and World War Two lookout post are all visible on the island. The countries only off-shore football team is based here, with a pitch built on sand dunes on the south of the island.
Tory Island , is smaller, less populous, and further offshore, and is accessible only by a passenger-only ferry; which runs multiple times daily during the summer, dropping to 5 times a week in winter. The island has a 14-bedroom hotel. Tory's history is lived out to this very day with an elected "king" who attempts to greet all tourists, and a round tower with famed "cursing stones" and Celtic cross.
Letterkenny is home to hundreds of high street shops, including branches of many international fashion boutiques. Ballybofey, in the centre of the county, also features a large contingent of shops, including a large indigenious local department store, McElhinney's.
Letterkenny also features a multiplex cinema, and a theatre, An Grianán . Nightclubs of varying size and quality are dotted throughout the counties tourist resorts, including Letterkenny, Glenties and Bundoran. Bundoran is Ireland's answer to Blackpool, and features large amusement arcades as well as a Waterpark, not to mention being a good base for surfers, beside some of the best surfing sites in Ireland.
The Ionad Cois Locha  in Dunlewey, part of the Poisoned Glen, is a tourist attraction, originally built by the countries main power company, the ESB, to employ workers it was laying off from a nearby power plant. Based around a restored two storey farm house, it features a museum of weaving equipment and weaving demonstrations; boat tours of a man-made lake caused by an ESB hydro electric power station (the station itself is an eyesore, really, on the landscape), and often hosts concerts or art exhibitions.
Golf is a major pastime for tourists in the region, with many 9 and 18 hole courses dotted around the county. Due to the lack of flat land in many areas, many of the courses are superb links courses formed by nature offering scenic views as well as world-class golf. Serious golfers should include Ballyliffen, Murvagh (outside Donegal Town) and Portsalon in their itinerary as they are three of the best courses in the county. Green fees will vary from €30 upwards, depending on the season and day of the week.
Music is an important part of the regions culture, and its tourist industry. Music tours often head to Kincasslagh, home of Daniel O'Donnell, a favourite with elderly ladies across the UK and Ireland; or to Gweedore to Leo's Tavern, run by the brother of Enya and her siblings' band, Clannad. Traditional Irish music is more prevalent in places like Glencolumcille, Ardara and Glenties, where a traditional fiddlers' festival is held every year. In addition, in recent years Letterkenny has been home to the national Fleadh Cheoil, Ireland's largest traditional music festival.
Walking and Climbing
The cliffs at Slieve League  are a "must-see", but only in fair weather, and a visit to Glencolumcille could be included in this outing. Similarly, a visit to Grianan of Aileach could be included in a trip to the Inishowen Peninsula.
Weather will dictate whether one should climb Mount Errigal. Other easier climbs in the area include Muckish and Lough Salt Mountain, both of which are easier climbs but offer equally rewarding views from the top. Always leave details of time of departure and expected time of return with your local contacts when undertaking walking, climbing and boating activities, as bad weather can descend very quickly without warning.
Glenveagh National Park is a haven for nature lovers, with its scenic walks and climbs, together with its gardens adn castle grounds. Plan to spend at least half a day here. Nearby Ards Forest Park is also worth a visit, with a great combination of wooded and beach walks.
Glenties is a good hillwalking base, situated at the meeting of two glens on the edge of the Bluestack Mountains.
All major towns in the area will have both restaurants and fast food outlets, with some of the latter being from the county's indigenous Four Lanterns chain. Rural areas will often have no eateries whatsoever, beyond takeaway chip shops, although many pubs offer meals, especially at lunch time. If all else fails, the supermarkets often have hot food to take away, such as roast chicken and potato wedges. Ethnic tastes are well catered for in the major towns in Donegal, with Chinese, Indian and Italian food outlets widely available. Given the seaside location and vast coastline of County Donegal, seafood is in abundance. The port of Killybegs is one of the major fishing ports of Ireland.
Every town in the county features at least one pub - usually more. In smaller towns and villages, pubs may not open until late in the afternoon. Prices are significantly lower than in Dublin, with a pint of stout usually averaging €3.70 in rural areas. Many pubs have live traditional music during the summer, and at other times such as Christmas. Prices of drink in hotel bars are usually dearer than the pubs.
Wine is becoming increasingly available in pubs, where you can order a quarter bottle of red or white, which several brand choices, at most pubs for around €4 to €5. Don't expect to get a top of the range wine unless you are in a good restaurant. The question is, do you really want to drink wine in the land of guinness...
Depending on where you are in the county, trips to Derry and Sligo are easily accomplished. Enniskillen is accessible from the south of the county. From the east of the county, a day trip to Belfast is not out of the question.