Donegal has a number of regions, defined on traditional grounds going back hundreds of years, and often overlapping.
In recent times, the county has been seen as being divided into a number of areas both on an economic and physical basis - the north western area ( which includes The Rosses and Fanad Penninsula) is lightly populated with generally mountainous terrain, with the south of the county (around Bundoran and Ballyshannon) being densely populated and relatively flat. The east of the county, particularly around Letterkenny and the Lagan Valley, is the most densely populated area of all, and is economically significantly richer than the rest of the county.
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 clan 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 second highest sea cliffs in Europe and Malin Head, in the Inishowen Penninsula, 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 degrees Celsius and 6 degrees Celsius in winter and are between 14 degrees Celsius and 16 degrees Celsius in the summer. Temperatures in winter can be as low as minus 5 degrees Celsius and tmeperatures in summer can reach as high as 30 degrees Celsius.The average annual rainfall in Donegal is between 1,000 and 2,000mm adn 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 ar a bad thing, depending on your expectatiuons. 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.
That said, 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. Donegal is home to the largest Gaeltacht area in Ireland. However, 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.
Donegal people often say that they are from "the north of Ireland" to distingiush themselves from people who are from Northern Ireland. They often refer to the Republic of Ireland as "the Free State".
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.
Bus Éireann run regular daily services from Dublin, Derry, Galway and Sligo to Letterkenny and Donegal Town. A number of private bus operators, most notable McGeehan and McGinley, operate services from Donegal Town and Letterkenny to Dublin also.
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 Penninsula is best experienced over a full day if youa re driving. Similarly, touring the Rosses region, taking in Glenveagh National Park and Mount Errigal, will take a full day.
Pretty much the entire county is scenic, with stunning sights to be observed along the coast, and in the mountain ranges. Mount Errigal, a massive (by Irish standards) quartzite-topped mountain is in the Derryveagh mountains to the north of the county, with the Bluestack mountains to the south.
The Slieve League cliffs in the county are among the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The country's most northerly point, at Malin Head, is in the county.
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 itinary as they are three of the best courses in the county. Green fees will vary from €30.00 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
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 Penninsula.
Weather will dictate whether one should climb Mount Errigal. 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 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.
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. 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
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.
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.