The Wild Atlantic Way – Part 2
A series of articles about locations along this 2500km marked tourist route, which runs from Derry in the north to Kinsale in the south
by Ian Middleton
The little village of Dunlewy in northern Donegal 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. 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.
Dún Lúiche (Lugh’s Fort)
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 of the early missionaries established their monasteries and shrines 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. Balor cast Lugh 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)
Hiking the mountain
The village is known today as Dunlewy. 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 area nearby 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 Dunlewy 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 run red with his blood and the poison from his evil eye ran into the lake forming, and naming, the Poisoned Glen. Fulfilling the prophecy.
The Bloody Foreland
Dunlewy is a great starting point for a journey around 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. Or if you are driving, head north along the R251 and on to the N56. Here you can head north to Gortahork and take the R257 coastal road through the Bloody Foreland to Bunbeg. This is a dramatic place where the reddish brown coastline lies like a serrated knife overlooked by wild and untamed hills. I never tire of driving along here. Many of the islands off this coast contain the remnants of villages that the inhabitants abandoned decades back when the Irish government relocated the inhabitants to the mainland.
The little village of Bunbeg has always been a personal favourite, 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. This is the perfect way to view the rugged Donegal Coast. He’ll even take you out to one of the islands where you can see the abandoned villages up close.
Heading southwards on the N56 the landscape changes from stark to lush green as you enter the Bluestack Mountains. While this place is abundant with stunning places to visit, one of the best areas lies on a peninsula just south of Ardara. Just past Ardara, branch off on the R230. This road takes you on a breathtaking journey over undulating hills and down into lush, often misty, valleys, that look like they have been neatly sliced with a sharp knife. The road snakes through this stunning landscape until finally you cross the brow of a hill to reveal an incredible vista of green hills and a golden beach nestled between two cliffs. Sitting serenely at the edge of this beautiful view is the little village of Glencolmcille.
The name Glencolmcille, or “Gleann Cholm Cille” in the Irish language, literally means “The Glen of St. Colmcille’s Church”. The area got its name after the famous Saint Colmcille visited in the 6th century.
St Colmcille was born in County Donegal. It is said that he banished the demons that fled here after Saint Patrick ousted them from nearby Croagh Patrick. Colmcille drove them out into the sea, where he ordered them to live as red fish with one eye, so no fisherman would inadvertently capture and eat them.
Glencolmcille is littered with ancient history. There are approximately 80 documented Pagan and Christian sites on this peninsula spanning 5000 years. Long before he came here the Neolithic people left their indelible mark upon the land. Dolmens and standing stones are in abundance along this peninsula.
Colmcille christianised many of the standing stones rather than invoke the wrath of the people by destroying them. He engraved christian emblems upon them and encouraged the people to make a pilgrimage there to atone for their sins. These stones now make the 3½ mile Turas which people take on the saint’s feast day, 9th June, or the Sunday preceding it. After 1500 years this still goes on. It starts at the modern church of Ireland and is easy for anyone to follow as a number of stations mark the route.
Glencolmcille is a popular haunt for musicians, artists and students of the Irish language. There is a school down in the village which runs courses on the Irish language. And the pubs in town have regular live music. My favourite is Teach Biddy on the corner as you enter town. It’s the oldest pub in Glencolmcille and a cosy little place where you sit next to the musicians as they play.
Hostel with a five star view
There are many great places to stay here, but without doubt the best is not a 5 star hotel, but a great little backpacker’s hostel perched upon a cliff edge overlooking the beach and surrounding mountains: the Dooey Hostel. Aside from its colourful owners, its greatest feature is the common room with big bay windows affording a stunning view across the valley. For that reason alone I would give it 5 stars.
It may be hard to believe, but County Donegal has some of the most beautiful and pristine sandy beaches in Ireland. The one at Glencolmcille is no exception, and being flanked by high cliffs makes it even more stunning. While the weather may not always make it the perfect place for swimming and sunbathing, it’s a perfect place to walk, take in the sea air, and start a hike up over the surrounding cliffs.
The highest sea cliffs in Europe
A more famous beach is Silver Strand, situated to the south at Malin Beg. It’s also a great starting point for a hike to Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
If hiking to the cliffs seems a little too strenuous, then you can also drive most of the way. At the village of Carrick turn off for Teelin. In Teelin you can stop at the Slieve League Cliffs Centre, which is packed with local history and culture. To view the cliffs you can drive up to a small car park, that leads to the Bunglas viewing point. If you feel like a little walking, then park at the first car park lower down and you can walk to the viewing point. You can also book a guided walk.
The more fearless among you might want to hike to the highest point of the cliffs. For this you must take a narrow pathway from the viewing point to One Man’s Pass.
From wherever you stand, the panorama before you will not disappoint. The highest point is 300 metres. From the viewing point the cliffs, being pounded by the wild Atlantic Ocean, seem impenetrable, but amazingly remains have been found on their sheer slopes of an early Christian monastic site, with a chapel and stone beehive huts, much like the ones on Skellig Michael. Ancient stone remains also lay claim to the likelihood of early pagan pilgrimages.
Viewing these cliffs at anytime is amazing, but without doubt the best time to be here is at sunset. Just make sure you get back down safely.
Read more about Ancient Ireland, check out my book: Mysterious World: Ireland