Island tour

Savor spectacular views on a tour of Donegal – The Irish Times

As a child, with grandparents near Courtown, County Wexford, and a godmother in Salthill, County Galway, I was pretty much sorted for a holiday by the sea. But as a true son of the North, the The lure of the Donegal Riviera proved irresistible, so many happy holidays were spent in our mod-free caravan on Cruit Island, linked by causeway to the mainland at Kincasslagh. The toilets were a long way from the suite, in the tall grass.

So Lough Eske Castle, set in 47 acres of serene sculpture-strewn grounds just outside Donegal Town, is at the other end of the scale if not the other end of the county. Welcome to luxury. Clan O’Donnell once held a rival chieftain captive on an island in the domain for three years. Such is the hospitality offered at this five-star establishment, you will find it just as hard to leave. As well as the grand castle rooms, there are courtyard chalets and a postcard-perfect lakeside pavilion, which is privately owned but can be rented through the hotel.

This was my third visit, so I was able to reminisce as a former front desk chef, now sadly retired, who ran the omelette station at breakfast time. Breakfasts, thankfully, are always epic three-course affairs, after which those calories can be burned off in the gym, pool and sauna or by borrowing one of the hotel’s free bikes – the baskets of which wickerwork seem to be calling for a Blytonesque picnic – and circling Lough Eske (a distortion of Loch Iasc, or Fish Lake). Somewhat out of habit and out of breath, I dismount for the steepest slopes, saving my breath to sing Duke Special’s Freewheel on the downhill slopes.

The region is steeped in literary tradition. Part of the Annals of the Four Masters is said to have been compiled here, while William Allingham’s poem The Fairies – “up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen” – was inspired by a stay at Ardnamona House next to the Fairy Glen. Isaac Butt’s novel The Gap of Barnesmore is mostly set in Lough Eske Castle, while Brian Friel’s masterpiece Translations is inspired by Ordnance Survey cartography of Donegal. One of its characters, Lieutenant Lancey, shares a name with the officer who surveyed the area.

The subject of the play, the crushing of the Irish language by the colonizer, echoes the disappearance of the Gaelic way of life, symbolized by the flight of the earls in 1607. Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tirchonaill, fled from Lough Eske Castle that September, sailing from Rathmullan with fellow Northern Chieftains, O’Neill and Maguire. Between the hotel and the lake stands a huge restored famine jar, one of many donations from Quakers to help feed the hungry. Locally, it was used to cook Brachán, a vegetable or cereal porridge.

The castle’s most obvious cultural attraction, however, is the Father Browne Photographic Gallery, which thankfully doubles as a bar. The Jesuit photographed the Titanic’s maiden voyage before being ordered by his superior to disembark at Southampton, probably saving his life and establishing his reputation as the Irishman Henri Cartier-Bresson. Visit it when the bar is quiet in order to appreciate the images – mainly from Ireland but also from England, Egypt and Australia – in every nook and cranny.

The Bluestack Mountains are right on your doorstep and they have a wonderful off-grid feel. The land is agriculturally poor, evidenced by many abandoned cottages and outbuildings, but the scenery is priceless. Discover the tales of American author Bob Bernen in the Blue Stacks and The Hills, stories based on the years he spent among his adopted hills. There are hiking trails you can follow – a Barcelona-based friend spent three blissful days trekking in the hills, relishing the 50 minutes of every hour when it wasn’t raining nearly as much as the hard-earned pints every night. Alternatively, you can drive the roads, exploring every other exit, wondering as the tarmac deteriorates whether it’s a through road or a private road. It is definitely off the beaten path. You are deep in Donegal here.

The other must-see destination nearby are the magnificent Sliabh League cliffs, among the highest in Europe. It used to be that you could climb almost to the top and – whisper it – you still can, but only after 5pm. Otherwise, either park at the bottom for €10 and walk up, or park further and take a bus to the top, €12 for a family ticket. Call me cheap, call me lazy, call me impatient, but we decided to come back after 5pm when it was raining then of course, getting into position for the obligatory photo on top of a cliff , I slipped on the muddy grass and fell on my butt, giving my daughters the kind of vacation memory that money can’t buy.

The rest of the day, however, was a triumph. Donegal Town Castle is worth a visit. Burned down by O’Donnell when he left, it was rebuilt by his successor, Basil Brooke. There are lovely waterside walks and you can take a 75-minute bay cruise on the Donegal Bay Waterbus, the highlight of which is the view of a sea colony in the sun. Driving along the coast takes you through the fishing port of Killybegs. Silver Strand Beach in Malin Beg is a must. Glencolmcille Folk Village, a recreation of rural life over the past three centuries, is well worth a visit. (Comparisons are odious but the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra, Co Down, is superior. Curiously, both opened in 1967, the year I was born.)

If you don’t stop to savor the fabulous views as you cross the Glengesh Pass, you are in too much of a rush with your life. Arriving in Ardara, head straight to Nancy’s pub, run by the McHugh family for seven generations, with its maze of intimate rooms and order something from the wonderful menu – chowder, say, and a plate of delicious oysters, with a mix of different dressings.

Further north is the beautiful Glenveagh National Park, set in a beautiful secluded valley. The estate was established by John George Adair in 1857, who built Glenveagh Castle, modeling it on Balmoral, but evicted its tenants and replaced them with sheep. The favor was returned to him when a donkey was thrown into his grave on the day of his funeral as a sign of disrespect. Henry McIlhenny, curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, bought it in 1937 and developed its 27 acres of gardens, the luxuriance of which contrasted with the austere surrounding nature. The castle is full of fascinating details and history, including the original chest that McIlhinney’s grandfather emigrated with before making his fortune inventing the gas meter. Celebrity guests included Greta Garbo, Percy French, Princess Grace and Yehudi Menuhin, known locally as Hughie McMenamin.

If you are crossing the border, I recommend crossing the Barnesmore Gap and crossing the River Finn via the scenic Clady Bridge.

Martin Doyle was a guest of Harcourt, which offers a four-night Northern Escape package for two, with two nights’ accommodation at the Titanic Hotel Belfast and two nights at Lough Eske Castle, from €840.