At the very beginning of June 2021, after months of lockdown and isolation, we decided it was time to go out again and keep exploring the wonderful emerald isle further.
After some researches, we made up our mind for Donegal, known by the locals as the Forgotten County.
Can you guess why?
Difficult to say unless you are very into geography.
If I had to guess, in fact, I would say it takes its name from two facts: first, it is the northernmost county in the Republic of Ireland; second, it would be completely left out from the rest of the Republic if it was not for a teeny, tiny string of land (north from Sligo) that still connects it to the Republic. Northern Ireland, which instead belongs to the United Kingdom, dominates the rest of the land on the northern side of the island. So I guess the name comes from its peculiar geographic location, almost altogether secluded from the rest of the Republic.
Anyway, we decided to spend two days wandering through this enchanted county, and we loved it!
Our journey started from a rental car agency in Drumcondra (Northen Dublin). It took us almost 4 hours to get to County Donegal, as we chose not to take the fastest route passing through Northern Ireland, but through Sligo and that teeny, tiny string of land I was talking about previously, instead.
But, first things first. Buckle up and get ready to join us in this new adventure of two days in county Donegal, Ireland!
Table of Contents:
1. Donegal Town and Donegal Castle
Our first stop was in Donegal town to grab something to eat (after a 4-hour drive we were famished)! and visit Donegal Castle, which was closed, unfortunately.
We left the car in the parking at the very beginning of the town, next to Tourist Information Centre. From there, we could admire a remarkable view over the River Eske. Then, we walked to the triangular main square of the town, and then we reached the Castle (5 minutes walking in total).
The Castle is said to be one of Ireland’s most splendid Gaelic castles, but we had to take people word for this as we were not able to see it from the inside, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In the 15th century, Red Hugh O’Donnell erected it as his personal fortification. But later, they say, Hugh burned his hold on fire after fleeing to Spain in the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale to ensure that it would never come into English hands. He was to be let down, though. In 1616, Sir Basil Brooke, an English captain, became the new lord of the mansion. Brooke built a magnificent manor house beside the tower as part of an extensive repair scheme. He also had the spectacular chimneypiece commissioned, exquisitely embellished with carved fruit and his imperial coat of arms.
In the 20th century, the building complex fell into disrepair, but in the 1990s, it was restored to its former beauty.
Admission fee: 5€/ 6$.
2. Largy Waterfall
Largy Waterfall, also known as the Secret Waterfall, is a true gem you cannot miss under any circumstances!
It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen in the Emerald Isle, and that is also since it is not for everyone. Some luck and effort are needed to be able to see it! As, first, you need to cross a privately owned piece of land to reach the coast, and you are allowed to do so ONLY when the owner leaves the gate to the property opened. Then, to get to the waterfall, you have some crossing and climbing to do through the beach and some caves, making it absolutely out of reach to people with reduced mobility. Finally, it is of extreme importance that you check the tide before going! Otherwise, you risk not only not being able to reach the waterfall, but even worse, getting stuck in the waterfall and not being able to go back.
You can check the tide before going through this website.
If you look for Largy Waterfall on Google Maps, you will not find it. Thus I recommend heading to Largy Viewpoint, which does show up on Google Maps, park there and then go to the entrance on foot. If the Viewpoint is just on the curve, you can find the gate to the property you need to cross just before the curve on your left side (if the gate is open you can easily recognize it by all the people walking toward and through it).
3. Malin Beg and Silver Strand
30mins away from Donegal Town, you will find Malin Beg (Málainn Bhig) and Silver Stand, one of the most beautiful beaches of the Wild Atlantic Way, a coastal route that runs from the picturesque town of Kinsale, County Cork, in the southern part of the Republic of Ireland, all the way up to the Inishowen Peninsula in the northeast part of County Donegal for a total of 1600 miles (2600 km).
This beach, with its white sand and horseshoe-shaped cliffs rising all around it, was one of my favourites. The shape of the cliffs and the lush green meadows surrounding them provide a stunning contrast with the white sand and crystal-clear sea, giving the impression of being on a tropical beach. It is undoubtedly one of the most striking sites for relaxing and taking in the landscape all over Ireland.
4. Maghera Beach and Caves
At 30 km (18.6 mi) from Silver Strand, you can find the beautiful Maghera Beach, one of the most impressive of the many magnificent beaches in Donegal, and its caves.
Maghera Beach stretches for almost 5km of white dunes, deep blue water, over 20 caves, eight arches, and five tunnels that can be visited when the tide is low. That is extremely important to note, as the tide can come in quickly. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to enter the Maghera Caves without checking the tide times in advance!
Folklore claims that a massacre occurred here while locals were hiding from Cromwellian attackers. However, we know from written history that Cromwell never travelled this far north, and if there is any validity to the narrative, it is more likely that the attackers were Vikings.
The tale also tells of a lone male massacre survivor. He retreated into the heart of a cave with his dog, crawled through the dark, and damp in search of freedom. According to legend, the man never reached over to the other side, but the dog, who had lost all his hair, appeared 20 kilometres away at Glencolumbkille!
Unfortunately, the tide was too high when we got there, but from what I could see in Google images, they look very promising.
5. Assaranca Waterfall
At just 1 km (0.6 mi) from Maghera Beach, you can find the charming Assaranca Waterfall, often referred to as Ardara Waterfall.
Since you can park right next to the Ardara Waterfall, it is the ideal site to visit with someone who has restricted mobility, as you can watch the waterfall without having to travel far.
6. Kilclooney Dolmen
If only we could figure out how to go to Kilclooney Dolmen, that would have been our next stop! Unfortunately, we used Google Maps to find it, and it directed us to a private property with no indication that we could access it in any manner. So we continued driving, and as we passed through the property, we noticed these teeny-tiny rocks. Honestly, what we could see from there did not excite us. Thus we decided not to stop the car and instead drive straight to our next destination. That was unfortunate since, from what I could tell from my googling, it appeared to be something worthwhile.
Anyway, while writing this article, I came across some information on how to get to the dolmen I wish I had known earlier. You can leave your car in the parking lot of Dolmen Centre, then walk the laneway to the left of the church (St. Conal’s) for about 400 meters until you reach the Dolmen.
This Neolithic monument, which dates from between 4,000 and 3,000 B.C., is considered one of the best specimens in Ireland. Its centrepiece is a massive capstone measuring four by six meters (13 by twenty feet), supported by two 1.8-meter (6 foot) uprights known as portals and a back stone on which the capstone rests. The chocking stone is a prominent characteristic of the back stone. It is indeed possible that this was employed to modify the tilt of the capstone, as it was manoeuvred into place.
A second much tinier and partially crumpled dolmen is just behind the dolmen, which is probably what we spotted from our car as we drove by. A court tomb can be found around 160 feet/500 meters east of the dolmen.
7. Doon Fort
Doon Fort was perhaps what I was most excited to visit, but, again, we could not find it, as Google Maps sent us to another private property.
It is supposed to be on a small private island in the heart of Loughadoon, not far from Narin and Portnoo, two small coastal villages. Almost the entire island is covered by the Fort. Other Irish dry-stone wall forts, such as Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands, Grianan of Aileach in Donegal, and Staige Fort in Kerry, used similar construction methods.
It is a Western Stone Fort, a fort with extraordinarily thick and high surrounding walls utilized as royal residences and status symbols from the late Iron Age to the early Middle Ages. It has been linked to several families, including the Breslin’s and the O’Boyles. The Breslin’s are supposed to have occupied the fort since the 5th century when took over by the O’Boyle clan until it fell into disrepair.
Due to its location on private ground, numerous websites claim that the owners hire out small boats to visitors during the summer months. However, I was unable to gather any additional information, so when we came, we found nothing, not even the island. What a pity!
From there, we stopped at Carey’s Viking House Hotel, in Belcruit, to have some dinner and spend the night.
8. Carrickfinn Beach
The gorgeous Carrickfinn Beach (Charraig Fhinn), which has gained blue flag status for the cleanliness and beauty of its sands, is located right adjacent to the tiny Donegal Airport, recently awarded the most scenic airport in the world for the third year in a row.
It is a large swath of white sand beach flanked by dunes. The distinctive machair grass plains that surround the bay are home to several unique plant species.
9. The Old Church of Dunlewey
The Old Church of Dunlewey, much like the Taj Mahal, is a lasting memorial to great love, devotion, and loss on the amazing Dunlewey Lough.
This beautiful building was indeed erected in memory of James Russell, a hop merchant and the landlord of the Dunlewey estate, by his heartbroken widow Jane.
Like the Taj Mahal, the Church of Ireland building was constructed using white marble and also blue quartzite quarried locally. The red brick in the arches of the windows was produced locally. Remnants of the brickfield are still visible near Oilean Ghrainne when the level of the lake is lowered.
James Russell was laid to rest in a vault under the church floor.
10. Horn Head
Horn Head is a dramatic peninsula at the western entrance to Sheephaven Bay, with cliffs rising to 600 ft/180 m on the ocean side and the largest mainland seabird breeding population in Ireland.
Many Neolithic stone circles, court tombs, passage tombs, and prehistoric field boundaries can be found in this Irish Natural Heritage Area. You can see two lookout towers, one from Napoleonic times and the other from World War II, as well.
From the top of the cliffs, you can see Inishboffin Island and Bloody Foreland to the west, Melmore and Malin Head to the east, and a line of mountains from Muckish to Errigal on the landward side. On a clear day, you can glimpse the Paps of Jura and the Isle of Islay in the west of Scotland.
11. Ards Forest Park
At any time of year, a visit to Ards Forest Park, especially if the weather is nice, is something you should not miss!
The park is about 480 hectares (1200 acres) in size and contains a diverse range of habitats, including dunes, beaches, salt marshes, saltwater lakes, rock faces, and, of course, coniferous and deciduous forests. With such a variety of landscapes, it is possible to spend many hours exploring this wonderful park.
This park has many pathways that allow visitors to explore a range of habitats, from the beach and dunes to semi-natural oak woods on rock outcrops. A large variety of animals and birds can be seen while having a stroll throughout the park. There are also various historical and archaeological features for those interested in human history. The ruins of four ringforts, as well as a holy well and a mass rock, can all be found here.
The full experience of walking around this park is worth not only the entry price but also the time and money spent renting a car and driving up from Dublin.
The only flaw is that it was difficult for us to follow the trail we chose as you do not get any map at the entrance, and you can walk for miles without seeing a map at the crossroads. So, after hours of wandering and getting lost a few times, feeling we were somewhere when we were somewhere else entirely, we just opted to go back to the parking lot and proceed to the following location.
Admission fee: 5€/ 6$ (contactless payment card only).
12. Boyeeghter Bay
Another stunning spot we were unable to visit was Boyeeghter Bay, often known as “Murder Hole Beach“, as you must cross a private property and cannot reach it if the gate is open. That’s exactly what happened to us: we arrived in the early afternoon to find the gate had been closed already. As a result, we decided to proceed directly to the next stop.
Furthermore, the only way to park your car is on a two-way, extremely narrow road between a field and a camping site. And, since the gate is at the end of it, we can only tell if it is open or not after spending time trying to park your car without bumping into anything. Not exactly a time-effective solution!
In any case, it is believed to be one of the most beautiful and untouched bays in Ireland. You can see two sandy beaches during high tide, which merges to form one large beach as the tide goes out. You can also walk to a small tidal island about 50 feet (15 meters) from the shore when the tide is out. But the adventure does not end there! The Atlantic has chiselled away the rock on the coast with all of its might over time. There are some spectacular rock formations to see, including a particularly magnificent cave that is only accessible at low tide.
However, the origins of its gruesome moniker, Murder Hole Beach, are unknown. According to tradition, it refers to the terrible story of a woman who died after falling—or possibly being pushed—from the cliffs in the 1800s. However, the name is most likely a reference to the raging waters that lap at the shore, as the beach is noted for its exceptionally powerful tides.
That is why it is critical to verify the tide times before setting out and be aware of when the high tide is approaching. Here is where you can find out about the tide.
Those who want to see the bay from a different perspective can take the path that begins at the bottom of the beach, climbs the surrounding hills, and ends at a WWII lookout.
13. Lough Salt
We then proceeded to Lough Salt, a small mountain tarn at the foot of Lough Salt Mountain.
The lough is over a mile long (1.6 km) and over 3/4 of a mile (1.2 km) wide at its widest point, and it is located at an elevation of over 800 feet. The mountain rises almost vertically 700 feet (244 meters) above the lough, creating a magnificent background that contributes to the name Lough Salt. The steep slopes of the mountain overlooking the lake are known as “Lough agus Alt” in Gaelic (or “lake and Cliff” in English).
Lough Salt, like Lough Altan and most of Donegal’s other lakes, was created by glaciers during one of the Ice Ages, most likely approximately 40,000 years ago. Despite the abundance of evidence, some sources claim that it is the crater of an extinct volcano, although this notion has yet to be verified.
Regardless of origin, Lough Salt is renowned for its remarkable depth. Despite its tiny size, much of the lough is over 165-200 ft (50-60 m) deep, with considerable uncertainty about its real maximum depth. While a survey of water resources in the early 1980s estimated a depth of more than 200 ft (60 m) (the maximum depth of the depth sounding equipment utilized), it was clear that the lake was much deeper.
According to legend, the lake is as deep as the mountain (690 ft/ 210 m).
Apart from the beautiful lake itself, I found it particularly delightful that just before entering the road that runs alongside the lake, there is a little slope you cannot see the end of, giving the impression that you are about to drive your car into the water.
Continue for a few hundred meters (a bit more than half a mile) to discover a spot to pull over and park, as well as an observation point. That lies atop a low elevation on the western coast that provides excellent views of Greenan Lough from the lower terrain below. Beyond that, the view opens up to the north, with the shore to the north, Glen Lough to the south, and the chain of mountains spanning from Muckish to Errigal to the west.
Donegal County Council uses the lough as a water source for the town of Letterkenny.
14. Malin Head
Malin Head (Cionn Mhálanna in Gaelic), in the Inishowen Peninsula, is the most northerly point in Ireland, renowned for its dramatic landscape, beautiful beaches, thriving birdlife, historical curiosities, and for being the conclusion (or beginning, depending on your point of view) of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Banba’s Crown, named after Banba, the patron goddess of Ireland, is located at the very tip of the headland. It is a clifftop tower built in 1805 as part of a series of fortresses across the Irish coast to guard against a possible French invasion. It is known locally as “The Tower“. Later, it was converted into a Lloyds signal station, which served as a vital news conduit between America and Europe. The adjoining World War II observation stations are more modest.
It is also a popular destination for bird watchers, as it is one of the few spots in Europe where you can hear the elusive corncrake and an idyllic vantage point for watching gannets, shearwaters, skuas, auks, and other seabirds on their southbound migratory flight, as well as chough. In addition, fishing and rock angling are popular activities in the area.
Ballyhillion beach, to the east of Banba’s Crown, is a unique rising beach system of international scientific significance. The largest dunes in Europe can be found here. From the time the glaciers began to melt 15,000 years ago, the radically different shorelines depict the evolving relationship between the water and the land. As County Donegal was lowered by the weight of an enormous ice sheet at the time, the sea level was up to 80 feet higher than it is today.
Fun fact 1: Malin Head was also the location scout for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. During the shooting of the movie, visitors and locals alike marvelled at the Millennium Falcon perched on the cliffs and stormtroopers roaming the hills, and the cast and crew were in awe of the incredible scenery and warm welcome they received.
Fun Fact 2: Here, at the edge of Europe, conditions for witnessing the Northern Lights phenomenon are optimal.
Bonus track: in our original plan there were other places to visit before coming back to Dublin: Dunree Head and Glenevin Waterfall. However, due to a shortage of time, unfortunately, we were unable to see them. Keep those names in mind, should you have some spare time.
Despite some disappointment at not being able to visit everything we had planned, those two days were fantastic. We fell in love with Donegal and its people, and even more with the Emerald Isle. Its scenery, cliffs, meadows, and beaches are well worth the time and money spent visiting!
If only more (non-Irish) people knew it, I honestly believe it would recognize as a universal truth. But, as my loving husband fairly pointed out, if more (non-Irish) people were aware of Ireland’s absolutely gorgeous gems, it is highly probable that those places would lose their wild and untouched spirit and become just another tourist paradise, entirely out of context. So, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to see and experience Ireland for what it truly is: an enchanted paradise that I will never forget!
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