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Welcome to county Donegal (Dún na nGall ) – ‘The fort of the foreigner’. It is the most beautiful and northerly county located in the north-west of Ireland in the province (region) of Ulster. One of the four modern provinces of Ireland. It has everything the tourist could want or expect, from humble traditional cottages to medieval castles. Breath taking mountain ranges and vertical sea cliffs to expansive windswept moorland with picturesque lakes. The energy of thousands of years of continuous life is palpable. Behind every stone wall and hedge is a prehistoric tomb or early christian site waiting to be discovered. Off the coast there are many and varied islands, some of which have been inhabited for thousands of years since the Stone Age.
There is thundering Atlantic rollers for unforgettable surfing, crystal clear waters for diving, angling and a host of water sports. It’s mild climate and the warming affects of the Gulf Stream entice an array of whales, dolphins and sharks to these shores including two of the largest fish in the world, the baskin shark and the Oceanic Sun fish. The availability of locally produced foods make for some of the finest award winning restaurants in the world. The innate musicality of the people make it easy for an impromptu singsong or music session to happen at any time but it always helps accompanied by a warm fire, a good drink and the craic in the local pub at the end of an active day.
The population of Donegal is 147,000. The largest town is Letterkenny with c.25,000 residents. The landscape is varied with most people living on the cultivated coastal areas overlooking the Atlantic ocean. Extending to 230 miles it makes this the longest and most indented coastline in the country. This provides Donegal with numerous sandy beaches, bays, secluded harbours and coves for the visitor to seek out and discover.
Famous for its rugged mountains and boglands, which cover over 70 percent of the county, it makes Donegal an ideal wilderness and haven for much flora and fauna.These remote areas are a dream for those who enjoy the outdoors and the fresh air.
Mountain ranges such as The Blue Stack and Derryveagh provide great walking and adventure. The annual Blue stack challenge takes place every June, crossing 40Km over this mountain range. (Link). Several mountains extend over 2000ft including the highest, Mount Errigal at c.2500ft. Slieve League in the south-west of the county extends to 1972 ft and is amongst the highest sea cliffs in Europe. It’s quartzite and schist cliff face is a veritable collage of colours especially with the change in its seasonal vegetation cover, which often lures grazing sheep to unimaginable dining spots!
This remoteness on the edge of both Ireland and Europe gives the people a special charm and character. Their Gaelic culture and traditions have survived in part to the inaccessibility and the undesirability in times past of this harsh place. (This was the last stand of the Gaelic chieftains before the infamous flight of the Earls in 1607 and the end of Gaelic Ireland). Thankfully these factors have made the people of Donegal resilient, industrious, yet warm and friendly and willing to share their love of their heritage to anyone who might ask. There are two main Gaeltacht (Irish/Gaelic speaking) areas. One in the west of the county around Gweedore extending towards the centre of the county at Cloghan and the other in south-west of the county centered around Carrick and Glencolmcille. Up to thirty percent of the population is conversant in the indigenous language, if you listen out you might hear a ‘cupla focal’ (few words). (link) In these areas other cultural aspects survive strongly such as traditional irish music and dance and the art of weaving and spinning yarns.
Donegal has much to offer in the line of outdoor pursuits. The expansive Atlantic ocean provides the perfect swell for surfing in Bundoran located at the back of Donegal bay. The almost constant swell makes this surf among the best in the world. The town successfully hosted the European Surfing Championships in 2011.
The premier fishing port of Killybegs is the base for much of the diving in south Donegal. It’s easy accessible slipway and sheltered harbour provide a safe and desirable starting point. The local dive centres cater for the complete beginner up to the more experienced diver. The numerous ship wrecks and caves along the coast award Donegal with some of the best dives in the world. Notably the waters around St. John’s point and Malinmore.
Many of the ports in Donegal offer excellent angling opportunities, boats are available for a two hour trial up to a full day charter. There are many annual national and international fishing competitions throughout Donegal. There are great opportunities for rock fishing, for many species such as mackerel, pollock, ling and conger. We have many famous river and lake systems especially for salmon, sea trout and brown trout. (Licenses required, day/weekly licenses available). Coarse fishing is available only in the south of the county around Ballyshannon and Bundoran. Some of our lakes have the highly allusive and rare Char. These are a non-migratory member of the salmon family that got land locked during the last Ice- Age some 12,000 years ago.
The centre of county Donegal lies at a latitude of 54.917 and a longitude of -8.00 west. It is one of largest counties at 85 miles long and 41 miles wide with many islands. It covers an area of 1.2 million acres (c.500,000 hectares). Two thirds of the land consists of rough pasture and upland bog between 600 and 2000 feet above sea level. East of the county contains extensive arable lands with good soils considered among the best agricultural land in the country.
The North Atlantic Drift brings warm waters, giving Donegal a temperate climate even at these northern latitudes. Because of the temperate climate there is much precipitation year round. The best weather is often had the end of April / beginning of May and again at the start of September. When a duration of dry and sunny weather arrives Donegal looks subtropical in its lush appearance.
This is especially true with the algae blooms from April turning the water from blue to turquoise and bringing baskin sharks, whales and other plankton eaters to our shores.
Donegal (Dún na nGall) meaning ‘Fort of the Foreigner’. This refers to the probability that parts of Donegal were invaded by foreigners such as the vikings more than a thousand years ago or more contentiously by the English in the 16th Century. It was also know as Tir Connell in ancient times. It was from the coming together of the two ancient territories of Tir Connell in the south and Inis Eoghan in the north of the county that set much of the present boundaries of county Donegal. These territories were named after their first chieftains Conal and Eoghan. Surnames were not in use in Ireland until the tenth century. Tir Connell, meaning Land of Connell or Conal, and Inis Eoghan meaning island or land of Eoghan. Conal and Eoghan were the sons Niall of the Nine Hostages, the high king of Ireland in the early medieval period (5th Century AD).
Niall of the Nine Hostages was so named because in his early reign he consolidated his power by taking hostages from opposing royal families from each of the five provinces that then constituted Ireland, as well as from Scotland, the Saxons, the Britons and the Franks. He is thought to be the patriarch of the Ui Neill, meaning “the descendants of Niall,” a group of dynasties that claimed the high kingship and ruled the northwest and other parts of Ireland from about A.D. 600 to 900.
The O’Donnell clan continued the ancestral line of Conal until 1607 with the Flight of the Earls. The O’Donnells ruled all of Donegal from Donegal Castle with the help of minor local chieftains like the McSwynes in south-west Donegal. The O’Donnells were known for exporting fish and other produce from the local ports to the continent of Europe.
With the flight of the Earls came the Elizabethan conquest of Ulster with Donegal being the last territory to fall to the English in 1607. This ended the Gaelic dominated way of life.
In World War II, though Ireland was neutral more than forty allied war planes crashed in the mountains of Donegal. This was because there was an air corridor provided for the allied planes through south Donegal for access to landing areas in neighbouring County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. There are also many submarine and ship wrecks from this and other wars dotted around the coast of Donegal.
There are numerous Napoleonic signal towers that were completed in 1806 as a warning system in case the French invaded this British ruled territory. They are beautiful castle like structures on the coast such as at Slieve League and Glen Head.
Today the population of Donegal is 147,000 down from 300,000 before the great famine in the middle of the 19th century. This is also due to emigration in all periods even up to the present with people leaving to seek work in England, Canada, and Australia. Approximately seventeen percent of the work force is unemployed.
In Donegal flora, fauna and culture abound. Heritage lurks over every field boundary. Prehistoric tombs and dwellings sit side by side with early christian edifices, historic towers and modern habitations – a natural blend with the rugged landscape that is so exemplary of these people and their place on the edge of Europe.
So come, uncover and enjoy Donegal and it’s people for yourself.