A Force for change in Donegal's tourist fortunes
For a part of the country that has always felt left out, Donegal can finally claim its rightful place on Ireland's tourist map. On his journey along the Wild Atlantic Way, Paul Clements discovered much to shout about in the county, elevated to a new level by recent media publicity
CATCH a cloudless evening and you may be lucky enough to be enchanted by a night sky display of the aurora borealis, the northern lights, at the most far-flung point in the north west.
The celestial light show has been seen hanging like a fluorescent curtain over Banba’s Crown at Malin Head – just one of the many natural attractions bringing more people to north Donegal.
A combination of factors has led to the county’s profile as a tourist destination being raised as never before, with all the indications that it is set for a record summer season.
Apart from the northern lights, the recent Star Wars filming of The Force Awakens has been a considerable boost to Inishowen – when the film is released next year the long-neglected peninsula is certain to become better known worldwide.
The visit to Glenveagh Castle, Letterkenny, and Donegal town in May by Prince Charles also helped bolster its image to the British market, as well as boosting Donegal town’s famed McGettigan’s sausages.
Four years ago their hickory-and-maple pork won them the European Championship title for sausage making; Donegal tourism could not have wished for a more rapturous endorsement of the county than the ‘royal blessing’ from Prince Charles: "It is a place of dramatic and beautiful scenery, of music and story-telling, of myth, legend and the Irish language, and a place where the link between man and the land is still so well understood."
Several other initiatives, including the continuing development of the Wild Atlantic Way have brought a new sense of confidence. Since it was established two years ago, every trick in the book has been used to capitalise on the route, and all along the west coast it has led to a newfound entrepreneurial energy – nowhere greater than in Donegal.
Businesses have embraced it and it has mobilised small communities, putting a spring in the step of many people.
One businessman, Paddy Clarke, who runs the Slieve League Centre in Teelin, believes it has ‘democratised’ the west – meaning that the county is entitled to as much coverage as the traditional big-hitting destinations of west Cork, Kerry, the Burren or Connemara.
Another major shot in the arm has been the opening in April of the 200-year-old white-walled Fanad Head lighthouse. Fanad is one of the least celebrated parts of Donegal and consequently ideal for a weekend break.
From Rathmullan stunning views unfurl over Ballymastocker Bay and across the mouth of Lough Swilly. The viewpoint beside Saldanha Head provides an outstanding position to look down on the two-mile curve of Stocker Strand, also known as Portsalon beach.
Fanad’s beaches are among Ireland’s finest and this one, with its immaculate gold-tinted sand, was once voted the second best beach in the world.
Fanad lighthouse is a prominent historic building and a place of strategic importance. For many it was a poignant reminder of ships leaving Donegal for a new start in a foreign land. In 1975 the lighthouse was automated and it is the base for helicopters supporting lighthouses on Tory Island and Inishtrahull.
Now a 'Signature Discovery Point' along the Wild Atlantic Way, the lighthouse has been re-roofed and renovated by the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Open for self-catering accommodation, it is part of a new all-Ireland Lighthouse Trail.
Less than a mile away, the Lighthouse Tavern looks unprepossessing from the outside but the welcome inside is warm.
"We’ve perfected a great way of dealing with the storms up here," James Waldron, the owner says. "We serve Dark ‘n’ Stormy, a cocktail which helps us through the freezing days. It’s made of Jamaican rum and ginger beer served over ice and garnished with a wedge of lime and it slips down a treat. It’s a taste of the tropics so it helps us through the winters. The ratio of rum and beer makes it a Swilly special."
Fanad is just one small arm of a large county which can justifiably make many claims: the highest sea cliffs and largest sand dunes in Europe, the biggest waves in Ireland. A place of nature on a grand scale, Donegal’s coastline of 1,500km is the longest of any county and, with nearly 30 per cent, it has the lion’s share of sandy beaches. With no fewer than 13 unspoilt golden strands, it boasts an equal number of Blue Flag beaches (tying jointly for first place with Kerry).
Where, the visitor may ask, is the essence of Donegal? There is not one particular spot since it is to be found everywhere: from the burstingly fresh local seafood, in the rollers of Rossnowlagh, at the summit of Errigal mountain, in the Killybegs fishing boats bringing home the catch, in the ruins of a medieval castle, on a ferry ride to Tory Island, on top of the spectacular Grianán of Aileach fort, or in the evocative call of the corncrake.
Or you could just settle for a sausage bap in a butcher’s shop in Donegal town.
:: For details on Inishowen tourism contact Buncrana Tourist Office: 00353 (0)74 9362 600,visitinishowen.com
:: Letterkenny Tourist Office: 00353 (0)74 9121 160, discoverireland.ie
:: Donegal Discover Ireland Centre, Donegal town: 00353 (0)74 9721148
:: Useful websites: Explore the Northern Headlands section of the Wild Atlantic Way: wildatlanticway.com
:: Fanad Lighthouse: fanadlighthouse.com
:: Slieve League Cultural Centre, Carrick: slieveleaguecliffs.ie
Paul Clements is a contributing editor to Fodor's Ireland 2016. His new travel book Wandering Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way: From Banba's Crown to World's End is published by the Collins Press (collinspress.ie)
For the 25th anniversary of his coastal hitchhike around Ireland in 1991, his first travel book Irish Shores, with a new introduction, has been reprinted by Clachan Publishing (clachan-publishing.com )
Next Wednesday, June 15, as part of the Belfast Book Festival, Paul will be interviewed about his journey along the west coast and about how Ireland has changed in 25 years, at the Moravian Church, University Road, at 8.30pm. Tickets from the Crescent Arts Centre or belfastbookfestival.com.
On Thursday June 23 at 1pm, Paul will be giving a slideshow presentation about his trip as part of a lunchtime series of talks at Belfast's Linen Hall Library (linenhall.com)