Emma Heatherington: Why Fanad and its magical lighthouse is my newest Donegal obsession

Emma Heatherington was already in love with Donegal before she stayed in Fanad Lighthouse, which provides a backdrop to her latest novel, This Christmas. The international best-selling author shares why she is in awe of the county’s rugged beauty.

Image of sun setting against a white lighthouse on a cliff beside the sea with dark clouds in the background
Sunset at Fanad Head Lighthouse (Shawn Williams/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

My sister’s nickname for me is ‘Bord Fáilte’. She says if I ever decide to ditch my writing career, I should consider being a tour guide. She says it in jest but I totally get where she’s coming from.

Whatever the weather and whatever the time of year, I simply love to pack up the car with family, the dog or whoever else wants to come along, and hit the high road to the coast but my navigation is always in one direction – to Donegal, the most northern county of Ireland, recently described by Lonely Planet as “purely wild, but with a big heart”.

I couldn’t agree more. I am so in awe of Donegal that I set my very first novel, Crazy For You, in a fictional version of Killybegs way back in 2007, Secrets in the Snow in Dunfanaghy in 2020 and now this year I’ve discovered the lure of the lighthouse at Fanad Head which quickly became the stunning setting for my new release, a festive love story called This Christmas.

Image of a blonde woman with sunglasses on her head smiling
Author Emma Heatherington during a visit to Fanad Lighthouse

Like a lot of Tyrone folk of my generation, I was reared on holidays to Rossnowlagh, Bundoran and, my favourite, Downings, but I must admit I’d never explored the Fanad area of our neighbouring county until last year. You could say I’m now more than a little bit obsessed with the peninsula with its lighthouse and its alluring, rugged, spiritual surroundings.

The idea to set a novel in and around the lighthouse was one suggested to me by a reader when I was speaking at an event in May 2022 at the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy.

“I know you love to set stories in Donegal,” she said to me after my talk. “Have you ever been to Fanad Lighthouse?”

I hadn’t, but that soon changed and when I got to there last summer. I instantly knew she was right. I was smitten by the breathtaking building, its iconic landscape and intriguing history.

Fanad is a 200-year-old working lighthouse which was built after a shipwreck of the Saldanha claimed the lives of all those on board – all, that is, except the ship’s parrot. Captain Hill of the Royal Navy in Derry wrote to a member of the Ballast Board suggesting that a lighthouse should be built at Fannet Point, as Fanad Head was then known.

Black sign written in chalk explaining that Fanad lighthouse is 200 years old.
Fanad lighthouse is 200 years old.

The Saldanha would not have been wrecked, he insisted, if there had been a lighthouse at the entrance to Lough Swilly. Permission was granted and work began in 1815 with a budget of £2,000.

The first light was lit on St Patrick’s Day 1817, using sperm oil wick lamps and parabolic reflectors, showing red to the Atlantic and white to Lough Swilly. Technology now means there is no need for the lighthouse to be manned like in the olden days and instead of a wick, there are huge LED lamps that flash three times every five minutes once darkness falls.

As well as interactive tours, a small gift shop and coffee dock, there are now also three fully furnished apartments where the lighthouse keeper once lived, each catering for different numbers of tourists.

Yes, you can actually book in and stay there and reader, I did... I can’t tell you how honoured I was to have such a totally unique experience when, to celebrate the release of This Christmas, I took myself right out of my comfort zone to set off without family, the dog, and whoever else wanted to come along on a solo trip to experience staying in the lighthouse all by myself.

And I’m not used to doing things totally solo.

I’ve five children for a start, I’m the eldest of six siblings, so while I’ve gone on retreats and to many places for my job alone, there’s always someone else or a group of likeminded people to join me in some shape or form when I get there.

But not this time. This time I’d be staying in the lighthouse in a cosy little apartment, miles from civilisation, all by myself.

So, on a blustery day with the forecast warning of Storm Babet moving closer to the Irish coast, I bit down, put on my brave boots, turned up the radio and hit the road for the top of Ireland on my Jack Jones. I almost took cold feet. What would I do there on my own for a whole evening?

“Write your next book?” said a voice in my head.

Now there’s an idea. With a deadline looming for my 2024 novel, I’d often dreamed of escaping reality to write as I’m known to thrash out the words of my novels while my very busy household operates under business as usual around me.

Writing at the lighthouse did sound idyllic, so I packed up the laptop, some treats and snacks and off I went on my travels two hours north to Fanad Head.

image of road leading to white lighthouse on cliffs
Fanad Lighthouse

As I left my native Tyrone I did wonder if I was pretending to be braver than I really was, but when I drove the car through Co Donegal’s narrow winding roads, past grey stone walls and green fields until the navy sea met the horizon, my heart lifted, and any nerves I had disappeared when I saw the majestic lighthouse in the distance.

As clichéd as it sounds, I immediately felt at home.

My shoulders dropped, my eyes widened, and I found myself immediately immersed in the world I’d created for Charlie and Rose, the two lead characters in my novel This Christmas.

It was as if I’d stepped right into the novel which tells the story of two strangers who are both avoiding the annual festivities for their own poignant reasons, and who end up sharing a double-booked cottage not far from the famous Fanad Lighthouse.

Unlike in my story though, there is no quaint little village within walking distance and The Lighthouse Tavern, which features in the book, was closed for the winter season.

Image of a sign with a white building on it with the words The Lighthouse Tavern written on it in white
The Lighthouse Tavern

The water was wild, the wind was howling and the sea was in a rage. It was utterly isolated and totally magnificent.

I was greeted by Denise and Eimear who showed me to my cottage. I stayed in Dunree View, a bijou apartment set on two floors with the bedroom and bathroom down a winding flight of stairs inside the lighthouse. There’s a stove in the cosy living area which was stocked up with crackling logs, a small kitchen and sofa and the pièce de résistance – there’s one of the original Carnegie libraries in each cottage for visitors to browse through during their stay.

Brendan Behan, the famous Irish playwright, once stayed in Dunree when he was stationed here as a painter for Irish Lights, and when manager Eimear Ní Mhathúna showed me around, she pointed out a cute little table and chair by the window joking: “This is where you’ll sit to write your novel.”

Image of small brown square book case with old books in it
Carnegie library

We both did a double take when Eimear laughed that although those words are said to a lot of people who have stayed there due to the inspiring views, I really was planning on writing my next novel during my short stay.

The lighthouse is perfectly isolated and there’s no wifi or TV, but I wasn’t nervous any more. As the foaming waves crashed onto the rocks below me from my room with a view and the wind howled and whistled outside, I was incredibly excited for what lay ahead.

I opened the laptop, lit the stove and watched the waves get higher on the rocks for hours. Before darkness fell, I couldn’t resist leaving my cosy perch to get a blast of sea air, so I put on my hat and coat and walked around the back of the lighthouse, only to be met with a gust of wind like I’ve never encountered before. I tried to take a photo but my phone almost blew out of my hands.

It was so invigorating, so cleansing. I was beaming from ear to ear as I made my way back inside where staff member John kindly popped his head around to check if I had the heating on and was warm enough. How thoughtful.

My evening was spent just as I’d planned, at my desk by the window with only my laptop, my imagination and a crackling log fire for company. It was totally out of my comfort zone, but it was blissful. I did manage to get a few words down on my work in progress, but to be honest my scribbles were mostly filled with the moment I was in as I reflected and soaked up the silence and the unexpected joy of spending time alone.

The next morning after a very restful sleep with the sound of the whistling wind and waves outside, I was treated to a tour of the lighthouse where my host Kevin explained more about the history and what life was like for the lighthouse keeper and his family all those years ago.

Image of blonde woman in green fleece with a man in a blue fleece standing inside a lighthouse
Emma Heatherington with lighthouse keeper

I learned lots, despite having taken the tour last summer with my children, and again the Carnegie library service box on the wall, still full of old books, caught my eye. You can imagine the isolation and silence of working on a lighthouse alone, so as I flicked through books that travelled all over Ireland and had their library stamp dated from as far back as 1927, I was once again reminded how a good book and words of escapism can be a comforting companion.

After absorbing so much fascinating history and viewing Lough Swilly from the top of the very steep steps of the lighthouse, I fancied a beach walk before I left Fanad Head. Ballymastocker Bay was voted the second most beautiful beach in the world so that came to mind first, but I remembered that John had told me the evening before how he thought I should check out Ballyhiernan beach instead.

So, I bade farewell to my beloved lighthouse and set off for an invigorating winter walk in the sand on the rough, rugged and wild kind of beach that will blow all your cobwebs away. I’ll leave out the detail of how the key fob of my car wouldn’t work on my return, but I will say a big thank you to the kind lady who came along at the eleventh hour and helped me get the car door open.

Locking yourself out of a car really does build up an appetite, so my last stop was for lunch. I took tour guide Kevin’s tip and stopped in Kerrykeel where I had the tastiest chowder and a cheeky chocolate brownie in the delightful bistro, The Narrow Quarter. I will certainly be making this a regular stop off on my next visit to Fanad.

With Donegal named as the fourth-best region in the world to visit in 2024 by Lonely Planet, coming in ahead of places like Southern Thailand, the Swahili Coast in Tanzania and Montana in the United States, I hate to feel rather smug and say it but – I could have told you that years ago.

There’s a magnetic pull to county with the longest coastline in Ireland, and the true beauty for me is that it’s as equally breathtaking in winter as it is in summer.

Cartoon image of woman in long blue coat walking through the snow with her dog
Emma Heatherington's latest book is This Christmas

It will always hold a special place in my heart, and I don’t think I’m finished with setting my books there. There’s a poignant scene in This Christmas which sees my leading lady Rose go to the lighthouse on a winter’s day to reflect, so as I enjoyed the peace, serenity and solitude of my stay with Babet doing her worst outside and also as I made my way home, I took time to think of the words I’d written for Rose.

“I am my own lighthouse.

“I am hope, I am secure, I can weather any storm. I can stand tall and strong no matter how the waves crash against me, no matter how chaotic the world is around me and no matter what challenges the changing elements bring my way. I can dim my lanterns when I need to rest.

“I can shine brightly from within and most of all I can beam my light for miles and miles to guide my own path and to help and protect others along the way.

“I am my own lighthouse.”

  • This Christmas (Penguin/Cornerstone) by Emma Heatherington is out now