Tom Kelly: Castles and culture replace kitsch in this part of Co Donegal

In the second of his staycation travelogues, regular Irish News columnist Tom Kelly journeys from Tyrone across the border to south Co Donegal

Lough Eske Castle Hotel, near Donegal Town
Lough Eske Castle Hotel, near Donegal Town

PULLING out of Strabane towards Donegal, the imposing statues on the site of the old checkpoint loom large – very large at 18ft high. Two dancers and three musicians with fife, fiddle and drum all in step for a ceilidh.

Although modern and apparently signifying reconciliation, I can't shake from my head the image of the rural Irish idyll depicted by de Valera “of contests between athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens”.

Lifford describes itself as the gateway to Donegal and, like most gateway towns, it is easily passed by. In fairness, it has a rich history but most of the physical structures of its past have long gone. Also gone is Lifford dog track, which used to attract large numbers from the north.

Bound for Donegal town, there's no real need for a stop-off. But the towns of Ballybofey and Stranorlar have always fascinated me. These twin towns are linked by a bridge over the river Finn.

Ballybofey is well known to GAA fans following the fortunes of their counties to MacCumhaill Park. Between them, Ballybofey and its twin town have no less than 25 watering holes, the not so Irish-sounding Villa Rose Hotel and Spa near the football ground among them.

Interestingly, Ballybofey has no churches or schools, a legacy of planter policy. It is home to McElhinneys, reputedly the south's largest department store outside Dublin; it's eye-catching window displays alone are worth a look if you're just passing, especially at Easter and Christmas.

My destination is just outside Donegal town, so before checking in we detour to the Donegal Craft Village, where artisans and craftspeople have an amazing array of contemporary gifts, artefacts, pottery and clothes. It isn't cheap, mind you, though, on the upside for caffeine and sugar addicts, there's a great coffee house and bakery.

Restored in the 1990s, Donegal Castle in Donegal town, at one time seat of the O'Donnells
Restored in the 1990s, Donegal Castle in Donegal town, at one time seat of the O'Donnells

The traffic system in Donegal town, especially around the Diamond, remains more suited to yesteryear.

A gem of a find in the town centre is the newly enlarged Triona (a design and production house of the same name is located in Ardara part of the Wild Atlantic way), a family concern whose founder, Dennis Mulhern, is, incredibly, a fifth-generation weaver.

Donegal town is awash with pubs and restaurants. If you stayed a month you couldn't visit them all. Many have ditched the old Irish-American-style kitsch that previously kept many of us away. They're not selling Darby O’Gill up here – it's heritage, environment, culture, ceol and craic.

The Abbey Hotel in the centre of town is defiantly Irish in character and a good venue to grab a comfortable pint of Guinness, a bowl of chowder or a cappuccino.

The drive to our hotel is almost mystical as you come off the main road. The road gets narrower and narrower. Lough Eske is home to two grand and impressive edifices along its shoreline – the four-star hotel Harvey’s Point and the five-star Lough Eske Castle Hotel.

When one finally drives through the gates of the latter, the gravel under wheel immediately suggests grandeur. Liveried staff give that sense of Downtown abbey, but this area has history way beyond any Edwardian roots, having once been home to the O’Donnell’s, chieftains of Donegal (the ruins of their castle are nearby).

It’s hard to believe that owner Pat Doherty has practically restored brick by brick what was once a dilapidated and decaying building. The suites and rooms in Lough Eske are expansive. The service is uber-efficient but friendly. Upscale Irish style hospitality throughout and with awarding-winning food, most of it locally sourced. High tea in the drawing room is an indulgence but worth it!

Its spa and swimming pool means the hotel is not weather dependent. While my better half soaks up the sensual pleasures of the spa like a latter-day Cleopatra – I grab a pint, borrow a book and drop into a winged back chair beside a fire with the Lucien Freud painting of the owner Pat Doherty glaring down at me.

Back at Donegal harbour, a waterbus beckons. Donegal is equally splendid when viewed from the sea. Donegal Bay Waterbus company operate tours, which point out the burial place of Red Hugh O’Donnell, the old Abbey, where the Annals of the Four Masters was written, and embarkation point of the coffin ships loaded with famine victims. (A nearby famine graveyard is sobering but simple).

Back on dry land, I can’t resist standing beside statue of Red Hugh, which is pointing as if to say: Go north west, the Wild Atlantic Way awaits.