Heading inland now, we drove on the eastside of the river on A5. County Tyrone had once been the dominion of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, who was defeated by the English. All his lands were taken away from him and given to the English and Scottish settlers. This started the migration to the United States, which accelerated in the 19th century. We were only here a short while. In Strabane, we stopped to fill our tank with gas. We wanted to use up all of our Northern Ireland money before crossing over to the Republic of Ireland again. We again looked for signs that we were leaving one country and going into another but there were none!
Crossing the River Foyle once again, we came to Lifford in County Donegal. Driving on N15 along the River Finn, known for its salmon fishing, we crossed that river from Stranorlor to Ballybofey. This was the longest stretch of inland driving we had had for awhile. But one is never far from water in Ireland. There are so many inland lakes. We passed through mountains and glaciated valleys. This seven-mile stretch, known as the Barnesmore Gap, once harbored highwaymen – “a bit of blarney,” perhaps, or not.
Gone were the neat farmsteads, as a more untamed environment met our eyes. We were in the wild, wild West! We passed pretty Lough Eske where I took a photo of some swans upon it. The Blue Stack Mountains were in the background.
Riding into the town of Donegal at around five o’clock, we had finally reached a destination point on the trip. The town looked so interesting and inviting as we drove down Main Street through its large Diamond. We went onto Bridge Street where we crossed the River Eske and came to Waterloo Street. The Castle View B&B across the river from the castle was our choice of a hostelry for the night. We were glad we had arrived fairly early and could get our pick of the rooms. We chose one in front, overlooking the river, the castle and the church. It was an older place with no private bathrooms. The owners were a charming, older, couple named the Timoneys.
We now had time enough for a side trip to Slieve League to see what the postcards called “the steepest sea cliffs in Europe!” Was this a bit of blarney again? This turned out to be our most awesome part of our journey so far. We drove out N56 west through Mountcharles to Kellybegs. A picturesque seaport and Ireland’s most important fishing port (blarney?), it had interesting ships and boats in its harbor.
Continuing on through Kilcar and Carrick, we turned off the road to go to Slieve League. We had hoped to come back and continue to Glencolumbcille but this trip took much longer than we thought so we had to turn back at Carrick. This could be an interesting ring trip from Donegal continuing from Glencolumbcille through the scenic Glengesh Pass to Ardara, which is the center of the tweed-weaving industry, then back to Donegal.
Turning off the road at Carrick, we first took the road to Teelin on Donegal Bay. At its pier, you can rent a boat to take you to the cliffs in the summertime. We went back and took the road to Bunglas and entered a more desolate, wilder region. There was not a hedge in sight, just sand and rock, green stretches mixed with brown reeds, as the road curved around low hills. We felt as if we were going to the end of the world.
There was a gate blocking the road. We may not be able to go any further, I thought. But as we drew closer, we could read a sign saying “Please open and close gate.” The gate was unlocked so our trip wasn’t threatened after all. We entered an even barer realm with only an occasional sheep as any sign of life. A posted “No Swimming” sign made us laugh. It was only on our return trip that we noticed the small lake to which the sign was referring.
This was our first time going clockwise so I was hoping we wouldn’t encounter any high cliffs dropping off into the sea. At first we were on a winding road that went up and down. But then it became narrower and narrower and turned into a one-lane road just as we were mounting a high hill. This was in fact a cliff where I could stare, terrified, straight into the sea. Thank heavens, another car didn’t appear and we made it to the small carpark for Slieve League. Though not as colorful as we had seen the cliffs in postcards, they were an impressive sight. The sun was behind clouds but there was no rain. Rain would have kept us from going out on this lonely pilgrimage.
Backtracking was just as stunning because we were seeing the same views from different perspectives. Between Kilcar and Kellybegs, we had noticed the restaurant named Kitty Kelly’s with a sign saying Irish homemade meals. It was now about 8:00pm and we were a bit hungry, so we decided to stop there for our evening meal. Although there were many cars in the carpark, when we got to the front door, it was locked! Then half a door opened and the bubbly, eccentric host greeted us.
Inside, we were seated in one of the two small rooms of the original Irish cottage. Then, after placing our orders, we were taken to the green room upstairs. It was spacious, light and airy due to the incorporation of the attic area. The place had excellent food, gourmet rather than homemade. I had a delectable Chicken Madeira while my TC (Travel Companion) had salmon in a mussel sauce. There was a wide choice of wines. We had a delightful time in this pretty, decorated Irish cottage with its congenial host.
Irish music at The Scotsman
It was Sunday night and we were ready to listen to traditional Irish music. Mr. Timoney, our host at the B&B, had told us to go to “The Scotmans”. He had given us directions on how to get there from his place. The Lonely Planet Guidebook said it was a place where they “strut or sing at the drop of a pint.” The pub was in full swing by the time we got there, with three guitarists, an accordion, an Irish drummer and a man playing the spoons at the bar.
I realized the spooner was drunk when the next song was a ballad sung by one of the guitarists. The spooner was completely out of tune and did a tempo much faster than the song. The guitarist became so irate that he stopped playing and singing and began to curse the man out in a thoroughly Irish way. It was surprising to me! I felt sorry for the spooner who finally quit playing and went into the back part of the room.
The next song was The Homes of Donegal sung by the attractive, blond guitarist. It was just as sentimental as can possibly be. Then the whole group played an instrumental piece. A fellow across from the bar started dancing in his seat and got halfway up. I thought we might see our first Irish dancing. But although the urge was clearly there, he never could get up enough courage or drink enough pints to put on a show for us. The third guitarist, a young, brown-haired guy sang a real tear jerker from Australia. It concerned a World War I soldier and had verses from “Waltzing Matilda” but it wasn’t that song.
With these kind of songs being sung and the Guinness flowing, I thought there would be only a matter of time before someone sang Danny Boy. But they didn’t. Perhaps they had played it earlier as we had come in late. Or it might be a political thing. Maybe they don’t play “The Londonderry Aire” in the Republic of Ireland.
The bartender was quite extraordinary. She was a young, thin, strawberry-blonde who was very congenial to us. Not only did she fill all the glasses of the clientele in this packed house but she was also the bouncer. She would politely escort men to the door and bid them goodnight when she felt they had had too much to drink!
We awoke to more sunshine. We had the customary Irish breakfast but this time I told them to omit the meat. The proprietress told us she and her husband have been running this B&B for twenty-three years. She had the radio on and they were discussing giving condoms to fifteen-year old girls. She thought it was terrible giving those things to little children. She was a devout Catholic and had a certificate with Pope John’s picture hanging on the wall.
Before leaving, we took a walk in the town so I could get some pictures in the daylight. We walked over the bridge near the B&B with nice views on either side then we passed directly in front of the castle. It was constructed first in the 16th century by the O’Donnells. They burnt it down rather than see it in the hands of the English when they were defeated by them. But Sir Basil Brooke, an Englishman, took possession of the estate in 1623, rebuilt the castle and added the manor home which adjoins it. It was furnished and open for tours but again we just enjoyed its architecture from the outside. We came to Bridge Street and passed The Scotsman before going on another bridge to get a close-up of the pretty Methodist church. I really like the style it was built in but I don’t know the name.
Retracing our steps, we came to the Diamond Obelisk as it is called. The Obelisk commemorates the work of the four Franciscan friars who, realizing the arrival of the English meant the end of the Celtic culture, summarized the history and mythology of the people from before the Flood to 1618. Entitled “The Annals of the Four Masters,” it resides in the national Library in Dublin.
Heading out of County Donegal, we were sorry we didn’t have more time to explore more of this scenic area. We just touched the surface with our expedition into its southern part. We continued on N15 beside Donegal Bay through Ballyshannon into County Sligo.