We began this scenic drive from the delightful but busy county town Letterkenny, set near the river Swilly it is a popular destination for visitors intending to explore Glenveigh National Park; bring your walking shoes as it boasts the longest main streets in Ireland. The hilly street seems to stretch beyond the town, although most of its main shops and restaurants are along or just off the main center. A network of narrow streets lead from its main thoroughfare and Saint Eunans Cathedral towers above the town.
Letterkenny is also the ecclesiastical capital of county Donegal and the Cathedral’s beautiful stained glass is worth seeing. The building itself is imposing with flying buttresses and its enormous Celtic cross in the parking lot is impressive. Many of the town shops display local handicrafts and high quality Irish crafts, plus a wide array of pubs and eating establishments give the visitor a wide choice of venues.
Having visited Letterkenny on a previous trip our destination this time was Glenveigh National Park. The park is just 24 miles from Letterkenny a nature reserve that is home to the two tallest peaks in Donegal, Errigal and Slieve Snacht it is a nature lovers Eden, despite being within easy reach by road (N56) it has a remote and appealing wildness. The light is amazing and the colours of browns, purples, and greens make for unsurpassed scenery. It is indeed a stunning corner of Ireland and a main area of Gaelacht, Gaelic is the first language in this area, road signs may be bilingual or just Gaelic and so it is a good idea to have the Gaelic names of the places you intend to visit.
Within the park is Glenveigh Castle a turreted well maintained showpiece built in 1870 this one time private estate once owned by an infamous Famine landlord was donated to Ireland in 1983 by Henry Mcllhenny. Henry was an American from Philadelphia, he continued the garden plans developed by previous owners and filled it with plants from his trips around the world and the resulting gardens are outstanding.
Exotic plant gardens all have themes, as do all of the garden areas however, the informal setting is maintained. Tours of the castle need to be pre-booked and there is an admission charge, the remainder of the park is free, unfortunately we couldn’t enter the castle because a special pre-booked tour was already in progress, (usually couples can tag along with groups) instead we had breakfast in the visitors center, watched park information videos, and enjoyed super displays depicting the whole area.
The whole time we were there steady drizzle never let up, swirling mists and plumes of smoke from the castle chimneys gave the place a brooding appearance and cast an air of unreality as though it was a movie set and actors were waiting to appear through the fog.
My favourite part of this nature reserve was the Valley of the Poisoned Glen in the southwest area of the park, ice carved cliffs meet that results in scenery that is breathtaking. Poisoned glen so named because of a poisonous plant named spurge that grows in abundance, but there are legends and stories refuting that the plant is responsible, one tale relates that a Cyclops named Balor once inhabited the land and was slain in a battle by Lugh, during the fight Balor’s eye rolled to the ground and tainted the land and lakes.
The Valley is quite remote but attracts hill walkers and hikers there are marked trails, but only experienced hikers should attempt them, (or hire a guide) the weather is changeable and vast areas are boggy. The Derryveigh mountains are the backbone this unspoiled area seeing them wreathed in mists with shafts of sunlight peeking through is like a small window into heaven, truly no trip to the north would be complete without a visit to this wondrous area. All in all we spent five hours in the park really just enjoying scenery I just wish we had had better weather.
We followed the R251 (leaving the park) into Gweedore oohing and ahhing at the wild highland scenery, past piles of freshly cut peat and the odd farmer trundling along on his tractor. From Crolly on the R259 we followed a kind of loop through miles of rock-strewn land known as the Rosses, into Burton port and onward to Dungloe.
Burtonport (signposted Ailtan Chorrain) Is a small once thriving fishing port at one time this port caught the most salmon at the harbour than any where else in Ireland however, that distinction is not the case presently. There is a regular ferry service to Arranmore island (20 minutes away). The tiny village boasts only two pubs and I noticed a fine dining establishment, some locals told us that the bus service into nearby Dungloe was in danger of being cancelled due to lack of riders. The coastal scenery is lovely and a place where modern houses and inhabitants with two cars (Mercs of course) choose to live. Modern shopping and a large supermarket in Dungloe have taken custom away from the few surviving businesses.
Dungloe, signposted An Clochan Liath is in the heart of the Rosses, there are upwards of 125 lakes in this area and the small town hosts an annual Mary from Dungloe Festival that is usually held in August. It is a bustling town with many shops and more than a few pubs. We ended our day here staying overnight with friends we had met on a cruise. The population is just over three thousand people and it is a friendly place and a good base for exploring the lakes and hiking in the National Park. I know we only scratched the surface North Donegal and so that leaves us longing to return and explore further.