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ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
The northernmost reaches of Ireland hold special appeal. Herein lies the countryside that inspired the moving poetry of William Butler Yeats. Beyond Donegal, narrow roads twist and turn around the wild, rugged coastline of County Donegal, where villagers weave their tweeds and Irish is often the spoken language and that written on the signposts. The Folk Village Museum at Glencolumbkille, with its authentically furnished, thatch-topped cottages, demonstrates the harsh living conditions of the far north. Crossing into Northern Ireland, the honeycomb columns of the Giant’s Causeway signpost the Antrim coast full of cliffs, lush green headlands, and beautiful views.
Recommended Pacing: Two or three nights around Sligo and Donegal, a night near Glenveagh National Park (to permit a leisurely visit), and two nights along the Antrim coast will give you time to explore this lovely area.
The county and town of Sligo are ever mindful of William Butler Yeats, and the whole area is promoted as being Yeats country. If you are an ardent admirer of the poet, you will want to visit the County Museum, which has a special section about his poetry and writing. Base yourself near the town for several days. The countryside is very pretty and there is enough sightseeing to keep you busy for a week.
SIDE TRIP TO CARROWMORE AND CARROWKEEL
Seven kilometers to the southwest of Sligo town, sitting in fields on either side of a narrow country lane, are the megalithic tombs of Carrowmore. Wander amongst the cows and explore the little stone circles and larger dolmens which make up what is reputed to be the largest Bronze-Age cemetery in Europe. Farther inland take the Boyle road (N4) 30 kilometers south of Sligo to Castlebaldwin, where you turn right following signposts for Carrowkeel. At the end of a mountain track, you come to Carrowkeel, a 4,000-year-old passage tomb cemetery. There are 13 cairns covering passage tombs, while the 14th is a long cairn. One of the tombs can be entered (backwards) and it is claimed that, on the summer solstice, the setting sun lights up the main chamber.
SIDE TRIP AROUND LOUGH GILL
A half-day sightseeing trip from Sligo can be taken by driving around Lough Gill, visiting Parke’s Castle, and enjoying a meal at Markree Castle. Leave Sligo to the north and follow signposts for Enniskillen, Lough Derg, and Dromohair, which bring you to the northerly shore of Lough Gill. Glimpses of the lough through the trees give way to stunning lough views as the road hugs the shore and arrives at Parke’s Castle, a fortified manor house whose ramparts and cottages (tearooms) have been restored. In summer, you can take a boat trip on the lake which takes you around Inishfree Island. Leaving the castle, follow the lough into Dromohair where you pick up the Sligo road. After 5 kilometers, when the road divides, take a single-track lane to the right, which leads you down to the lakeside where John O’Connel’s rowboat is tied to the pier. He lives by the lake and is sometimes available to row you to Inishfree Island. Returning to the main road, it’s a short drive to Collooney, where you can partake of lunch or afternoon tea at Markree Castle.
Leaving Sligo, travel north along the N15 to Drumcliff Churchyard, which has to be the most visited graveyard in Ireland. Handily there’s an excellent café. William Butler Yeats is buried here under the epitaph he composed, “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by!” In the background is the imposing Benbulben Mountain. Beyond the village, a left turn leads to Lissadell, home of the Gore-Booth sisters with whom Yeats was friendly. The 1830s Greek Revival-style house is full of curiosities and quite a sight to behold, but in need of an injection of capital to prevent its decay. While the sisters belonged to the landed gentry, Eva went on to become a poet and an important member of the suffragette movement. Constance was a commander in the 1916 uprising and the first elected female Labour Party M.P. Sir Henry Gore-Booth went off with his butler to explore the Antarctic in the 1880s. The bear that the butler shot is on the stairs.
Leaving Lissadell, continue north on the N15 for the 60-kilometer drive to Donegal, or follow a more circuitous route through Northern Ireland.
ALTERNATIVE ROUTE TO DONEGAL
From Drumcliff churchyard, return towards Sligo and, at Rathcormack, turn left through the village of Drum to join the N16 as it travels east towards Enniskillen. Cross into Northern Ireland and take the first turn to your right following signposts to Marble Arch Caves. This extensive network of limestone chambers (billed as “over 300 million years of history”) is most impressive. The tour includes an underground boat journey, walks through large illuminated chambers, galleries hung with remarkable stalactites, and a “Moses Walk” along a man-made passage through a lake where your feet are at the bottom of the pool and your head is at the same level as the water. Remember to dress warmly and take a sweater. It is best to telephone in advance because, if there has been a lot of rain, the caves are closed.
Leaving the hilltop cave complex, follow signposts for Enniskillen for 7 kilometers to Florence Court, an 18th-century mansion that was once the home of the Earls of Enniskillen. The opulent mansion is elegantly furnished and famous for the impressive rococo plasterwork on the ceilings. On leaving Florence Court, do not go into Enniskillen, but turn left onto the A46, following the scenic southern shore of Lough Erne for the 38-kilometer drive to Belleek.
Belleek, on the far north shore of the lough, is famous for its ornate, creamy pottery: porcelain festooned with shamrocks or delicate, spaghetti-like strands woven into trellis-like plates. You can tour the visitors’ center and then browse at the factory shop. Crossing back into the Republic, head for Ballyshannon and follow the wide N15 north for 23 kilometers to Donegal.
Donegal is a busy, bustling place, laid out around a diamond-shaped area surrounded by shops. Donegal is one of the best places to buy tweed goods-Magees Tweeds sells a variety. The Four Masters Bookshop is a handy place to stock up on reading material. The ruins of Donegal Castle (open to the public), built in the 16th century by Hugh O’Donell, stand beside the Diamond.
Take the N56 west, hugging the coast, through Dunkineely and Bruckless to Killybegs, Ireland’s major fishing port. Large trawlers from all over the world have replaced family fishing boats in the working harbor of this most enjoyable town. As you move west from Killybegs, the roads become more difficult, the landscape more rugged, the signposts less frequent, and-to complicate things-they are often written in Irish (Irish names are referenced in parentheses).
If the weather is fine, you can enjoy some spectacular scenery by following the brown signs that indicate a coastal route from Kilcar to Carrick (An Charraig), where you turn left (in the center of the village opposite the pub) for Telin (Teilean) and follow the brown signs for Bunglar and The Cliffs. As the narrow road winds up, down, and around the rocky, rolling landscape; you see several examples of traditional Irish cottages with small, thatched, pony-cart barns huddled next to them. The road narrows to a single track taking you along the very edge of the headlands to a viewpoint that overlooks the spot where the Slieve League Cliffs plummet into the sea. Walkers will love the magnificent walks along the headlands. This is not a trip to be taken in inclement weather.
Retrace your steps to Carrick and turn left towards Glencolumbkille (Gleann Cholaim Cille). The road enters the Owenwee Valley where you climb before descending into the glen. Drive through the scattered village to Glencolumbkille Folk Village Museum at the water’s edge. Glencolumbkille is a place that gives one an appreciation of the survival of a people who endured hardship, famine, and debilitating emigration. By the 1960s, emigration was threatening to turn Glencolumbkille into a ghost town. In an effort to create some jobs, the parish priest, Father McDyer, formed a cooperative of the remaining local residents to develop a tourist industry by building a folk museum and holiday homes, and by encouraging local crafts. Tucked against a rocky hillside, the cottages that comprise the folk museum are grouped to form a traditional, tiny, village (clachan). Each cottage is a replica of those lived in by local people in each of three successive centuries. The thick, thatched roofs are tied down with heavy rope and anchored with stones, securing them from the harsh Atlantic winds. Inside, the little homes are furnished with period furniture and utensils. Locals guide you through the houses and give you snippets of local history. A handicraft shop sells Irish cottage crafts and the adjacent tearoom serves scones and piping hot tea.
Leaving Glencolumbkille, the narrow road climbs and dips through seemingly uninhabited, rugged countryside, where the views are often obscured by swirling mists as you climb the Glengesh Pass before dropping down into Ardara.
The road skirts the coast and brings you to the twin fishing villages of Portnoo and Nairn, set amongst isolated beaches that truly have an “end-of-the-earth” quality about them. A short drive brings you to Maas, where you travel an extremely twisty road to the Gweebarra bridge taking you to Lettermacaward (Leitir Mhic An Bhaird) and on to Dungloe (An Globhan Liath). Nearby in Burtonport (Ailt An Chorain) more salmon and lobster are landed than at any other port. From here you drive north to Kincasslagh, and then it’s on to Annagary, both tiny little communities that pride themselves on speaking the Irish language. A combination of wild, untamed scenery, villages that seem untouched by the 20th century, and narrow, curving roads in general disrepair, gives the feeling that the passage of time stopped many years ago in this isolated corner of Ireland.
Rejoin the N56 just south of Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair) and follow it for a short distance as it swings inland paralleling a sea loch. As the main road swings to the right, continue straight up the mountain, following a narrow, winding road that brings you across peat bogs and purple, heather-covered moorlands inhabited only by sheep-to Glenveagh National Park, Ireland’s largest, most natural, and most beautiful park. At its center lies a sheltered glen with a lake and mighty castle. The Glenveagh Vistors Centre is well signposted and well disguised, being sunk into the ground with its roof camouflaged by peat and heather. There are displays, an audio-visual program, and a café (there’s another at the castle), and it is here that you leave your car to take the minibus around the lake to Glenveagh Castle and its gardens. The heather and rose gardens, the rhododendrons, the laurels and pines, and busts and statues are all lovingly maintained, but the walled kitchen garden is especially memorable, with its profusion of flowers and tidy rows of vegetables divided by narrow, grass walkways. Surrounding this oasis of cultivated beauty are thousands of acres of wild countryside, where the largest herd of red deer in Ireland roam. Glenveagh Castle was built in 1870 by John Adair, using his American wife’s money, in a fanciful gothic design that was popular in the later part of the century. The rooms have been beautifully restored and, for a small fee, you can tour the house (arrive by 2 pm if you’re traveling in July and August). The Glenveagh estate was sold to the nation by the castle’s second owner, Henry McIlhenny, who is largely responsible for the design of the gardens.
Leaving the national park, turn right across the desolate boglands and heather-clad hills-your destination is Glebe House and Gallery (6 kilometers away) near the village of Churchill. Derek Hill gave his home, Glebe House, and his art collection to the state, which remodeled the outbuildings to display his fine collection of paintings. Among the 300 paintings are works by Picasso, Bonnard, Yeats, Annigoni, and Pasmore. The decoration in the house includes William Morris papers and textiles, Victoriana, Donegal folk art, and Japanese and Islamic art. There is a tearoom in the courtyard.
SIDE TRIP TO THE ROSGUILL PENINSULA AND TORY ISLAND
If you would like to experience more Donegal coastal landscape, you can do no better than tour the Rosguill Peninsula, whose 25-kilometer Atlantic drive traces a wild, coastal route from Rosapenna through Downies and Doagh to Tranarossan Bay and back to Rosapenna. The road goes up and down, most of the time high above the ocean, then sweeps down to white, sandy beaches.
If you follow the coastal road west through Gortahawk, you come to Meenlaragh where you take the ferry to Tory Island, a windswept island where the inhabitants eke out a hard life farming and fishing. Sailing times of the ferryboat depend on the weather. If you want to visit the island, contact the Post Office in Meenlaragh.
From Glebe House, it is a 16-kilometer drive to Letterkenny. From the town, your route into Northern Ireland is well signposted to Derry. The N13 becomes the A2 as you cross the border and the pound sterling becomes the currency. Skirt Derry city on the Foyle Bridge, then follow the A2 to Limavady and the A37 for 21 kilometers to Coleraine.
Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway are well signposted from the outskirts of Coleraine. (One of the delights of traveling in Northern Ireland is that the roads are well paved and the signposting frequent and accurate.) Bushmills Irish Whiskey (see listings) is famous for its whiskey-a whiskey spelled with an “e”-of which Special Old Black Bush is the best. A tour of the factory demonstrates how they turn barley and water into whiskey and rewards you with a sample of the classic drink to fortify you for your visit to the nearby Giant’s Causeway.
In the last century, the Giant’s Causeway was thought to be one of the wonders of the world. Formed from basaltic rock, which cooled and split into regular, prismatic shapes, it stepped out to sea to build an irregular honeycomb of columns some 70,000,000 years ago. More romantic than scientific fact is the legend that claims the causeway was built by the Irish giant, Finn MacCool, to get at his rival in Scotland. Do not expect the columns to be tall, for they are not-it is their patterns that make them interesting, not their size.
The first stop on a visit to the causeway is the Giant’s Causeway Centre, where the facts and legends about the causeway are well presented in an audio-visual theater. A minibus takes you to the head of the causeway, where you follow the path past formations called “Honeycomb,” “Wishing Well,” “Giant’s Granny,” “King and his Nobles,” “Port na Spaniagh” (where gold and silver treasure from the Spanish Armada ship, Girona, was found in 1967), and “Lovers’ Leap” and then up the wooden staircase to the headlands, where you walk back to the visitors’ center along the clifftops. (It’s a 5-kilometer walk and you can truly say you have seen the causeway, if you complete the circuit.)
Leaving the causeway, turn right along the coast to visit the ruins of the nearby Dunluce Castle, a romantic ruin clinging to a wave-lashed cliff with a great cave right underneath. This was the main fort of the Irish MacDonnells, chiefs of Antrim. It fell into ruin after the kitchen (and cooks!) fell into the sea during a storm.
Retrace your route down the B146 and, at the causeway gates, turn left along the coast road. Watch carefully for a small plaque at the side of the road pointing out the very meager ruins of Dunseverick Castle. Dunseverick was at the northernmost end of the Celtic road where the Celts crossed to and from Scotland.
Shortly after joining the A2, turn left for Port Braddon. The road winds down to the sea where a hamlet of gaily painted houses and a church nestles around a sheltered harbor. As you stand in front of the smallest church in Ireland, the long, sandy beaches of Whitepark Bay stretch before you.
Farther along the coast, a narrow road winds down to the very picturesque Ballintoy Harbor, a sheltered haven for boats surrounded by small, jagged, rocky islands. At the first road bend after leaving Ballintoy village, turn sharp left for the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. This is one of the famous things to do in Ireland: walk high above the sea across a narrow, swinging bridge of planks and ropes that joins a precipitous cliff to a rocky island. Hardy fishermen, whose cottages and nets nestle in a sheltered cleft on the island and whose fragile wooden boats bob in the ocean below, still use the bridge.
Life in the nearby holiday town of Ballycastle centers around the beach, fishing, and golf. Cross the river and turn onto the A2 to Ballyvoy. If the weather is clear, turn left for the scenic drive to Cushendun around Torr Head. The narrow road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, switches back across the headlands and corkscrews down the cliffside, offering spectacular views of the rugged coastline and the distant Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.
Nestled by the seashore, the pretty village of Cushendun has a National Trust Shop, an excellent place to buy high-quality souvenirs. When you leave Cushendun, the landscape softens and the road, thankfully, returns to a more manageable width. You are now entering the Glens of Antrim, where lush, green fields and a succession of beautiful views present themselves. At Cushendall you can detour into Glenariff Forest Park, the queen of the glens with a series of waterfalls plunging down a gorge traversed by a scenic path crossing rustic bridges. Thackeray described this glen as “Switzerland in miniature.”
After your return to the coast road, Carnlough, a pretty seaside and fishing town, soon comes into view, its little white harbor full of bobbing boats. The Londonderry Arms was once a coaching inn and now is a hotel and restaurant.
Nearby Glenarm is the oldest of the coastal villages, dating back to the time of King John. The pseudo-gothic castle is the home of the Earl of Antrim, part of whose demesne, Glenarm Forest, climbs up from the glen and is open to the public.
Limestone cliffs present themselves as you approach Larne, a sizable seaport whose Viking origins are lost amongst more modern commercial developments. Wend your way through this busy port town, following the A2 to Whitehead. Nearby Carrickfergus is the oldest town in Northern Ireland. Carrickfergus Castle, a sturdy Norman castle overlooking the boat-filled harbor, was built as a stronghold in 1178 by John de Courcy after his invasion of Ulster; then taken by King John after a siege in 1210; fell to the Scots in 1316; and was captured by the French in 1760. Life-sized models and a film recreate the castle’s turbulent past.
Leaving Carrickfergus, a 12-kilometer drive along the A2 and M2/M1 whisks you through, or into, Belfast, where the A1 will take you south through Newry and into the Republic. Or, if you are staying near the Antrim coast for several days of leisurely sightseeing, take the M2 to the A26, which quickly returns you to that area.