Best Donegal Fact Sheet
County Donegal in the province of Ulster is the most northerly county in the Republic of Ireland and shares a border with Northern Ireland. It’s known for its wild rugged beauty and its extensive coastline forms a key part of the Wild Atlantic Way with some of Ireland’s best surfing. The Slieve League cliffs are among the highest in Europe and it has a number of inhabited islands off the coast. Fishing and small farming have been mainstays of the economy and high-quality Donegal woollen and tweed goods are among Ireland’s finest. Donegal has two Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) districts in the west, the Rosses (Irish: Na Rosa) and Gweedore (Irish: Gaoth Dobhair) and one in the north-west Cloghaneely (Irish: Cloich Chionnaola). There’s a great range of things to see and do throughout the county which makes it a wonderful place to visit and there’s enough to keep you busy for a week or more.
WHY VISIT COUNTY DONEGAL
Donegal on the River Eske is probably the most attractive town in the county, built around a square known as the Diamond. It has a small harbour and scenic beaches nearby. Just off the Diamond is Donegal Castle, home of the O’Donnells, which dates to the fifteenth century and was remodelled in the early 1600s. The scant remains of a Franciscan Friary from 1474 can be seen near the harbour.
Ballyshannon lays claim to being Ireland’s oldest town, laid out on the hilly banks of the river Erne where it meets the sea.
Famous natives include blues-rocker Rory Gallagher, whose statue is in the middle of the town, and the nineteenth-century poet William Allingham whose best-known poem The Fairies was inspired by the landscape and legends of Donegal. The Rory Gallagher Festival takes place on the June Bank Holiday weekend and the Folk Festival takes place on the August Bank Holiday weekend. The museum tells the story of Ballyshannon.
Bundoran is Donegal’s most southerly town, being just across the county boundary from Leitrim. It’s a popular holiday resort with all the attractions you might expect including a beach, dramatic coastal walks, the Waterworld facility and plenty of accommodation. What sets it apart from many resorts is the draw of the strong Atlantic waves which make it one of Ireland’s top surfing spots, having hosted the European Surfing Championships three times.
Killybegs to the west is a picturesque small town that provides some of Ireland’s best sea angling with daily fishing trips along the west coast. Visit the Maritime and Heritage Visitor Centre to learn about the history of the fishing industry and of carpet making here.
Glencolumbkille on the western side of the county is a pretty village in a valley of the same name. It’s in the Gaeltacht area and has a Craft and Folk Village with thatched houses where you can see how life used to be lived in this area. The nearby Glengesh Pass is one of the most beautiful valleys in Donegal and leads you to the town of Ardara.
Ardara further up the coast beside Loughros More Bay is a very attractive designated Heritage Town which has been the home of handwoven tweed and hand knitwear for over a hundred years. Products from here are much sought after by some of the world’s leading stores and there are craft and factory shops to visit. The neighbouring town of Glenties, five-time winner of the Tidy Towns competition, is also well worth a look and its Harvest Fair festival is held in September. There’s some good river fishing available locally.
Further up the west coast, Dungloe is the main town in the Irish speaking Rosses Gaeltacht area, famous for the Mary of Dungloe Festival which takes place at the end of July each year. North of here is the Gweedore Gaeltacht.
Dunfanaghy in the north is on the beautiful shores of Sheephaven Bay and is overlooked by the majestic Derryveagh Mountains. Dunfanaghy is becoming a very popular spot for surfers, with several surfing beaches within walking distance of the village.
Letterkenny on the River Swilly is the largest town in Donegal and is known for the Cathedral of St. Eunan and St. Columba which was built in the 1890s. It makes a good base for a visit to Glenveagh National Park which lies 15km to the south.
2. Scenery and heritage
The best scenery is found mainly close to its long coastline which has lots of small bays and coves, some of which have lovely beaches.
Donegal Bay to the south is a broad bay with the coastal towns of Bundoran, Ballyshannon and Rossnowlagh.
The Slieve League Cliffs rising 598m from the sea provide one of Ireland’s most magnificent vistas. Boat trips will take you out for awe-inspiring views of the Cliffs.
The dramatic headland of Bloody Foreland to the north takes its name from the way the setting sun paints the granite rock of the area in shades of crimson. Dramatic headlands east of here include Horn Head and Fanad Head.
The Inishowen Peninsula is the largest in the northern end of the county and has lovely mountain scenery with Slieve Snaght, good beaches and some pretty small towns to visit. Banba’s Crown near Malin Head is Ireland’s most northerly point.
The Grianan of Aileach to the south of Inishowen is one of Ireland’s most dramatic stone forts, built on a hilltop at 244m and giving great views over Loughs Swilly and Foyle.
Glenveagh National Park further inland in the north-west has beautiful unspoilt landscapes.
Errigal Mountain (751m) near Glenveagh is Donegal’s highest mountain.
The Bluestacks Mountains with the Barnesmore Gap are also very picturesque.
3. Best Drives in Donegal
These favourite drives of Donegal range from sparkling seascapes to remote mountain passes and the most scenic drives are generally on the western side of the county.
The Glengesh Pass between Glencolumbkille and Ardara
Horn Head from Dunfanaghy is a beautiful coastal drive
The Inishowen Peninsula has a loop route with Malin Head at the tip. It has many beaches, lots of scenery and attractive towns like Moville and Buncrana.
Glenveagh is Ireland’s second-largest National Park at 170 square km. It’s a remote and unspoilt area with the rugged Derryveagh Mountains, clear lakes, rivers, waterfalls and native sessile oak woodlands. Glenveagh Castle by Lough Breagh is the centrepiece. You’ll get great views of dramatic Errigal Mountain as you approach from Gweedore or Falcarragh.
4. Music in Donegal
Donegal has a long musical tradition that is kept alive to this day. Artists such as Clannad, their sister/niece Enya and Altan are world-renowned. Daniel O’Donnell is another singer with a huge following in Ireland and elsewhere and his sister Margo is also well known.
Musicians still gather for sessions in pubs and in each others’ houses. The fiddle is the prime instrument in the Donegal tradition and the sound is different from that in the south of Ireland, being more influenced by Scottish music, particularly the Strathspey. Back in the 1960s when traditional Irish music was undergoing a revival the Donegal approach was sometimes frowned upon but things began to change with the emergence of the legendary Bothy Band whose fiddler Tommy Peoples was from Donegal. Fidil is a much admired contemporary trio of Donegal fiddlers.
You’ll find a number of pubs where you might chance upon a session at night. One to look out for is the celebrated Leo’s Tavern in the village of Meenaleck. It’s the family home of Clannad and Enya and takes its name from their father who opened it with his wife Baba in 1968. It’s now run by their son Bartley and has live music every night. The walls are adorned with awards, music and memorabilia of Clannad.
Famous songs from Donegal include:
Mary from Dungloe
Hills of Donegal
City of Chicago
5. Islands of Donegal
Arranmore is a Gaeltacht Island with a population of over 500 lying 5km off the coast. It’s known for its music, history and warm Irish culture. It offers many outdoor activities and its scenery makes it a great place for photography. It can be reached by ferry from Burtonport.
Tory Island lies 14.5km off the coast and is the most remote of Ireland’s inhabited islands. It’s about 4km long and 1.2km wide and is famed for its cliff scenery and great views of the mainland coastline. The population of about 100 are Irish speakers and famed for their traditional music which inspired the world-renowned Donegal band Clannad. The ferry service runs from Magheroarty on the mainland, varies by season and can be very rough in the winter.
Gola Island is just 1km off the coast from Gweedore and became abandoned in the 1960s. Some people have renovated houses as holiday homes and it now has a few inhabitants for most of the year. Its beaches and quiet bays attract many visitors in the better weather and the gentle terrain makes exploring easy. A ferry service operates at Easter and from May to September from Magheragallon Pier.
Owey Island is just off the northern tip of Cruit Island which is linked to the mainland by a bridge. Like Gola it was abandoned but has seen some people move back. It has no electricity supply and the few residents use gas to power fridges and cookers. It’s an ideal place to get a feel for how Ireland used to be and its cliffs offer a challenge to rock climbers. A ferry service operates from Cruit Island.
6. Donegal Beaches
Donegal is the county with the most Blue Flag beaches in Ireland. Details of all the best beaches are on a separate blog
Bundoran Beach – in the south is famous for its great waves and has hosted the European Surfing Championships.
Rossnowlagh Beach – Located just outside Ballyshannon has a beautiful long sandy beach that is great for walking and surfing.
Fintra Strand– 5km west from Killybegs, the Sliabh League Cliffs are located near the beach and you can take a boat trip under the Cliffs as well as taking a cliff walk.
Portnoo/Narin Strand- Near Rosbeg is a beautiful extensive Blue Flag beach where you can walk across to Inishkeel Island when the tide is low and visit the early Christian Church and holy well.
Carrickfinn Beach – Is in West Donegal, a long white sandy beach overlooked by sand dunes with rare grasses and plants. The airport in Donegal has small planes landing 2-3 times a day over this most scenic beach
Portsalon Beach – Was voted 2nd most beautiful beach in the world by readers of the Observer magazine. On the Fanad Peninsula, it is over 1km long and is only 30 minutes from Letterkenny.
Five Finger Strand – This beautiful secluded beach is on the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula. There are miles of golden sandy beaches with sand dunes of up to 30 m in height. The name comes from the five sea stacks which protrude from the water on the northern end of the beach.