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2006-01-31 Beauty heightened by history

I stood on the walls of the Scottish-style castle, looking down on a peaty-brown loch. Around me stretched immaculately-kept themed gardens, all contrasting with the wild rugged expanse in which the castle and its demesne was located - a perfect setting for Donizetti's opera "Lucia di Lammermoor".

 

The eleventh day of Christmas - no Lords-a-leaping - and Donegals Glenveagh National Park was closed, apart from a few adventurous ramblers, some park rangers and essential staff. 40,000 acres of unspoiled mountains, lakes, and forests, and a large population of red deer hiding somewhere in the vast secluded valley.

 

In 1861, John Adair evicted 244 tenants, in order to clear the land, and improve his Derryveagh views. As with much of our landscape, the beauty is often somewhat marred (perhaps heightened?), by its history  a history of mixed emotions. On the edge of Glenveagh lies the Poisoned Glen, a valley which has always held for me an eery fascination. There are two legends attached to its name. When Balor the Cyclops was slain, the blood from his only eye poisoned the glen. Or perhaps the Irish rebels poisoned the rivers in order to kill the English army horses. I am not sure which legend I prefer. Out of the glen rises the conical scree-sloped Errigal  a Donegal trademark  like an Irish mini-Fuji.

 

As young children, we holidayed frequently in North Donegal, basing ourselves in the then modern wing of Ostann Carrigart, on the Rosguill Peninsula, between Sheephaven Bay and Mulroy Bay. After a relentless three-month concert-tour schedule, beginning in North Carolina and ending in Derry, I felt I deserved a short hotel break to recharge my batteries. A short distance from Derry, through the ever-sprawling Letterkenny, I was soon back amidst happy scenes of my childhood. This time, the well-located and comfortable Milford Inn, just outside the picturesque village of Ramelton, acted as our base.

 

On the first morning we drove past distinctive Muckish mountain, to the dramatically bleak Bloody Foreland, passing through such once-familiar towns as Creeslough, Falcarragh, Gortahork, Dunfanaghy and the now seriously expanded Port-na-Blagh. A lot of North Donegal is in the Gaeltacht. I often wonder how tourists cope with the Irish-only signs - do they know Dungloe is Clochán Liath? This capital of The Rosses is perhaps now upstaged by the blink-and-miss Kincasslagh (Cionn Caslach)  home of Daniel, Margo, and Mammy. A lay-by with picnic tables is opportunely located at the end of Daniels driveway for those coach-loads descending for bun-fights in the summer months. Luckily my cottage came with ample parking, so I dont have that problem. Of course this part of Donegal is also the original home of Enya, Clannad and Altan. Remote Donegal airport at Carrickfinn is conveniently situated close-by.

 

Being fascinated by island lifestyle, I was keen to take a ferry from Magheraroarty to Tory Island, but my travelling companion took one look at the 11km stretch of North Atlantic swell, and seemed happier to view Tory from a distance. It is perhaps for its beaches that Donegal is most famous. Portsalon Beach was once voted the worlds most beautiful beach! The Atlantic Drive from Downings, past the magnificent Trá na Rosann takes my first prize, and is hardly surprisingly one of the countrys most popular postcards. Fanad Head is isolated, picturesque and breathtaking, but I remain convinced that the signposts on Fanad Peninsula have been altered at every crossroads - perhaps by strong winds, or vandals. Or faery people.

 

One of the most dramatic, unspoiled, scenic headlands in Ireland is Horn Head, north of Dunfanaghy. I had picked up a useful guide in Sligos Tourist Office  Nice n Easy Walking by Tom Phelan (24 walks in Donegal, Sligo and Mayo). One of Toms walks was on Horn Head. As with many Irish cliff-walks, this is not a good route if you are accompanied by young children or dogs, as you find yourself inches away from a sheer drop, with no fences, and strong winds. Having said that, our 12-mile walk (including detours to look-out towers and ruins) was without question the highlight of my 3-day break in North Donegal. Even here, not far from some of the countrys most majestic cliffs, lie ruined famine cottages  another reminder of our chequered history  a time when our nations population was halved. Beauty heightened by history.