“When you come back we’ll take the boat out to Sligo.”
When I come back. Not if. When. This has been the nature of every send-off I’ve gotten here. Saying goodbye to Ireland is bittersweet, but I’m comforted by the fact that the when is completely accurate. Because I will most definitely be going back.
Maybe it’s because Ireland popped my travel cherry, and you never forget your first time, but I’m totally infatuated with the culture, politics and amazing history of this little island.There was no shortage of beautiful sites to see and adventures to have. And that was just in County Donegal. When I come back I fully intend to explore the southwest side, further down the Wild Atlantic Way.
Here’s a few of the destinations I loved in Ireland:
The Beltany Stone Circle
This Neolithic stone circle was built around 1400-800 BC. It stands atop the summit of Tops Hill, about two miles south of the village of Raphoe in County Donegal, Ireland. The stones used to build it were hauled all the way from the sea (because, you know, nobody uses local stones to build a sacrificial ring).
The circle was once a central part of the festival of Beltaine, which marked the beginning of summer in the Celtic calendar. Bal-tinne literally means ‘Bal’s fire.’ Bal was the sun god, and the fire ceremony was a homage to him and source of regeneration for his power to rejuvenate the sun for the following season.
Legend has it that each year on the first of May druids and priests would march up a long trail with the human sacrifices. Young men and women (usually the more attractive ones) would volunteer to be sacrificed to Bal with the belief that it would earn their families another year of good health and fertile crops. Talk about taking one for the team. Only one priest would enter the circle and follow the druids to the sacrificial alter. His job was to carry the entrails back out to the high priest. Lucky guy.
Although some of the stones have fallen, due to a disturbance about 100 years ago, it’s still an impressive sight. It also serves as a home for a bunch of adorable sheep, and the view from Topps Hill is absolutely breathtaking. Well worth the climb.
St. Patrick’s Purgatory
This ancient pilgrimage site is on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. The original site was most likely on the much smaller Saints Island right next to it, but there is some confusion about this.
According to legend, sometime in the 5th century St. Patrick (yep, the one the holiday is named after) was getting discouraged by the Irish people demanding proof of the Christian teachings. God came to St. Patrick and showed him a cave on the island that was the entrance to hell. By remaining barefoot and fasting for 3 days, the people were able to descend into purgatory, thus knowing the reality of the joys of heaven and the torments of hell.
Sound familiar? That’s because numerous reports from the early pilgrims describing their descent into the underworld sparked the idea for Dante’s Inferno.
The cave itself (purgatory) was closed up in 1632 and has never been excavated. However, thousands of people far and wide continued to come fast and pray at the monastery (now a church) on Station Island. According to history, many European leaders and army generals would come and spend time here before making big decisions.
If you’re into pilgrimages, this is an especially cool (if somewhat brutal) one. You’re not allowed on the island unless you are part of a retreat, but you’re welcome to stand on the shore, take pictures & stroll through the visitor center. I chose option B, since I’m not big on 3 day prayer fasts. Or descending into hell.
Grianan Aileach (Grianán Ailigh)
An impressive ringfort is all that remains of a group of historic structures atop an 801 ft. hill in County Donegal, Ireland. Thought to have been built by the O’Neill clan in the sixth or seventh century, it has been identified as the seat of the Kingdom of Aileach and one of the royal sites of Gaelic Ireland.
The O’Neill clan sat high atop the hill and ruled their lands (Tyrone & part of County Donegal) for hundreds of years. Until they decided to piss off the high king of Ireland, Brian Boru. It’s been suggested that they just got bored. Or perhaps they wanted to acquire more cattle, a popular reason for going to battle in those days. Whatever the reason, they found themselves invaded by a sizable fleet of the king’s ships.
Taking no chances, the high king ordered his soldiers to obliterate the fort. They tore it apart stone by stone, hauling them miles in different directions before scattering them. Many ended up in the sea.
The ringfort was subsequently rebuilt, although it probably took many years (during which the O’Neills were no doubt too preoccupied to be annoying the high king). Further restoration was completed in 1870, and the fort is now a national monument.
The view is simply spectacular. It’s easy to climb up the walls of the fort and imagine ancient Irish royals surveying their land. The drive out is scenic and just down the road you can visit a gorgeous beach on Inch Island.
The Derry City Walls
Derry (or Londonderry, depending on which side of the city you’re on) is one of the most iconic sites in Ireland, the only remaining completely walled-in city. The walls now form a walkway around the inner city and provide a unique promenade to view the layout of the original town which still preserves its Renaissance Style street plan to this day.
Derry-Londonderry is truly a city divided. When the town’s garrison was about to surrender to British forces in 1688, a handful of apprentice boys took charge, blocked the gates and cried “No surrender!” thus beginning the Siege of Derry. Today, the city is still split in two with the Catholics on one side and the Protestants on another. Loyalist areas proclaim to be “still under siege” while the Catholic areas depict murals of the violence levied against them in not-so-ancient history.
One of my favorite churches (and the city has plenty) was St. Columb’s Cathedral. Not only because of the striking architecture, but because of the story behind the saint it’s dedicated to.
Saint Columba (Colm Cille) was a bright student who studied under St. Finnian at the Clonard monastery. During his time there he made a copy of an ancient book of psalms. When he was done, he decided to keep the copy, which angered St. Finnian, who disputed his right to do so. They went to the high court, which ruled in favor of St. Finnian. Columba refused to hand over the manuscript and eventually a violent battle ensued during which many were killed.
Afterwards he felt a little guilty and vowed to leave Ireland and never set foot on Irish soil again. Years later, although technically in exile, he was called upon to return for an important meeting. He grudgingly did so…wearing huge chunks of Scottish dirt strapped to his feet.
The Cloghan Lodge Salmon Fishery
As the sign reads, “Cloghan Lodge Salmon and Trout Fishery is not only the biggest and the best fishery on the Finn probably in Ireland even Europe.” Nothing like keeping it in perspective.
To give credit where it’s due, the fishery grounds are simply spectacular. You can walk back through the wooded path alongside the River Finn, where the salmon migrate upstream each season. I visited a little too early in the year for any serious salmon-jumping action, but was still able to see several of them make the leap
If you keep walking you’ll run into a path that was once a railway. Hiking back into the woods there’s no shortage of colorful foliage, so expect to be overwhelmed by pink, purple and red flowers everywhere.
At the lodge itself you can stop in to enjoy a pint and swap “the one that got away” stories with fellow fisherman. The fishery is a catch-and-release only location, so technically all of them should get away, but I heard tales of a few people who managed to get around the microchips implanted in the salmon.
This little island is only about 5 square miles and lies just off the Donegal coast in Lough Swilly at the start of the Inishowen peninsula. It’s only accessible via a causeway road, but boy is it worth the trip. On one side you have a clear view to the magnificent Grianan Aileach, on the other the marina at Fahan, the deepest port in Donegal Bay.
The island is a wildfowl sanctuary and has large man-made lake filled with whooper swan, Greenland white fronted goose, Greylag goose, and other species of bird. The fabulous sandy beach on the south western shore is the perfect spot to enjoy a picnic and watch the seals come out to sunbathe on a warm day.
The island is also home to the hugely historic Inch Castle which dates back to the 15th Century and is connected with the flight of the Earls. The castle is built on a cliff edge overlooking the Swilly and although it is mostly in ruins, you can still explore parts of it.
A few years ago it was purchased by someone who restored some of the old living quarters and turned it into a sort of halfway house for people down on their luck. However, after offering shelter to a convicted sex offender, she faced a storm of backlash from the surrounding community, and the project was eventually abandoned. This particular area of the island is private property, and you are technically supposed to get permission before entering. I would never advocate trespassing, so don’t ask me how I got these photos.
I could easily ramble on for pages about everything I loved about Ireland, but I’ll save the rest…for when I come back.