The Magic of Donegal

The locals called it the Republican Riviera. This was during the troubled times of Northern Ireland’s past. I can picture the Donegal Peninsula as the perfect bolthole. Close to the border but far enough away from the everyday business of violence and politics. Gerry Adams still has a house here. And a pub.

People are still drawn to this county for its gentle mountains and its beautiful Atlantic Coastline. Perhaps its small villages offering traditional mass in Gaelic hold some appeal too. After-all the roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary are a reminder that the Catholic church is still very much at the heart of this community.

A parochial local asked if I’d have come to Donegal, if it weren’t for Pete taking part in a windsurfing clinic. He grinned when I told him the long sweeping surf beaches are legendary. I’ve always wanted to explore this territory.

Donegal doesn’t get the press that you find in travel magazines featuring Kerry, Galway, or the hijinks of modern Dublin. Geographically it feels a little odd too. We drove through Belfast and Derry on route, taking in the freshly repainted murals of civilians bearing AK47’s and streets decorated with Union Jack bunting. We drove through the town labelled on British ordinance surveys as Londonderry, passing the infamous Free Derry Corner with a fresh political message for Catalonian resistance. And then we left all that behind, crossing the border to meet the northwest corner of the Emerald Isle, which ironically, shares only 6 miles of border with the Republic of Ireland.

The northern tip of Donegal County sits further north than all of Northern Ireland. Google will tell you that three counties were left out of the UK for political reasons, mostly to do with the division of Catholic and Protestant communities. But in visiting here for the first time, I’m reminded of Ireland’s southwest coast. Like the south, the area is full of patchwork fields of green. The people warm and welcoming, just like the southern counties, and I’m convinced that all Irish can give detailed directions like no other society on earth.

It’s not unlike Scottish Hebrides either. The waves are so neat that surfers are drawn to them from all over the world. Yet the villages are quiet, unassuming. There’s open areas of moorland, cloaked in heather and marked by rows of cut peat. There’s rivers and lochs, darkened by tannins and their floors of peat soil, and small waterfalls trickle through the meadows.

We’re here for the windsurfing too. Pete’s living the dream of learning to sail in waves, while I’ve been enjoying the coastline. The sails I glimpse are like colourful half-butterfly wings, flapping in the breeze while glossy boards glide them through the water. We’ll end most days with a round of Irish music and a crackling fire. This week is our gift of time to ourselves during this six-month sabbatical. We hope our girls will admire their parents for taking on this mini-adventure. We know they’ll be having an adventure too, bonding with grandparents and exploring England through children’s eyes.

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