Donegal, the wind-swept and rugged northernmost province of Ireland, is arguably also Ireland’s most beautiful region. A stark and serene beauty pervades the barren fields and rocky hills that make up the majority of Donegal. All around are remnants of the Celtic past — the ‘beehive huts’ of early Christian monastics, well-rounded piles of clustered stones, as well as the mysterious ‘standing stones’ of the ancient Celtic druids — slabs of stone carved with ancient, impenetrable signs.
It is commonly believed that if one even touches such a stone, he will be cursed with bad luck. There have been cases of farmers having their livestock die and houses burn after failing to give the standing stones their proper respect.
I bore this in mind as I passed by them on the six-mile bike ride from my secluded hostel to Glencolumcille, the western edge of Donegal where the cliffs thundered into the sea and where one of Saint Patrick’s ardent followers had once worshipped. On the way I passed plenty of the beehive huts, indicators of the presence of early Christians in this awe-inspiring landscape, one that must have been especially conducive for contemplation of the divinity.
Upon reaching the green cliffs of Glencolumcille, legs aching from the hilly ride, a firm wind tearing through the clear autumn sky, I saw an even more impressive feature of the Celtic past – one of the high, rounded ‘Viking signal towers’ that the Irish had utilized in the 8th century to watch out for marauding Norsemen. The towers stretched in a line all down the west coast of Ireland; when one watchman saw a hostile ship, he would light a fire, alerting the watchman in the next tower down. All alone on the edge of the world, with the waves pounding off of the black crags and no sign of human existence save for this one forgotten tower, I felt supremely at peace with the world.
The next day I turned in my bicycle and hit the road again, this time to meet my girlfriend in the town of Dunfanaghy. She had been traveling up from Galway and was going to join me for a few days of exploring on the north coast, a storied region of uncertain weather and violent history, part of it even called the ‘Bloody Foreland.’
We had arrived in the sleepy Irish town of Dunfanaghy, (situated on the wind-swept coast of the North Sea, at the very northern tip of the country) an hour earlier; before having this welcoming pint of Guinness we had checked into the decidedly unique Corgreggan Independent Hostel (a.k.a. ‘the Old Mill’). Guests here are housed both in restored vintage boxcars from the old Donegal train line, out of service since the 60’s, and in the actual stone floored building that once served as a mill. Our ‘room’ was a very cool red and gold painted train car, with an interior of polished wood and smooth red leather. Even if this was the only thing the hostel had going for it, it would still have been remarkable, but there was more.
The whole property, it turned out, was humming with a quiet energy that could not be described. Stories abound about how the hostel was built over an ancient pre-Celtic ritual site, and about the magical triangles of power indicated by the particular placement of various rocks and buildings. I can’t vouch for that, and I didn’t see any little people creep in from the Fairy World, but on the other hand I couldn’t fall asleep for two consecutive nights. It was deadly quiet outside, but still I was wide awake.
In addition to enchanted hostels and miniature pubs, Dunfanaghy is blessed with beautiful nature. We took a long bike ride through winding wooded roads to get to the beach – one of the most perfect beaches I have ever seen, in fact. If you looked at a picture only – crystal clear, greenish water and fine white sand – you would think it was some exotic beach in Thailand or Australia. Only the unbelievably frigid temperature of the water gives it away. My girlfriend, of stout Irish constitution, of course had no problem in diving in. As she flopped around like a regular seal, I gasped and hyperventilated for twenty seconds before scrambling back shivering to the beach, after all, it was the 29th of September. Only with the help of a few rounds of Guinness, and some good traditional music later on that evening, was warmth restored to my body.
Excerpted and adapted from “Resonant, Lonesome Donegal: Travels in Dunfanaghy, Ireland” by Christopher Deliso in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 23.