The most appealing route out of Donegal town heads west along the shore of Donegal Bay all the way to Glencolmcille, some 50km away. Highlights along this coast include the tapering peninsula leading to St John’s Point and extraordinarily dramatic coastal scenery, which reaches an apogee in the mammoth sea-cliffs of Slieve League. The Glencolmcille Peninsula is a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area) and its attractive villages are rich in traditional folklore and music.
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Glencolmcille and around
Glencolmcille and around
As the road from Carrick approaches GLENCOLMCILLE, it traverses desolate moorland that’s dominated by oily-black turf banks amidst patches of heather and grass. After this, the rich beauty of the Glen, as it’s known, comes as a welcome surprise. Settlement in the area dates back to the Stone Age, as testified by the enormous number of megalithic remains scattered around the countryside, especially court cairns and standing stones. There’s evidence, too, of the Celtic era, in the form of earthworks and stone works. According to tradition, St Columba founded a monastery here in the sixth century and some of the standing stones, known as the Turas Cholmcille, were adapted for Christian usage by the inscription of a cross. Every Columba’s Day (June 9) at midnight, the locals commence a barefoot circuit of the fifteen Turas, including Columba’s Chapel, chair, bed, wishing stone and Holy Well, finishing up with Mass at 3am in the village church. (Columba and Columbcille/Colmcille are the same person – the latter is the name by which he was known after his conversion, and means “the dove of the church”.)
Heading northeast from Glencolmcille, the minor road to Ardara runs through the heart of the peninsula, travelling via the dramatic Glengesh Pass before spiralling down into wild but fertile valley land. Just before reaching Ardara, a road to the left runs along the southern edge of Loughros Beg Bay for 9km to MAGHERA, passing the transfixing Assarancagh Waterfall, from where you can embark on a hardy ten-kilometre waymarked walk uphill to the Glengesh Pass.
Maghera itself is an enchantingly remote place, dwarfed by the backdrop of hills and glens and fronted by an expansive and deserted strand that extends westwards to a rocky promontory riddled with caves. One of the largest is said to have concealed a hundred people fleeing Cromwell’s troops; their light was spotted from across the strand and all were massacred except a lucky individual who hid on a high shelf. Most of the caves are accessible only at low tide and a torch is essential. Beware of the tides, however, as even experienced divers have been swept away by the powerful currents. Behind the village, a tiny road, unsuitable for large vehicles, runs up to the Granny Pass, an alternative and very scenic route to Glencolmcille.
Climbing Slieve League
Climbing Slieve League
There are two routes up to the ridge of Slieve League. The less-used back one, known as Old Man’s Track, follows the signpost pointing to the mountain just before Teelin and looks up continually to the ridge, while the frontal approach follows the signs out of Teelin to BUNGLASS, swinging you spectacularly round sharp bends and up incredibly steep inclines to one of the most thrilling cliff scenes in the world, the Amharc Mór. The sea moves so far below their peak that the waves appear silent, and the 600m face glows with mineral deposits in tones of amber, white and red. They say that on a clear day it is possible to see one-third of the whole of Ireland from the summit. Sightseeing tours of the cliffs from the waters below are organized from Teelin, weather permitting.
If you want to make a full day of it, you can climb up to the cliffs from the Bunglass car park and follow the path along the top of the ridge, which eventually meets Old Man’s Track. From here One Man’s Pass, a narrow path with steep slopes on each side, leads up to the summit of Slieve League. Bear in mind that the route can often be muddy and very windy – it is certainly not advisable in misty weather or if you suffer from vertigo. From the top of Slieve League, you can either retrace your steps back to Teelin or continue west over the crest of the mountain and down the heather-tufted western slope towards the verdant headland village of MALINBEG, where there’s a sublime, crescent-shaped golden strand enclosed by a tight rocky inlet. Malinbeg itself is a village of white bungalows, with the land around ordered into long narrow strips. The Malinbeg hostel is comfortable and well-equipped and offers exhilarating views from most of its rooms. On the cliff edge a ruined Martello tower faces Rathlin O’Beirne Island, 5km offshore, a place with many folklore associations. There are occasional boats across (enquire in Teelin), but nothing to see aside from some early Christian stone relics and a ruined coastguard station.
Beyond Malinbeg, it’s relatively easy to extend your walk through MALINMORE and on to Glencolmcille. The whole distance from Teelin to Malinmore can be comfortably completed in six hours.