Donegal, a magical corner of Ireland: remote, not on the way to anywhere, a land of wide open spaces and big skies. Friel's Donegal, a place of jagged coastline and treacherous cliffs, shimmering loughs, heathery moors and bogs hemmed in by mountains. Its primitive charm and its wildness have also spawned some of Ireland’s finest musicians. Their languid, ethereal tunes, many sung in the haunting cadence of Gaelic, conjure up images of this timeless land. You don’t just ‘see’ Donegal, you ‘feel’ it.
We set out mid afternoon to climb Mackoght and then Errigal. The air was cold and crisp atop Mackoght. Mist drifted periodically up over the shattered scree covered NE face of Errigal which looked virtually unassailable from this angle. Joining the tourist path we quickly attained the summit to feast our eyes upon sublime 360 degree views. The setting sun cast a pool of rosy light upon the scalloped face of Aghla More and the loughs of Dunlewy and Nacung blushed pink. On descent the full moon rose and stars began to wink in the firmament. The moonlight reflected off the bog pools like shattered shards of a giant’s mirror and was so bright it was possible to see without torches.
After booking in at Errigal Hostel, we headed for Tábhairne Leo with its colourful clientele. One wore apparel like that of a Puritan preacher complete with broad rimmed black hat; another sported peacock feathers in her 1920’s hairdo. The place was packed to the rafters as the musicians struck up, the rhythmic beat of the bodhrán contrasting with the plaintive, mellow notes of the flute. ‘Níl sé ina lá’ sang the band, ‘níl sé ina lá is ní bheidh go maidin’, as my mind began to wander. ‘De ye know ‘Tuoer-kee?’ enquired a woman at our table. Smiling banally, I wondered what on earth ‘Turkey’ had to do with me being from Cornwall... the Guinness began to flow more freely. Knowing we wouldn’t have made it ‘til the morning we quietly slipped away following the draw of a raffle in aid of Donegal Mountain Rescue.
The land steamed as the morning sun gently released it from the icy grip of the night. There’s something about the quality of the light in Donegal - a translucence that enlivens the russet heather, green mosses and warm bands of coloured rock in the cliffs of Slieve League, exposed and polished by the storms of countless ages, and contrasts with the deep blue of the sea and sky. The cliffs truncated by ice and ocean are stupendous, the sea so far below the waves appear silent. On a perfect autumn afternoon we took the cliff path, scrambling the airy arête at Kerringear and One Man’s Pass to the summit. Panoramic views unfolded: Benbulben, Nephin, Achill Island, and even distant Croagh Patrick. Inland a sea of mountain-tops receded in tumultuous waves as far as the rounded head of Slieve Snaght and the cone of Errigal. We completed our circular walk via the Pilgrim’s Path to Bunglass as night fell and the moonlight shimmered over this enchanting landscape.