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Home / Travel / Notes from rural Ireland: Exploring Donegal, a land of shipwrecks, lighthouses and mysterious manors

Notes from rural Ireland: Exploring Donegal, a land of shipwrecks, lighthouses and mysterious manors

The rural Ireland of leprechauns, grass greener than green, luminescent sunlight and pastoral scenes straight out of a fairytale book, are some of the things to see and explore when travelling the offbeat way in Ireland.

travel Updated: Jan 05, 2020 10:57 IST
Madhusree Ghosh
Madhusree Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Fanad Lighthouse in County Donegal was built in 1811, after a legendary shipwreck that only the captain’s parrot survived.
Fanad Lighthouse in County Donegal was built in 1811, after a legendary shipwreck that only the captain’s parrot survived.(Madhusree Ghosh)

Ireland is a bucket-list destination. Not vibrant Dublin or windswept, bustling Galway, but the rural Ireland of leprechauns, grass greener than green, luminescent sunlight and pastoral scenes straight out of a fairytale book.

The perfect destination for such a trip is Convoy, a village home to just over 1,500, in the picturesque County Donegal. A rainy, windy Dublin set the tone for what was to come. Expect rain, we’d been told, but also expect the unexpected. And sure enough, in the space of a day, we’d go from icy mist to fog, drizzle, and weak sunlight washing over ruminating sheep.

Cliffs covered in mist are dotted with fairy-tale houses.
Cliffs covered in mist are dotted with fairy-tale houses. ( Madhusree Ghosh )

As the houses get more sparse, the number of sheep seems to increase, and through the misty rain, it looked for all the world like you’d turned a page and entered an old-school story book. The sheep didn’t move; there were no people. Just quiet and green of a hue you’ve never seen before.

LONELY ROADS

Convoy was quaint to the point of being eerie at night. Choosing lanes instead of highways, we drove through neighbouring villages to the Fanad Lighthouse, which stands atop a cliff, between the sea inlet Lough Swilly (or Lake of Shadows) and the blue-grey Mulroy Bay.

The lighthouse was built at Fanad Head in 1811, they say, after the terrible wreck of the HMS Saldanha, a British naval ship. Legend has it only the captain’s parrot survived!

The stark white of the still-functioning beacon stands grimly set against the stormy sea. This region is still not on the tourist map, which made us the only three people roaming the vast green hilltops, with some blankly gazing, constantly chewing sheep for company.

CLIFFS AND MANOR HOUSES

We made the mandatory drive to Giant’s Causeway and the Cliffs of Moher, but it was the Sliabh Liag or Grey Mountain cliffs, also called ‘Ireland’s best-kept secret’, that really took our breath away. In south west Donegal, a coastal road takes you to cliffs that roll gently down to a churning sea, dotted with single-storey houses tucked away from the edge, a profusion of flowers in every garden, and often a melancholic dog at the window, looking out to sea like a pirate captain reincarnated with no sea legs.

Outfits like Rockhill House, a manor turned heritage hotel, offer a glimpse of an Ireland long gone.
Outfits like Rockhill House, a manor turned heritage hotel, offer a glimpse of an Ireland long gone. ( Madhusree Ghosh )

Expect winds so strong you’ll have to put all your devices away for fear they’ll be whipped out of your hands.

The journey ended with a hidden gem. Down a narrow driveway and across hushed woodlands, we came upon a Georgian mansion, now a heritage hotel called Rockhill House. The estate can trace its roots back to the 17th century. And from the late 1960s to early 2009 it was the local headquarters of the Irish military.

This is a place of roaring old fireplaces, bullet holes in pillars, and restored wallpaper dating back to 1850. The rooms have four-poster beds; the bathrooms, claw-footed tubs; all around are lush green grounds. It exists in another world. It’s a peace of rural Irish history to make the heart sigh.

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