Sligo and Donegal

There’s wilderness, and then there’s Sligo and Donegal. Welcome to Ireland’s Wild Northwest

Thatched cottage at Bloody Foreland, Donegal
Thatched cottage at Bloody Foreland, Donegal

The singer Enya is being interviewed on radio. The interviewer praises her album and lets “every last note flow” from Orinoco Flow. Eventually, questions turn to inspiration. Where do the songs come from? “I get very inspired by being home in Donegal,” she says.

Close to Sligo’s Knocknarea mountain, which is 1078ft high.
Close to Sligo’s Knocknarea mountain, which is 1078ft high.

Of course she does. Donegal’s coastline is miles of zigs and zags with deserted white sand beaches. Along it you’ll also find the ancient stone fort Grianán of Aileach, high above the Inishowen Peninsula; its origins date back to 1700BC. Yes, that's right: BC.

The coastline then dips into the Gaeltacht seaside towns of Gweedore and Dungloe, and soars up to the Slieve League cliffs, one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe.

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Coastal playground

Donegal’s coastline isn’t just pretty – it’s functional, too. The waters here have become nirvana for surf-seekers. Bundoran is championed by CNN and National Geographic as one of the world’s top surfing towns. Above the surf, rock climbers are regularly seen scrambling up Donegal’s cliffs.

Up on one of those cliffs is the whitewashed Termon House in Maghery village. Once a famine-era landowner’s home, this cosy cliffside accommodation is now maintained by the Irish Landmark Trust.

Sligo – natural born beauty

Enya wasn’t the only one to find inspiration on Ireland’s northwest coast. The wild side can be found further south, in County Sligo. Two Irish men define Sligo: artist Jack B Yeats who painted it and poet William B Yeats who wrote about it.

Before delving into Yeats Country, though, dip into the beaches. Easkey, Rosses Point and Strandhill mark out the county’s coastline. It’s at Mullaghmore, however, where we get to meet the full scale of a huge Sligo icon, Ben Bulben.

Now sheltering WB Yeats’s final resting place at Drumcliff, Ben Bulben mountain is Sligo’s most impressive natural sight. The area is also home to Classiebawn Castle, which was once owned by British royalty. 

Royal connections

Swing inland from Sligo town towards Knocknarea Mountain, where you’ll find a treat at the top. That pile of stones? That’s the resting place of one of Ireland’s most infamous and legendary royals, Queen Medb.

A legacy of warmongering marks this Queen of Connacht as a character ripe for storytelling. Whether her own story ends under the cairn of rock or not, we’re not sure, but the drama of the place suits her memory.

Sligo Abbey is another legendary icon filled with memories – 800 years of them, to be precise. One of them is of worshippers who saved the Abbey's silver bell from attack in 1641 and threw it into Lough Gill. Only those free from sin can hear it peal, apparently.

In his poem, Under Ben Bulben, WB Yeats encouraged the horseman to “pass by”. There’s no need to follow suit. There’s plenty around Donegal and Sligo to make you want to stay.

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