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Smooth sailing to reach Ireland's relaxing west coast


By Ron Smith


Donegal Friary ruins, now the graveyard for Donegal, on the shores of the Atlantic.
Donegal Friary ruins, now the graveyard for Donegal, on the shores of the Atlantic.

There are some lovely places to explore right on our doorstep – and that includes over the sea in Ireland.

For a relaxing break, we headed to Donegal, first driving down from Keith to the ferry terminal at Cairnryan, near Stranraer. From Glasgow onwards the road deteriorates from motorway to goat track – the A77 seriously needs improving, so add 20 minutes to the “Google” timings!

The Stena Line terminal is perched on the edge of the road, and is slick and efficient. The ferries (at least six a day) take you across to Belfast smoothly in comfort and style in two-and-a-quarter hours. Landing at Belfast, the road from the port quickly becomes a motorway to speed you on your way.

Driving across Northern Ireland is easy; circumnavigating Derry via a string of roundabouts, you only notice that you have crossed the border when you see the speed limit has changed to 100 kilometres per hour, and there are no potholes! Just two hours after driving off the ferry you are in Letterkenny.

Letterkenny is at the inland end of Loch Swilly, where it was possible to build a bridge. The loch stretches away 40 kilometres to the Atlantic, which gave the town some importance as a port in years gone by. It is the largest town in County Donegal, and yet has a population of just 20,000 people.

This whole top corner of the Republic once had the largest narrow gauge railway network in the whole of the British Isles and Letterkenny had two railway stations, all closed by 1959. Today the attractive railway station of the Donegal railway system survives and is busy as the main bus station. Buses go to all parts of Ireland from here.

The old railway station in Letterkenny, now the busy bus station.
The old railway station in Letterkenny, now the busy bus station.

The town is spread along a hillside, with the Main Street (said to be the longest one in all Ireland) climbing up from each side to peak at the market square. The sloping market square has a poignant cluster of statues of children waiting to be “fee’d”.

As here in Scotland, it was common practice for adults and children to stand in the square in May and November to see if they would be taken on by wealthy farmers as hands or servants. At the top of the square is a slate-roofed open pagoda, and while we were there it was being used by a group of Welsh dancers, in traditional dress, practising their steps. This was part of a pan-Gaelic festival being held here.

There are many interesting buildings along Main Street, and a shopping centre too, and it is holding its own against another large shopping centre built where the railway goods yards and works used to be, plus yet another straggle of retail outlets on the edge of town, down on the flat land by the river.

For its size, Letterkenny has a lot going on. There is lively nightlife, along the Main Street, plus the Aura Complex. This is a leisure centre with an Olympic-size swimming pool, athletic track and much more. There are festivals and events all year round in the town.

St Eunan's Cathedral, at the summit of Letterkenny.
St Eunan's Cathedral, at the summit of Letterkenny.

At the top of the hill behind the town is the imposing St Eunan’s Catholic Cathedral with its tall spire. This was built in Gothic style in 1901 on the site of the old castle. Facing it across the car park is the Conwal Parish Church. There is a plaque at the car park explaining that this was the lookout point for the town during the penal times between 1695 and 1840. Ireland’s troubled past, thankfully gone, and the history of the town and the county can be explored in the Donegal County Museum, which is housed in the old workhouse. On Main Street the Bank of Ireland building is heavily ornate, built in 1874, just one of many buildings that catch your eye.

Letterkenny is a good base from which to explore the County of Donegal. It is a little under 50 kilometres to Donegal town. There are good roads everywhere, and this one goes through the Barnesmore Gap. As you head west, the horizon becomes dominated with a solid bank of mountain, with one valley through it, the Gap.

In olden days this was the haunt of highwaymen and bandits, as there is no other way to go. Today it is a dramatic landscape, a very attractive one, that leads to Donegal. This is another port town, opening out directly into Donegal Bay and the Atlantic.

Donegal Castle.
Donegal Castle.

Down by the river, which was once the port, there is a superb tourist office by the pay-and-display car park – which charges 30 cents per hour. The town is attractive, with busy shops, a castle and a wonderful railway museum, where they are restoring many old vehicles of the former Donegal Railway.

Then there is Killybegs the safest harbour in all the west coast of Ireland, or Sligo, or even just drive round the Donegal mountains (you used to be able to do this circular tour by train) and enjoy the warm Irish welcome and splendid scenery.

Returning home, the road takes you straight to the Stena Line terminal, well signposted, for the swift loading onto the ship and off to Cairnryan… and the drag up the A77 again! Never mind, a trip to this part of Ireland is very relaxing and you come home with great memories.

The Welsh dancers rehearse in the market square of Letterkenny.
The Welsh dancers rehearse in the market square of Letterkenny.

Need to know

How to get there

Stena Line operates stylish “super fast” ferries from Cairnryan to Belfast up to six times a day. See www.stenaline.co.uk



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