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Donegal: Top 5 cultural experiences

From a flamboyantly-furnished castle in Glenveagh National Park to an imposing ring fort on the Inishowen peninsula, don't miss these top five cultural activities in Donegal

Donegal: Top 5 cultural experiences
Market on the grounds of Donegal Castle. Image: Alamy

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1. Donegal Castle 
Whoever claimed a man’s home is his castle clearly never laid eyes on this forbidding fortress in Donegal Town. There’s nothing homely about this austere pile, standing guard over a bend in the Eske River. Its stout buttresses soar upward, piercing the sky with sharply pointed gables and protruding bartizan turrets. If walls could talk, these menacing stones would surely cry: ‘KEEP OUT!’ 

Undeterred by the inhospitable facade, I step inside the tower house’s gloomy basement but receive no better welcome. Three-metre-thick walls enclose around bare cobblestones that spike underfoot. Only a narrow shaft of light creeps in through slit windows where, before the advent of glass, pigs’ bladders were stretched to keep out the draft. By the time I reach the spiral staircase, I swear I hear the clash of swords echoing from above. “This is the Trip Stairwell,” my guide Anne explains. “The steps are intentionally uneven to make invaders stumble and fall. Mind how you go now!”

Such a defensive character comes as no surprise when considering Donegal Castle’s beleaguered past. Back in the 10th century, it’s thought rampaging Vikings established a garrison here, a handy base for pillage and plunder. Though their fortifications left little trace, their legacy lives on; Donegal is said to derive from the Irish Dún na nGall meaning ‘Fort of Foreigners’.

In 1497, new fortifications were erected by the powerful O’Donnell clan and Donegal Castle became one of the greatest in Ireland. My head spins as Anne recounts the clan’s lengthy rule, fraught with warfare and rebellion, and ending with defeat against the English, letting the castle fall to English soldier, Captain Brooke, by the 1600s. 

Evidence of the Englishman’s taste lies upstairs in the banqueting hall, a far more gracious sight with its rich wall tapestries, taxidermy and ornately carved fireplace inscribed with the coat of arms of the English monarchy. “After Brooke, the castle was left in ruins for 300 years,” Anne explains. Only more recently have efforts been made to restore its former glory, in keeping with the period style. “It’s reproduced furniture here. Irish history is one war after another. Heritage pays the price,” she laments.

This may be true but, with careful restoration and passionate storytelling, I’ve certainly surrendered to the derring-do of this castle’s riveting past. Through the upper windows, I spy Donegal’s quiet streets below and I’m ready to return to their shops, pubs, teahouses and more peaceful ways of the present. 

Glencolmcille Folk Village cottage. Image: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Glencolmcille Folk Village cottage. Image: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

2. Glencolmcille Folk Village 
Deep in Donegal’s south-west Gaeltacht, its Irish-language enclave, this community project was established 50 years ago to safeguard local culture against rural poverty and emigration. Today, a sprinkling of quaint, whitewashed and thatch-roofed cottages make up the village featuring original artifacts that retell three centuries of local heritage. Explore the schoolhouse, pub-grocer and fisherman’s hut before stopping at the craft shop to try traditional artisanships like rope-twisting and fishing net-mending.

3. Grianán of Aileach  
This imposing ring fort encircles an Inishowen hillock and commands views of loughs and three counties. Built upon a pre-Celtic sacred site, it became the regal residence of northern Irish kings from the sixth to the 12th century. 

4. Donegal Craft Village
Forget naff gift shops and mosey around this vibrant jumble of open-door studios where local craftsmen flaunt their traditional wares. While souvenir aficionados are well served by bespoke lines, the village is a cultural eye-opener, allowing visitors to meet and greet sculptors, glassblowers, jewellery makers, weavers and painters in mid-creative flow. Many are eager to share their stories or offer hands-on workshops, while an onsite cafe makes a lovely pit stop for a homemade lunch.

5. Glenveagh Castle
This castellated manor was the summer bolthole for an eccentric socialite and his glitterati friends. Furnishings are suitably flamboyant: mounted antlers, tartan upholstery and exotic Japanese shrubbery.

Published in the Donegal 2017 guide, distributed with the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)