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County Donegal, Ulster, Ireland

Donegal's Greatest 'Shrines'

Whatever your God may be, a 'pilgrimage' to these wonders will reward the soul.

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Difficulty: Easy
Length: 300 miles / 483 km
Duration: Multiple days
Family Friendly • Dog Friendly
Overview: Two of the great sacred cows of 20th century Ireland seem to be inextricably linked to Donegal, the Irish language via Gaeltacht schools and penitence via Lough Derg. They may well have cast a cloud over the appeal of the county and God knows we have enough clouds up here already. There are other places in Donegal that could rightly be called 'sacred' where the mind, body and heart are devoted to and where people faithfully return to as sites to encourage and inspire.

We could have mentioned atmospheric places like the Maghera caves or Lough Altan, scenic splendour like Creevy pier or Glenveagh, but the places we have chosen stand out for being just that little bit special for some and have entered a pantheon that others should seek and enjoy. Each has an aura stretching from the sacred to the salutary. Anticipation and belief occur in some, for others pure enjoyment and spontaneity and the rest are iconic sites of what we are and where we came from. 'To each their own' we say.

We bring you a handful of exceptional places where man has been edified, enlightened, enthroned and enraptured. These are places that have made innumerable lives that little bit richer and will perhaps be just the sort of places you need to find and savour, if only for a short while. For completely different reasons, each of these places has been singled out as somewhere that has at some stage in history made a difference - all aspects of culture are covered, from the historic to the celebrity age. From the very southern tip of the county to its pinnacle, the top 'shrines' of sorts are here, some secret, some known the length and breadth of the county and the country.

As for your recollection of Donegal, consider this an overdue 21st century reboot for there is nowhere in Ireland quite like it. If you can appreciate the fact that its remoteness serves as its strength, then you too will be rewarded for travelling the extra road time to get here with this guide; regard it as a pilgrimage, a chance to remove any lingering prejudice and to rejuvenate the spirit.

Tips: Ensure you download our Donegal Guide app, the link of which is on the right hand column. Do not use this App while driving, which is subject to your acceptance of the navigatour™ Licence Agreement, the link of which is also on the right hand column. If you are downloading, we recommend the use of the EveryTrail Pro app, which allows for offline map usage of the guide.

Ensure you familiarize yourself with the route beforehand. There are some breathtaking scenes along the way with plenty of stops required. As you are covering the full county, it would be best to do this drive over a few days, with plenty of sightseeing along the way. Come back revitalised.

Points of Interest


Drowes river

Shrine One: the angler's first salmon.

Right on the border with Leitrim is the River Drowes, duly famous for regularly producing the first salmon of the year, being one of the few rivers opening on the 1st January. Rarely is there a year when a fish is not caught on opening day. Indeed this is a very festive occasion with some 250 anglers fishing, all striving to land the first salmon of the year and invariably ending up on the cover of the national papers.

As such, this stretch of river is an unlikely, but worthy member of the shrines of Donegal where Mother Nature rewards the patient, the wily and the downright lucky. Fishing is an integral part of the Donegal economy, but fishing on New Year's Day and trying to be the most famous angler in the land is a well nigh sacred rite of passage in these parts.

All fishermen are of course superstitious and so to add to the mandatory magical quality of the water, there is an affiliation to St Patrick - his well just outside of Ballyshannon has been seen as a place of cures and pilgrimage for centuries. Legend has it that on his way to it, St Patrick stopped for a feed at the Duff river, but was denied a salmon. Disgusted, he cursed the Duff and headed to the Drowes where he duly got a huge salmon and blessed the Drowes and the fishermen.

The river flows for about 5 miles draining the 103 square mile catchment into the Atlantic. The river generally keeps good water levels right through the season being fed by Lough Melvin. There is a good run of spring salmon from the 1st January through to April/May with some summer and autumn fish. The main grilse run starts around the end of May peaking around June/July.

The Salmon season is from 1st January to 30th September inclusive.
The Brown Trout season is from 15th February to 30th September inclusive.

River Drowse: a permit is required to fish the Drowse river.
Day ticket; e25.
Week ticket; e100.
These are available from 9 to 10am and 1 to 2pm from the Fishery Office, Lareen Park, Kinlough, Co. Leitrim. Tel:& Fax: (071) 9841055.
Tel: +353 (0)71 9841055

Drowse Estuary: a permit is required to fish the Estuary. Permits are available as a day or evening ticket.
Day ticket (8am to 5pm) costs e40
Evening ticket (6pm to 10pm) costs e30.
These can be purchased from Fishery Office, Lareen Park, Kinlough, Co. Leitrim.
Tel: +353 (0)71 9841055

For local guide information contact: The Fishery Office, Lareen Park, Kinlough, Co. Leitrim. Tel & Fax: 071 9841055

Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival

Shrine Two: Hometown boy.

It's hard to believe, but Rory died in 1995 aged 47 from complications after transplant surgery. His memory lives on with this tribute weekend, a newly unveiled statue and the three day extravaganza that is the festival named after him. All from a town that he lived in for only the first year of his life, born appropriately enough in The Rock hospital.

This statue is the epicentre of that weekend, where thousands of blues and rock fans gather for three days of good natured celebration. "Rory was one of the true heroes of Irish rock," Hot Press editor Niall Stokes reflects. "He was a magnificent guitar player, a brilliant songwriter and a performer of enormous dedication, energy and magnetism. But for all the remarkable success he achieved, Rory never lost touch with his roots. He was true to himself, true to his music and true to the people, with whom he shared an extraordinary kinship. If there is a higher compliment I don't know what it is.

"For all of these reasons, it is wonderful to see that his memory is being honoured in this way in Ballyshannon. It is, you might say, the least we can do. But it is no less important for that, as Rory will always retain a special place in the hearts of Irish music fans and of fans of great music the world over."


Shrine Three: surf's up.

Donegal Bay made the headlines recently for having a 20 metre wave off its coast - the highest recorded in Irish waters. The truly great surf beaches of the bay are Mullaghmore and Tullan Strand in Bundoran, but for a host of reasons, we're pointing you to somewhere with surf, scenery and safety.

Rossnowlagh is a very special long sandy Blue Flag beach in Donegal Bay. It was here that Tony Blair spent his childhood summers, but that's hardly worthy of making it special. It is the leading shrine in the Republic to good King Billy every 12th of July as over 10,000 commemorate that historic event in a peaceful, family-orientated Orange parade, but no, that's not the reason either.

However, say the word 'Rossnowlagh' to a surfer is to get their full respect for Donegal Bay is surfers' paradise with Rossnowlagh having a special place in their hearts for it has exceptionally big waves/tubes (although nearby Tullan Strand in Bundoran managed to get the European Surfing Championships twice in recent years.

Make sure the unmissable Smuggler's Creek overlooking the beach and the bay or the Sandhouse surfers' bar are factored in after a lazy day here. For over three thousand miles the North Atlantic Drift has carried big waves from the Gulf of Mexico and it is in this glorious bay that they break, most recently garnering worldwide attention for some dream waves that the select few got to ride in nearby Mullaghmore.

The nearby Finn McCool surf school will be happy to help out the novice though!

St. Asicus's Grave

Shrine Four: in a league of his own.

Tucked up the top of a hill on the outskirts of Ballintra, look out for the unlikely burial site of Roscommon's patron saint. St. Asicus, the patron saint of coppersmiths, having been St. Patrick's very own coppersmith and silversmith. You don't have to go too far to see his work - his copper work can be seen on the shamrock patterned beaten brass alter screen in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Sligo. In the Cathedral you can also see a wooden statue of St. Asicus.

When St. Patrick established the diocese of Elphin in County Roscommon, circa. 450 AD, he appointed Asicus as its first bishop and later Abbot-Bishop of Ireland. It is said that he was a humble man who did not believe himself worthy of his high office in the Church. He left Roscommon and travelled to Rathlin O'Birne Island in Donegal Bay where he resigned his office and became a hermit, living for a while at the top of Slieve League along the area called The Pilgrim's Way. He remained there for seven years until the monks of Elphin tracked him down and persuaded him to return to Elphin with them. However, he was not in good health and died on the journey back to Elphin (circa. 490 AD).

He is buried where he died, but it is only in the last sixty years or so that his existing grave with ornate stonework was built. His feast day is the 27th of April and is still commemorated as it should be - immense talent is rarely joined by such austere modesty. Quietly salute this humble pilgrim if you can.

Across the road, you'll find another sacred site, that of a fairy tree. There are many 'fairy trees' along the roadsides of Donegal and especially at the crossing of roads throughout Ireland. Usually these are gnarled old hawthorn bushes. Also considered sacred were the oak and the ash.

While many magic wands were made from the rowan branch, it is considered a profanation to destroy them or even to remove one of their branches. Many different types of otherworld creatures are said to dwell in the tree or nearby. Some may scoff at the notion of the power of a fairy tree, but few would ever cut a fairy tree down. Would you?

Na Cruacha Gorma

Shrine Five: all things bright and beautiful.

One of the great ambassadors of the county is affable postman, Michael Gallagher, renowned for his uncanny ability to forecast the weather by a careful observation of wildlife and the elements, a skill he attributes to the people of Na Cruacha Gorma in the deepest part of the Finn valley. At the extreme end of his daily itinerary lies 'Na Cruacha Gorma' - the Croaghs, as it is called. A sparsely populated area, it is one of the most inaccessible parts of Ireland, where electricity only arrived in 1975, but it is here that Michael met people whose vast repertoire of folklore seemed to be unending. Much of the folklore has been recorded by folklorists not only from our own country, but from as far afield as Switzerland, Germany, Iceland and North America.'

It was from conversing in their native language with the people of this area that he first became interested in weather forecasting all those years ago. As says himself: -'Most of the people from na Cruacha could forecast the weather accurately for a month or a season in advance and even a year ahead at times. They had such a knowledge of nature, learned from their daily struggle with the elements that they believed each feature of God's Creation was linked by them with climatic conditions. The knowledge of what we call 'book learning' was sparse, but they had a rare wealth of lore and wisdom that was a souce of amazement to all who came in contact with them. These, coupled with their natural vitality, enabled them to eke out a fairly comfortable living for themselves on their mountain farms in a remote area without the benefits of modern equipment.

In the course of my travels, I discovered - among other things - that clocks and watches were almost unknown in that area until after World War One. Thus, the sun was their guideline. Incidentally, I never learned how they managed on the countless days when the Sun refused to shine!'

Observing the animals around them, the folk of the Croaghs would tell you that a dog eating grass was a sign of a change in the weather, that a fox crying on a Winter's evening is a sure sign of heavy snow coming, that the crex crex cry of the curlew is a sign of rain as are crickets singing behind an open hearth fire. Folk there were able to ascertain accurate forecasts from the stars, the Sun, clouds, damp, echos, mist, pains, thunder and trees. Curious terms such as 'the peck' and stacked jam jars in windows were other unorthodox methods of forecasting.

Find out more about the amazing lost skills of this area by visiting Michael's website and buying his wonderful book: Look out for his new book, 'Remedies and Cures of a Bygone Era'.

St. Colmcille annual pilgrimage

Shrine Six: Tough station.

St Colmcille brought Christianity to the north-west corner of Ireland and the area is named and this annual pilgrimage is held in his honour.

The place is famous for the 'turas' or penitential pilgrimages that are made round the various stations on the 9th of June, the saint's day. The three mile pilgrimage starts at midnight and has to be completed before sunrise. The stations are marked by small cairns or by cross-inscribed pillar stones which are associated with the early monastery.

The pilgrimage route is rich in megalithic remains, some dating back more that 5000 years, and it is believed that the current pilgrimage occurs on a site where pagan ritual was commonly observed, indeed some of the structures that act as 'stations' on the route are certainly pre-Christian.

The Laurels

Shrine Seven: dance to the music of time.

'The Laurels' is the actual house where Brian Friel's aunts, the 'five brave Glenties women' of the play, Dancing at Lughnasa, actually lived together in the 1930s. Just off Station Road outside of the harvest fair town of Glenties, this is the site that inspired a modern masterpiece by a playwright at the height of his powers. The Public Theatre and Professor Martin Andrucki summed up its power in their critique of the play's denouement: -

'In the last lines of the play, the narrator Michael tells us that when he remembers that summer of 1936 everybody seems to be "[d]ancing, as if language had surrendered to if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in...those...movements. Dancing as if words were no longer necessary." Each of the characters in the play dances at some crucial moment: Gerry and Chris when they meet after a long separation, Father Jack when he celebrates the power of the Goddess, all the sisters when the sounds of the wireless bring them into contact with the outside world.

What Michael suggests is that people dance at such moments because dancing provides a way to transcend the painful contradictions, conflicts, and uncertainties of ordinary experience. Dancing takes us beyond the everyday world of language and its ambiguities to a place where our hopes can be painlessly, though fleetingly, fulfilled. If the kites imply the conflicting emotions associated with change, both exhilaration and terror, dancing promises a deliverance from such inner conflict, allowing an experience of undivided happiness'.

Yes, it's that good and thankfully Friel has been recently honoured as Donegal Person of the Year by the Donegal Association in Dublin. The play is a remarkable tribute to the Mundy sisters' spirit and from this meagre setting did such a magical story evolve. Try and see the play being performed by a good cast playing the Mundy sisters. Meryl Streep can do many things (including outdrinking most people the night she opened this house with Friel some years ago no less), but the film is not a patch on the tour de force that is the play. alas, the house has fallen into disrepair, a poignant reminder that even though it was reopened by Friel and Meryl Streep no less in 1998, the house is once again forgotten.

Inniskeel Island

Shrine Eight: For whom the bell tolls.

The magical Island of Inniskeel is the seat of a pilgrimage in honour of St. Conal Cael, one of Ireland's early saints. It contains his church and his cell and in it repose his sacred remains in the grave under a large boulder, traditionally known as St Conal's bed. Near the site is St Conal's holy well, but gone is his famous iron bell, known as 'Bearnan Chonaill'. Long after his death, it was enshrined as a relic in an elaborate covering, and was worshipped by pilgrims visiting the island.

The bell is an early type made from a sheet of iron, its handle and loop for the clapper are missing. In the fifteenth century an ornate silver 'bell shrine' was made to protect and embellish the bell. This bell and its shrine, like most Irish reliquaries, were preserved by keepers who were the descendants of the stewards of monastic lands. Many like St Conall's bell were sold to collectors in the nineteenth century. This relic of St. Conal remained in Ardara until 1844 and is now part of the British Museum collection.

Relics associated with the early Irish saints were believed to hold miraculous powers and were much revered in the medieval church in Ireland. Oaths were sworn upon them and curses were cast using them. Water drank from ancient bells was believed to cure a wide variety of illnesses. The island is accessible on foot during low tide from Narin beach and despite missing its bell, is one of the highlights of any trip to Donegal as you walk out where the sea has parted.


Shrine Nine: a blessed encounter.

For a considerable time in 1938, numerous people, including the parish priest, saw visions of the Virgin Mary at this very spot. Note the mementos that people leave behind of loved ones.

The shrine has long been a place of prayer and contemplation. It began in 1938 when a young girl and her sisters from Kerrytown in the Templecronas (church of St. Crones) parish were sent at night to secure outhouses for arriving guests. The young girl set about tidying up but stopped and looked at a massive wall of rock close by. The rock rose to 15 feet high. Atop the rock stood a beautiful lady dressed in white. The young girl called out to her sisters who ran over and also saw the apparition.

Soon, others heard them and gathered round to witness the beautiful lady in white. Some ran for the parish priest, Father McAteer, but he dismissed them saying it was "just another ghost story." Several days later, the apparition of the lady in white appeared at the rock again. And once again, the locals ran for the priest. He declined at first but changed his mind after a while and decided to travel to the farm to end the nonsense once and for all. He stayed at the farm for several hours but saw nothing. Convinced that his parishioners were daft, he gathered his things to leave, amidst the pleas of the young girl and her sisters and many of the locals. As he climbed onto his buggy, he looked up one more time at the massive rock. There, standing on the top of the rock was a beautiful lady dressed in white.

He says in his personal account: "Suddenly, I saw a mass of rock turn marble white. Over the Rock came a fiery golden cloud, and in front of the cloud stood a majestic lady, clothed in white...her hair hanging down on her shoulders. She looked at me with a severe look and said, "Now, will you believe!" I stretched out my arms, opened my palms, and asked for forgiveness." Unfortunately for Fr. McAteer, the Vatican was equally doubtful, but without the benefit of seeing what he saw. The place has never quite achieved the recognition of County Mayo's Knock, but as recently as October 2009, people have witnessed seeing crosses above the grotto and of seeing the sun dancing from this location.

Even to the non believer, it is a place of immense serenity and peace - if you can manage to find it.

Kerrytown, near Kincasslagh, Look out for small road signs leading you to the place.

Viking House hotel

Shrine Ten: the first son of Donegal.

This is Donegal's version of Graceland with maybe a hint of Father Ted thrown in. This hotel, formerly owned by legendary local singer, Daniel O'Donnell, has become a shrine to the great man, despite the fact that he doesn't live here nor indeed still own it. Hailing from Kincasslagh, Daniel frequently makes appearances back home and this seems to have become a base camp for those on the lookout for him. Chances are he'll be negotiating the jaw-dropping sixth hole on nearby Cruit Island Golf Club.

Fans now have a proper Daniel O'Donnell centre in Dungloe, but to the dedicated pilgrim, this is still the nearest thing to having a wee piece of the man himself around here in the absence of his famous annual tea parties of yore. Daniel is by far Donegal's best ambassador and love him or loath him, he has thrilled millions of folk from 8 to 80 years of age. Often forgotten is the man's wicked sense of humour and his ceaseless work for charity, all done quietly and without fuss. To the thousands who flock to to this site, it is nothing less than a place to salute the man who has given them such delight over the years. Hail wee Daniel, a veritable living legend and all round good egg.

Traveling far and wanting the visit to include a definite sighting of the man? Well, Daniel is always about for The Mary from Dungloe festival and usually plays two shows - book early and enjoy the wild surroundings while you're at it.

Viking House, Kincasslagh Co. Donegal
T: +353 74 9543295

Leo's Tavern

Shrine Eleven: it's a family affair.

One of the most famous pubs in Donegal by virtue of the prodigious siblings who made up most of Clannad as well as the fragrant Enya. It's well signposted and is 3km south of Gweedore on the road to Crolly. The parents, Leo and Baba Brennan still serve behind the bar, but the nearest you'll see of the kids is the mementos on the wall. Legions of music lovers make the pilgrimage to this tavern in the hope that some of the Brennan kids are in town and might just be playing some of their latest work. It has been known...

Meenaleck, Crolly, +353(0)749548143

Teach Hudi Beag

Shrine Twelve: the genesis of 'ceol agus ol'.

No visit to Ireland is complete without a proper traditional Irish music session. Only an idiot would call it diddley-i music for a true session is where women swoon, spirits soar and Gods are created in a single night. As such, a visit to this pub is a trip to "Mecca' for fans of the real thing. This legendary Gweedore pub is regarded by many as where the actual Irish session as we know it, started. Many great trad musicians have played in its venerated chamber.

Teach Hudi Beag
Near Bunbeg pier

Tory Island

Shrine Thirteen: sacred clay in the real kingdom.

From the moment you see it for the first time from Magheroarty, your eyes are drawn to the magnificent island of Tory - home to the mythical Balor of the Evil Eye, the last place in Ireland with its own monarch, the incomparable Patsy Dan Rogers, where locals have been cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time due to Atlantic storms and where the special clay ensures that no rat can survive on the island. Yes indeed, you are truly on hallowed ground.

Historically, the Battle of Tory Island was fought on 12 October 1798 between French and British squadrons off the northwest coast of Donegal, then in the Kingdom of Ireland. The last action of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the Battle of Tory Island ended the final attempt by the French Navy to land substantial numbers of soldiers in Ireland during the war.

The island is very much a Mecca for ornithologists. Many of them come to study the different species of sea birds which have colonised the island. Cormorants, gulls, gannets, puffins, divers, oyster-catchers, terns and fulmars are all common. In addition, being so far north and so far from the mainland, Tory is a classic location for migrating birds to rest on their journey south. Moreover, the corncrake and other birds which are becoming rare even in the most unspoilt parts of the mainland, are still common in Tory. Even experienced ornithologists have been surprised by the variety of species on the island. Other great bird sites are Blanket Nook and Inch Wildlife Reserve both in Inishowen.

There could be a number of reasons for visiting a sacred place like Tory, but most noteworthy is Móirsheisear (Grave of the Seven). Móirsheisear, which actually translates as 'big six' — an archaic term for seven — is the tomb of seven people, six men and one woman, who drowned when their boat capsized off Scoilt an Mhóirsheisear (the cleft of the seven) on the island's northwest coast. According to local superstition, clay from the woman's grave is sacred and has the power to ward off vermin. It is is used to protect seafarers and to keep rats away from ships.

When spread, the following incantation must be said for the clay to work: 'A gheall ar Dhia agus ar naomh a d'ordaigh é, oibreoidh sé' - with God's help and that of the saint who ordered it, may it work. Lest you think all of this clay is long gone, the whole of the island's clay gained the benefit of the grave's power what with it all being connected underground. The author can testify to its potency - a rat that eluded capture by conventional means was dead within hours of the clay been put down.

Despite its small size, Tory Island has a number of historical and mythological sites:

Dún Bhaloir (Balor's fort) is located on the island's eastern side. This peninsula is surrounded on three sides by 90m-high cliffs. Balor's fort is only accessible by crossing a narrow isthmus, defended by four earthen embankments.[14]

View from Dún Bhaloir
An Eochair Mhór (The big key) is a long, steep-sided spur jutting from the east side of the peninsula and ending in a crag called An Tor Mór (the big rock). The spur has prominent rocky pinnacles - these are known as "Balor's soldiers". (Saighdiúirí Bhaloir ) They give the spur a 'toothed' appearance and contribute to the name, "The big key".

A view of East Town (An Baile Thoir), Tory Island.
The Wishing Stone is a precipitous flat-topped rock beside the northern cliff-face of Balor's Fort. Traditionally, a wish is granted to anyone foolhardy enough to step onto the rock, or who succeeds in throwing three stones onto it.

An Cloigtheach (The Bell Tower) is the largest structure to have survived the destruction of the monastery (see history section above). The tower was built in the 6th or 7th century.

The Tau Cross (a t-shaped cross) is believed to date from the 12th century. It is one of only two Tau crosses in Ireland (the other in Kilnaboy, County Clare).

The Lighthouse, standing at the west end of the island, was built between 1828 and 1832 to a design by George Halpin, a noted designer of Irish lighthouses. In April 1990 the lighthouse was automated. The lighthouse is one of three in Ireland in which a reference station for the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) is installed. The lighthouse is at coordinates 55°16.357′N 8°14.964′W

The Torpedo: A torpedo can be seen midway between An Baile Thiar and An Baile Thoir. It washed ashore during World War II and was defused and erected at its present location.

Surely more than enough reasons to visit this fascinating island?


Shrine Forteen: I can see for miles and miles.

In a land famed for its hills, there's one hill that is known far and wide, indeed it was voted Ireland's most iconic mountain by Walking and Hiking Ireland in 2009. Errigal is a 751 metres (2,464 ft) mountain near Gweedore and is the tallest peak of the Derryveagh Mountains and the tallest peak in County Donegal and we think that qualifies it as a shrine for hillwalkers and lovers of the very best view attainable.

Errigal is also the most southern, steepest and highest of the mountain chain, called the "Seven Sisters" by locals. The Seven Sisters includes Muckish, Crocknalaragagh, Aghla Beg, Ardloughnabrackbaddy, Aghla More, Mackoght and Errigal. The nearest peak is Mackoght, which is also known as Little Errigal or Wee Errigal (Irish: an Earagail Bheag).

The views from the top are spellbinding and from it you will see the full splendour of this most beautiful of counties. Look out for the pinkish glow of its quartzite in the setting sun. The car park that most people use to park up for Errigal is where we've dropped the flag on our map - it’s located on the R251. From here you can pretty much see your route ahead as Mount Errigal is above to the left and Mackoght to the right.

Doon Rock and Doon Well

Shrine Fifteen: O'Donnell Abú.

The O'Donnell clan ruled over most of Donegal, known as Tir Chonaill (excluding the Inishowen peninsula) from the castle, but were inaugurated as heads of the clan here at Doon Rock near Kilmacrenan in north Donegal. A straight white wand was handed to the chieftain by one of the clan's nobles with the words 'receive the sovereignty of this county and preserve equal and impartial justice in every part of its dominions'.

Donegal Castle may be where they ruled, Ballyshannon where they savoured their finest victory and Rathmullan where they left the island for good, but it here that something truly sacred once occurred, where a pledge was made to the land and its people. In these parts did the last of the chieftains retain autonomy against invader and uphold ancient Irish rule, and it was in places like Dungannon and Doon, that the last great gaels promised to uphold a solemn vow.

Follow a path near Doon Rock to the mass rock, where pilgrims still come to this day; just look at the amount of Holy relics that have been placed on and around the mass rock. This place was used during the Penal Years (1695-1741) when Catholics were not allowed to openly practice their faith. Doon was one of the secret places that Catholics could meet up and attend mass. Priests said mass under pain of death because if they were caught they faced a violent death by being placed in a barrel of nails and thrown over a cliff called ‘Binn an Sagairt’ (hill of the priest) near Doon.

Finally, no-one can go to Doon and not go to see the Holy Well. Every home in Donegal will have a bottle of Holy water from Doon. Situated beside Doon Rock Doon Well is very accessible and is wheelchair friendly, placed in a pretty little garden beside a house the owners tend to the well and garden. Doon Well’s origins are definitely pre-Christian as the natural spring water would have been used in the pagan inauguration ceremonies of the O’Donnell clan.

Bronze age artefacts have been unearthed near the well and there is a ‘togher’, an ancient wooden road that runs underneath the bog adjacent to Doon Rock. It is a very special place and has a holiness and peaceful stillness about it. You almost feel as though you should whisper as you would in a church.
In fact, stations and rosary are still walked from St.Columba’s chapel to Doon Well every New Years Eve and on the day before May 1st.

Doon Well became a Holy well possibly in the 15th century when a man called Lector O’Friel blessed the well. Lector O’Friel was a powerful healer. Sufferers of all sorts of illnesses and incurable conditions came or were carried to see him in the hope of a cure. Many stories are told of the miracles that he preformed. Legend says that when he was in his old age and death was upon him the people became upset at the thought of losing such a holy man into whom God had placed such a wondrous gift. On hearing the peoples lament, Lector O’Friel is reported to have said, “When i die, my powers will live on after me.” With this he blessed the well and told them that those who drank or applied the water would benefit from his prayers of intercession.

The well itself is behind two little wooden doors and there is a plaque that tells you what prayers need to be recited it reads:

Doon Well Prayers of Station

Repeat Our Father and Hail Mary 5 times
And apostles creed for your intention
Repeat same for each bottle of water
Our Father and Hail Mary for Father O’Friel who found it
Our Father and Hail Mary for Father Gallagher who blessed it
Our Father and Hail Mary for the person who put the shelter around it
N.B These prayers must be recited with bared feet.

Grianan of Aileach

Shrine Sixteen: the forgotten dynasty.

Grianan of Aileach, the stonehouse of the sun. According to legend, it was built by Daghda, an ancient King of the Tuatha de Danann. A hillfort that once was at the historical centre where 18 high kings ruled over Ireland. During that time, the acts of its kings, warriors, tribes saints and sages dominate many of the pages of Ireland's history but with scarcely any acknowledgement of the particular place from whence they sprang. Many gifted writers have waxed lyrical regarding the glories of Royal Meath, but as Harry Percival Swan puts it "none have thought fit to mention Royal Inishowen which has an equal if not better right to regal appellation."

Legend has it that Fionn McCool and his warriors lie asleep under this mountain and at Ireland's moment of need, they will rise up and reclaim their ancient land. Anytime now would be good lads! As you look across a vast expanse, consider that this site was once the epicentre of power on this island. It's a fact long forgotten and one that the wording on the nearby rather dull signage won't tell you, but what Swan wrote is well documented and deserves to be remembered for here is a sacred site, a stonehouse of the sun.

Grianan of Aileach - turn off by the iconic Burt church

Lough Swilly from Dunree

Shrine Seventeen: the lost souls.

Certain landscapes, such as the Boyne valley or Kinsale harbour, have borne witness to seminal dates in Irish history. Lough Swilly, whose name appropriately derives from the Gaelic for eyes, “suile” on account of St. Colmcille slaughtering a beast with many eyes on its shores, must rank highly amongst such sites. It is said that when the human memory has been outlived, the landscape remembers; peering across Lough Swilly from Dunree Head, feeling the Atlantic breeze upon one’s face, take a few minutes to sense the redolence of momentous events that helped shape Ireland’s destiny.

To the left of the lough beyond Fahan lies the ancient seat of the high kings of Ireland at Grianan of Aileach. On the right of the lough is the port of Rathmullan, where the old Gaelic order came to an end with the Flight of the Earls on the 14th September 1607. In the garrison town of Buncrana, the Irish patriot Wolfe Tone’s crusade for Irish freedom came to an end on November 3rd 1798 after his boat The Hoche foundered and he was arrested. On the 18th September 1914, the inhabitants along the shore awoke to find the lough filled with warships, becoming the main base of the British fleet under Admiral Jellicoe in World War One. Finally, consider the very soil of Dunree itself and neighbouring Leenan fort, the last parcels of land to be handed back by the British to the Irish on the 3rd October 1938.

Consider the thousands of souls that have passed between Dunree and Saldanha Head across the lough: the forlorn hopes of Wolfe Tone before being apprehended; the despondency of the chieftains fleeing these shores, never to return; the imminent death of 274 people on the H.M.S. Saldanha on the 4th December 1811; the relief of an incoming British battleship at escaping the German mines or the gratitude of the wary traveller such as John Newton arriving on the 8th April 1748 from a tempest, immortalised in his song, Amazing Grace.

St. Eigne's Holy Well

Shrine Eighteen: All's well that ends well.

At the top of Mamore, you should stop off to view St. Eigne's Holy Well, renowned for its healing qualities and situated beside shrines to the Virgin Mother and St. Padre Pio.

There's a small tin jug by the well and you are encouraged to fill a bottle of holy water to bring home and cure ailments from the eyes to the limbs. By the grottos, you will notice relics of deceased, often young people, left by their families. Despite the inhospitality of the terrain, you'll notice how all of the mementos are remarkably well preserved. They are traditionally cleared on the 15th of August , the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the day on which Christ's mother was brought up to Heaven 40 days after her earthly death.

St Padre Pio is a saint particularly close to the Irish. This Italian monk died in 1968 was believed to have both stigmata and the ultimate party piece, bilocation, the power to be in two places at once.

Malin Head

Shrine Nineteen: a parent's farewell.

Ireland's most northerly point overlooks the crashing waves of the Atlantic. Far removed from any city lights, this is the best place in Ireland to witness the full spectacle of the night sky and of a chance to see the Northern Lights. Salute the stars and marvel at this jewel of the north for nowhere else on the island are you more connected with the cosmos than here.

Historically, it is from this lonely point that all major news events from our American cousins reached Europe; from the Yukon gold rush to the assassination of Lincoln, the Lloyd's tower mast on Banba's Crown received the news first. it is also where families bid a final farewell to the many emigrant boats to America, where bonfires were lit and boats sounded their horns in recognition before sailing over the horizon and to a new future. As such, this site is a shrine to the lost generations who waved frantically back at their loved ones, watching the fires burn on this hill until they were out of sight.

An area rich with flora and fauna and the freshest air in Ireland, ensure you walk from the Napoleonic tower on Banba's Crown hill to Malin Head itself taking in such curious sights as Hell's Hole and Devil's Bridge along the way. Good sea angling, hillwalking and birdwatching.

Amelia Earhart's landing spot

Shrine Twenty: when Inishowen became Paris.

Pedants out there may note we're into another jurisdiction, but as we are five fields from Donegal and in light of the fact that the event being honoured, human endeavour and bravery, is far bigger than a border, we'll let it stand.

On the morning of May 20, 1932 the flight pioneer set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland with the intention of flying to Paris in her single engine Lockheed Vega 5b to emulate Charles Lindbergh's solo flight. After a flight lasting 14 hours, 56 minutes during which she contended with strong northerly winds, icy conditions and mechanical problems. To cap all this, petrol had started to trickle down her neck so Earhart made an emergency landing in a pasture at Ballyarnet near the banks of Lough Foyle, a far cry from her intended landing site of gay Paris.

In a masterly stroke of understated smalltalk, a farm hand who'd witnessed the landing asked, "Have you flown far?" Amelia replied crisply "From America". The site now is the home of a small museum, the Amelia Earhart Centre, but its now shut (and it looked it when last checked) so read up on this fascinating woman before making the pilgrimage here.

Earhart was to be declared dead in abstentia on the 5th of January 1937 after another courageous flight ended in mystery when it disappeared without trace.

Beltony Stone Circle

Shrine Twenty one: saluting the Sun.

Raphoe is the smallest cathedral city in Europe, but it a site of worship over a mile south of the 'city' that there stands one of the best preserved stone circles in Ireland. Reputedly older than Stonehenge, it consists of 64 standing stones out of an original 80. Beltony is a corruption of Baal tine, the fire of Baal; this suggests that the inhabitants of this area worshipped Baal, the sun god, and ruler of nature. Tradition tells us that the principal ceremonies were performed at the summer solstice; a sacred fire was lit in the centre of the circle of stones, which represented the stars and fire of the sun god Baal.

The Irish word for the month of May is Bealtine, and two fires were lit on the first day of this month. Domestic animals were then driven between the fires, so as to gain protection against diseases and the dreaded 'Evil Eye'. This custom has also been practised in other Celtic regions such as Scotland and Brittany. One romantic tale suggests that the outlying stone represents a musician, while the circle of stones represents dancers turned to stone for their revelry during the Sabbath. The more sober explanation is the alignment was used to determine astronomical alignments. We know which version we prefer to believe.

Beltony Hill,

McCumhaill Park

Shrine Twenty two: the pride of all.

There is nothing that unites the people of Donegal like its much loved Gaelic football team. The home of the team is in Ballybofey, the centre of the county and it is here that regular training occurs and where many battles have taken place in the championship. The senior team's All Ireland victory of 1992 is still famously remembered and heroes such as McHugh, McMullan and Molloy have been replaced with the current heroes, Lacey, Murphy and McFadden.

Donegal folk don't take too kindly to any derisory comments about the team or its venerated manager, Jim McGuinness - if the Presidential election were being decided in this county, then it would be this McGuinness who'd be in the Park! Beaten by a worthy team of All Ireland champions in 2011, Donegal are a team that others rightly fear and come 2012, they went all the way to win the All Ireland!

Witness a sea of gold and green, a chorus of accents from Pettigo to Bloody Foreland, Glencolmcille to Glengad and a roar that would unnerve the most confident Hill 16 gathering. For pure visceral passion and encouragement, enthusiasm and ecstasy, Donegal Gaelic football support has no equal - well, in public at least...

McCumhaill Park,

Famine Pot

Shrine Twenty three: the great hunger.

From this pot were the impoverished locals fed during the Great Hunger of the late 1840s. It stands as a memorial to all those brave souls that perished during those dark days.

The famine of the 1840s or the Great Hunger, caused by a complete failure of the potato crop, was the most devastating event in 19th century Ireland. The famine pot at Lough Eske reminds us of that sorry period when a million people died of starvation and famine related disease and another million plus were forced to emigrate from the likes of The Hassans near Donegal Town, many of them to die in the coffin ships before reaching their destination.

Up until very recently, the area still had a handful of locals who could recount some poignant tale in their own family which has been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Jim McMullin, from Meenadreen was one such local who recalled many harrowing stories told to him by his grandfather who was one of the lucky ones to live through the famine and die naturally in 1911.

There's further signage about the area by the pot, as well as a good car park and a looped walk starting right beside the pot.

St. Patrick's Purgatory

Shrine Twenty four: time out with a difference.

Located on Station Island in the middle of Lough Derg, this is believed to be where St. Patrick fasted and so do 30,000 pilgrims from June to mid August. It's quite gruelling so check out the website; best to be a genuine pilgrim, not a curious traveller! See the website below for travel details. First boat out to island, 11am. Mentioned in everything from 'McCarthy's Bar' to 'Hamlet' no less, this place has been a big deal for quite some time. As goes with the modern age, there's a less austere version now available that is much shorter in duration. For more on the origins of why it is called St. Patrick's Purgatory, known throughout medieval Europe as the Gates of Hell, read this article:

As a tenuous tie in with the need for 'faith in our fathers', there's a story from the mid nineteenth century about a group of children who encountered a group of fairies dancing to music by the shores of the lough. One of the fairies charged towards the children, striking one girl with a plant. The other children ran home and the girl who was hit had gone into a coma, only waking when a priest visited her...

The Priory, Lough Derg, Pettigo, +353(0)719861518,,
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