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Donegal, the beginning of the Wild Atlantic Way

, by Kerri O'Connor

Donegal Bay, sitting proud on the Wild Atlantic Way, is the largest and possibly most beautiful bay that Ireland has to offer. On it sits the highest sea Cliffs in Europe, which if you look closely from the top you can see the coastline of our neighbouring counties. Slieve League is incomparable in its natural beauty and charm and we’re lucky to have such a magnificent height from which to appreciate the tranquil expanse of the bay. As well as its rugged landscapes, Donegal Bay houses some of the most popular surfing beaches in Europe, Rossnowlagh and Bundoran where the world championship was held in recent years. Not only does it have these very adventure-filled spots, it also has a healthy balance of peaceful picturesque beaches.

The very heart of Donegal is history. In its centre, on the river Eske the O’Donnells, a royal family that ran the Kingdom Of Tir Chonaill built a beautiful stone castle in 1474. It sits vast and tall keeping a protective eye over the each entrance into the town to this day. An interesting story told amongst locals is that because blood was traditionally used in the building of a castle’s mortar, the O’Donnell’s required a pail from each person in the locality.

A tale has it that a widow was asked to supply animal blood numerous times which she didn’t see pleasing. She brought her complaint to O’Donnell himself saying he was being too tough on his own relatives. When he asked her relation to him she revealed that she was his cousin sixteen times removed. He deemed this too far removed it was not worth talking about. The woman then filled a pail of sixteen measures of water and one of milk. The water changed colour stirring O'Donnell to exempt the widow

As they ruled from 1200s to the 1600s, the O’Donnells resided in this castle themselves specifically and probably most famously Red Hugh himself. The son of Ineen Dubh and Hugh O'Donnell, Red Hugh was appointed Chieftain O’Domhnaill in 1592. As a boy on his fifteenth birthday he was captured and taken to Dublin castle where he was held captive for four years only to escape and battle the freezing cold on his return to Donegal.

Red Hugh lead a rebellion against the English in the Nine Year War with their allies, the Maguires and the O’Neill’s. Following this, he helped the Spanish troops arrive in 1601 as they looked to aid the Irish in their Battle against the British. Spanish forces landed in Kinsale and Red Hugh set out on the long journey to meet them which today would equate to an estimate of 5 and a half hours by car. The battle of Kinsale commenced in December 1601 when Lord Mountjoy arrived with the English army to lay siege into the town. The battle was long and grueling but won by the English. Red Hugh then subsequently left Ireland and travelled to Spain in search of aid. Yet, after a short illness, he died at just 30 years old. is buried in Valladolid in Spain.

Not only did the O’Donnell’s build Donegal Castle, they also built a Franciscan monastery just at the entrance to the bay. Here you can sit among its ruins and try and imagine the lives it has seen come and go. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there is a local legend of a tunnel connecting the two but it has yet to be discovered.

The O’Donnell’s didn’t stop there either, as you look over the water in Lough Eske in the centre sits a small patch of land named ‘O’Donnell’s keep’. This was where the O’Donnell family held their captives. This is personally one of my favourite things about this area. There is so much history living here that even a small patch of greenery in the centre of a lake has a rich past.

On the lake also sits Solis Castle Hotel, which the O’Donnell’s built as a castle by the lake in 1474. It was expanded and the newer castle was built onto it in 1861 by the Brooke family who inherited the estate after the Fight of the Earls. The ruins of the castle itself were disregarded, plant growth threatening to toss its historic walls . The current owners saw something special in these ruins and restored it back to its original grandeur. To this day, you can see the coat of arms of its previous owners, the Brooke family, carved into stone into the entryway. Solis has very clearly and beautifully captured life in this time with linking their décor back to a 20 th Century Edwardian Mansion. I, for one, am happy they were able to restore and protect such a pivotal place in our history in Donegal Town.

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