Sunday, 15 December 2013

Delectable Donegal: Climbing Errigal and Slieve League

Donegal, a magical corner of Ireland: remote, not on the way to anywhere, a land of wide open spaces and big skies. Friel's Donegal, a place of jagged coastline and treacherous cliffs, shimmering loughs, heathery moors and bogs hemmed in by mountains. Its primitive charm and its wildness have also spawned some of Ireland’s finest musicians. Their languid, ethereal tunes, many sung in the haunting cadence of Gaelic, conjure up images of this timeless land. You don’t just ‘see’ Donegal, you ‘feel’ it.

We set out mid afternoon on a cold November day to climb Mackoght and then the steep quartize giant, Errigal, the highest summit in County Donegal. The air was cold and crisp atop Mackoght and mist drifted periodically up over the shattered scree covered NE face of Errigal which looked virtually unassailable from this angle. Joining the tourist path we quickly attained the summit of Donegal's most iconic mountain to feast our eyes upon sublime 360 degree views. The setting sun cast a pool of rosy light upon the scalloped face of Aghla More and the loughs of Dunlewey and Nacung blushed pink. On our descent, the full moon rose and stars began to wink in the firmament. The moonlight reflected off the bog pools like shattered shards of a giant’s mirror and it was so bright it was possible to see without head torches.

After booking in at Errigal Youth Hostel in Dunlewey, we headed for the Tábhairne Leo at Gweedore, renowned for nurturing world famous musical talents Enya, Clannad and Moya Brennan. The clientele was amazingly colourful as is often the case in littoral societies which always seem to harbour colonies of 'bohemian types' who find that there is nowhere left to run, so just settle downA tall man with a face like a nutcracker, whom a very gossipy local lady at our table duly informed me was Dutch, wore apparel like that of a Puritan preacher complete with broad rimmed black hat, while a middle aged lady originally from South Dublin sporting peacock feathers in her 1920’s hairdo, cruised the bar area, wine glass in hand. The place was packed to the rafters as the musicians struck up sometime after ten, the rhythmic beat of the bodhrán contrasting with the plaintive, mellow notes of the flute. ‘Níl sé ina lá’ sang the band, ‘níl sé ina lá is ní bheidh go maidin’, as my mind, hazy from the Guinness, began to wander. ‘De ye know ‘Tuoer-kee?’ enquired another local woman at our table, who had told me her entire life story in fifteen minutes. Smiling banally, I wondered what on earth ‘Turkey’ had to do with me being from Cornwall... the Guinness began to flow more freely. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to 'drink here 'til the morning' as in the lyrics of Níl sé ina lá’ and like many of the locals undoubtedly can and would, we quietly slipped away during the distraction of the draw of a raffle in aid of Donegal Mountain Rescue, arriving back at the hostel sometime past midnight.
The land steamed as the morning sun gently released it from the icy grip of the night. There’s something about the quality of the light in Donegal - a translucence that enlivens the russet heather, green mosses and warm bands of coloured rock in the cliffs of Slieve League, exposed and polished by the storms of countless ages, and contrasts with the deep blue of the sea and sky. The cliffs truncated by ice and ocean are stupendous, the sea so far below the waves appear silent. On a perfectly still and sunny autumn afternoon we took the cliff path, scrambling the airy arête at Kerringear and One Man’s Pass to the summit. Panoramic views unfolded: Benbulben, Nephin, Achill Island, and even distant Croagh Patrick. Inland a sea of mountain-tops receded in tumultuous waves as far as the rounded head of Slieve Snaght and the distinctive quartzite cone of Errigal, which we had assailed the day before. We completed our circular walk via the Pilgrim’s Path to Bunglass as night fell and the moonlight shimmered over this enchanting landscape.


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