Emerald Isle lives up to its name

 09/17/2013 | 06:25 PM 

~ Visitors to Ireland quickly discover how the island acquired its name ~

The damp summers, rainy winter months and fertile soil have combined to create a lush landscape that has been praised in songs and literature, and captured on canvas. It is possible to travel for hundreds of miles without seeing the horizon spoiled by smokestacks or pollution. Here, a tradition of living close to and respecting the land has made the island a jewel in every sense of the word.

The Slieve League Cliffs, said to be some of the highest in Europe, provide a spectacular vantage point for looking out across the ocean on Ireland's northwest coast.

The Slieve League Cliffs, said to be some of the highest in Europe, provide a spectacular vantage point for looking out across the ocean on Ireland’s northwest coast.

It is possible to cross the country from Dublin to Donegal County in about four hours on a combination of motorways (divided highways) and secondary roads. Driving in Ireland is not for the fainthearted though because like the United Kingdom, traffic keeps to the left and the steering wheel is on the right. It is the right turn that requires an extra look before turning and traffic circles (called roundabouts) must be entered going left, not right. For North American drivers this requires a sort of re-wiring of the brain and constant attention – not so easy when the countryside offers such spectacular scenery. The countryside has something for everyone, including the Derryveagh Mountains in the north and the Bluestacks in the south, rivers, lakes and the famous Irish seacoast and legendary rolling green hills.

Speaking of driving in Ireland, it is a good idea to allow extra time to travel since most of the local roads are very narrow and do not have shoulders. The speed limit on the majority of these roads is a quick 100 kilometers per hour, or about 62 miles per hour leaving little margin for error. In addition, it is not unusual to encounter sheep in the roadway. The sheep are remarkably adept at getting out of the way of traffic, but it is still startling to come up on them without warning.

The reputation the Irish people have for being warm and fun-loving is well-deserved. Visitors are welcomed and treated with hospitality and good will. For those searching for relatives or ancestors, local information is often the best way to get started and local folks are quick to point searchers in the right direction.

There are far more sheep than cattle in Ireland. They wander freely in the road but are quite adept at getting out of the way of traffic. Farmers don't brand or tag their cattle but favor splotches of brightly colored paint to identify their animals.

There are far more sheep than cattle in Ireland. They wander freely in the road but are quite adept at getting out of the way of traffic. Farmers don’t brand or tag their cattle but favor splotches of brightly colored paint to identify their animals.

The northwest coast of Ireland is some of the most rugged found on the island and Donegal County is home to the Slieve League (Sliabh Liag) cliffs, reported to be some of the highest in Europe. Access to the cliffs is by a narrow road that begins in the town of Carrick. It is easy to miss the road, but patience is soon rewarded with breathtaking views of famous Glen Gesh on the way to the coast. There is a lower parking area and visitors can walk from the parking area to the cliffs, but the steep road is not for the out of shape. It is permitted to drive to another parking area in view of the cliffs by opening a gate at the foot of the road. Like all good visitors, it is expected that the gate will be closed and care taken not to let the sheep escape.

Sheep are plentiful across the country and the Slieve League cliffs are no exception. The highland sheep are extremely agile and surefooted and can be seen grazing all along the cliffs. According to local people, the sheep simply don’t have mishaps and manage to avoid falling from the cliffs.

Glen Gesh cuts a swath through the highlands on the way to Slieve League. The panoramic view is a reminder that Ireland has plenty of hills and mountains.

Glen Gesh cuts a swath through the highlands on the way to Slieve League. The panoramic view is a reminder that Ireland has plenty of hills and mountains.

The high country is blanketed by heather which seems to favor the peaty soil prevalent in Ireland. In rural areas, many homeowners still cut strips of peat and stack it to dry, ready to use for cooking and heating fuel. Vast areas of land reveal the ridges that have resulted from the cutting of these strips of peat, which can be up to 30 feet deep.

Nearby, the small coastal town of Teelin provides a glimpse of Irish life with its neat cottages, abundant flowerbeds and small fishing boats. Teelin and indeed, much of Donegal County is Gaeltacht or Irish speaking. In these areas Gaelic or Irish is spoken in the home and is the primary language in the schools.

Continuing northwest along the coast is the area of Malin Beg, another stretch of rugged coastline with steep cliffs and jagged rocks sticking up from the crashing waves. At both Malin Beg and Slieve League, there are signal towers within sight of each other. The towers were built between 1804 and 1808 in anticipation of a feared Napoleonic invasion. The towers continue along the entire Irish coast. Although the invasion never materialized, the towers stand to this day as a reminder of the vulnerability of the island nation.

Donegal County was hit hard by the famine of the mid 1800s. To add to the misery, potato blight which swept across Europe wiped out the primary source of food for the Irish. By 1850 historians report a million had died of starvation and disease and another 1.5 million had left the country. Since Donegal County was a main departure point for those seeking to leave the country, many who had walked as far as 150 miles in an already weakened condition, died while waiting to board ships headed to America and Canada. Today famine graveyards are a solemn testament to the hardships suffered by those who died.

The town of Donegal is surprisingly busy, boasting several good hotels and numerous restaurants where seafood, lamb and other local favorites can be enjoyed, often with excellent views of the Eske River and Donegal Bay. The town has a bakery, book store and a number of high end clothing stores offering items made from genuine Irish wool. It is also home to Donegal Castle, seat of power to the O’Donnell clan which held dominance until around 1600. The castle is now operated as a historic site and can be toured for a nominal fee.

The Donegal Waterbus departs daily for a 90 minute tour around Donegal Bay and includes an informative narration about the history of the area, and if you are lucky, a sing-a-long that delights young and old alike. There are several islands in the bay where livestock are raised and because of the tides, the owners are able to simply walk them back and forth at low tide.

County Donegal is also home to Killybegs, Ireland’s premier fishing port. On any given day the harbor is host to a number of large fishing vessels and shops boast of the availability of fresh caught Atlantic fish. The road from Killybegs to Carrick is a scenic drive past seacoast and quaint villages and farms. Lush pasture land is separated into sheep pens by seemingly endless walls constructed from native stones, which appear to be plentiful in the soil.

For beautiful scenery, friendly people, great food and a mild climate it’s tough to beat Ireland for a vacation to remember. You will need an umbrella, a warm jacket for blustery days, a camera and a spirit of adventure. Ireland will provide all the rest!

Story and photos by Mary Breslin

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