Inishowen: even if you know Ireland well, this part of the island may seem a bit off the beaten path. It is in the far north of Donegal, in the Republic, though the nearest city of any size is Derry, which is in Northern Ireland. One good way to learn about the history, landscape, and present day life of this peninsula is to explore the far north of Ireland by taking the driving route called the Inishowen 100.
If you happen to be from the US or Canada or another large country, you might be thinking the hundred miles of the route’s name is not very much distance to explore. Have no worries, though, there’s more than enough to see and do and learn as you follow this route. Part of the Wild Atlantic Way follows the Inishowen 100, in fact. Give yourself time to slow down and take in what awaits you, from waterfalls to surfers to stories of history to present day towns to starry nights.
The route circles around the peninsula so you can start out by going right or left. Whichever direction appeals you will likely begin at the town of Bridge End, just a bit northwest of Derry.
If you take the right hand route you will first be driving along the shores of Lough Foyle; if you go to the left, you will be going along Lough Swilly. Either way, eventually, at the top of the route you will come to the Atlantic Sea and to Malin Head and Banba’s Crown, the northernmost points in Ireland. This area has had a history of communication with ships at sea, including a signal station built in 1805 and modern day Irish Coast Guard communication. Not quite so touristed as some other land’s end sort of places and with a history stretching back in time, what you will find here invites natural connection with the sea.
The whole of the Inishowen peninsula is connected with the waters, from sailing ships of the past to those who worked the waters as fishermen to present day visitors who come to challenge themselves by surfing the usually cold and sometimes rough waters. There’s another sea connection too, a rather unexpected one: the well known hymn Amazing Grace had its beginnings in Inishowen. John Newton was a harsh and profane English trader in slaves, working on a ship that took shelter from rough seas in the harbor at Buncrana. While there he returned to reading his Bible which he had set aside long before. Several years later he left the slave trade, became a curate in England, and wrote Amazing Grace, which is said to be inspired by his time waiting out the storm in Buncrana.
Newton wrote the song in English, but this version of Amazing Grace in Scottish Gaelic sung by Karen Matheson
seems to go well with this drive
There is history in Inishowen that goes back further. One reminder of this is Patrick’s Cross in Carndonagh. Archaeologists have dated it to the seventh century, making it one of the earliest surviving crosses in the whole of Ireland. In form the cross in quite basic, but be sure to look at the interlacing carvings in the stone.
There are museums around the route which help tell the story of this place, too, among them Fort Dunree, which tells about military history, and the Doagh Centre which traces life in the area from the time of the Great Hunger to the present day.
These museums help you understand the story of the place. Houses set in town and country side, the landscapes they are set in, the music that holds hints of Scotland just across the water as well as deeply Irish roots, and the winding road you will be driving tell you those stories too.
In seeing those landscapes, you may want to keep an eye out for the Gap of Mamore — if you are the driver you will have to as the road winds a bit as you go through it (a few of the bends in the road in that area are in the photograph at the top of this story). Glenevin waterfall is another site to make time for; it makes a good place to stop and take it in from the designated walkway and perhaps have a picnic if the weather’s fine.
If the weather’s fine you will surely be drawn to pause in your drive at one or more of Inishowen’s beaches too. Five Finger Strand is a favorite, and there are many others along the hundred mile route. If you love birds, there is a wildfowl reserve on Inch Island that you will want to visit.
What if the weather is not fine? The views can still be beautiful in cold or foggy weather, it’s true, but perhaps it might be time to seek out a pub in one of the towns and see if there is a session on to hear some fine Inishowen music. O’Flaherty’s in Buncrana, The Rusty Nail in Clonmany, Doherty’s in Carndonagh, and Lily’s in Malin town are likely prospects, and there are others you will no doubt notice as you travel.
As you are preparing for your trip you may want to check out the music of Ciaran Tourish who plays with the top Irish traditional group Altan (he is in the video above with band mates in Altan and guest Liz Carroll), or fiddler and music scholar Liz Doherty, both of whom grew up in Inishowen.
As day turns to night over this far northern part of Ireland, there is reason to linger. If the season is right, Inishowen is perhaps the best place in Ireland to catch the northern lights out at their dances. Whatever the season, the clear dark skies far from bright city lights make a fine place to look up and see the stars.
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