County Donegal’s cultural and economic ties to neighbouring Northern Ireland and its geographical separation from the rest of the Republic give it a uniquely Irish identity. While it may have Ulster influences, a third of the county is Gaeltacht (predominantly Irish speaking) and it has as much history, culture and charm as any other Irish region – plus some of the best scenery the island has to offer.
Historic sites in Donegal
The ancient, myth-shrouded site of Grianan an Aileach has existed – in one form or another – for millennia and is an important part of Gaelic history. St Patrick is said to have visited the hilltop site in the 5th century to baptise Eoghan, the local chieftain. Visitors today will see a 19th century reconstruction of the ringfort thought to have been destroyed by the king of Munster Muircheartach Ua Briain in 1101; and on a clear day, enjoy a commanding panorama of the Donegal landscape.
Five Fingers Strand, Co. Donegal
For more jaw-dropping views with a generous dose of history, go to Fanad Head. The working lighthouse here is one of the 12 Great Lighthouses of Ireland and visitors can tour the premises and hear stories about the 200-year-old lighthouse’s many keepers and their work. You can even stay at one of the self-catering cottages on site.
Don’t miss a tour of Glenveagh Castle, found on the shores of Lough Veagh. It was built around 1870 by Captain John George Adair, a member of the Irish minor gentry and US landowner who was married to Texas-born Cornelia Wadsworth, daughter of an American Civil War general. The grand mansion was later purchased by Harvard professor Arthur Kingsley Porter, and subsequently owned by a Philadelphia socialite before being returned to the Irish people to allow for the creation of the Glenveagh National Park, which is home to the largest herd of red deer in Ireland.
Grianán of Aileach, Co. Donegal
For an overnight castle experience, book a romantic stay at the five-star Lough Eske Castle hotel and spa – in the 16th century the surrounding area was home to the O’Donnell clan, one of Ireland’s most powerful ruling families.
Things to do in Donegal
There are thousands of things to see and do along the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500km tourist trail spanning the entire west coast of Ireland. It starts on Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula, where you’ll find Blue Flag beaches Culdaff and Shroove, as well as the most northerly point of Ireland, beautiful Malin Head (recently featured in Star Wars: The Last Jedi).
Errigal, Co. Donegal
Up for a challenge? For a bird’s eye view of the county’s loughs and rolling hills, consider climbing Mount Errigal (2,464 ft) if weather permits. Alternatively, tackle the short, well-signposted, family-friendly hike to Glenevin Waterfall, taking advantage of its new picnic areas.
Other beauty spots in County Donegal include the dramatic Sliabh Liag cliffs, said to be the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Walk in the footsteps of pilgrims and visit the clifftop viewpoint to soak up the scenery from on high, or join a boat or kayak tour to get a perspective from the sea.
Beadlet anemone, Malin Beg, Co. Donegal
A smattering of islands can be found along Donegal’s coast, many of which are uninhabited. The most accessible island is Arranmore (twinned with Beaver Island, Lake Michigan), which is peppered with WWII lookouts, ancient forts and prime bird spotter locations.
From Donegal County Museum in Letterkenny (the county’s largest town) to St Conall’s Museum and Heritage Centre (one of Ireland’s best small-town museums), there are plenty of ways to discover Donegal’s history. Perhaps the best of all is The Glencolmcille Folk Village on the Gaeltacht Glencolmcille Peninsula; the living museum features replicate 18th, 19th and 20th century Irish dwellings as well as a school and pub.
Need a new suit? Or perhaps a souvenir? Consider visiting Magee of Donegal. Established in 1866 as a drapers, this historic tweed company offers hand weaving demonstrations and a made-to-measure service, as well as countless traditional Irish tweed products made in colours inspired by Donegal’s landscape – from purple heather to moss green.
Trá Na Rossan Beach, Co. Donegal
Best food and drink in Donegal
Sample craft beer and catch a live trad music session at Dicey Reillys Bar in Ballyshannon, the oldest town in Ireland. For a real party, time your visit with the town’s annual folk and traditional music festival, held each August. Spirits your tipple of choice? Try a seaweed-infused small-batch gin at the new Sliabh Liag Distillers.With its long, craggy coastline and rich maritime heritage, Donegal is the place for fresh seafood. Killybegs is home to one of Ireland's biggest fishing ports; taste the catch of the day at raspberry-pink farmhouse Kitty Kelly's (frequented by Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker, who owns a holiday home nearby) or Killybegs Seafood Shack.
Our 101 team have been working with local tourism, business, community and Council initiatives to bring you some of the best ways for you to live your connection to Donegal.
My ancestors came from County Donegal to United States (McNutt) and possibly Taylor’s, both direct lines thru my dad. I want to find out more and learn about my ancestors.
My Kelly-Mulheron family left Ballybofey or Lettekenny in about 1820 with at least 2 sons: Charles W. and Patrick. Son James Joseph remained behind and came years later with a wife and children. They came to New Erin, Quebec, Canada. Would love to know if any relatives remained behind. Thanks
Donegal County Council runs a pretty cool Diaspora Festival each year which is growing in numbers each year. We will post some info on it asap.
Donegal has a incredible coastline and set of hills and mountains. When you visit you will see how it was picked as a setting for a recent Star Wars movie.
Hi Jamelia - we are close to launching our 'missing ancestors' database and a new team of Irish Genealogy Services, so watch this space. Either one will help you.
My ancestors came from County Donegal to United States (McNutt) and I'm trying to find out all I can on County Donegal and my ancestors.