Guide to County Donegal: Ireland's Real North

County Donegal is the most northern part of the Irish Province of Ulster, which is even farther north than Northern Ireland. The area has a number of attractions you will not want to miss and some interesting sights that are slightly off the beaten path.

01 of 10

County Donegal Fast Facts

County Donegal on the map of Ireland
Bernd Biege

County Donegal, in the Irish province of Ulster, is the northernmost county, yet is part of the Republic of Ireland. Other interesting facts about the county include:

  • The Irish name for County Donegal is Contae Dhúnna nGall, which translates literally as "Castle of the Strangers." This name is commonly thought to be referring to the Vikings.
  • The Irish car registration letters used on numberplates are DL.
  • The county town is Lifford. Other important towns are Ballybofey, Ballyshannon, Bunchrana, Bundoran, Carndonagh, Donegal Town, Dunglow, Killybegs, Letterkenny, and Stranolar.
  • The size of County Donegal is quite large, at 4,830 square kilometers. Population numbers are much more moderate, according to the 2011 census there are 161,137 people living here.
  • County Donegal can lay claim to a number of nicknames. In the GAA it is known as "the Hills," or "Tyrconnell", or "O'Donnell County"—both referencing an ancient kingdom and former ruling family. Less glamorous is the appellation of "Herring-Gutters", referencing the still busy fishing industry.
02 of 10

Slieve League

The cliffs of Slieve League tower over the Atlantic Ocean
Bernd Biege

The cliffs of Slieve League are the highest sea cliffs in Europe. A nearly sheer drop of roughly 2,000 feet separates the Atlantic Ocean from the highest point of the cliffs. This is a guaranteed lethal drop, so extra care is advised, especially with children. Slieve League is not easy to get to, as it is signposted only locally and is located in the middle of one of the remotest areas in Ireland. Nevertheless, the view is worth every twist and turn it takes to get there.

03 of 10

Tweed Shopping at Magee

Different patterns of tweed fabric
Giulia Fiori Photography / Getty Images 

When you are visiting Donegal Town, you will notice Magee's shop in the center—which also is a sort of center to the tweed trade in the area. The sprawling emporium has everything you need to remind you of your visit to Ireland, from small souvenirs to whole outfits in styles ranging from conservative to modern.

If you are not too exhausted from all the shopping, head to Donegal Castle, which is just around the corner!

04 of 10

Rossnowlagh's Orange Parade

Men in suits and orange sashes march in the Orange Order Parade
Bernd Biege

It is a moment of high weirdness, orange men and women descend upon the sleepy seaside town of Rossnowlagh to parade from the church to the beach. What has the trappings of an outing to the seaside (complete with ice cream vendors, food stands, and tacky souvenir stalls) is, in fact, the only parade of the Orange Order in the Republic of Ireland. If you are in the area in July, be sure to check it out!

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05 of 10

Rathmullan's Tribute to the Flight of the Earls

Sculpture in Rathmullan commemorating the flight of the earls
Eskling / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0 

The Flight of the Earls Heritage Centre in the small town of Rathmullan will provide visitors with a glimpse of the momentous event in Irish history when the rebels Hugh O'Neill and Rory O'Donnell emigrated in 1607, effectively leaving Ireland in the hand of the English.

06 of 10

Glenveagh National Park

The rugged hills and clear waters of Glenveagh National Park
 Raphael Schön / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Glenveagh National Park is the northernmost of the National Parks of Ireland, located on 16,000 acres of mountainside in County Donegal. It is possible to spot eagles and other wildlife in this remote, beautiful wilderness area, which is also known for its rugged mountains and crystal-clear, mirror-like lakes. The park consists, in part, of the old Glenveagh Estate and its mountains, but also the peatlands of Lough Barra bog.

07 of 10

The Mysterious Grianan Ailigh

The stone ring fort at Grianan Aileach
Eskling / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0 

The Grianan Ailigh (or Grianan of Aileach) is a stone structure that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The main section visible today is a ringfort, the original of which was destroyed long ago but was since restored. However, a nearby holy well and other, older structures suggest other historic uses of the site.

08 of 10

Glencolumbkille

A bike rests agains a rural filling station in Glencolumbkille
 Sludge G / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The small village of Glencolumbkille (also known as Glencolmcille or Gleann Cholm Cille) is in a very remote part of the Donegal Gaeltacht, where Irish is frequently spoken.

In 1951, Father James McDyer developed the first community facilities in an area that did not even have electricity at the time and tried to stop the general decline of the village. One of his ideas was the re-development of small, local industries and a visitor-friendly folk village and museum. This early endeavor at developing tourism in Donegal is still worth visiting.

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09 of 10

Spiritual Healing at Saint Patrick's Purgatory

Statue of St Patrick, Lough Derg
Alain Le Garsmeur / Getty Images

This is not a tourist attraction, but a pilgrimage site strictly open to those seeking meaning and direction or simply quiet contemplation. For any traveler wanting to experience the spirituality of Ireland, Lough Derg (also known as Saint Patrick's Purgatory) is worth serious consideration.

10 of 10

Traditional Music in County Donegal

Musician's playing in O'Donoghue's Bar in Dublin, Ireland
Tim Clayton / Corbis / Getty Images

Visiting County Donegal and stuck for something to do in the evening? Well, you could do worse than head out into a local pub which, by default, will be an "original Irish pub." Once there, why not join a traditional Irish session? Most sessions start at around 9:30 pm, or whenever a few musicians have gathered.