The Forgotten County
I first came to County Donegal in Ireland way back in the summer of 1999. If it hadn’t been for the book I was reading at the time telling of Tory Island and its most famous resident, I might never have ventured up into this corner of the Republic of Ireland. I might also have thought that Donegal was part of Northern Ireland, as I suspect many do. However, thankfully this was not the case because I would have been deprived of seeing one of Ireland’s most beautiful counties, and of discovering a little known tourist attraction.
‘So why do think more people don’t come here?’ was a question I was asked when doing an interview for Highland Radio in Letterkenny. It was an interesting question, and one for which I didn’t really have an answer.
I’d been travelling in Ireland for many years and often came to visit County Donegal whenever I got the chance. On my first trip to Northern Donegal, I stayed in the beauty and tranquillity of Bunbeg Harbour, and at the luxurious Bunbeg House. The harbour is sheltered from the storms of the North Sea and it’s a short walk along a country road to the village of Bunbeg itself. Bunbeg, Derrybeg and Gweedore pretty much run into each other. Even if you could understand the Gaelic signs you still wouldn’t know if you’d left one village for another. The area claims to be one of the most densely populated rural areas in Western Europe. For this trip, I returned to Bunbeg once again.
I spent my days exploring the area. From the rugged, wild beauty of the Bloody Foreland (the coastline stretching east from Bunbeg to Magheroarty) to Mt Errigal, the Poisoned Glen and the stunning Glenveagh National Park, this part of Ireland is a true wilderness packed with all the wild natural beauty County Donegal has to offer.
At 751-metres (2,464 ft) Errigal is also the most southern, steepest and highest of the mountain chain, called the “Seven Sisters” by locals. It’s distinctive conical shape makes it recognisable from miles around. A trail leads to the top starting from the car park off the R251 road in Dunlewey, or you can start your hike from behind the nearby Errigal Youth Hostel.
Dunlewey - Lugh's Fort
Dunlewey (Dun Luiche), which means Lugh’s Fort, is named after the Celtic demigod Lugh, Grandson of Balor of the Evil Eye, the feared leader of an ancient race known as the Formorians. Their base was on Tory Island. Balor’s druid had told him of a prophecy where he would be killed by his grandson. So to ensure this prophecy didn’t come true, he locked away his only daughter, Eithne in a glass tower on the eastern promontory of Tory.
However, the Cian, warrior of the Tuatha de Danann, while on a visit to Tory, broke into the tower and seduced Eithne and nine months later she gave birth to Triplet. Balor cast all three babies into the sea, but unbeknown to him Lugh was rescued by the sea god, Manannan mac Lir, who whisked him off to Spain to be raised by Tailltiu, the daughter of the King of Spain.
Lugh returned to this region as a grown man and warrior of the Tuatha de Dannan. He built a fort here, and eventually fulfilled his prophecy and killed Balor in a great battle on the Plain of Moy Tura, in County Sligo.
Ireland and Donegal's little known tourist attraction
It was here that I discovered an intriguing, and possibly little known fact. I phoned a journalist friend in Wexford, who is actually from Donegal. Upon learning that I was in his home county, he proceeded to list all the things I should see. The most intriguing place he mentioned was Rossnowlagh Beach. Not only is it viewed as one of the best beaches in Ireland, but is also the area where the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had his first pint of Guinness. It turns out that Tony blair’s mother was born in Ireland, and right here in Donegal in fact. It seems that a young Tony was taken by his father to a local pub while visiting one time and got his first taste of the local nectar.
‘It’s somewhere around that area,’ said Marty. ‘I’m not sure exactly where, but just ask anyone and they’ll be able to tell you.’
So I set off with the intention of seeking out this place.
Heading to Southern Donegal
While Northern Donegal has the rugged, rocky Derryveagh Mountains, the southern landscape is much greener with dense forest and deep valleys cutting through the lovely Blue Stack Mountains. We took a winding road through a valley dotted with sheep, many of whom seemed to think they had as much right to be on the road as the cars, if not more. This was exemplified by one asleep in the middle of the road as I came around a corner.
The best hostel in Donegal
Nestled at the edge of these mountains and sitting beside the ocean is the small village of Glencolmcille, which contains the fantastic Dooey Hostel.
The Dooey Hostel is the flagship property for the IHO (Independent Hostel Owners).
The hostel is set high up on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the bay. At the end of a long corridor we were greeted by Mary, a little old lady with wild hair, a wry grin and a mischievous look in her eyes. Immediately Mary thrust out her hand and extended her warmest welcome. Behind her stood Leo, who handed us a tray with two cups of tea and a plateful of biscuits. Downstairs there was a large kitchen. Mary then led us upstairs to the common room. We stepped through the door into a long, spacious room with dining tables, a fireplace and a couple of sofas in the far corner. A set of large bay windows, the length of the room, looked out across the mountains, ocean and down into the valley. The view was breathtaking.
We stayed here for a couple of days then headed off to another great hostel in nearby Kilkar, The Derrylahan hostel.
Slieve League sea cliffs
Our reason for coming here was to view the Slieve League, which are among the highest sea cliffs in Donegal and the whole of Ireland. At the village of Carrick we turned off for Teelin. To view the cliffs you can drive up to a car park at the Bunglas viewing point, or hike a trail from the bottom. At the car park, we hiked up a small hill and sat atop watching the sheer face of the 300-metre cliffs change colour with the setting of the sun.
The next morning we headed off on the final leg of our trip around Donegal. Rossnowlagh Beach lies just north of Ballyshannon, and is highly popular among surfers. Its other great feature is that you can drive onto the beach itself.
The most prominent feature of Rossnowlagh Beach is the Sandhouse Hotel, on the side of which is the Surfer’s Bar. I figured this would be a good place to start my search for this famous pub. I wandered in and up to the bar, a little unsure of what to say.
‘Hi there,’ I said to the barmaid. ‘I’ve been told that Tony Blair had his first pint of Guinness in this area. Is this true?’
‘Oh sure!’ she replied. ‘It was either here, or Whoriskey’s.’
It turned out to be Whoriskey’s, in nearby Cashelard.
Whoriskey’s - AKA The Traveller's Rest
Now, local people in Ireland will call a pub by the name of the owners, and not by its official name. So when I pulled up in Cashelard and could only see a pub called The Travellers Rest, I was confused.
Cashelard is a tiny village, and there was no sign of another pub.
I wandered inside and was greeted by a young man behind the bar.
‘Hi, is this Whoriskey’s?’ I asked.
‘It is,’ he replied.
‘And is this the pub where Tony Blair had his first pint of Guinness?’
‘That’s right,’ he laughed.
‘Great!’ I replied. ‘We’ve found it.’
There was an awkward pause. Well, I’ve found it, I thought. Great… so what do I do now? Guess we should have a drink.
A Warm Donegal Welcome
We all sat down and ordered our drinks. The barman chatted for a while, but didn’t really seem to have anything more to offer on the subject of Tony Blair. I actually felt a little let down. We had finally found this place and now it was all over, there was nothing more to it. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I had hoped for a more fitting end.
Almost in response to my plea, an old lady appeared behind the bar, greeted us and asked what we were doing in this little backwater of Ireland. I told her, and she immediately went away and returned with a pile of newspaper clippings.
This was more like it.
The event was first revealed back in November 1998 when the media tracked down this pub, and for a brief moment the Travellers Rest was thrust into the limelight. Rose, the old lady with us now, and her husband Vinnie Whoriskey were running the pub at the time.
‘Do you get a lot of people coming in here asking about this?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ replied Rose, with a wink. ‘I tell them all that he was sitting at that table over there when he was here, but that table wasn’t even there back then.’
Tony Blair’s maternal grandparents were Sally Lipsett from Ballyshannon and George Corscaden from nearby Cashelard. George and Sally lived in Glasgow after their marriage in 1918, but Sally was home on a visit to her family in Ballyshannon when she gave birth to Blair’s mother, Hazel, in 1922.
Tony Blair revealed his Donegal roots shortly after becoming Prime Minister.
He told how he spent his childhood on holiday in Rossnowlagh and Cashelard with his parents, and recalled having his first sip of Guinness when his father took him to the only pub in Cashelard, the Travellers Rest.
Vinnie and Rose retired and sold the pub to their son Brendan, who came in shortly after. However, they said they still liked to be around the place from time to time to help out, and of course to chat to the customers.
Sadly Rose Whoriskey passed away back in 2015. RIP
My most expensive book
When Rose went away I got chatting to Brendan and explained why I was here and what I was doing. When I showed him the flier for my book he recognised it from the Donegal newspaper who had recently run an article about me and my book.
‘Do you have a copy with you?’ he asked.
‘Sure do,’ I replied. ‘I’ve got a van full of them. Do you want to buy one?’
‘Sure, I’ll buy one off you.’
So I popped out to the van to get one.
‘How much is it?’ he asked, when I returned.
He pushed a bunch of notes totalling fifty Euros towards me.
‘No, I said ten Euros,’ I replied.
‘That’s okay,’ he said.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. ‘No, no. I couldn’t accept this!’ I gulped.
‘Ah, don’t worry,’ he said. ‘Use the rest to buy your guardian angels some drinks tonight.’ He pointed to the two girls who were travelling with me.
‘Well… if you insist,’ I replied. ‘Thank you very much.’
So there it was, a much more fitting end to this journey. We left the pub shortly after and headed off to Sligo, me with an extremely fat wallet and a big smile on my face. I love County Donegal.
Directions to the Traveller's Rest
Directions to the Traveller’s Rest, Cashelard: From Ballyshannon take the N15 north towards Donegal Town. A few miles out of Ballyshannon turn right at a very small sign for Cashelard. The country road will take you a couple miles past the creamery and finally into Cashelard. The pub is next to a small church.