Between Derry and the deep blue sea

Its position on the map makes County Donegal unique, Hugh O'Shaugnessy discovers
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The Independent Travel
Before I set out for the northwest of Ireland, friends in Dublin warned me about the habits of the locals, much as the lords of the Raj in Delhi would have warned those going to the northwest frontier of India. "They're strange people up there," I was told by Dubliners who clearly had little first-hand knowledge of the area. But they did admit that I would see some of the finest scenery in Ireland.

They were certainly right about the scenery. As I drove out of the quiet village of Ramelton recently, a perfect rainbow leapt out of an arm of the sea, over the neat green fields and on to the gentle hills to the west. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet; the colours were distinct and sharp in the clear air after the early-morning shower. Had the scene been engineered on television by some enterprising advertising agency it would have been ridiculed as too impossibly beautiful to take seriously.

But this magical landscape is populated by real people living working lives. Were they strange, as the Dubliners said? If people greeting you in the street and waving to you as you drive by on country roads is strange, then they are very strange.

The people of County Donegal, who occupy a peculiar geographical position, often feel misunderstood. Their county, together with Cavan and Monaghan, has from time immemorial been part of the historic province of Ulster. But these three counties continued to be ruled from Dublin after the six remaining counties of Ulster were split off in 1922 to become Northern Ireland. The Donegal people feel no less identification with historic Ulster because they are part of the Republic; they display a certain testiness when the lazy or the unwary use Ulster as a synonym for Northern Ireland.

Donegal's link with the rest of the Republic seems often tenuous. The county is connected to the Republic by a corridor of land only a few miles wide, and feels somehow isolated and different. Its nearest big city is Derry - in Northern Ireland - and Donegal has a much longer border with the rich United Kingdom than it does with sister County Leitrim in the poorer Republic.

The needs of the people of Donegal, they say, are overlooked when governments draw up budgets in Dublin. The Donegal telephone system, for instance, was the last to get direct dialling, and some of the roads are not of the island's best. And tourism in this peaceful part of the country suffers when there is violence on the other side of the border. So was the rainbow, I wondered, some divine intervention to redress the balance? After all, the place already has a great variety of scenic beauty, as the Dubliners said, and the hand of man has often - though not always - embellished it.

The county is riven with inlets- Lough Swilly, Sheep Haven, Mulroy Bay - where the sea squeezes inland between towering mountains. The mountains themselves are sometimes barren and wild, their flanks useful for nothing but pine woods or turf-cutting. At Slieve League, the cliffs fall more than 600 metres into the ocean. Yet a few miles further on, the landscape turns as smiling and bucolic as any in Europe. It is a concentration in one place of every sort of thing that Ireland has to offer - including good golf and fine fishing.

Glenveagh, for instance, is a 25,000-acre estate complete with a Victorian Gothic castle and supernatural Victorian legends, on the side of the mountains which fall steeply into Lough Veagh. It is as rough, imposing and grandiose as anything in the Scottish Highlands. Bought by an American magnate whose family fortune had come from McIlhenny's tabasco sauce, it was presented to the nation and has been tastefully turned into a national park.

A few miles to the south, the Glebe House and Gallery is a place of soft Arcadian mildness. Built as a rectory in 1828 and painted rust red, in 1953 it became the home of the English painter Derek Hill, who filled it with paintings and objets d'art and has also made it over to the nation. At the Glebe, William Morris and Evie Hone rub shoulders with Picasso and Landseer; John Sell Cotman and Victor Pasmore with Louis le Brocquy and John Bratby. The house and the gallery are set in a grove of beech trees in exceptional gardens. Glenveagh, on the other side of the mountain, could as well be on the other side of the world.

"Many Donegal people look on people from the south as layabouts," the widow of a Presbyterian minister remarked to me. "And people in Dublin sometimes look at us as being too keen on devoting our lives narrowly to work." At Killybegs, the biggest commercial fishing port in Ireland, which looks out over Donegal Bay, men were certainly hard at work at 8am. They were unloading boxes of fish in crushed ice from a rusty, well-used little trawler on to a quayside, while across the harbour half a dozen high-tech modern vessels, with names like Father McGee and Paraclete, prepared to go to sea again. A Norwegian coastguard vessel was visiting the port during a trade show which had attracted exhibitors from as far away as Portugal.

As I gazed at the arc of colour in the sky I could not decide whether there had been divine intervention behind that rainbow. But I couldn't help having suspicions.

DONEGAL DEPARTURES

A convenient airport for County Donegal is City of Derry, about eight miles from the border. Jersey European (0345 676676) flies from Gatwick to Derry via Belfast for a return fare of pounds 105 (including tax).

Bord Filte/Irish Tourist Board: 150 Bond Street, London W1Y 0AQ (0171- 493 3201).

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