I often toss around the phrase “Hollywood Ireland” (not to be confused with the village of Hollywood, Ireland in Co. Wicklow), usually to mock the kind of rugged, mystic, magical green land depicted in American film and television—often unfairly casting the entire island of Ireland, and all its people, as some kind of old-fashioned, parochial playground.
But this Ireland, I learned, does still exist—without the leprechauns and pots o’ gold and shillelaghs other tired stereotypes—in certain corners of the island, and I found one of them in southwest Donegal. Thanks to Paul, a local friend who grew up on this picturesque peninsula, we spent a long weekend walking in Glencolumbkille, exploring the cliffs, caves, beaches, and squishy hilltop bogs of this historic corner of wild Ireland.
“Glen” gets its name from Saint Colm Cille, one of Ireland’s less-famous patron saints who spent some time in this valley, building a church and spreading his word to the locals. Bits of his church and other ancient human-made structures still stand around this valley, but the real star of this corner of Donegal was carved not by hand, but by the sea.The cliffs of Slieve League (Sliabh Liag in Irish), on the southwestern corner of the peninsula, are some of the highest in Europe and among the most famous in Ireland—after the steeper and more conveniently located Cliffs of Moher. Stretching to just shy of 2000 feet above the crashing waves, these sloping cliffs have been the inspiration of stories and legends for generations. We enjoyed a great view of the cliff faces from the accessible viewing area (signposted from the Wild Atlantic Way, and sure to continue to draw more and more visitors as development continues), but the real character of the cliffs was laid bare when we climbed from the parking lot to the clifftop trail and along the steep peaks.
The fog drifted in and out from the sea, obscuring the ground at our feet one minute and opening up into the valley (and the sea) below the next. In the clearest moments, we could just distinguish the outline of the steep plateau of Benbulbin across Donegal Bay in County Mayo to the south. As we neared the summit, a hailstorm rolled in with the fog—the price of admission on higher elevations in February—and the soppy, spongy bog slowly firmed up until we began cracking through frozen puddles.Shy of the top, we diverted back into the valley to the village of Carrick, passing the ruins of the chapel of Ade mc Bric—an old church with a great view—on our way. We crossed swift streams and waterfalls coming down from the boggy mountains into the green valley as we followed part of the Glencolumbkille Pilgrim’s Path. We visited another stretch of this religious route on nearby Glen Head, along smaller sea cliffs, passing one of a series of nineteenth-century defense towers that once kept an eye on the sea for invaders brave enough to take on the hardy locals. Climbing to a high point on the trail, we noticed a stretch of barbed-wire fence that came to a sudden end at the cliff’s edge. Descending into a deep river gully and getting a clear look at where we had been, we could see the pile of earth and rubble on the beach below—evidence that these cliffs are still falling into the sea, and a reminder for all of us to stay at least a few steps away from the brink. Thanks to Paul, we got a real insider’s tour of this beautiful valley, from ancient burial sites to Columbkille’s Pillar to the sheltered beach of Silver Strand to the sea caves of Muckross Head to the stone stacks—megalithic and modern—on Slieve League. Over the course of this three-day adventure in Donegal, I learned that Hollywood Ireland does exist if you look for it—and are willing to get your feet a bit muddy and endure some hail on your head—and it’s even more beautiful than it is in the movies.