- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

DONEGAL TOWN, Ireland — We have crossed the Atlantic Ocean to attend a friend’s wedding, and here we are in County Donegal. But it just doesn’t fit what I pictured Ireland to be.

The expanses of lush, green fields are nowhere to be seen. Instead, tall, imposing ridges rise alongside the narrow roads we travel, giving the countryside a brooding feel. People here revel in their separateness. After all, the county’s motto is: “Up here, it’s different.”

There’s a reason why: Geographically, Donegal is almost completely cut off from the rest of the republic; the closest airport, Shannon, is a three-hour drive to the south. Yet that rugged, unspoiled landscape and the laid-back, welcoming attitude of the people are what make this part of Ireland so charming — and an inviting destination for the adventurous tourist.

Most visitors don’t know that Donegal has more coastline than any other Irish county and that usually there’s no one there but you.

It also boasts Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe at nearly 2,000 feet above the ocean. Being a sucker for grand vistas, I decided months before that Michelle and I would make it to this spot (it means Gray Mountain) in southwestern Donegal. With our friend’s wedding in mind, I had an extra incentive: I planned to propose to Michelle there. I will, if I can only find the place, I mutter to myself as I nervously negotiate the tight turns in our rental car, trying to make sense of the signs, some of which are only in Gaelic.

A clerk at the federal court in Rhode Island, of Irish extraction and a regular visitor, told me they would be hard to find.

“Follow the road, and you’ll come to a sheep gate. Open it, and drive on through,” he said.

“A sheep gate?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it seems strange,” said the clerk, Francis McCabe, “but it’ll be worth it.”

He was right. We find the sheep gate, park the car in a dirt lot just beyond it and carefully close it behind us. I know this is the right place soon after we begin walking. Clods of peat stick to our shoes.

The gray, rocky bluffs roll before us — and drop off into nothingness. The North Atlantic is beyond. A fishing trawler passes near the shore. In the mist, it seems like a ghost ship. I feel as if I’m in a dream, and I drop to my knee and propose.

Yes, she says, yes.

The Cliffs of Moher, a famous stretch of coastline in Ireland’s southwestern County Clare, are spectacular, but they beckon for solitude, to be enjoyed alone. I find it hard to soak in the scenery with hordes of tourists barking in my ear. We have no such problem at Slieve League. It’s just Michelle and me and the sheep. We walk anywhere we want. We see no signs, no cliffside fences, and nobody around.

At the top, we venture to the bluff’s edge and peer down. The wind slaps at our faces as we watch the deep-blue water pound the cliff’s side, churning the basin into a white froth. Sea gulls swoop in circles below us, buffeted by the winds. We listen to the echoing roar of the water and the gulls’ call. It is peaceful and liberating.

We spend the night at Woodhill House, a 17th-century country home in the hills above the town of Ardara. We feast on duck, steak and red wine and retire to the parlor to sit by the fire. The inn’s owners, John and Nancy Yates, join us for more wine, and we enter into a friendly, freewheeling discussion about America’s foreign policy and Ireland’s ban on smoking in indoor workplaces.

Nancy Yates, who also owns Nancy’s Bar in town, cannot contain her venom for the anti-smoking law. “I have older men who have been coming into my pub for years to have a pint and a smoke,” she says. “And, now they can’t. Tell me that makes sense.”

The next day, we drive across the border to Northern Ireland. Before, the crossing would have required a screening by British soldiers, but nowadays it’s hassle-free, thanks to the largely successful peace process of the past decade. We soon arrive at Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. It’s a bizarre geological creation and a United Nations World Heritage site along the coast. From the bluffs above, the dark rocks appear to jut into the ocean as if a giant clubbed the cliff and the fragments rolled into piles in the water.

Up close, the formation is a tightly packed cluster of columns in perfect hexagonal shapes, as if chiseled by some mythological artisan. In fact, it consists of 40,000 black basalt columns formed when molten lava washed over the land some 60 million years ago and hardened.

We watch as children hop from one column to the other, as if playing on a real-life Lego set.

The waves crash around them, and they shout with glee as the spray sweeps over them. Beware, though: The rocks can be slippery and are downright treacherous where they meet the incoming tide.

Nearby is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge for those who aren’t bashful about heights. The 3-foot-wide wooden plank is suspended about 80 feet above a cove. The rope bridge leads to a small island.

From Giant’s Causeway, we follow the road eastward as it hugs the coastline. On this day, the ocean looks like a blue dress, the whitecaps like sparkling sequins.

We inch down one side road as it descends precariously to the water’s edge. Gnarly trees cling to the side of the road, their leafless branches bent sideways by the unrelenting wind. Typically, the road leads to a sheep gate and ends at a farmhouse. No one is home, and fearing we are trespassing, we leave.

We turn inland and make our way to Belfast. The hustle and bustle of urbanity is awaiting, and a pint of Guinness or two. We are leaving the remoteness behind.

• • •

Donegal County is most easily reached by car. From Shannon International Airport, we drove a rental car the 181 miles to Donegal. All you need is a map to follow the coastal roads. Be careful, as the roads are narrow and have no shoulders, and curves come with little warning. Also, drivers use the left-hand side of the road in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

To reach the Slieve League: From Donegal Town, take N56 west to Bruckless. Take N263 to Kilcar and Carrick-An Charraig, then watch for signs. Visit www.donegaldirect.ie or call 353-74-972-1148.

To get to the Giant’s Causeway, on the north coast of Northern Ireland, from the Donegal area, take the A2 road along the coast to Coleraine, Portstewart and Portrush, then follow signs. Visit www.derryvisitor.com or call 44-7126-7284.

In Donegal, the Atlantic Guest House, Main Street, Donegal Town, costs $39 for a room with shared bed and in-room bathroom. Phone 353-74-972-1148.

The Woodhill House in Ardara, Donegal, charges $41 for a single room with shower to $84 for a double room in the main house, breakfast included; visit www.woodhillhouse.com or call 353-74-954-1112. The proprietors are friendly and happy to chat.

Glenveagh National Park in Donegal is open year-round. The park is a 6,300-square-mile protected area known for mountain scenery and bird-watching. The golden eagle, nearly hunted to extinction but recovering, resides here. Also here is a castle modeled on Scotland’s famous Balmoral Castle. Get oriented at the Glenveagh Visitor Centre in Churchill; call 353-74-913-7090.

For information on Donegal, visit www.goireland.com. For information on Giant’s Causeway and the coast of Northern Ireland, visit www.geographia.com/northern-ireland/ukiant01.htm.

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