To preface this post, I’d like to first explain the title of my post. In Ireland, especially at sporting matches, it is common to hear the crowds yell “G’wan!” (AKA, “Go on!”) followed by the team or county they’re supporting. I heard a lot of this when my friend Mary and I went to a Connacht Rugby match on March 1st – we joined in the crowds yelling “G’wan Connacht!” as if we’d lived in Galway all our lives. Even after the match, the phrase stuck with us, so if we were happy about something, we’d yell “G’wan Connacht!” Alternatively, we started using the phrase as an affirmative or an expression of praise, as well. For instance, one of our conversations might ensue as follows:
Mary: Do I get a medium order of fish and chips or a large order?
Maddison: Go with a large. You’re in Ireland, so why not?
Mary: You’re right, I’ll order a large.
Maddison: G’wan Connacht!
(I’m fairly certain this exact conversation has taken place between us multiple times.)
So, to continue with my post… as you can tell from the title, we have changed our “G’wan Connacht!” phrase (which we still use sometimes) to “G’wan Donegal!” Why? Well, this may be a bit of a long story, so prepare yourselves.
There are several different accents within Ireland, as many of us study abroad students have realized. The subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences appear as you meet new people from all over the country. Many people we’ve met at school and in town hail from County Donegal, on the north west border of Ireland. Donegal borders Northern Ireland but is still part of the Republic of Ireland, making it a unique county. It is the second largest county within the Republic and also boasts one of the most interesting accents. It wasn’t difficult for any of us to fall in love with the unique sound of the accent – speaking with an individual from Donegal could turn the most loquacious conversationalist into the best listener.
Because of our interactions with individuals from Donegal, my friends and I had a little running joke about Donegal because we liked the accent so much. When I visited a sporting goods store to buy a Galway GAA jersey, I had to try on the Donegal one just for fun!
It suits me better than it should, right?
Well, all of this fascination boils down to one obvious conclusion: we needed to go to Donegal. My friends Mary, Nicky, Amara, and I took an early morning bus from Galway to Sligo, and then spent a bit of time exploring Sligo before we caught the bus from Sligo up to Donegal. The views on the trip were incredible – the mountains in Sligo are unlike any I’ve ever seen before.
Once we arrived in Donegal Town, I fell completely in love with the place. The quaint town centre, called “The Diamond” is filled with shops, tea houses, pubs, restaurants, and chippers. As soon as we got off the bus and oriented ourselves, we decided to stop in a tea house, called Blueberry Tea Room. We filled our stomachs with the most amazing lunch dishes and plenty of tea before heading out into town to do some exploring.
Within the town centre itself, we visited Donegal Castle, which was an amazing experience due to our ability to explore, learn, and interact with the castle and grounds.
The beauty of the exterior was only heightened when, at night, the Castle was lit up by a green spotlight against the darkening sky. But some of my favorite parts of the castle were inside – the intricate fireplaces, the gorgeous wooden dining tables, and the stone stairs, rooms, and passageways were mysterious and fascinating. The O’Donnell’s, who owned Donegal Castle, sure were lucky to be surrounded by such beauty! I had a lot of fun exploring – there seemed to be surprises everywhere we turned!
We also stopped in Saint Patrick’s Church, where we all admired the beauty of the building and said a prayer. After that, we stopped in a small sweater shop, where we befriended the elderly man who owned it. Mary bought a beautiful light blue sweater, Amara bought a gorgeous teal sweater, and Nicky bought a lovely green infinity scarf. Since I already bought a sweater at the Blarney Woolen Mills, I didn’t allow myself to splurge, but I’m glad my friends all found things they liked! Little did we know that their decision to buy warm clothing would definitely pay off the next day.
Saint Patrick’s Church
We partook in the pubs, the chippers, and even did a bit of shopping in the town before heading back to our lovely B&B, called Ardlenagh View, which was only a five minute drive from town. Our hosts, the Mulherns, were so welcoming and kind – traits we noticed in many people we met in Donegal. Their B&B was absolutely stunning, as it was surrounded by beautiful mountains, valleys, and the breathtaking Donegal shoreline.
After a good night’s rest, the four of us awoke to a scrumptious Irish breakfast with plenty of tea to keep us awake for the day. As we packed up our things and got ready to check out, we noticed the sheep that filled the field just beyond the balcony of the B&B. I jumped at my chance to ask if we could go see the sheep – a prospect which our hosts, Tony and Eileen, found immensely entertaining. They gladly granted us permission to see them, and soon enough, both Eileen and Tony were watching us out the window, happy to see how much fun we were having. I even got the chance to make one of my dreams come true, as I called some sheep. If anyone is in need of a shepherd, you know where to find me.
After we said goodbye to our sheep friends and our wonderful hosts, we headed back into town on a pleasant Mother’s Day. In America, Mother’s Day falls in May, but in Ireland, it is celebrated in March. Luckily for us, the Donegal Bay Waterbus was sailing on Mother’s Day, and we were just in time for the 11:00 AM sailing. Because it was a chilly day, the four of us were the only ones on the top deck of the boat in the open air – everyone else opted to stay warm in the inside of the boat. Needless to say, as soon as we established ourselves at the top of the boat, we threw extra layers on and bundled for the remainder of our sail. Nicky and I even indulged in a pint of Guinness to warm up a bit while we all took pictures of the ridiculously incredible views. Donegal is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in all my life – the beaches, the mountains, the water, the ruins and castles, the people, the culture – it all paints a picture of what life should be like and how it should be lived.
Sail away, sail away, sail away…
As we were sailing, I noticed shapes bobbing up and down in the water – upon closer look, I realized some seals had come to say hello! I yelled to the other girls to look at the seals, and to my surprise, Mary wowed us all with her seal call. The rest of us just stuck to waving to our new friends! We saw more seals on the beaches we passed – they seemed curious, so we waved to them as well!
Our seal friends!
We enjoyed sailing and singing some Irish songs that were played through speakers to the four of us chilly passengers up top! We even did some dancing on the boat, which I’m sure the captain found amusing. It was a great boat ride and we all really enjoyed ourselves!
Dun na nGall! (AKA, Donegal)
Afterwards, we visited the ruins of the Donegal Friary, where we admired the old architecture and walked around the cemetery. To my surprise, I found headstones marked with the surnames Martin and Gallagher, which are two of my family surnames! I was overwhelmed with excitement – I knew from what my great aunt told me that the Martins and Gallaghers from our family were from Donegal, and it looks like she was right! I couldn’t wait to email Aunt Esther to let her know about my discovery. Up until that moment, I had felt a particular draw to Donegal, but seeing the prevalence of my family surnames in the cemetery there made me feel an even deeper connection.
Sitting among the beautiful ruins.
After our visit to the friary, we were ready to refresh with some lunch and tea. We stopped in a quaint cafe, chatted with some locals, and then took a taxi to the nearest beach, called Murvagh Beach. It was a cold day, but the sights were still incredible. Walking along the shore brought me such peace. Hearing the seashells crash against each other as the waves carried them in and out was captivating. I couldn’t have been happier with our decision to explore such a pretty place.
The heavens opened up and shone down on Donegal.
As we all walked along at our own pace, we lost track of time – it wasn’t too long before we were all separated and enjoying our solitude. Breaking away from the business of daily life to experience natural beauty is one of the most therapeutic experiences… which isn’t a difficult thing to do in Ireland. I walked along the shore and collected interesting seashells, but eventually I met up with Mary and Nicky who had climbed to the top of a cliff which marked the end of the sandy beach and the beginning of the rolling hills just beyond it. Needless to say, I climbed right up there to meet them!
The view from the top!
Nicky went to find Amara, so Mary and I sat on the cliff and had some deep life discussions. It felt as if we were on top of the world – in every direction, we saw beauty, and we did our best not to take a second of it for granted. Naturally, we took pictures of us sitting on the edge of the cliff with beautiful Donegal in the background.
Taking it all in.
We didn’t want to leave Murvagh Beach by any means, but we knew we had to get back into town and eat dinner before catching our bus back to Galway. Before we left the beach, however, all four of us stood on the cliff and took a few group photos to remember our amazing trip to one of our favorite Irish counties!
Never forget Donegal!
Location: Donegal Town, County Donegal, Ireland