Welcome to the Bluestack Way
The Bluestack Way is a 51km national waymarked way through often remote areas of County Donegal with spectacular views as it traverses the Bluestack Mountains. It connects Donegal Town with the town of Ardara on the west coast, taking in the town of Glenties on its route following directional yellow arrows and yellow ‘walking man’ signs familiar to walkers worldwide.
Along the way, the trail passes by Lough Eske, climbs to the secluded Eglish valley and winds its way along the Eanymore river and across the foothills of the Bluestacks to reach an area called Disert, where an ancient holy well and graveyard are worth a visit. West of Disert, the route crosses the Bluestacks range over rough and remote high moorland terrain between Binbane and Cloghmeen Hill before descending along the Owenroe river to reach an old bog road.
This is followed across isolated bogland at Meenawannia to reach Glenties. From Glenties an easy half day walk joins the Owenea river and follows the run of the river, taking the route to its destination in the town of Ardara.
Getting your bearings
The Bluestack Way starts on The Diamond in Donegal Town – look out for the sign by the Bank of Ireland for an overview of the Way. Our guide is primarily designed to tell you about the lore of the area. We will help guide you along the route with our maps, but please be armed with OS Maps 10 and 11, available from nearby Timony’s Spar Shop & Newsagent just off the Diamond as well as a compass, a fully-charged mobile phone, good quality footwear and raingear. The Bluestack Way map from the Bluestack Environmental Group is available from The Four Masters Bookshop on the Diamond.
We recommend you do a few days preparation and make sure you enjoy a night’s fun in Donegal Town itself the night before your walk begins in earnest. We recommend Quay West for good food and The Reel Inn for good trad music. For accommodation, The Water’s Edge B&B overlooking Donegal Bay, but still in Donegal Town is highly regarded by walking enthusiasts.
This page contains both an overview of the complete Way and Part One details. Below we have links to the various other sections of the Way – much easier than scrolling endlessly on this one page! There are a lot of people to thank and for ease of reference, we have placed that information as well as Walking Tips on these separate links below.
Parking can be done by the Tourist Office down by the quay. Donegal Town has extensive Bus Eireann bus services, but Ardara’s bus services will take some planning! Our walking tips section below is comprehensive, but one point bears repeating here: please do not bring dogs on any section of Way, which crosses private farmland.
Trail Start: The Diamond, Donegal Town
Trail Finish: The Diamond, Ardara
Length: 65km (incl 14km alternative route)
Total Climb: 1230m
Time to complete: 3-4 days
Type: National Waymarked Way
Waymarking: Yellow arrows and walking man
Grid Ref: G 929 784
Grid ref: G 736 908
Maps: OSI Discovery Series Sheets 10 and 11
There’s quite a lot of audio which is presented in a linear form as you walk the route – we’d suggest that you familiarize yourself with the material on each section in advance. Needless to say, it is best enjoyed on good earphones and with your mobile phone’s battery fully charged! If your podcast server allows you to download, we’d recommend doing so in a WiFi zone before travelling the next section.
This guide is primarily intended as a means of enjoying the lore and history of the area. While it follows the route of the Way, it should be used as a supplement to, not a replacement for, proper map and compass reading. Full advance preparation should be made of the route with Ordnance Survey maps that should be taken with you together with proper equipment, apparel and sustenance.
Recommended Professional Guides
We can recommend the following professional guides for the following parts of the Bluestack Way:
- Patsy McNulty +353(0)877941234 (Parts One and Two)
- Brendan Proctor +353(0)863373031(Parts Three/Three Alternative)
- Bradas McDyer +353(0)863530537 (Part Four)
How best to use this guide on the move
You can enjoy all of the material on your favourite podcast platform from our Audio Archive on Audioboom. Depending on which stage of the Way you are on, just look out for the relevant lettering – BSW1 is the first section to Lough Eske and BSW4 is the fourth section to Ardara. Each episode will also have number in a linear fashion so BSW1 1. The Diamond is the first one to look out for and BSW1 18. The Friary is the last episode from that section.
Prior to commencing this epic journey, please download the audio material in a WiFi zone so you can enjoy the audio even if you are in the back end of Meenawilderg or Doobin!
In addition, we have created Spotify and Apple playlists for The Bluestack Way having all the same great material, but with the addition of music to enhance the experience. Look out for our Donegal’s Hallowed Sites playlist on Spotify or Apple if you enjoy this one.
- This page and each of its associated guides is accurate as of November 2021. Please inform us of any changes or improvements that can be made to this guide in the future: email@example.com
- If you enjoyed this free guide, please share it on social media and if feeling extra generous, write a review in Tripadvisor. Thanks!
- If you enjoyed the Way, please let like-minded walkers know about the Way’s many wonders, both aesthetically and culturally.
- Have a great time – we wish you safe walking, good weather and an abundance of happy memories.
Guided walks division
Bluestack Way Part One
A great town to base yourself
Opposite the Bank of Ireland on the Diamond, you’ll see a sign that marks the starting point of arguably the finest walk in the north west of Ireland. Hopefully, you’ll have studied the route of the Trail already – and we do recommend from the off that you take Ordnance Survey Maps 10 and 11 with you! Savour the charm of Donegal Town with a day or two in advance of hiking the way; it serves as a great base from which to see Sligo, Fermanagh and through the gap to north Donegal.
A worthwhile stop-off
We’ll be making our way out to Lough Eske along the eponymous river and in sight of the Bluestacks. We’ll be telling you stories along the way about this mountain range. This first part of the Bluestack Way is the shortest and we recommend you spend some time around picturesque Lough Eske at the end of it.
‘Unearthly beauty’ awaits
The ever colourful writer, John M. Feehan, described Lough Eske as ‘a place for lovers or honeymoon couples whose vistas are still undimmed by the realities of living. Almost at every turn one meets scenery of unearthly beauty and little secret places where one can rest, relax and experience an awakening of the soul to boundless joy’. As such, there’s no hurry and a walk around the lough, in Ardnamona Woods, up Banagher Hill or over to Barnesmore will be time well spent.
Before moving off from the Bluestack Way sign, savour the rich heritage that The Diamond offers. Salute a time that may be long gone, but where the beauty and the serenity of the area remain intact; this is a town from which to base yourself for hillwalking, golf, scenic drives, water sports and fine dining. Like the thousands of foreigners that have marveled at its many assets throughout history, we believe that you will be delighted with your time in the town.
What’s with the fancy name then?
The Diamond is the rather fanciful name that squares in the northwest are called – you’ll see Diamonds in Ardara, Carndonagh, Raphoe and Derry as well. Donegal Town served as the market town for the surrounding villages and hinterland as far as Ballintra to the west, Barnesmore to the north and Killybegs to the east. For centuries, it has been the hub of commerce and socialising, where the sounds and smells could be overwhelming and there was eating and drinking to be done in the local hostelries at the end of it all.
The Diamond was also the scene of unrest and social turmoil. In the first audio clip, Paddy tells us about some momentous events that took place here. Hiring fairs where young men were ‘sold’ to farmers for up to six months at a time took place here – Mairead tells us more in the second audio piece.
The Four Masters
In front of the Abbey Hotel, you’ll see the impressive Mountcharles sandstone monument in the centre of the town was erected in 1935 from funding by local solicitor P.M. Gallagher. It honours the four men who helped to write the celebrated Annals of the Four Masters, Brother Michael O’Cleary and laymen Peregrine O’Clery, Peregrine O’Duignan and Fearfeasa O’Maolconry.
It serves as a full account of Gaelic Ireland from its origins until the end of established Gaelic order when the last of the chieftains fled in 1607 from Rathmullan, Co. Donegal in what is known as the Flight of the Earls. To read the Annals would take you several months and set you back about e900 – not quite a breezy holiday read if you’re thinking about it! With every second building in town named after them, you may be wondering where exactly are the Annals of the Four Masters today? They’re now kept by the Franciscans in Switzerland, but details can be obtained from the National Library on Kildare Street in Dublin as well as from the Four Masters bookshop.
‘Four meek men around the cresset,
With the scrolls of other days;
Four unwearied scribes who treasure
Every word and every line.
Not for fame or not for fortune,
Do these eager penmen dream.
Oh ! that we who now inherit
All their trust, with half their toil,
Were but fit to trace their footsteps
Through the Annals of the Isle;
Oh ! that the bright Angel, Duty,
Guardian of our task might be,
Teach us as she taught our Masters,
In that Abbey by the sea,
Faithful, grateful, just to be!’
These days the Diamond area is used to celebrate the homecoming of local heroes such as the victorious Donegal Gaelic football team in 1992 and more recently on a wet night in September 2012 when over 20,000 watched the team raise the Sam Maguire cup to the adoring fans.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, it has also played host to Irish Eurovision phenomenon, Jedward. Farmers’ markets and fayres occur here on a regular basis. The chroniclers of medieval Ireland may not approve of everything they’d see before them today, but in the town of the Four Masters, they are not forgotten and we’d like to think they’d be proud to be in the heart of the action of this thriving historic town.
Looking for more heritage information on the town? The two best books to have (and are gratefully acknowledged as sources for this part of the guide!) are: Joe McGarrigle’s ‘Donegal, past and present’ and Malachy Sweeney’s ‘The Sands of Time; a history of Donegal Town and its environs’, the latter of which you should still be able to get in The Four Masters bookshop. A good overview of the Four Masters, in particular, their leader, Michael, can be found here. Their great work may not even have been written here it would appear!
Chieftains, merchants and victuallers
It would be remiss of us to tell you to leave the Diamond without visiting Donegal Castle, which you’ll see in the distance beyond the Bluestack Way sign. For most of the last two hundred years, the majority of Donegal Castle lay sadly in ruins, but was almost fully restored in the late 1990s.
Built in 1474, the castle consists of a 15th century rectangular keep with a later Jacobean style wing. The complex is sited on a bend in the River Eske, near the mouth of Donegal Bay, and is surrounded by a 17th century boundary wall. There is a small gatehouse at its entrance mirroring the design of the keep. Most of the stonework was constructed from locally sourced limestone with some sandstone. The castle was the stronghold of the O’Donnell clan, Lords of Tír Conaill and one of the most powerful Gaelic families in Ireland from the 5th to the 16th centuries.
Magee of Donegal
A key passage in Brian Friel’s masterpiece ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ refers to a factory opening up in Donegal Town that signalled the end of the two sisters home weaving business. That factory was Magee of Donegal and its shop is overlooking the Diamond to this day. John Magee had started a draper’s shop in the town in 1866 and soon his enterprising cousin Robert Temple had joined the business, buying it from Magee in 1901. Temple saw the need for improvement in the weaving process and in order to ensure quality, he ended up employing his own weavers under factory conditions. With the recruitment of Robert’s son Howard in 1931, the business continued to expand into the ready to wear tailored suit.
Donegal tweed is known the world over these days and it’s mainly thanks to the Temples. The current factory was built in 1966 and the shop on the Diamond is worth a visit – one for the pre walk day in the town? All the apparel you’ll ever need to climb the Bluestacks or even the Himalayas are to be found here. In the Summer, there are weaving demonstrations as well as a cafeteria upstairs. Magee of Donegal doesn’t just cater for men’s suits – look out for their ladies’ range as well.
Merchants and victuallers
The Diamond has gotten rid of the serious sights and smells of yesteryear’s commercial activity, but still retains a proud tradition of selling. Besides a visit to Magee of Donegal, there are some very impressive shops to visit in the vicinity – Either side of Magee’s is Britton’s jewellery shop and Forget-Me-Not giftware shop. As mentioned, please visit the highly rated Four Masters’ bookshop. Up past the Derry milestone on Main Street are Eddie Walsh’s craft butchers (ensure you try some of their award-winning sausages)
Besides these fine shops, look out for some great dining in the locality. Aroma in the nearby Craft Village is well worth a visit, as is Castlemurray in St. John’s Point near Dunkineely and the two famous hotels out by Lough Eske, Harvey’s Point and Solis Lough Eske Castle. Closer to home, you’ll enjoy the Red Hugh Restaurant above the Olde Castle bar, La Bella Donna and The Harbour – find these and other restaurants on our Donegal Town Food Guide, part of the Donegal Town Guides bundle.
Old milestone to Derry
Main street/St. Patrick’s church
You’ll be carrying on up Main street past the Ulster bank. Beside the bank on a corner is an old milestone for the carriages on their way to Derry – it states that it is 40 miles away. Further on up the street, you’ll see the Coachman’s pub – well worth a visit with a very nice cavern.
The most domineering edifice on Main street is of course St. Patrick’s Catholic church, known as The Memorial Church of the Four Masters. Built in a Neo Irish Romanesque style, it is 100% Irish built with Barnesmore granite and Mountcharles sandstone, designed by Dubliner Ralph Byrne and built by Messrs. Wm. Donnelly from Fermanagh.
Main Street retains many of its original architectural characteristics. Indeed it had its fair share of characters – from Tosh McCallion to the legendary Charlie Doherty. Sadly, Frank Bustard, who used to decorate his shop with meticulous care, and a trademark cart and turf outside, passed away as this guide first came out in 2012.
If you continue some 400 metres up Main Street, you’ll see a sign for the Famine graveyard, burial site of locals who died in the Great Famine of the 1840s. Next to it is Donegal hospital, former site of the workhouse where the poor of that famine were forced to go to feed themselves. In our audio piece, Patsy McNulty tells us more about the hospital/workhouse and the graveyard. Please note it is signposted as the Famine graveyard although Patsy refers to it as the paupers’ graveyard.
You’ll be walking straight out the N15 – please note that the last shop you’ll be passing for some time is on your left, so stack up on water or energy bars. Carry on until you see Clarcam Park on the left and follow the Bluestack Way sign.
Out along the Eske
GPS location: 54.673090, -8.067167
When you see the image beside marked Clarendon Drive, say farewell to ‘civilisation’ as you turn left and start your walk into the Bluestacks in earnest. This route is well signposted, but it would be a shame to miss this important first turn off to get you on your way to the real treasures of the area. Carry on down the road keeping an eye out for the various signposts.
Pride of all
‘If you ask which is the best county in Ireland to walk in, I reply Donegal (or Tirconnell, Tir Connaill, Connell’s country to give it its ancient title)…I choose it because there is nowhere else where the beauties of hill and dale, lake and rock, sea and bog, pasture and tillage, are so intimately and closely interwoven, so that every turn of the road opens up new prospects, and every hill-crest fresh combinations of these delightful elements’. –
Robert Lloyd Praeger from ‘The Way that I went’
The Eske river
After the turn off from the N15, you’ll be walking straight for some 500 metres before passing by the Eske river to your left – you’ll see a nice fishing perch for the keen fishermen out there. Take time to savour the flow of the highly regarded Eske river as it comes near the end of its journey. Fancy a spot of fishing on the river? Help is very close to hand; at the top of Water Street just after the bridge, you’ll find Doherty’s Fishing Tackle shop. Here, Charlie Doherty will be able to get you a licence, rent out a rod and tackle and tell you some secrets about the river if you ask nicely.
For information in-season (1 May to 30 September) contact: Eske Angling Centre, Lough Eske Demesne. Tel: 0749740781. For information off-season contact: Northern Regional Fisheries Board, Station Road, Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. Tel. 0719851435
Under the bypass
Keep walking on and you’ll see and hear the bypass ahead of you. Follow the Bluestack Way sign and turn left towards the river again. Carry on under the bypass and note that you are to all intents and purposes in the countryside – a wealth of different terrains, colours and fragrances await.
Carry on down the narrow road passing the Water works. At the T-junction, you’ll be taking a left up a very narrow road. The road for the next 3 miles or so is a verdant hallway with the trees on either side nearly meeting. Now and again, you’ll get glimpses of the lush countryside and the blue hue of the Bluestack mountains. As you walk along, there aren’t too many points of interest, but we will use the chance to tell you about other noted walkers in the area over the centuries.
Fishing for pearls in the Eske was once a great attraction in the Summer months when the water was low. A writer in the Dublin Penny Journal of 1841 wrote ‘The county of Donegal is rich in mines and minerals, but the rivers abound with pearl mussel. I have seen large and round and lustrous pearls taken out of the streams around Donegal which would not disgrace the fishery of the Straits of Manar in South India’. Fishing for pearls was a back breaking and tedious process, but there was always the hope of finding just the right sort of pearl – ideally ‘pear shaped and be almost translucent and have a subdued iridescent sheen’ according to writer Joe McGarrigle who had been taught the patient art by Tommy O’Donnell.
In our audio piece, Patsy McNulty tells us about the pearl mussel of the Eske river. We must emphasize that the practice of pearl mussel fishing is strictly prohibited under a variety of EU laws, so best buy a Lottery ticket if hoping for a quick windfall – fish for pearls at your peril!
Walking in the hills
At this point, you’ll need to take a left in the fork in the road, looking out for the yellow man signpost for the Bluestack Way.
What many consider to be the new tourism phenomenal to hit south Donegal in recent years is actually one of the oldest pastimes of the area. From the beginning of human history in this locality, when people first walked up the Eske Valley, about eight thousand years ago, man has walked through the Bluestacks for fun, adventure, pilgrimage and work. Indeed the journey of the descendants of these first people in Lough Eske, is indeed the history of Ireland, step by step, from the beginning to the present time.
These first people did leave a footprint in the area, though not a carbon one. Their biggest mark being the wedge tomb in Winterhill and the Cairn Tomb in the townland of Tawnavorgal at Lough Eske. The next great walkers to arrive were the Fianna and their Leader Fionn McCumhaill. They made their summer home in these parts and local lore is full of their exploits. Indeed they were more inclined to run than walk such was their zest for their greatest pastime, hunting. We hear about Fionn in our audio piece.
147 glorious stacks to behold
The 147 stacks or peaks known as the Bluestack mountains are broken into four sections: the north range, the Blue Stack range, the north-east range and on the far side of Barnesmore, the east range. We’ll list them all along the way, giving you the original Irish spelling and the meaning. A lot of them do not have a name.
Because of its natural beauty, peace and tranquillity, Lough Eske and the Bluestacks has always been a place where man has thought about, and sought to connect with, his God or Gods, whoever or whatever that may be. Many well-worn paths lead up Banagher Hill, ‘Beann an Actual’, the place of the Sacrifice, the first Bluestack you meet as you leave Donegal Town.
The first Stone Age farmers climbed this hill to the spot they call Leagan, the place of the standing stones, to pray to their Gods and offer sacrifices that they may have a happier after-life. This they must have done in great numbers and a great many times as the paths they left can be still clearly seen thousands of years later.
In our audio piece, historian Helen Meehan tells us more about the first people to venture into the foothills of the Bluestack mountains.
Visitors to the area
In the following years, as Catholicism was suppressed in Ireland, the Franciscan community was banished from their Friary in Donegal Town. They moved to their new home in the “wilderness” of Lough Eske, as it was described in a letter by St Oliver Plunkett to his Superiors when he was Bishop of Ireland. From their new home, which gave its name “The Friary” to a townland on the shores of the lake, these Monks dressed in their long brown robes, walked through the hills to bring the message of God to their parishes and far beyond.
One of the routes they took was a path known as “Casan na Brathra”, the Brothers Path, which led from Lough Eske through the Bluestacks to Glenfin, no easy walk on the best of days. This path, still to be seen, was marked by piles of stones, every quarter of a mile or so, with a white quartz stone on top, which could easily be seen in rain or fog, to guide the brothers on their way. Indeed, it was probably in this Friary where the final chapters of the “Annals of the Four Masters” were written – the first complete history of Ireland.
The next group of Walkers to take to the hills, were probably the group which came to be most identified with the area. They arrived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and, over the next two hundred years were to put a name on every stone, cliff, lough and stream that was to be found in these hills. These were the men that followed the newly introduced Scottish black faced sheep and freely roamed the wide open spaces. This opened up a new source of income for the small tenant farmer on land, before, regarded as useless. These men, mostly Irish speaking, were the great Custodians of the Mountains as they tramped each day, faithful dog at their foot over great expanses of moor and rock after their flocks. Sadly over the last few decades this way of life had greatly disappeared and this breed of men have joined that other new kind of farm species, the Rare Breeds Society.
The only other people who walked into the mountains at this time were the gentry as they hunted the wild animals for sport. Their main quarry was the red grouse who lived on the heather seeds of the high hills.
In the Bluestacks
Francis Harvey was originally from Enniskillen, but lived near Donegal Town until his death in 2014. As he said himself ‘I owe an awful lot to the county of Donegal. In fact, I think I might never have become a poet if it wasn’t for the landscape of Donegal.’
Among Francis Harvey’s great poems was the one about Condy the sheepman, almost a mythic figure, but rooted in the landscape of the Blue Stack Mountains. Written over forty years ago, the Donegal Democrat believes that ‘it encapsulates the struggle between ‘progress’ and stasis, between an old man’s dignity and the encroachment of modernity’. We were delighted to have the poet recite Condy for us in the audio piece and wish to thank his daughter, Esther, for making it happen.
He lives alone in the shadow of mountains;
his tilted stony acres fray the clouds;
he takes eight years out of a dog and knows
his ewes better than the sons he never had.
The horizon is his fence, his sheep range free,
and yet his mind is penned, his spirit tethered.
He climbs through darkness into the light on the summit
but hears no voice from a cloud.
He fears death – the rickle of bleached bones in lonely places
and in drink weeps for himself and his brothers and for the others
on whom the shadow of mountains fell.
Keep walking along the path – in the distance, you’ll see Barnesmore, which is the first major access point through the mighty Bluestacks between Binbane on the Glenties road and Killeter in County Tyrone.
Barnesmore in the distance
This is the very heart of the county, where north meets south – it’s an extraordinary sight whether you see it from Sligo or coming south from Letterkenny. On another visit to the county, ensure you stop off at Biddy’s O’Barnes pub. Tales of highwaymen, hangings, fairies and strange weather abound in this place – make sure you see the information on the walls by the restrooms in Biddy’s to get an idea of what we mean.
There is a mountain on either side of the gap – the mountain you see on your left is Croagh Connallach (Conal’s Mountain) and the mountain on your right is (Eoghan’s Mountain). From 1882 right through to 1959, a spectacular rail journey could be made through the gap on An Muc Dubh or The Black Pig train. Today, there is no commercial railway in the county, one of only three counties without any rail line (but arguably the one most deserving one to truly enjoy its scenery).
Local Donegal Town John Boyce had a nom de plume of Paul Peppergrass and as a writer, he may be known to some of our elder American cousins. One of Peppergrass’s best known works was called ‘Shandy Maguire’. The book was so popular with the Irish in America that it was dramatised and for many years was a feature of stage productions on St. Patrick’s Night – the setting and characters of this perennial favourite were Barnesmore and its people.
The verdant hallway ends and you’ll be turning left down a steep hill, over the Eske river and up a hill until you get to a crossroads. Follow the Bluestack Way signs until you get to the signs for Lough Eske Castle. Lough Eske marks the end of Day One on the Bluestack Way. We suggest you enjoy the wonderful surroundings of Lough Eske and get in touch with local tour guide, Patsy McNulty, to see and hear more about the area. He also has a great self-catering house overlooking the lough if you’re interested in waking up to a wonderful view. Ask also about taking a walk around Ardnamona. Another highly-regarded local B&B is Ann McGlinchey @ Eas Dun Lodge B&B
Once timber had become scarce in Ireland, as the land became denuded due to the demands of her ever-increasing population, people began getting fuel from the bog. A day in the bog began with a walk to, and finished with a walk from, “the moss” as the bogs were known locally. Turf was cut and then dried in the summer sun, so that it could be used to warm homesteads and cook food in the open hearths of the thatched cottages.
The population exploded in Ireland during the latter half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century due to the new wonder food introduced into this country from the Americas, the humble potato. This food was so well suited to growing in Irish conditions and fed so many people on so little acreage that the population almost trebled in this relatively short period of time. But a great disaster struck in 1845 with the arrival of potato blight, which caused severe famine for the next seven years. The government didn’t believe in free handouts or charity which meant any relief measures had to be worked for. Many of the projects on which the poor and hungry had to work in order to get food from the relief agencies were of no strategic importance, just ways thought up by officials to make work for the starving. One such project was the road from behind Lough Eske Castle, up Burns Mountain to the peak of Banagher Hill, ‘the road to nowhere’. The road had no practical use until hillwalkers started to follow its path for recreation over one hundred years later.
The Big House
As the 1900s approached and industrialisation began, and people had more recreational time to spend, the railway arrived in Lough Eske, or rather nearby Barnes. This was the start of ‘tourism’ as we know it. Most of the first visitors to this region came to the Big Houses, Lough Eske Castle and Ardnamona. They mostly came to fish and shoot and many a walk these activities entailed through the wild mountains and the woodlands. But as yet the numbers were small and reserved for an elite. But as demand grew, both Ardnamona and the Castle become hotels. The Castle’s first reign as an hotel came to an abrupt end with the fire of 1939, which almost totally destroyed the building. Ardnamona was to remain a hotel up to the beginning of the 1980s.
The Bluestack Mountains East Range
The 147 stacks of the range are numbered from left to right and we shall be telling you about their names with the original Irish spelling and the meaning of the word. A special thanks goes to the Renaissance Man that is Seoirse O’Dochartaigh who complied this information in the booklet ‘The Mountains, Loughs, Rivers and Place-names around Donegal Town’.
The final 51 stacks are to the right of Barnesmore Gap, which as you’ll soon see, is a somewhat superfluous title as it translates into the the big gap gap. The stacks in this range cross over into County Tyrone.
We are delighted to have native Irish speaker, Moya Reid, originally from Kilcar, recite the names of all of the stacks in Irish. In the following audio piece, she can be heard reciting the Irish of all the stacks named and listed below.
You’ll be coming to a T junction around this point. You’ll be taking a left here – as always, it is signposted so look out for the Bluestack Way sign.
97 Meenalughoge Hill – Cnoc Mhín na Luchóg gan ainm, The Hill of the Smooth Place of the Mice
98 Croaghonagh (district) – Cruach Eoghanach, The Stack of the Tribe of Eoghan
100 Croaghnagawna – Cruach na nGamhna, The Stack of the Calves
101 Croaghonagh (mountain) – Cruach Eoghanach, The Stack of the Tribe of Eoghan
102 Barnesmore – An Bearnas Mór, The Big Gap
105 Cross Hill – Cruach na Croise
107 Cnoc na Carraige Duibhe – Carrickaduff Hill
111 Croaghakeadew – Cruach an Chéide, The Hill of the Black Rock
117 Croaghmeen – Cruach Mín, Smooth Stack
118 Croaghloughslug – Cruach Loch Slog, The Stack of the Lake of the Disappearing Water
120 Meenabrock – Mín na mBroc, The Smooth Place of the Badgers
122 Clogher Hill – Cruach an Chlochair, The Stack of the Stoney Place
123 Croaghmeen – Cruach Mín, Smooth Stack
126 Croaghnakern – Cruach na gCarn (or …na gCeithearn), The Stack of the Cairns (or of the Kerns or Outlaws)
127 Croaghnameal – Cruach na Míol, The Stack of the Insects (Midges?)
129 Meenadreen – Mín an Draighin, The Smooth Place of the Blackthorn
130 Meenadreen – Mín an Draighin, The Smooth Place of the Blackthorn
133 Ballykillowen Hill – Cnoc Bhaile Chill Eoghain, The Hill of the Homestead of the Church of Owen
134 Finmore Hill – Cnoc Fionn Mór, The Big White Hill
137 Polldoo Hill – Cnoc an Phoill Dhuibh, The Hill of the Black Hole
138 Meennameal Hill – Cnoc Mhín na Míol, The Hill of the smooth Place of the Insects (Midges)
140 Blabreenagh – Blátha Braonacha, Dripping Wet Flowers
141 Binna Hill – Cnoc na mBeann The Hill of the Peaks
142 Croaghgarrow – Cruach Garbh, Rough Stack
143 Croaghbrack – Cruach Breac, Speckled Stack
144 Tievetooey – Taobh Tuaithe, Side of the Kingdom
145 Crockmore – An Cnoc Mór, The Big Hill
146 Ardmore Hill – An tArd Mór, The Big Height
147 Oughtadreen – Ucht an Draighin, The Hill Breast of the Blackthorn
There are two old traditional walks in the Bluestacks, still practiced to the present day. The first one is the walk up Carnaween on the first Sunday in June. Hundreds of people still do this walk on the day to keep the old tradition alive. People usually climb from three sides: Drimarone, the Glen of Glenties and Silverhill. Traditionally it was a way of meeting and keeping in touch with people from the other sides of the mountain before the days of the mobile phone. Many’s the match it is said, was made on the top of Carnaween. The other traditional walk, which is sadly dying out, was on the third Sunday in July was Bilberry or Fraughan Sunday. In olden times people went to the mountain on this day to gather Bilberries or Heatherberries to make a kind of wine. It was used as a tonic to keep the body sound.
The Bluestack Ramblers
The Bluestack Ramblers grew out of the demand from walkers coming to these hills requesting locals to show them the spot where a World War II plane had crashed. On the 31st of January 1944 just before midnight a Sunderland M43 flying boat (DW- III) on a return mission in the North Atlantic, crashed into the Northern face of Binmore. There was a crew of twelve men on board of which seven were killed in the crash. There is now a memorial plaque to these men and the survivors at the spot where the plane crashed. Little of the plane remains except for part of the engines.
The Bluestack Ramblers Walking Club was founded in the year 1995, and has grown into a very successful club since with around one hundred members at present. It organizes walks most weekends, mostly local, but they have travelled extensively also, all over Ireland, Britain and the European Continent. They also organise the Bluestack Walking Festival every May, which attracts a large number of walkers to the area. As interest in walking continues, they are going from strength to strength.
In the audio piece, Helen Meehan tells us how folk in these parts used short cuts or what are known as ‘near cuts’ to get about.
The Eske isn’t just a good fishing river, but is also a fine river for canoeists.
The start for a canoe trip is in fact the next bridge at Corveen – take a right at the next junction and you’ll find it 1 km on by the mouth of the lough itself. The river is Grade II+b for the first 1.5km, otherwise Grade I, except for the last kilometre which increases to Grade II again.
The river Eske drains Lough Eske and discharges to the sea at Donegal Town. It is a shallow river and often doesn’t have enough water to paddle in, never the less, due to the action of the lake, the water level is slow to rise and fall.
The rapids in Donegal Town will be a good indication of the conditions. In the first section, there are good stretches of rapids and standing waves as the river slides over gentle angled slabs of bedrock.
The only significant drop is Mill Fall at 1.5km, where the river passes under a low footbridge at an old mill. Watch out for this in flood, where there may be insufficient clearance under the bridge. The fall drops nearly 2.5m over a couple of shallow rocky steps.
From Mill Fall, the river has cut a rocky gorge which is pleasantly forested. There are no further significant rapids before the first get out point is reached at the next bridge. The longer trip to Donegal Town follows a long stretch of river, until the outskirts of the town are reached and the gradient starts to pick up again. There is a small, vertical walled waterworks weir just outside the town, which can develop a nasty stopper in high water. From there, the river passes over some pleasant, easy rapids before meeting the sea.
From ‘Irish Whitewater – a guide to Irish Whitewater Rivers and Surf’. Contact Brendan Proctor for further details on canoeing in the area: +353 (0)863373031
You’ll be coming up to a crossroads here. You’ll be carrying on over the road skirting past the Lough Eske Castle estate on your right. As always, there’s a signpost for The Bluestack Way to help you.
In the footsteps of monks
The newest development in walking in this area, was the decision by Failte Ireland to choose Donegal Town as one of its dedicated Walking Hubs in 2009. They choose five areas throughout the country as Walking Centres of Excellence which guarantee they are Walking Friendly and offer the walker a second to none service. The other hubs in the country are Tinnahealy, Ballyvaughan, Aherlow and the Slieve Blooms. On November 24th 2012, Failte Ireland handed over the control of the hub to a steering committee and it is now up to the tourist industry in the locality to make the most of this unique opportunity.
Walking in Lough Eske and the Bluestacks has now become mostly a recreational activity, although a few farmers still traverse these hills in the pursuit of their livelihood. Today the people who take to these hills mostly go for the exercise, for the peace and quiet, and the sense of being at one with nature. We may not be any different from the Druids and Monks who first went into these hills, hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Maybe after all we are still on the same journey, looking for the same things and it is no coincidence that we go to the same places to try and find the answers. As the old saying goes “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.
Another interesting facet of the countryside was the widely held belief in piseogs – in our audio piece, we tell you more about this curious phenomenon which has declined significantly in recent years.
Lough Eske geology
It is possible that Lough Eske owes its location to the juxtaposition of the 325 million year old Carboniferous rocks on the western side and the 600 million year old Precambrian rocks on the eastern side of the lough. The contact between the two represents a weakness, which has been exploited by erosion to create the depression in which Lough Eske is formed.
The concept of time is often difficult to deal with regarding the processes of the earth. The oldest rock in the south Donegal region is 600 million years old and forms many of the hills of the Bluestack mountains. If the time period of 600 million years is condensed into a single day, then the Ice Age ended about two seconds to midnight and humans first appeared about one second to midnight.
We’re grateful to Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh who tells us a bit more about one of the placenames nearby – Friarsbush in the middle of Barnesmore, some three miles away.
An tAthair Niallán Mac Dáibhid by Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh
There was a young man on board with the Flight of the Earls whose body was found over two hundred years later in Barnesmore Gap when the railway line was under construction there in 1883. He was Niallán Mac Dáibhid from Inishowen who, in 1607, was on his way to Rome to study with the Franciscans. He had travelled with the Earls in the company of his father, Seán Crón Mac Dáibhid, one of four very accomplished sons of Art Mac Dáibhid, all descendants of Dáibhid Dubh Ó Dochartaigh. They were the effective rulers of Inishowen when the 14-year old chieftain Sir Cathaoir Rua Ó Dochartaigh was too young to make important decisions. Indeed, Niallán’s mother was Fionnuala Nί Dhochartaigh of Buncrana Castle – a relation of Sir Cathaoir’s. She was left behind to care for Niallán’s brothers and sisters when her husband and son sailed out of Rathmullen in 1607. Seán Crón’s letter home -in Irish – urging his wife to join him in Bordeaux was intercepted by the English. The letter survived in translation but the family was never re-united as far as we know.
Eamonn Monaghan of Drumkeelan, Mountcharles, has researched the rather sad story of Niallán’s return to Ireland in August 1661 as a middle-aged Franciscan priest. He landed on the Mayo coast after travelling from France and began making his way up through Donegal Town in the direction of his home place in Inishowen. He was soon intercepted by Major Folliott and his men and imprisoned in Donegal Castle. Niallán had in his possession a letter in Irish addressed to Antain Ó Dochartaigh of Inishowen. Henry Brooke – the occupier of the castle at that stage – was nervous and suspicious of anyone who looked as if he might be plotting to bring Spaniards across to Ireland. There was always the possibility that another rebellion would start up. Brooke was unable to find any local people willing to translate the letter for him, so Fr. Niallán was set free, but was then followed by Brooke’s men who tracked him down as he travelled through Barnesmore Gap. They brutally killed him and left his body to rot.
Years later, in 1883, a skeleton was uncovered by a railway worker involved in the building of the railroad. He was called Big Eddie Rogers from Frosses. Eddie recognised him as a priest because of the remains of a priest’s collar still on the skeleton and by bits of his rosary beads. The bog land had preserved much of the clothing.
Eddie’s boss allowed Eddie and his friend to bury the holy man. They did so near a stump of a holly bush growing by a stream flowing into the Lowreymore River. A simple wooden cross was attached to the tree and it remained there for years and was always replaced when it fell off. Finally it vanished. The memory of the murdered priest also faded.
But after much searching, Eamonn met a man called Malachy Quigley from Barnes who was able to take him out and show him the bush which marked the resting place of the brave Niallán Mac Dáibhid. Some time later Eamonn arrived out with Peter Kane, who owned a metal detector, and after a long search of the area they found a simple crucifix with a metallic figure of Christ attached. This cross may not be as old as 1661 but it was a significant find in that it proved that the memory of the murdered friar was kept alive for at least three centuries!
Fr. Niallán, according to local tradition, is buried in the townland of Friar’s Bush alongside the little waterfall where the famous holly bush grows. The ordnance survey map of 1835 shows Friar’s Bush as a named townland, but uninhabited then as it is now. Perhaps it was so-named in the previous centuries by people who knew about the incident but didn’t know the actual spot where the bones lay. The skeleton was unearthed on the opposite side of the Lowreymore River, on the railway side. Friar’s Bush is on the opposite side where the old footpath used to weave its way through “the Gap”.
Patrick Campbell knew of a brother and sister returning home one night from a market. ‘At a rather long hill on the road, which was densely sheltered with shrubbery and high trees, an unnatural cry was heard. This spot is known as ‘Brahan Brae’, which held its place-name since the famine days of 1846-47. The frightened brother and sister were followed by this unnatural wailing cry for over a mile along the way home. The ghost then seemed to go higher up the mountain and stop near a friend’s house and there the plaintive wail continued while the brother and sister travelled a further half mile along the bohereen to their own home. Some days later a young man died in the mountain home where the banshee’s cry came to a halt’.
Our audio piece tells us about the origins of the dreaded banshee.
Lough Eske and environs
Part One of our walk ends by the splendour of Lough Eske. Part One is deliberately shorter than other stages as we recommend some time spent in the area to walk up Banagher or the Ardnamona Woods or perhaps to fish in the lough or canoe down the river. You’re in a wonderful part of the world and it seems a shame to pass it by without savouring it properly. Give Patsy McNulty a call to be guided along any of these routes with some cracking stories along the way: +353(0)877941234
The flora highlight of the Castle grounds can be seen at the front of the hotel in the form of a Specimen Cedar of Lebanon. There’s plenty of fauna on show too, but they’re all metallic! Above the Famine Pot on Brachan Brae (the hill where the stirrabout (porridge) was distributed by the Quakers during the Famine, you will find, just inside the Coilte gate, a stand of Californian Redwoods. These iconic trees are the tallest tree in the world. The tallest Californian Redwood which stands at 114.5 metres tall and is thousands of years old. The Lough Eske examples are only babies at 200 years old and approx. 35 metres high!
This site has had a big house on it since 1621 with the Brookes of Donegal Castle infamy having a presence here until 1896. Thomas Brooke had the Derry architect Fitzgibbon Louch completely redesign the existing manor house; the result was a grand Elizabethan-style residence finished in 1868 which became known as Lough Eske Castle. The castle was sold at the end of the century and later became a guest house; by the mid-twentieth century it was in a state of ruin having been destroyed by fire in 1939, but was reopened as Lough Eske Castle Hotel in December 2007.
Turning left at the back of the castle by its gates would take you on the Road to Nowhere. Why such a curious name? The British government’s belief in not giving charity during the Great Famine of the 1840s meant any relief measures had to be worked for. Many of the projects on which the poor and hungry had to work in order to get food from the relief agencies were of no strategic importance. They were just ways to make the starving work for food. One such project was the road you are looking at from behind Lough Eske Castle, up Burns Mountain to the peak of Banagher Hill, the road to nowhere. The road had no practical use until hillwalkers started to follow its path for recreation over one hundred years later. Another reminder of those times can be seen later on at the nearby Famine Pot.
Straight after the Harvey’s Point T junction is the Famine Pot on the left. As you approach this major landmark, look out for some California Redwood in the Coillte wood near the Famine Pot. They’re relatively young trees so don’t expect to see the likes of the massive beauties around the Big Sur in the Golden State.
From this pot the impoverished locals were fed during the Great Hunger of the late 1840s. There’s further signage about the area by the pot, as well as a good car park and a looped walk starting right beside the pot.
The famine of the 1840s or the Great Hunger, caused by a complete failure of the potato crop, was the most devastating event in 19th century Ireland. The famine pot at Lough Eske reminds us of that sorry period when a million people died of starvation and famine related disease and another million plus were forced to emigrate from the likes of The Hassans near Donegal Town, many of them to die in the coffin ships before reaching their destination.
Up until very recently, the area still had a handful of locals who could recount some poignant tale in their own family which has been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Jim McMullin, from Meenadreen was one such local who recalled many harrowing stories told to him by his grandfather who was one of the lucky ones to live through the famine and die naturally in 1911.
The ancient local residents are long gone, but won’t be forgotten. Their biggest mark being the wedge tomb in Winterhill and the Cairn tomb in the nearby townland of Tawnavorgal.
Other people who left an indelible mark on the landscape arrived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and, over the next two hundred years were to put a name on every stone, cliff, lough and stream that was to be found in the 147 stacks or hills around here – the Stack of the Big Man, The Mountain Breast of the Three Streams, The Low Hill of the Skulls, the Stack of the Lake of the Disappearing Water and the Hill of the Smooth Place of the Mice were all named by them.
Turn left for Harvey’s Point
Coming back from the Famine Pot, you’ll be taking a left here down towards the lough and to Harvey’s Point.
As mentioned, the roads here are busier than perhaps the road builders intended, so be careful and keep well in off the road when you hear a car approaching. As you make your way down, you’ll notice a derelict edifice through the woods on the right – this was once the O’Donnell’s stronghold in the Lough Eske area. We’ll tell you more about them along the way.
In our audio piece, we tell you about the mythological warriors, the Fianna, who used to hunt in these parts.
Fishing on the lough
Eske angling centre
There can be few more enjoyable pastimes than angling. John Buchan observed that the charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive, but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope. The lough and its tributaries are popular for fishing, especially for spring salmon, sea trout and char, with the season running from 1 March to 31 September. Tight lines!
For information in-season (1 May to 30 September) contact: Eske Angling Centre, Lough Eske Demesne. Tel: 0749740781. , As the centre will not be open all the time for the 2012 season, you can also contact the Fisheries Office in Ballyshannon first to check opening hours.
For information off-season contact: Northern Regional Fisheries Board, Station Road, Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. Tel. +353(0)719851435
Licence Fees in 2014
National Annual Licence e120
District Licence e58
21-day Licence e46
One-day Licence e32
Juvenile Licence (under 17) e18
Permit Fees in 2014
Note: You must have a permit as well as a fishing licence.
Daily Adult Permit e30
Daily Juvenile Permit e12
Weekly Permit (seven days’ fishing e150)
Permits are available for collection from the Eske Angling Centre, Lough Eske Demesne, just before Harvey’s Point Country hotel. Tel: +353(0)749740781.
Boat Hire for Lough Eske
Boat hire is e35 per day not including engine. This price does not include your angling permit. If you are fishing then you will need a fishing permit. Boat hire and an angling permit for one person is e50 inclusive. To purchase boat hire and angling permits for two people the cost is e80 inclusive. Maximum of two people per boat.
You’ll be by the lough’s shores by now. Out on the shore you’ll see O’Donnell Island, which was once a home to the O’Donnells of nearby Donegal Castle. From here, one of the most famous journeys in Irish history began on the 11th September 1607. Rory O’Donnell and his immediate family left their castle on Lough Eske that morning to walk for three days through the mountains to Rathmullan on the north coast of Donegal. There they joined with the O’Neill and Maguire families to sail to Spain on 14th September in what has became known as ‘The Flight of the Earls’, the final journey of the great Gaelic chieftain society which had ruled Ireland for the previous fifteen hundred years.
Strange sightings in the water
On a slightly less poignant note, the national daily, The Irish Daily Star, published a story entitled ‘Look out, it’s Eskie!’ back in the summer of 1998, claiming monster sighting in the lake. Staff and residents at Harvey’s Point told the reporter that at 2.30pm on Sunday 28 June 1998 they saw an unidentified object moving about 300m off the shore. Some people suggested that the Lough Eske Monster was a publicity stunt by local impresario, Zack Gallagher. He, however, has always denied this and has gone on record as saying he believes in the existence of such a beast – and will tell you so if you buy him a beer to discuss the harrowing event! The less fanciful version is that a lost seal swam the short distant up the River Eske from Donegal Bay that day.
Friends in high places
Other locals interviewed, such as former bed and breakfast owners Annabel and Kieran Clarke, repeated some of the local folklore when they told the paper that some lakes in Donegal are said to be connected by current to Scotland, trying to make a link with the much more famous Loch Ness Monster. A look at a map does give credence to this theory – Gweebarra on the way to Dungloe is said to be a continuation of the great fault line that cuts through Scotland’s Lough Ness, in effect the biggest crack in the world. The late Kieran Clarke was Ireland’s finest piano technician. Besides clients such as Brendel and Argerich, he was the man who ensured the piano in Abbey Road studios sounded good. Quietly salute him next time you hear The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’.
Following on from our anecdote about monsters in the lough, Patsy tells us what exactly a dubh dubhar-chú is.
Lough Bank reeds
This is great place to savour the surrounding hills and you will get the closest view of the lough itself on the walk. Look out for flags, bulrushes, water lilies and reeds, as well as flowering rushes on the lough itself. The incoming rivers of the lough (and their meaning in Irish) are: –
Clashalbin River (The Gully of the White Mare), Lowerymore River (The Big River Abounding in Elms) , Corabber River, (The Humpy, Muddy, Boggy River), Clady River (The Mountain Stream) with the Eske River (The River abounding in Fish) taking the water the 3.5 miles to the sea.
The lough’s islands are Pigeon’s Island, Grania’s Island, O’Donnell’s Island and Roshin Island. O’Donnell’s Island is regarded as the smallest townland in the country at one acre – the largest, Tawnawilly mountains at over 6000 acres is also out here, neither with a single human occupant!
These waters will be remembered in history as the place where the O’Donnells fled Donegal in 1607, but seeing as we’re in a poetic vein, here are the words to O’Donnell Abu by M.J McCann to mark better times – O’Donnell’s victory in Ballyshannon in 1597, the melody of which is still used by RTÉ radio as their signature tune every morning around dawn.
The words and music of “O’Donnell Aboo” were composed in the 1840s at a time when the castle lay in ruins, the O’Donnells dispersed all over Europe and the whole population was virtually downtrodden by tyranny and famine. During the 1840s, Thomas Davies, a leader of “Young Ireland”, urged Irish poets and songwriters to contribute patriotic ballads to his paper “The Nation”. In Davis’ own words, “We will endeavour to teach the people to sing the songs of their country that may keep alive in their minds the love of fatherland”. Among the songs Davis published was a poem written by Michael J. McCann (1824-1883) called “The Clan Conel War Song-1597”, otherwise known as “O’Donnell Aboo”.
“O’Donnell Aboo”, like many other 19th-century ballads, was a nostalgic look backwards at the former glories of Ireland, a ballad upon which people could pin their hopes. The tune to which it was to be sung, Roderick Vick Alpine Dhu, was a traditional one, but a military bandmaster from Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Waterford, called Joseph Haliday, composed a new tune to fit the words and it was Haliday’s tune which was to gain favour and become the tune so well-known today. It’s a strong, virile march melody full of pride and determination and it fits the words very aptly: –
Proudly the note of the trumpet is sounding
Loudly the war cries arise on the gale
Fleetly the steed by Lough Swilly is bounding
To join the thick squadrons on Saimer’s green vale
On every mountaineer, strangers to flight or fear
Rush to the standard of dauntless Red Hugh
Bonnaught and Gallowglass, throng from each mountain
Pass onward for Erin O’Donnell Abu!
Princely O’Neill to our aid is advancing
With many a chieftain and warrior clan
A thousand proud steeds in his vanguard are prancing
‘Neath the borderers brave from the Banks of the Bann
Many a heart shall quail under its coat of mail
Deeply the merciless foeman shall rue
When on his ears shall ring bourn on the breeze’s wing
Tir Conwell’s dread war cry, O’Donnell Abu!
Wildly o’er Desmond the war wolf is howling
Fearless the eagle sweeps over the plain
The fox in the streets of the city is prowling
And all who would scare them are banished or slain
On with O’Donnall then, fight the old fight again
Sons of Tir Conwell are valiant and true
Make the proud saxon feel Erin’s avenging steel
Strike for your country O’Donnell Abu!
During the first few decades of the present century there was a Donegal writer of considerable note – Seosamh Mac Grianna of Rann na Feirste – who, although principally known as a novelist, made a singable translation of the song calling it “Ó Domhnaill Abú”. It appeared in the Ranafast Irish College songbook, “Abair Amhrán”, in the 1940s and hence it filtered through into schools and social gatherings as a song in Irish.
Nevertheless, it was the original McCann version that endured the years as a rousing school song. Even to this day national school teachers throughout Ireland teach “O’Donnell Aboo” to their classes and many generations of Irish people can still sing it proudly and cherish fond memories of their childhood and school days.
R.T.É, or Raidió Éireann, as it used to be known, used part of the tune of “O’Donnell Aboo” to begin their early morning programmes – the official signature tune. Its phrase was repeated over and over again on harp and celesta (sounding rather like a musical box) and every household in Ireland was awakened each day from its slumber to the gentle strains of “O’Donnell Aboo” on the radio. If people didn’t already know the tune, they certainly knew it after that.
Coming to the woods
As you turn left away from the lough, you’ll be walking with the gentle gush of the Clady river on your right for company. Now might be a good time to tell you of the trees to view in the area.
Our next stop is the Ardnamona woods walk, which is well worth the diversion. Look out for the old mill in the wood. This mill was once used for electric supply to the Ardnamona estate. Also of note in the Ardnamona area is the vestigial oak from the prehistoric forest, now Duchas Reserve, beside the lake’s north shore, once part of Ardnamona. The Clarkes were keen landscapers and cultivated rhododendra and Azalea in Ardnamona gardens, which is on the State recommended list.
Other tress and growth of note in the Lough Eske area include: beech, birch, ash, wild cherry, hazel, rowan (mountain ash), blackthorn, whitethorn, willow (black sally and white), sycamore, alder, elder, yew, Scots pine, larch and the wild rose.
You’ll have already noted the specimen Cedar of Lebanon at the front of Lough Eske Castle. Good bog oak has been found out here – it can be dug out of bog on the hillside remains of primeval forest.
Ardnamona woods walk
Want to go off road and sample a walking path that loops around large oak, hazel and holly trees in a woodland that is left in its natural state? You’ve found it at the Ardnamona woods walk. Look out for mosses, bluebells, wood sorrel, streams and the lakeside to enjoy on this delightful walk developed by National Parks and Wildlife Service. The wood is also home to red squirrel, badger, fox and mink. Dogs are only allowed if kept on a lead. Allow one hour to complete this separate walk.
On your right you’ll see a two-story house. Turn into entrance of the house crossing the bridge over the Clady river, go past the house. About 100m on the left, you’ll see parking facilities. The house is private property- don’t go asking them questions!
Walk Directions – see the map attached.
A-B. There is an information sign inside the gate. At the first junction go straight and the route ascends gently up to junction B, where the trail turns down to the right.
B-C. The path winds steeply down for a short while, and crosses a number of little streams. Watch out on your left for one great example of new branches growing vertically from an old fallen trunk. Then you arrive at the shore of Lough Eske, with stunning views over the lake and the magnificent Bluestack Mountains rising behind it.
C-D. As you continue along the path you cross another footbridge. The route has a few short steep sections, but the beauty of this natural broadleaf woodland will more than compensate you for the strain.
D-A. At the top of the path you are back where you started, with the entrance gate on your left.
Up the hill
As we approach the old friary location, we’ll tell you of another interesting fact about the area. Lough Eske is the only recorded place in County Donegal where a Síle na Gig was found – you’ll have seen more about it on the Information Board by the Famine Pot. These are stone carvings of women with exposed genitals, most often found in churches, usually near the doorway, or castles – in this case, on O’Donnell Castle.
Far from being erotic carvings, the women portrayed tend to appear old and are certainly not titillating, some hold their genitals apart, others seem to be screaming. Síle-na-Gig are not unique to Ireland, they are found throughout the British Isles and in France and some parts of Germany also. Lots of theories have been put forward about their origin. Some say they are illustrations of the effects of the sin of lust or symbols to ward off evil. Another theory is that they are goddesses of birth or fertility, pre-Christian artifacts in spite of their being mainly found in churches.
In many cases it appears as if the carvings are older than the buildings in which they are found, possibly moved to their new locations at the time a church or castle was built, which would seem to support the pre-Christian theory. Many men of the church were horrified at the look of them and had them removed, so credit where it is due to the friars out here who allowed it to remain. Once moved from the island to Lough Castle, it disappeared over a 100 years ago and hasn’t been seen since. Someone has a unique artefact on their mantlepiece!
This area is commonly regarded as the site of the old Franciscan friary, indeed the townland is called Friary. As Catholicism was suppressed in Ireland, the Franciscan community was banished from their friary in Donegal Town. They moved to their new home in the wilderness of Lough Eske, as it was described in a letter by St Oliver Plunkett to his Superiors when he was Bishop of Ireland. From their new home, these Monks dressed in their long brown robes, walked through the hills to bring the message of God to their parishes and far beyond. St Oliver Plunkett also described the lough eske friary as “The best kept convent in all of Ireland” in a letter he wrote to Rome when visiting Lough Eske in 1672. The original letter can still be seen in The Vatican archives. This is strong evidence that the Franciscan Order were still in Lough Eske 40 years after the Annals of The Four Masters were published.
Beer hop vine
This plant grows in the manner of ivy and it is believed its feather-like fruit heads are used to flavour beer brewed from barley. This plant grew wildly in the friars’ time and lay unrecognised for years after their departure until a clean-up operation was taking place by the Office of Public Works. Alfred Timony from Revlin just outside of Donegal Town retrieved a cutting and planted it in his garden. His grandson, Maurice Timony (whose shop we recommended for buying maps) became aware of its provenance and brought a piece to Glenveagh National Park for verification. It now forms part of the National Plant Archive and is grown today in both Glenveagh and Killarney National Parks.
One of the routes they took was a path known as ‘Casan na Brathra’, the Brothers Path, which led from Lough Eske through the Bluestacks to Glenfin, no easy walk on the best of days. This path, still to be seen, was marked by piles of stones, every quarter of a mile or so, with a white quartz stone on top, which could easily be seen in rain or fog, to guide the brothers on their way. Indeed, it was probably in this Friary, where the final chapters of the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ were written, effectively the first complete history of Ireland.
Another nearby walk of note is The Lake Circuit. This walk starts on the Bluestack Way and moves into the hills. It is a pleasant circuit walking in the hills without too much height gain. Taking in the views and ambling around four lakes nestled in between the mountains. This is a track and hill walk and suitable for people with moderate levels of fitness. This walk can be used as an introduction to hill walking.
This concludes the end of The Bluestack Way Part One. We do hope you plan to enjoy the many wonders of the Lough Eske region and are no rush. Take note that Part Two of the Way starts here at this T junction. You’ll be taking a right at the top of the brae as such and within 250 yards, you’ll be veering left up the hill – it is waymarked with the yellow man and the GPS coordinates of it are GPS Location: 54.710835, -8.064785
Our audio piece salutes the efforts of the Four Masters to compile the Annals. In an age where everything is done with the click of a mouse or the touch of a button, their manual dedication to the task was momentous.