Donegal, host to Tony Blair’s first pint of Guinness

Mount Errigal

‘So why do think more people don’t come here?’ was a question I was asked when doing an interview for Highland Radio in Letterkenny. It was an interesting question, and one for which I didn’t really have an answer.

I first came to County Donegal way back in the summer of 1999. If it hadn’t been for the book I was reading at the time telling of Tory Island and its most famous resident, I might never have ventured up into this corner of the Republic of Ireland. I might also have thought that Donegal was part of Northern Ireland, as I suspect many do. However, thankfully this was not the case because I would have been deprived of seeing one of Ireland’s most beautiful counties, and of discovering a little known tourist attraction.

Just like after my first trip to Northern Donegal, I returned to the beauty and tranquillity of Bunbeg Harbour, and stayed at the luxurious Bunbeg House. The harbour is sheltered from the storms of the North Sea and it’s a short walk along a country road to the village of Bunbeg itself. Bunbeg, Derrybeg and Gweedore pretty much run into each other. Even if you could understand the Gaelic signs you still wouldn’t know if you’d left one village for another. The area claims to be one of the most densely populated rural areas in Western Europe.

The Poisoned Glen

I spent my days exploring the area. From the rugged, wild beauty of the Bloody Foreland (the coastline stretching east from Bunbeg to Magheroarty) to Mt Errigal, the Poisoned Glen and the stunning Glenveagh National Park, this part of Ireland is a true wilderness packed with natural beauty. At 751-metres (2,464 ft) Errigal is also the most southern, steepest and highest of the mountain chain, called the “Seven Sisters” by locals. It’s distinctive conical shape makes it recognisable from miles around. A trail leads to the top starting from the car park off the R251 road in Dunlewey, or you can start your hike from behind the nearby Errigal Youth Hostel.

Dunlewey (Dun Luiche), which means Lugh’s Fort, is named after the Celtic demigod Lugh, Grandson of Balor of the Evil Eye, the feared leader of an ancient race known as the Formorians. Their base was on Tory Island. Balor’s druid had told him of a prophecy where he would be killed by his grandson. So to ensure this prophecy didn’t come true, he locked away his only daughter, Eithne in a glass tower on the eastern promontory of Tory.

However, the Cian, warrior of the Tuatha de Danann, while on a visit to Tory, broke into the tower and seduced Eithne and nine months later she gave birth to Triplet. Balor cast all three babies into the sea, but unbeknown to him Lugh was rescued by the sea god, Manannan mac Lir, who whisked him off to Spain to be raised by Tailltiu, the daughter of the King of Spain.

Lugh returned to this region as a grown man and warrior of the Tuatha de Dannan. He built a fort here, and eventually fulfilled his prophecy and killed Balor in a great battle on the Plain of Moy Tura, in County Sligo.

It was here that I discovered an intriguing, and possibly little known fact. I phoned a journalist friend in Wexford, who is actually from Donegal. Upon learning that I was in his home county, he proceeded to list all the things I should see. The most intriguing place he mentioned was Rossnowlagh Beach. Not only is it viewed as one of the best beaches in Ireland, but is also the area where the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had his first pint of Guinness.

‘It’s somewhere around that area,’ said Marty. ‘I’m not sure exactly where, but just ask anyone and they’ll be able to tell you.’

So I set off with the intention of seeking out this place.

Blue stack Mountains

Northern Donegal has the rugged, rocky Derryveagh Mountains, but the southern landscape is much greener with dense forest and deep valleys cutting through the lovely Blue Stack Mountains. We took a winding road through a valley dotted with sheep, many of whom seemed to think they had as much right to be on the road as the cars, if not more. This was exemplified by one asleep in the middle of the road as I came around a corner.

Nestled at the edge of these mountains and sitting beside the ocean is the small village of Glencolmcille, which contains the fantastic Dooey Hostel.

The Dooey Hostel is the flagship property for the IHO (Independent Hostel Owners).

The hostel is set high up on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the bay. At the end of a long corridor we were greeted by Mary, a little old lady with wild hair, a wry grin and a mischievous look in her eyes. Immediately Mary thrust out her hand and extended her warmest welcome. Behind her stood Leo, who handed us a tray with two cups of tea and a plateful of biscuits. Downstairs there was a large kitchen. Mary then led us upstairs to the common room. We stepped through the door into a long, spacious room with dining tables, a fireplace and a couple of sofas in the far corner. A set of large bay windows, the length of the room, looked out across the mountains, ocean and down into the valley. The view was breathtaking.

We stayed here for a couple of days then headed off to another great hostel in nearby Kilkar, The Derrylahan hostel.

Slieve League – the highest sea cliffs in Europe

Our reason for coming here was to view the Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. At the village of Carrick we turned off for Teelin. To view the cliffs you can drive up to a car park at the Bunglas viewing point, or hike a trail from the bottom. At the car park, we hiked up a small hill and sat atop watching the sheer face of the 300-metre cliffs change colour with the setting of the sun.

Rossnowlagh Beach

The next morning we headed off on the final leg of our trip around Donegal. Rossnowlagh Beach lies just north of Ballyshannon, and is highly popular among surfers. Its other great feature is that you can drive onto the beach itself.

The most prominent feature of Rossnowlagh Beach is the Sandhouse Hotel, on the side of which is the Surfer’s Bar. I figured this would be a good place to start my search for this famous pub. I wandered in and up to the bar, a little unsure of what to say.

‘Hi there,’ I said to the barmaid. ‘I’ve been told that Tony Blair had his first pint of Guinness in this area. Is this true?’

‘Oh sure!’ she replied. ‘It was either here, or Whoriskey’s.’

It turned out to be Whoriskey’s, in nearby Cashelard.

Whoriskey’s Pub

Now, local people in Ireland will call a pub by the name of the owners, and not by its official name. So when I pulled up in Cashelard and could only see a pub called The Travellers Rest, I was confused.

Cashelard is a tiny village, and there was no sign of another pub.

I wandered inside and was greeted by a young man behind the bar.

‘Hi, is this Whoriskey’s?’ I asked.

‘It is,’ he replied.

‘And is this the pub where Tony Blair had his first pint of Guinness?’

‘That’s right,’ he laughed.

‘Great!’ I replied. ‘We’ve found it.’

There was an awkward pause. Well, I’ve found it, I thought. Great… so what do I do now? Guess we should have a drink.

We all sat down and ordered our drinks. The barman chatted for a while, but didn’t really seem to have anything more to offer on the subject of Tony Blair. I actually felt a little let down. We had finally found this place and now it was all over, there was nothing more to it. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I had hoped for a more fitting end.

Almost in response to my plea, an old lady appeared behind the bar, greeted us and asked what we were doing in this little backwater of Ireland. I told her, and she immediately went away and returned with a pile of newspaper clippings.

This was more like it.

The event was first revealed back in November 1998 when the media tracked down this pub, and for a brief moment the Travellers Rest was thrust into the limelight. Rose, the old lady with us now, and her husband Vinnie Whoriskey were running the pub at the time.

‘Do you get a lot of people coming in here asking about this?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes,’ replied Rose, with a wink. ‘I tell them all that he was sitting at that table over there when he was here, but that table wasn’t even there back then.’

Tony Blair’s maternal grandparents were Sally Lipsett from Ballyshannon and George Corscaden from nearby Cashelard. George and Sally lived in Glasgow after their marriage in 1918, but Sally was home on a visit to her family in Ballyshannon when she gave birth to Blair’s mother, Hazel, in 1922.

Tony Blair revealed his Donegal roots shortly after becoming Prime Minister.

He told how he spent his childhood on holiday in Rossnowlagh and Cashelard with his parents, and recalled having his first sip of Guinness when his father took him to the only pub in Cashelard, the Travellers Rest.

Vinnie and Rose retired and sold the pub to their son Brendan, who came in shortly after. However, they said they still liked to be around the place from time to time to help out, and of course to chat to the customers.

 

Sadly Rose Whoriskey passed away back in 2015. RIP

 

Info

 

Bunbeg House 074 9531305. www.bunbeghouse.com

Dooey Hostel, Glencolmcille. Tel: 074 9730130. www.glencolmcille.ie/dooey.htm

Derrylahan Hostel, Kilcar. Tel: 074 9738079. homepage.eircom.net/~derrylahan

IHO (Independent Hostels Ireland) www.independenthostelsireland.com

 

Directions to the Traveller’s Rest, Cashelard: From Ballyshannon take the N15 north towards Donegal Town. A few miles out of Ballyshannon turn right at a very small sign for Cashelard. The country road will take you a couple miles past the creamery and finally into Cashelard. The pub is next to a small church.

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DUNDALK – THE ROAD WHERE THINGS GO BACKWARDS

‘Have you been to the road where things go backwards?’ asked Eilish, as I sitting having breakfast in the Carlow hostel.

‘The what?’ I replied.

‘The road where things go backwards. It’s up near Dundalk. Daddy took some Americans there last year. There is a section of road that goes downhill and if you stop the car at the bottom, put it in neutral and release the brake the car will roll backwards up the hill.’

I started looking for the TV cameras. This was obviously some sort of joke. The thing was that Eilish was dead serious.

‘You’re joking, of course,’ I replied.

‘No, it’s no joke. It’s up north of Dundalk. Daddy knows where. I’ll get him on the phone for you.

Before I knew it I was speaking on the phone to a fella called Éamonn, who proceeded to explain to me in full detail how to get there. ‘It’s no joke,’ he explained. ‘I took some American friends up there, and the man was a high court judge. Well, they couldn’t believe their eyes and videoed the whole process.

I put the phone down and pondered this for a moment. It couldn’t be a joke; they certainly wouldn’t send me all the way up there as a joke. The Irish were fun loving, but not cruel. I still couldn’t find those cameras, so I assumed it must be true, or at least true in the old man’s eyes.

I mentioned this to my friend Eoin, who had never heard of it and was quite intrigued by it all. Later that day I met up with my friend Eddie who is basically the Delboy of Ireland, and one of the best known street traders around. Eddie had been there, and said that back in the day when it was first discovered it was all over the television, and is also in the Guinness book of records.

A few weeks later I found myself purposely travelling up that way in order to check out this phenomenon. I drove into Dundalk and spent a few hours visiting the local papers looking for potential book reviews. During an interview with Francis Carroll at the Argus I mentioned that I was up here to look for this.

‘Ah yes, I know it,’ he said. ‘I used to live near it. Can’t remember what it’s called, though. But it’s on the road out to Carlingford. Look for the turn off for McCrystals and ask anyone around there. Actually Carlingford is a nice little place to visit.’

I then went for an interview with Joe Carroll (don’t know if they are related) who was a very funny and friendly man. Joe also knew of the place. ‘Gravity Hill,’ he called it, and sent us on our way with a hearty handshake and some fruit from a nearby basket for the journey.

With all these people knowing about this, I was beginning to wonder if this would mar the adventure somewhat and that we would arrive to find a queue of tourists in cars paying small fees of money to ride the hill.

According to Éamonn’s directions I had to clock up eight miles to the turn off along the Carlingford road before finding the turn off for a tourist attraction called the Long Woman’s Grave. The Carlingford road took us along the stunningly beautiful Cooley Peninsula, awash with low green hills, high mountains and ocean views. As I drove I searched in vain for the signs, but before I knew it was driving into Carlingford town.

I pulled to the side of the road and asked a man digging his front garden.

‘Ah, you’re the second person to ask me about that. You’ve gone past it. Go back out to the Dundalk road and drive for about five miles and you’ll see McCrystals and a big petrol station. The turning is directly opposite. Ask inside and they’ll direct you from there.’

Carlingford turned out to be a pretty little town sitting aside Carlingford Lough with narrow streets and whitewashed cottages. The peninsula’s mountains formed a stunning backdrop to the town. It had been my intention to see this hill and then drive on to Donegal, but time was getting on and I quite took to the idea of spending the night in this attractive little seaside town. I found the Carlingford Adventure Centre and Holiday Hostel, but there was no parking outside. The woman at reception informed us there were public toilets near the tourist office and suggested that we spend the night in the car park there.

We left Carlingford and headed back out on the Dundalk road. Five miles were clocked up and still there was no sign of McCrystals or a petrol station. I figured that five miles was just a bad estimate on his part. It was, and soon I was pulling into the petrol station. There was still no sign of McCrystals. The girl at the counter smiled when I asked her about the road that goes backwards.

‘Go back down the road towards Dundalk and take the first turn off left. Follow the road to the right and then immediately left.’

I took the turn off and discovered that what everyone had been talking about was actually a sign for McCrystals, not the store itself. After another wrong turn we headed back to that road and found McCrystals Food Store just a little way up. We pulled over there for a drink and an ice cream.

‘I’m looking for the road where things go backwards,’ I said, as he handed me my ice cream.

‘Ah, Magic Road,’ he said.

‘Is that what you call it then?’

‘That’s right. If you go left from here to the end of the road you’ll come to a T-Junction, take a right and then an immediate left. Follow the road to the top of the hill, then down into a dip where you’ll see a big mushroom. Stop there, put the car in neutral and release the brake. You’ll roll backwards up the hill.’

A big mushroom! I thought. This phenomenon was obviously having a strange effect on the locals.

The Big Mushroom

I got back in the van, finished my ice cream and then took to the road. At the junction I took a right then a left at signs indicating the Táin Trail, which is a 40-kilometre trail that makes a circuit of the peninsula through the Cooley Mountains. The road led up a long, straight and steep incline and then at the brow of the hill went down into a dip. At the bottom of this hill I spotted a large, brown, circular storage hut, which, if you imagined hard enough, could have been a giant mushroom. Immediately I slammed on the brakes.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Nika, my travelling companion.

‘I think this is it,’ I replied. ‘Look, there’s the mushroom.’

Nika remained quiet, possibly wondering if this obsession was beginning to affect my sanity. We were at the very base of the hill, so I put the van in neutral and took my foot off the brake.

‘Bloody hell!’ I cried. ‘Look, we’re rolling uphill!’

And we were, we were rolling up the hill. It was amazing, no it was astounding. The hill slanted upwards slightly then became steeper halfway up. At the steeper point we picked up speed, until finally reaching the brow of the hill and then beginning to roll down the big hill. I braked, put the van in gear and drove down the hill again to the mushroom. Once again we rolled back up the hill. I felt like a child who’d just watched a magician for the first time. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I rode up and down that hill for the next half an hour, as traffic passed cautiously. The local people watched with amusement, obviously knowing exactly what I was up to. You could tell when the passing car contained tourists because they looked on with complete bewilderment at this deranged man driving up and down the hill.

I drove up the other side and turned around. A man was building a wall in front of his house, and watched us with a smile. I drove back down and stopped at the same place, to see if we rolled forward. We did, but somehow it didn’t have the same effect. So I turned around again and repeated the backwards roll. I swung my head from back to front looking from both angles trying to see how this worked. I couldn’t. Nika got out and took photos and then drove the van herself.

Eventually I pulled the van over to the side and studied the road from the side. From the ground I could see that the road actually slanted down and that it was the funny angle of the hill creating this illusion. It really was an illusion, but it was a bloody good one. But what was so great was that there wasn’t a queue of tourists paying to try it. There wasn’t even a sign to indicate what it was. It hadn’t been exploited one bit, and was just a piece of country road with a hidden secret.

Eventually I managed to tear myself away. We decided to continue up the road to the Long Woman’s Grave. Once again we passed the man building his wall and waved. He waved back, took one look at our huge grins, and burst out laughing.
The Long Woman’s Grave lay at the very top of the hill. There was nothing else around except rocky hills and sheep. A small sign by a pile of rocks indicated the grave. A plaque underneath told the story. Another car had pulled up and a woman got out and joined us as we read it:

The Legend of the Long Woman

Deprived of his heritage by a scheming brother, Lorcan O’Hanlon of the Ui Meith Mara, using his splendid galley, engaged in profitable trading to the East. On one voyage he rescued a Spanish grandee and his daughter, Cauthleen, descendents of the princely O’Donnells. He fell in love with the tall Spanish girl and promised to bring her to Ireland to share his possessions in view from high up on the mountain.

With him, she climbed to this hollow and saw a small area of barren, rocky mountain. The shock was such that she collapsed and died. This scattered pile of stones marks the last resting place of the Long Woman.

I imagine her last words were: ‘Bloody hell, you expect me to live here?’

‘It’s a bit of a tall story, isn’t it?’ said the lady who had joined us.

We laughed. Naturally we got chatting and I couldn’t resist asking her if she’d heard about Magic Hill. She had heard something about it but didn’t realise it was around here. I had been bursting to talk to someone about it, so for the next ten minutes her ears flapped back and forth as they were bombarding with my excitable words.

Inevitably the conversation got on to me being a travel writer and that I was travelling around to publicise and sell my book. Ten more minutes later I was signing a copy for her. So there I was, on a lonely mountaintop surrounded by rocks, sheep and sheep shit, and I was selling a book to the only other tourist there. I wondered how many travel writers could say that they had sold a book and done and signing at the top of a lonely mountain at the Long Woman’s Grave, after having rolled backwards up the hill?

Directions to Magic hill

Leave Dundalk and take the R173 to Carlingford. Halfway along you will spot a Texaco Petrol Station. Take the first left after this, where you’ll see a sign for McCrystals Food Store, and signs for the Táin Trail and Oriel Trail; there is no sign for the Long Woman’s Grave. Follow the road around and past McCrystals until you reach a T-Junction. Turn right and immediately left on the other side, again following signs for the Táin and Oriel Trails. Follow the road straight to the brow of the hill, go down into a dip and stop immediately next to the big mushroom. Then watch in amazement as your car rolls back up the hill.

 

Read more about this and other great places to visit in Ireland in my book: Mysterious World Ireland






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