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The most northerly point on the island of Ireland isn't in Northern Ireland. For sneaking around on its western blindside is a slither of the south...the northern arm of County Donegal.
** In the shade of Avalon... **
The actual guilty party is Banba's Crown near Malin Head, the utmost extremity of the peninsular of Inishowen, near enough to Londonderry as to kid you it's not remote and 'other'. But it is. And south-west of here the remoteness and otherness continues apace: perhaps only the outer isles of Scotland can compare for uniqueness of atmosphere in our little corner of the globe. Here lies a sparsely populated network of lofty mountains and secret glens, reaching across to a coast dotted with townlands and pummelled by a merciless Atlantic. No settlements exist larger than villages, the wild and largely infertile land encouraging goings rather than comings.
Two ranges of mountains form the foundations of the interior. To the south are the Bluestacks: rough limestone hills strewn to the north of Donegal town itself, secretive and not much visited. More overt are the Derryveaghs: stern granite and quartzite mountains rising from ravenous bogs in the grand Irish style.
Errigal dominates the Derryveagh Mountains and the Glenveagh National Park, asserting its superiority both by means of altitude (it's comfortably higher than everything else) and in form. Many mountains are dramatic and overpowering, but few can honestly claim to be beautiful: Errigal, with its steep sides shrouded in quartzite screes tapering to a narrow summit ridge, is one of the few. Particularly when seen end-on (from the south east but especially from the north-west, where it rises straight up from the plain in almost Tolkeinesque fashion), in terms of aesthetics it bows to none. The name translates to 'oratory', and indeed the summit would be a tremendous place from which to deliver a sermon...so long as the congregation was limited. There's not a vast amount of room for a crowd up on the top, but it'd probably be perfectly adequate for next year's meeting of the Little Mix Fan Club.
** To the lands I've never been... **
Road access to the mountain is decent, with the R251 running along its southern base (from where it is usually climbed). This means that Errigal is roughly half an hour from the sizeable town of Letterkenny, and about an hour from Donegal town and Londonderry: if you're making a longer day trip from further afield, I'd guess you're talking two and a half hours from Belfast. For jet-setters, obviously Belfast has an airport connecting with multiple international destinations...and Donegal has a little airport of its own on the west coast, although that only offers flights to and from Glasgow and Dublin, and probably has the same fella doing the air traffic control, the baggage handling and the duty-free. Accommodation is plentiful (although I would book in advance in busy periods: http://www.gulliver.ie/ should see you right). I stayed in Donegal itself (for ease of access to Slieve League...see other review) but visitors focussing on Errigal may prefer something closer.
(When I say the roads are 'decent'...it should be noted that it was on the drive from Donegal town to Errigal, on the N15 alongside Lough Eske, that my hire car, fed up from the constant headbutting that 14 days on the Irish road network gives you, finally decided to give a physical form to its emotional suffering and shredded the right front tyre in a quite grisly fashion. After an extended rummage for the spare and the jack, my protracted changing of the tyre precisely coincided with a short, torrential shower...bloody Kias and their not-very-clearly-marked jacking points.)
Anyway, the sort of person seeking genuine guidance from me will probably want to know the easy way up Errigal, and with the mountain being fundamentally an L-shaped ridge arcing from north to east, the basic choice is 'north ridge' or 'east ridge'. The north ridge is quite awkward of access and with scrambling in its upper section that, while technically straightforward, is a little visually intimidating. So I will concentrate on the east ridge. This can be approached from the north, as part of an excellent horseshoe including Aghla Mor and Aghla Beg, but is more commonly approached from a substantial carpark on the R251 to the south. From here the peak appears as a slightly squished pyramid crowning the moor, with the even more crushed eminence of Mackoght (oft mistakenly dubbed Little Errigal) to its right, and the ascent, by the standards of peaks of this stature, is reasonably straightforward. If the cloud is down, the route probably isn't especially dangerous, but it would be a shame not to see the view: it might be better to go elsewhere.
** Errigal from the south **
(3 miles, 1900ft ascent, 3 hrs)
Regardless of the aforementioned 'straightforward'ness, the route keeps you honest with a rather annoying start. Various faint tracks lead discontinuously northwards up the slope, but they're united by one common goal: getting the pedestrian's feet wet. Judicious placement of one's steps will avoid the worst of the slutchy quagmire, but cannot evade it entirely: one suspects that only when frozen solid can this stretch be crossed dryshod, and under such circumstances the inexperienced shouldn't be on Errigal anyway. Your first goal is the dip in the skyline between Errigal and Mackoght, and by the time you reach it, conditions underfoot are somewhat drier.
Turning left onto the ridge, the way becomes stonier and steeper, but as height is gained a more consistent path develops and will be seen zig-zagging upwards: this is a bit of a treadmill, to be honest, with the rattle of stones an ever-present accompaniment to the placement of feet. Psychological succour can be gained by following the curve of the ridge upwards by eye, and noting that the twin summits (with their abrupt separating saddle) don't seem impossibly distant (see photo): alternatively, turn your gaze to the south and the savage scene of the Poisoned Glen, a monstrously boggy bowl (next to which the lower slopes of Errigal are about as wet as the Atacama Desert) scooped from the mountains and girded with huge cliffs. In any case, upward progress soon brings you to a shoulder of the mountain and a welcome lessening of gradient, and the Joey Glover memorial cairn.
The mountains have a habit of forging extraordinary men, and J.B.Glover was no exception. Not taking to the hills until he was 32, he brought a glorious tenacity and mania to the things he did once he got there. Usually clad in a criminally clashing red-sweater-yellow-anorak combo and possessed of a supreme ability to sink entire lines of vehicles up to their back axles in bog, he founded the North-West Mountaineering Club with friends in 1955, and the next twenty-odd years were spent in continuous cheery defiance of common sense. Marathon treks conducted at mightily anti-social hours (a race over Donegal's ten highest peaks starting at midnight?) and a tenacity often needed when you're the sort of man who climbs Ben Nevis in mistake for something else (this is hilarious, trust me) were Glover hallmarks: 85 ascents of Errigal were the thin end of the wedge. So his ashes lie here on his favourite mountain, because tragically Glover was shot dead in 1976, apparently in a case of mistaken identity. Not all Irish history is Tara and Fionn mac Cumhaill, alas.
From here, it's not too far to the summit, and a narrowing ridge arcs round to the top. 'Compact' and 'bijou' are the watchwords here, and there is very limited room next to the cairn before steep slopes plummet from both sides of the ridge. Beyond the summit, the ridgeline follows an airy catwalk for a short distance to a slightly lower top: this should prove easy to anyone who has suppressed any latent vertigo enough to get here in the first place (see pic). If you want to marvel at the mountaincraft/madness of others, look to the left (west) from the dip between the tops: from here it is possible for the VERY sure of foot to scree run directly to the bottom of the mountain near Dunlewy...taking around 15 minutes.
Assuming you don't have any pressing business that requires your presence in Dunlewy in 15 minutes...the vista is as extensive as might be expected from Errigal's dominance. The eye will skim from the grim fastnesses of the Poisoned Glen, over the causeway-cleaved loughs of Dunlewy and Nacung, before a wild expanse of coast (better viewed from the slightly lower top across the catwalk) engulfs the distance from west to south-east.
Place your feet with care on the stony sections of the return down the ascent route: better to have the quartzite rocks bruising your feet than your backside. The car park is in sight for the vast majority of the descent, and the enthusiastic may choose to nip up Mackoght for dessert (better than than having it as a starter on the way up, IMHO). The bog seems less extensive with the anaesthetic of gravity to assist, so tea and medals will soon be yours.
** Let me crash upon your shore... **
The ascent of Errigal shouldn't take more than half a day, so that leaves plenty of time to explore. Ascentionists are directed to have a mooch along the minor roads to the north of the peak, if only to properly appreciate the sharpness of Errigal's ridge, and to head towards the coast from there. So much of Donegal's scenic and historic interest is tied in to the coastline: magnificent beaches for walking along, huge cliffs and jagged rocks constructed to knacker Spanish armadas, and tiny townlands clinging to the edge of the land. So drive around Bloody Foreland, and work your way south from there, taking in as much or little of the shoreline as you wish. You may choose to visit tavern near Crolly, fabled for its folk music (if only to thank/otherwise its proprietors for spawning (literally) Clannad and Enya). You may choose to take in the gorgeous inlet of Loughros Beag, with the Assarancagh Waterfall and the Maghera Caves. Or you may take the ferry to Arranmore Island ('Facilities on Arranmore are limited, but there are seven pubs - The Rough Guide To Ireland' seems a rapturously Irish approach to catering for a population).
You may even happen upon the legendary 'Ringing Cow'. If you're lucky.
So, even if you aren't climbing Errigal or Slieve League...visit Donegal. If only to confirm that the Ireland of your mind's eye is still out there.