In the heart of Donegal lies the second largest national park in Ireland, forty two thousand acres of stunning wilderness that offers plenty to anyone seeking adventure in the northwest. Overlooked by the brooding Derryveagh mountains, the park can be explored in all corners with lakeside trails and forests to get lost in - and one of the youngest castles in Ireland too!
Before becoming a national park in 1975, Glenveagh had spent half a century being passed between the hands of the American bourgeoisie who used the land as a personal sporting estate. Prior to the Americans, it was actually an Irishman who first purchased the land however he would prove to be the least popular of all landholders in local history.
John Adair, a native of Co. Laois, bought the land in the mid 19th century with the intention of creating a sheep farm and hunting estate with a castle that would be even more elaborate than the royal Balmoral castle in Scotland. The tenants living on the property, however, were not part of his vision and on St. Patrick's Day in 1861, with cruel contempt, he evicted 244 people from their homes. Accompanied by police officers and crowbar men who would destroy the homes to ensure the homeless would not return, the infamous Derryveagh evictions forced over half of the residents to emigrate to Australia while the less fortunate would up in the local workhouse.
While Adair had no empathy for the lower classes, his love for his wife Cornelia was indisputable. The castle is a love letter from husband to wife with the gardens a true work of art. Walking through the manicured garden paths is like taking a quick trip around the world; Balinese sculptures, figures of Greek gods and Tunisian busts are little surprises against the wild Donegal landscape with the gothic orangery a true highlight for any garden-lover.
When Adair died in 1885, Cornelia inherited the estate and spent the next 30 years establishing it as the hunting estate her husband had dreamed of. She built a monument to him on the grounds of the estate, though legend has it that it was struck by lightning and crumbled into the lake (or in my suspicions, it was destroyed by one of the many locals who hated him). Unlike her husband, Cornelia was popular with the tenants and remained so until her death in 1921.
Cornelia re-introduced red deer to the estate and now, the park has the largest population of red deer in Ireland. Not only that, she is responsible for planting hundreds of tree and wildflower species increasing the biodiversity of land that was once destined for sheep-farming.
The park is now back in the hands of the Irish people and the ecology of Glenveagh remains a priority of it's caretakers. Golden eagles were re-introduced in 2001 and there are now over 40 individuals thriving in the area. Walking through the park it seems as if the landscape has remained unchanged for centuries, all thanks to the tireless work of local conservationists.
The abundance of trails would take weeks to explore by foot and while it might be tempting to take the visitor bus to the castle, I strongly advise everyone to take the lakeside walk, if they're able and the weather isn't a complete disaster. It's 4km but it doesn't feel like it since the terrain is so flat and the landscape is so mesmerising and when you spy the gothic corners of the castle peaking through the pines, you'll be glad you chose the trail.
A 4km walk is deserving of a treat and luckily the tearooms at the castle provide a bounty of traybakes & cakes to feast on. The outdoor patio is a great spot to rest the legs even in winter, especially with a hot cup of tea to wrap your hands around.
On the way back to the carpark you might have the castle behind you but you'll have the wonder of Muckish mountain ahead of you. Clouds may be hanging low or you might be lucky enough to be there on a clear day with the hills shining gold in the sun.
Whatever the weather, you'll leave having had a taste of the real Donegal.
If you've been to Glenveagh and you have some tips of your own, please share in the comments below!