DONEGAL TOWN, Ireland — Signs at a roadside construction site seemed to be flashing cryptic instructions for what lay ahead in Ireland.
"Slow," they read.
Then, as if in anticipation of the human error in us all, a bend in the road brought another sign into view that chided, "Slower."
Ah, signs with a sense of humor. But more than that, they were gentle reminders that I had left city life behind, that it was indeed time to slow down, relax and open myself to whatever it was that Donegal might teach me.
A few days later another sign in County Donegal put me in my place by reminding me that I was a mere human being, transient in the vastness of Donegal's moors and peat bogs. In the gardens at Glenveagh National Park in northern Donegal, this sign admonished: "Please don't interfere with the plants."
An intriguing thought, and one that makes great sense. For here on the highlands of Donegal, humans are few and far between. It's the moor that reigns supreme.
In the northwestern corner of Ireland, County Donegal is largely peat bog, wind-swept and barren. Its northwest position makes it isolated from the rest of Ireland, almost cut off by the boundaries of neighboring Northern Ireland.
With its emptiness and vastness, it is the kind of landscape that inspires one to look inward, but it certainly doesn't lack in images.
Springtime coaxes heather into violet bloom, lending dramatic foreground to mountains that rise in the distance. Green pastures are dotted with white sheep and defined by fences of stone. More than 100 miles of undulating coast reaches fingers into the Atlantic, forming a union of pounding surf against cliffs and pebbled beaches.
Small villages spread throughout the county, and many people still live in homes of whitewashed walls topped with thatched roofs that shine golden in the sunshine. Roofs have to be lashed down with ropes, testimony to the ferocity of storms that often blow in off the Atlantic.
Villages have such enchanting names as Buncrana, Rossapenna, Rathmullan, Bundoran, Killybegs, Glencolumbkille, Ballyshannon, Gortahork, Gweedore and Rossnowlagh. The Irish language is still spoken in Donegal, especially in areas north and west of Killybegs, but signs are posted in both English and Gaelic.
Even the stretches of peat bog between the villages show telltale signs of human existence. Deep furrows have been cut into the bog, as peat carved into bricks is removed and stacked on the moor to dry. In this land where trees are scarce, peat has long been used as fuel in fireplaces to ward off chilly nights.
New in History
Strangely enough, however, the peat bogs of Donegal are rather new in the earth's history. Thousands of years ago Donegal was fertile land with stretches of forests covering its hills. The first people arrived more than 5,000 years ago, and later Vikings settled its shores. Donegal's name comes from Dun na nGall, which means Fort of the Foreigners.
As the soil changed and the peat bogs began advancing a couple of thousand years ago, Donegal's population dwindled. Its remoteness, however, attracted a new type of settler, early Christians in pursuit of a life far away from their fellow man. One of Ireland's foremost religious figures, St. Colmcille, was born in Donegal in AD 521.
Those earlier people left a rich legacy of structures in stone, structures still here throughout the countryside. The earliest settlers left burial chambers and portal dolmens, upright stones with a massive capstone laid on top. Some of these capstones weigh several tons, so it's a mystery how those people lifted them so far off the ground. A great number of these early ruins are around Glencolumbkille.
Riddling Donegal's countryside are also stone-walled skeletons of old churches, cross-inscribed stones and even a few castles. Close to Cardonagh is the famous St. Patrick's Cross, which dates from the 7th Century and is reputedly one of the oldest Christian crosses in Europe.
Near Creeslough is Doe Castle, an imposing stone pile more than 500 years old. But one of Donegal's most impressive structures, Glenveagh Castle, isn't all that old. It was built in 1870 in the middle of a barren moor in the northwest of Donegal's highlands.
Set beside a lake, Glenveagh was built of rough-hewn granite with walls almost five feet thick. In July, 1986, Glenveagh Castle opened its doors to the public for the first time, making it Donegal's newest attraction. But it's more than the castle that attracts people to Glenveagh.
As an example of how man can change his environment, in the past century the moor surrounding Glenveagh has been transformed into an estate of beautiful gardens. For three years at the turn of the century, topsoil was brought in by horse and cart from Letterkenny 10 miles away.