I grew up wandering the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in western West Virginia, the most ancient mountain range in the United States, formed 480 million years ago, once as tall as the Alps, worn naturally over the millennia slowly down into a vast system of hills with low peaks. The land is so ancient that the groundsoil is pocked with open fields of natural coal from the time of dinosaurs.
This area also houses a great number of the Scotch-Irish immigrants that migrated to the United States in the 1700’s. My family in particular can trace its roots through the Gallagher /gull-a-HER/ line to northeast region of Donegal /dunnie-GULL/ Ireland.
When I took my DNA test, it specifically identified this area as a place of ancestry.
So when we booked our trip to Ireland I made sure we ventured to the far north to explore Donegal and maybe look up some local Gallaghers. As it turns out, Gallagher is the most common name in the county, so it didn’t seem likely that I would happen across someone I could specifically identify as family. In fact, our cabbie from the bus stop was a Gallagher. And not the only Gallagher taxi driver we’d meet in our three days in Donegal.
Walking the narrow country roads of the region, it felt familiar. The hillsides populated by wild honeysuckle, Queen Anne’s lace, blackberry, ferns, and all manner of fauna I had grown up around. The open fields of farmland. The sandstone rock dotted with lichen.
What I didn’t realize was that the Appalachian Mountain range existed in the central part of Pangea, the singular land mass that existed before the continents broke apart. This same mountain range ran straight through the region of Donegal and up as far as Scotland, across Iceland, and down as far as Morocco in Africa. There’s even an International Appalachian Trail that runs through Donegal and across Northern Ireland.
It is literally the same ancient land. And the people in one place found themselves for the most part living thousands of miles away in the same ancient rockbeds. Seems something more than coincidence.
Walking around downtown.
Donegal (town) is a fairly small town located in the Ireland county of Donegal situated east of Northern Ireland. With a population of 2,618, everyone literally seems to know everyone in some way, usually by name. This area in Ireland actually stretches more north than Northern Ireland which makes the locals understandably grumpy about the moniker. Town center consists of a large triangular round about with a public park at the center and three main roads stretching away in tendrils. You can walk from one side to the other in about 5 minutes. Although with the tourism, you can still find a variety of pubs and cafes and small shops all along the town center and roads. There’s a cool looking castle near the middle of town situated in a curve of the the River Eske where it meets the Donegal Bay near a church just on the other side of the river. On the far side of town rests the ruins of an old abbey and graveyard which has been expanded to stretch throughout the ruins and overlooks the Donegal Bay and estuary which rises and falls with tide from a broad body of water to a field of dark brown sea grass.
Abbey of Donegal Graveyard
“Built by Hugh O’Donnell in 1474, the abbey now only exists as ruins, but the south transept, various areas of the cloisters, and the choir areas are still visible. The nearby graveyard bears evidence of burials occurring for more than a century after the abbey was abandoned.” (https://thisisdonegal.ie/old-abbey/)
Walking to the beach from our cottage.
We rented a holiday cottage a couple of miles out of town in the area of Woodvale, a short stroll to the banks of the Donegal Bay. Anchored fishing boats grounding with the low tide and fields of dark green seagrass meeting rough rocky shores, winding single lane roads with low stone walls and wild flowers of honeysuckle, Queen Anne’s lace, and field walls covered in flowering blackberry. It reminded me of home in many ways.
A country drive along the coast.
We discovered early on that car rentals were prohibitively expensive so we decided to book tours instead. The local tours weren’t running but the lady at the tourist office rang up John and he was able to offer us a private day tour of the area which worked out perfectly. First stopping at Sliabh Liag, at around 2000 feet, the highest cliffs in Ireland and three times higher than the more popular cliffs of Moher, then on to a traditional village and the Clocha na hÉireann, a 15 foot high stone map of Ireland where stonemasons from each county created a piece from their local stone, then to Malin Beg, a stunning beach hidden at the base of high coastal cliffs dotted with sheep (and a couple hundred stairs to get down), then a few pics at Muckross Head, a small beach and inlet with great views and also the summer home of Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, a renovated house long owned by the Broderick family, and on the way back a stop across the bay from Classibawn Castle near the Village of Cliffoney where Lord Mountbatten and family were assassinated by the IRA.
Prehistoric ring fort. These were scattered along the country sides. There are estimated to have been around 50,000 ring forts in Ireland, many destroyed through agriculture. That’s one for every 0.8 square miles. So a lot of them. There’s a tradition of calling them faerie forts with magical origins and it’s considered bad luck to disturb them.
CatherineAugust 9, 2021 at 12:15 am
I was smiling at your saying you were coming to Donegal to trace your Gallagher roots 😀 You soon found out though 😀 Great blogpost and great pics.
Daniel CallicoatAugust 11, 2021 at 3:50 am
Thanks! Yeah, it’s like looking for a Bob Smith in the states. Everyone was a Gallagher. Honestly it was several generations back that I got a solid location in Donegal and I never then traced that ancestor forward to find living relatives. Those familiar connections were never kept up in my family. Our tour guide, John, after our tour when I had told him about what I had found then texted me back with a Gallagher in that specific region so that I could start that search, but we didn’t have the time to do it properly. But it was amazing to see the countryside and be amongst the Gallaghers! =)