A popular port o’ call in Killybegs

The ballad singing sessions in pubs has fallen silent for now but the charm of Killybegs is as enduring as ever.

It could be argued that any road trip to Donegal isn’t worth its salt without a port of call to Killybegs.
Killybegs, the spiritual home of the Irish fishing fleet holds a special place in Irish culture and heritage as is often featured in story and ballad.

One of my favourites The Boys of Killybegs by Tommy Makem goes:
‘There are wild and rocky hills on the coast of Donegal
And her fishermen are hardy, brave and free
And the big Atlantic swell is a thing they know right well
As they fight to take a living from the sea
With the pleasant rolling sea and the herring running free
And the fleet all riding gently through the foam
When the boats are loaded down they'll be singing in the town
When the boys of Killybegs come rolling home…’

Strangely, for a landlubber from landlocked Laois like myself the allure of Killybegs runs through such songs as during the height of the folk boom, The Clancys, Planxty and The Dubliners a breat crew of musicians from Portarlington and Mountmellick, numbering among them Aidan Conroy, Johnny Lawlor and Noel Deffew would make tracks for the famed Donegal port each summer with stories of their mighty ballad sessions now the stuff of legends.

The singing sessions in pubs has fallen silent for now (although there are reports of some fairly good sing-songs emerging from campsites this summer), but the charm of Killybegs is as enduring as it is enticing and endearing.

Fortunately, there is an excellent campsite conveniently located on the outskirts of the town which makes for an ideal base from which to make a raid on the town and the surrounding countryside.
Killybegs Holiday Park described by Lonely Planet, no less, as ‘the world’s best kept secret is a crow’s nest of a campsite overlooking the harbour, the sea and landscape beyond. Its clever terraced lay-out affords all campers spectacular panoramic views and visibility.

Owned and operated by Patsy and Rose McGuinness, who are always on hand to help out or advise, this is a well-run site annually inspected and approved by ACSI. Within easy walking distance (2km) of the town it has a rugged quality, its quarryesque quality charmed by a rural setting of hedgerows, trees and briars and the lapping of the sea down yonder. Lots of butterflies and bumblebees enjoying the ample wild flowers.

It is important to explore this nugget of a site, as its foreshore yields up a cosy sheltered cove which if you stay put at your berth would otherwise go unnoticed. There is even a small sandy beach, accessible on low tide, but care is advised and best wear booties for the shingle and rocky shore.

Killybegs Holiday Park is an ideal staging post for visiting nearby Slieve League, which lay claim to being Europe’s highest sea cliffs. The views are certainly stunning and on a good clear day they would give the Cliffs of Moher a good run for their money.

A stunning view from the Slieve League cliffs. (Photo courtesy Magdalena Klimczak)

There are talks and signs erected for a new campsite being developed near Slieve League itself, not far from the highly rated Rusty Mackerel tavern, which was busy serving food when we passed by as its car park was full. Vanhalla will keep you posted on any further progress of that new campsite.

The Slieve League cliffs are certainly worth your time and there is a small car park, toilets and shop at the foot of the attraction. It is a steep onward walk to the summit and many still chose to drive/speed up the unmarked roadway and with no formal footpaths, it can be somewhat chaotic, so due care is advised. Bizarrely, there are no camping signs on an escarpment that a mountain goat would find it difficult to keep its footing.

There is a spacious viewing point and boardwalk and lots of scope to idle and take your photos. There are a few stalls selling crafts and refreshments too, not least The Lobster Roll wagon, which you can treat yourself for €8.50.

Apart from the headline act of Slieve League there is a whole pile more for an itinerary in these parts including some smashing beaches and Wild Atlantic Way viewing points along that stretch of road, including the Silver Strand.  Fintra blue flag beach is even closer leisurely 15 minute cycle nearby.
Let’s not forget The Secret Waterfall, which is not so secret after all or anymore. It is worth seeking out… and that’s as far as Vanhalla is going, make an effort!

If you are planning on staying around a while you can add sea angling, boat trips and diving, whale and dolphin watching. Glencolmcille and Ardara villages and Glenveagh national park are all within easy striking distance.

When in Killybegs, well it’s got to be fish, doesn’t it? And who needs a tourist office (another one in Killybegs which is not open at weekends?) when you have champion fish monger, Ronan Cunningham. I can’t rave enough about the quality and the value at Atlantic Treasures, all local produce, including Killybegs Catch and Shines, and even got to pick up some old school malty vinegar for my fish n’ chips back at the campsite later on. A big shout out to Ronan, a great brand ambassador for his community.

Who needs a tourist office when you have Ronan Cunningham at Atlantic Treasures fishmongers.

Also came on a cracking spot selling local artisan goods, Wild Atlantic Crafts on the Main St is well worth a call.

And of course we have to mention the world famous Seafood Shack down at the harbour. Their menu from midday speaks for itself, but you better be prepared to queue.

Killybeg's world famous Seafood Shack.

A view from the Boathouse Restaurant terrace.

Seafood Shack takeaway menu is extremely popular.

Back at base in Killybegs Holiday Park a good spacious pitch for the night with electric hook up will cost you €25.  The pitches are well set out, each with their own EHU and water point, with every terrace also furnished with a convenient grey water and cassette disposal point. They have opted not to open their toilet blocks, showers or campers kitchen this season, however, due to Covid. The site is secluded but also secure and safeguarded by electronically coded gates.

This is an elevated site and it is important to be aware of the steep gravel access roadway to the various pitches. Caution is advised as I witnessed a few vehicles and caravans struggling and skidding on the slope. Signage says no pets and no exceptions, but there were plenty of dogs on site, so that particular rule is not been rigorously applied and as a dog lover, that’s fine by me. Refuse disposal was to one skip, so no recycling that I could see, while the site itself was spotless.

This post is Part 2 of a 4-part series from Donegal this summer. Rossnowlagh and Downings reviews to follow.

SEE ALSO: Part 1 - The best wee campsite in Donegal