Discover the British and Irish isles – Weekend Ride: North West Ireland


Geoff Hill explains how to have a fantastic weekend riding along the North West coast of Ireland.

Ireland being Ireland, its most northerly point is, naturally, in the south. You see, when the island was split into north and south in 1921, County Donegal, in the north-west, stayed in the southern Republic, generally called the South by locals, and Malin Head, Donegal’s northern tip, is further north than anywhere in Northern Ireland.

I hope that’s all clear. If not, I suggest you go to the nearest pub, have several pints of Guinness and realise that if you’re looking for logic, you’ve come to the wrong place entirely. Which leaves you free to start a glorious two days’ riding, or three if you’ve time.

It begins with a blast from Dingle to the top of the Conor Pass. It’s only five miles, but what a five miles. A fairly narrow road, but well-surfaced, it snakes its way aloft with cliff faces on one side and steep drops to the lakes below on the other.

From the car park on top, at 457m, the view before you is so much like Middle Earth that you expect Bilbo Baggins to wander up clutching a pint of Guinness at any moment, nod wisely, and potter off on his merry way before the pub shuts. After that you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed on the moon, with the bleak rocky landscape of the Burren, like a vast cracked pavement of glacial-era limestone.

Returning to earth, you’ll be glad of a lunch stop in the lively student city of Galway, then on to Mayo, where the brooding magnificence of woods, lakes and waterfalls of the Delphi Valley and the road running around Doo Lough is genuinely breathtaking.

After an overnight in Westport, with its lovely multicoloured pubs and restaurants, it’s on to less populated Donegal, and for something a bit different, you might well like to stop in Strandhill and have a soak in a seaweed bath at Voya (, started as a tiny family business 15 years ago and now exporting its products to 42 nations.

Along the Donegal coast, you’ll look down on miles of beautiful beaches and pounding waves, which surfers come from all over the world to ride, then finish your final day rolling across the border into Londonderry, Europe’s oldest walled city, for an overnight to leave you fresh for a nip north to Malin Head just to say you’ve been there.

I’ve done this as a two-day ride, but if you’ve an extra day to spare, I suggest overnighting in Galway, Westport and Londonderry, and enjoying a little side trip around Achill Island, accessible by bridge, when you’re in Westport.

British and irish isles map


1 – Galway

Galway is one of the loveliest cities in Ireland, based around the harbour where the River Corrib meets the Atlantic. With a large university and 69 pubs and clubs, most of them with live traditional music every night, it’s always buzzing.

The centre of the city’s nightlife is Eyre Square, dating back to 1710, with its shops, traditional pubs, cafés, boutiques and art galleries, and around it the narrow, winding lanes of the Latin Quarter, bounded by the medieval city walls and still containing many beautifully preserved 16th and 17th century buildings.

All the pubs are good, but the best for music are Tiġ Ċóilí and Roisin Dubh, and for food Seven, McSwiggans or the slightly more expensive Boss Doyles.


2 – Londonderry

The walled city of Londonderry, or Derry, as most locals call it, was the scene of the 1688-1689 siege, which changed British and European politics forever, as well as the crucible of the Troubles and scene of the controversial Bloody Sunday shootings of 1972. If you’ve time, take a walking tour (, or if not, hop-on, hop-off bus tours leave from the Tourist Information Centre at 44 Foyle Street.

The Tower Museum has two fascinating sections, on the foundering of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the story of the city itself. The Merchant’s House ( offers beautifully restored and good value lodgings, and to eat, Browns ( is, in my view, the best restaurant in Northern Ireland.



1 – Malin Head, Donegal

If you’ve had enough riding after getting to Derry, spend the night there, then nip back across the border into Donegal and head north to Ireland’s most northerly point. The 31 miles should take you under an hour, and once you get there, the delights include Banba’s Crown, a cliff top tower built by the Admiralty in 1805 and later used as a Lloyds of London signal station, and McClean’s traditional pub, with live music and an outdoor terrace with great views over the village green out to sea.

From Easter to September, a little three-wheeler christened Caffe Banba parks beside Banba’s Crown and serves coffee, hot chocolate and traybakes. Excitement in summer 2016 reached galactic proportions with the filming there of part of Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. Local fan John Joe McGettigan turned up at the set in full Stormtrooper regalia and introduced himself to bemused security men as part of the Emerald Garrison of EG 1826, but was still refused a look at the Millennium Falcon built on the cliff edge.

Malin Head

2 – Westport, Mayo

Westport was designed by the Georgian architect, James Wyatt, and it retains the elegance of that era today, with a leafy promenade along the Carrowbeg River, stone, ancient stone bridges, and a street lined with pastel-coloured shops, pubs and restaurants leading up to the Octagon.

If you’re feeling religious, walking up nearby Croagh Patrick mountain is a popular pilgrimage, although locals say it only counts if you do it in your bare feet, and Westport House and Pirate Park is possibly the world’s only combined historic house and adventure park. The 18th-century house was built and is still privately owned by the Browne family, descendants of the 16th-century pirate queen Grace O’Malley.



1 – Delphi Valley and Doo Lough, Mayo

Delphi may sound a bit Greek for Ireland, but you can blame the classical pretensions of the Marquis of Sligo, who built a famous hunting lodge there. Take it nice and easy around here for two reasons.

One is to drink in the glorious scenery of lough on one side, mountains and the occasional little white farmhouse on the other and the R335 road winding between the two like a thread through paradise. And the other is because of baffled sheep by the roadside who often take a sudden interest in the other side of the road and potter across in front of you to have a look.

Beautiful though it is, it hides a very Irish tragedy. In March 1849, during the Famine caused by two years of potato blight, two officials of the Westport Poor Law Union forced hundreds of destitute and starving people to walk 12 miles between Louisburgh and Doo Lough through the night to sign on for continuing relief payments. At least 18 died, and a cross and an annual Famine Walk along the route commemorate the tragedy.

Delphi valley

2 – Donegal to Dungloe

The Wild Atlantic Way from Kinsale in Cork to Malin Head in Donegal, including all the squiggly bits, is a whopping 1,553 miles, making it the longest coastal road in the world, but the good news is you can mix and match the squiggly bits with fast and flowing sections depending on your schedule.

This is one of the latter; on the very good N56, it’s 40 miles where you can press on to your heart’s content through rolling moors and lonely lakes.

Make sure you stop at Ardara for lunch or a snack in Nancy’s Pub, a local legend which is packed day and night, or buy local tweeds or woollens as souvenirs in the shops there.

If you’ve time, turn left at Five Points along the R263 and do the loop through the fishing port of Killybegs and lovely Glencolumbkille back to Ardara, and if you’ve even more time, turn left at Carrick down the Teelin B-road to Slieve League, at 1,972ft almost three times higher than the more famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.

Donegal to Dungloe