Irish Independent Walk of the Week Christopher Somerville
113: McSwyne’s Gun Loop, Horn Head, Co. Donegal first published 17 September 2011
When I’m 108, I only hope I’m half as spry as Harry. Since Inga Bock, Co. Donegal’s indefatigable Rural Recreation Officer, found him wandering on a back lane near Ballybofey, this 18-year-old (in human reckoning) Patterdale terrier, absolutely chock-full of character and devilry with his bushy white brows and single shark-like fang, accompanies his adoptive mistress on all her walks. This morning Harry went trotting through the dunes with all the enthusiasm of a puppy – on the lead at all times, as every dog on the path to Tramore Beach must be.
It was one of those beckoning Donegal days, the sky over the Horn Head peninsula swirling with silver clouds and intense patches of blue, the long sandflats of Dunfanaghy Bay emitting a low gleam of ochre, dun and emerald. A mighty storm in 1917 sealed the fate of Dunfanaghy, said Inga, silting up the harbour and ending the coastal village’s eminence as a herring port. Sand has been the story here, choking the sound that once made an island of Horn Head, heaping up huge dunes some 50 metres tall. The path we were following took us a mazy trek through the hollows and over the peaks of the sandhills, an extraordinary natural garden of wild flowers.
Topping the sandhills we stood looking west over a wonderful view – jade green waves creaming in serried ranks on the golden strand of Tramore, the tremendous quartzite humps of the Derryveagh Mountains rising in the south and out at sea the jagged dark profile of Tory Island lying on the horizon, its towering western cliffs rugged and blocky enough to be the work of some clumsy sculptor giant. It was a prospect to stop anyone in their tracks, but not Harry – he was attentive only to the beat of a singular doggy drum, and did his best to get stuck fast down one impossible rabbit burrow after another, his wriggling tail sticking out of the holes the only clue as to his whereabouts.
On Tramore Strand Jane and I bade a fond farewell to Inga and Harry – dogs aren’t allowed onto the headland, on account of the livestock in the fields. We headed out along the narrow cliff path round Marfagh headland, a slippery flywalk that brought us down over tar-black rocks speckled with green and orange lichen. A deep, booming thump, irregularly repeated with a slight tremor of the rocks under our feet, told us that we were in the vicinity of McSwyne’s Gun, and soon we had identified the famous blow-hole. To leeward of the dark chasm the cliffs were carpeted with deep drifts of sea-rounded pebbles. They had been blown there with the force of bullets by the eruptions of the seawater geyser, which can reach an almost unbelievable height of 70 metres during storms. Some say the Gun can be heard booming ten miles off; there’s even a rumour that its percussive explosions have reached the city of Derry, 30 miles away as the wave-shot pebble flies.
In among a little settlement of tumbledown stone cottages beyond Pollaguill Bay, two Connemara ponies were grazing, their long manes flopping in the wind like a boy band’s fringes. On the road above we met up with Inga and Harry once more, our four-legged friend wheezing asthmatically and grinning with his outsize fang through a mask of clotted sand, product of his latest excavation. The four of us walked down towards the scatter of Dunfanaghy around its bay, with the soft throaty invitation of a cuckoo echoing across the hayfields and the cloud-piercing cone of Mount Errigal on the southern skyline to put everything into decent perspective.
WAY TO GO
Map: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Sheet 2; downloadable instructions as discoverireland.ie/walking.
TRAVEL: Coaches from Dublin (www.johnmcginley.com), Galway (www.feda.ie) and Belfast (www.gallagherscoaches.com) stop outside Arnold’s Hotel.
Road: N13 to Letterkenny, N56 to Dunfanaghy. Continue through village; at far end, right (brown ‘Trailhead’ fingerpost). Cross bridge, pass Trailhead Map board; continue along road for 100 m. First left to car park.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Return along road to Trailhead map board by bridge. Follow ‘McSwyne’s Gun Loop’ blue arrows (BA) over stile and through dunes for nearly 2 km to north end of Tramore Strand. Bear right; follow fence (BA), then cliff path (BAs on posts and rocks) for 2.5 km to Pollaguill Bay. Inland along Pollaguill Burn (BAs, ladder stiles) towards Claggan. Among ruined houses join boreen; at tarmac road, right for 2 km to car park.
LENGTH: 6 miles/10 km; allow 3-4 hours.
CONDITIONS: Some narrow cliff paths, some steep, exposed sections. Take great care with children!
NB Dogs must be strictly on the lead at all times as far as Tramore Strand, and are not allowed further onto the headland. Ignoring this instruction may cause Horn Head to be closed to walkers.
• Wonderful flowers of the dunes
• Blow holes, especially McSwyne’s Gun
• Spectacular views from road over Errigal and the Derryveagh Mts
ACCOMMODATION: Arnold’s Hotel, Dunfanaghy (074-913-6208; arnoldshotel.com): family-run, really friendly and helpful.
WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
National Trails Day, 2 October: Walks, trails, fun events across Ireland (nationaltrailsday.ie)
Carlow Autumn Walking Festival, 7-9 October (059-913-0411; www.carlowtourism.com
East Clare Walking Festival, 21-23 October (www.eastclarewalkingfestival.com)
Foxford Walking Festival, Mayo, 21-23 October (094-925-7684; www.foxfordwalkingfestival.com)
LETTERKENNY TIC: Blaney Road (074-91-21160); discoverderrydonegal.com)