ahhh, the life of a diplomatic princess . . .

Archive for the tag “Ireland”

Finding Peace Inside of Chaos (I can’t do it without help)

So I have this obsession, um, tradition. When we visit places I fall in love with I gather pieces of it to bring home, mostly shells and rocks but sometimes other small things; I’ve spent countless hours combing beaches, head bent, until something catches my eye. I keep these collections separate from one another so when I see a bowl of shells and stones in our house I know where they came from and I can pick them up, feel their curves in my hand, be transported back to a beach or a patch of land that I love. When we move I wrap these collections in paper, place them gently in a container, and label it so I’m sure to not mistake one for another, it’s one of the few things I’m organized about. And I collect Buddhas, doesn’t matter if it’s a Chinese Buddha or a Thai Buddha, having them around makes me happy.

I never saw how these two collections were linked until our most recent move. I was wandering around our new house, surrounded by half empty boxes and chaos, feeling a bit overwhelmed, desperately missing our lab who had just passed away that morning. My eyes settled on one of my Buddhas and I smiled to myself, the same way I’d smiled earlier when I’d picked up a shell to admire. I realized both of my collections help me to remember joyful times and to feel peace, things that can be elusive when you’re in the middle of a storm. My stones and shells remind me of places I love, people I love, times when I was so happy that I decided to pick up that moment and carry it with me wherever I went; my Buddhas remind me to slow down enough to take in the things that bring me joy.

I have a favorite beach, Pollan Bay in Donegal, Ireland, which I blogged about here. From the moment I first went there I felt like I belonged on that spot of land, I don’t know why and I’ve stopped trying to figure it out, I just feel blessed to have a place where I feel centered, where life is always in the moment.

Pollan Bay

Pollan Bay

I can’t even begin to guess how many shells and rocks I have from that beach but it’s hundreds upon hundreds and even if I didn’t label the shells I would know where they came from, I’ve never seen shells like them anywhere in Ireland, not even on the bay directly across from Pollan. They look like tiny conch shells only, for the most part, they’re smooth instead of pointy. This is the bowl of them, along with rocks from Pollan, I have on our dining room table

I have others throughout the house

That bit of green on top of the shells in the last photo is a piece of soap from Vista del Valle Plantation Inn, which I’ve blogged about here and here. I put a piece of it in a plastic bag the last time Eric and I went there because they always had the same handmade soap in the rooms, the smell of it takes me there.

I have a bowl of stones that I gathered on a beach just outside of Belmullet, Ireland, where my great-grandparents were from

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a jar of shells from the graves of my great-great grandparents, also from just outside Belmullet

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a jar from Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

a jar with shells from Playas Tamarindo and Langosta, Costa Rica

Then there’s this table, which holds a a bowl of acorns we gathered in Dublin, and hodge podge of shells from Guinea, Costa Rica, Ireland, and Maryland,

including this little bowl, which has shells from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and sea glass from Maine. I mixed them because the sea glass was given to me by one of my best friends and the shells are from the trip we took with her and her family, who we love and miss very much.

There is also a tiny jar of sand from Pollan Bay

Then there are the Buddhas, some of which were gifts and some I bought in various places we’ve lived.

And two little Ganesha

Life can be so chaotic and busy, and the past few months for us have been those things on steroids, as well as filled with grief and loss. But when I look at my collections I am reminded to slow down and notice the details, to admire the things that often get overlooked, to spend time just being. And I remember that while life is hectic now in the future, knock wood, I’ll have time to gather shells and peruse for Buddhas. Until then I can just appreciate the ones I have and cherish the memories they represent.

Following Bliss

Have you ever stumbled upon a place that, for a reason you can’t quite put your finger on, just feels right, like it’s a place you’ve been missing but you never knew it was missing until you found it? Before we moved to Ireland County Donegal was not really on my radar, even after moving to Dublin I’d never thought to myself ” I need to go to Donegal!” But, one family holiday, I found a beautiful thatched cottage for rent on the Inishowen Peninsula and, upon arrival, I fell in love with the Peninsula; it was wild, rugged, remote, the mountains touched the sea, the beaches stretched for miles, it was full of ancient history, it was perfect and it became a place I returned time and again.

Within this perfect place was the spot I’d been missing and had just never known until I found it, a tiny speck of land called Doagh Island. When my husband was in Iraq I took two holidays by myself, renting a thatched cottage on Doagh Island. I spent hours roaming the beaches of Doagh Island, gathering rocks and shells, and I felt more at peace than anywhere I’d ever been. It’s hard to explain, there are a lot of places that make me happy, Doagh Island brought me beyond that, it brought me to bliss.

When we went back to Ireland this past April and May we spent our first week in Inishowen and I, again, spent hours wandering the beaches of Doagh Island. In this perfect, blissful spot, is a beach called Pollan Bay–it is the heart of my bliss. I don’t know why, it isn’t any prettier than any of the the other beaches, it just is, and I’ve stopped trying to figure out why, I just accept it and feel blessed that I’ve found my spot.

Our last morning in Inishowen was spent wandering Pollan Bay, my family knows how I feel about that beach and they always indulge my “just one more visit” mantra. It was very cold, very windy, completely silent except for the sound of the waves crashing on the sand, and I walked the beach one last time with tears in my eyes. I know I will always return but that doesn’t make it an easy place to leave– the one downside of finding “the spot” is that you know what is missing when you’re not there. I leaned into the wind with my full weight, held my arms out, and closed my eyes. I stood like that for a good minute or so, letting the wind hold me up, letting it roar against my face and dry my tears, knowing the one thing I can do is hold the way I felt in that moment with me until I returned. I will always return, it isn’t an option not to go back.

I have a hard time putting how I feel about that spot into words, it seems easier to do in pictures and some of my favorite quotes …

"Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls." Joseph Campbell The road that leads to Pollan Bay, my bliss

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” Joseph Campbell
The road that leads to Pollan Bay, my bliss

"Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old." Franz Kafka My boys exploring Pollan Bay

“”Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” James Joyce
My boys exploring Pollan Bay



"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order." John Burroughs Pollan Bay

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” John Burroughs
Pollan Bay

"I believe in God, only I spell it nature." Frank Lloyd Wright Sunset over Pollan Bay

“I believe in God, only I spell it nature.” Frank Lloyd Wright
Sunset over Pollan Bay


"Do not feed children on a maudlin sentimentalism or dogmatic religion; give them nature. Let their souls drink in all that is pure and sweet ... They will absorb it as a plant absorbs the sunshine and the dew." Luther Burbank My kids absorbing the sunset over Pollan Bay

“Do not feed children on a maudlin sentimentalism or dogmatic religion; give them nature. Let their souls drink in all that is pure and sweet … They will absorb it as a plant absorbs the sunshine and the dew.” Luther Burbank
My kids absorbing the sunset over Pollan Bay



So that is my little spot of heaven on earth, the place I was missing and didn’t know I was missing until I found it. I wandered onto that beach, by chance or fate, one afternoon a handful of years ago and something inside of me clicked on, as if to say “look, you’ve found it, finally!” I remind myself that even when I’m not in my spot, my spot is always there, always gorgeous, always wild and untamed, waiting for me to return.






Thatcher the Milk Snatcher, and Why Progressives Need to Stop Lamenting Her

I woke up this morning to the news that Margaret Thatcher is dead. Good. I hate very few people, I hate Margaret Thatcher and I’m damn glad she’s dead. I’d love to be able to rise above that feeling, because hate is not a good thing, I guess I will eventually. But I have no sympathy for her, no compassion for any suffering she experienced.

That’s not really the point of this blog though. The point is that I am gobsmacked at the number of people who call themselves progressives but who seem to hold her in high regard. What. The. Everloving. Hell? WHY? I cannot for the life of me understand, but I have a theory. I think she gets a pass because she’s a woman. I think when many progressives look at her they don’t see a politician whose policies gutted trade unions, who refused to enact sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, who rubbed elbows and had tea with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who supported the homophobic Section 28 law, and who was a war hawk whose BFF was Ronald Reagan. They see a woman who held power. But, FFS, what did she do with that power? What is it about this woman that you admire? She was a woman, the only female Prime Minister of Great Britain, I get that. But if it were a man who had done these things she would not be revered by progressives, she would be reviled.

Think about it. You support someone because of their body bits? You fondly remember a politician not because of the things they believed, or the things that they achieved, but because they had lady parts? In what universe does that make even a lick of sense? This is why identity politics sucks. Honestly, you cannot even call yourself a progressive and admire her rise to power, woman or not, because think of how she did it –on the backs of poor and working class people (there is a reason she was called “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher,” people!), on the backs of people struggling for freedom and equality, on the backs of people whose own government terrorized them, on the backs of Irish hunger strikers, and of the Irish people. While the world looked on in horror, her refusal to acknowledge that Bobby Sands, and others like him, were political prisoners and not common criminals led to their deaths (and anyone who wants to hound them for going on hunger strike in protest, please kindly read the cultural and political history of the hunger strike in Ireland here).

So come on, people! Look past her sex and to her actions, to what she stood for, to how she behaved while she was in power. Her legacy is not one that progressives should be putting on a pedestal, it flies in the face of the things we are supposed to hold most dear–equality, social justice, caring for one another, compassion, kindness. Truly, people, wipe off those rose colored glasses and see her as a person, not as a woman. To do otherwise is just sexist.

And now for a bit of levity …

A Proper Homecoming

Two months from now my family and I will be back in Ireland, where we lived for close to three and a half years, and I am beyond excited! I am “OHMYGODICAN’TBELIEVEWE’REGOINGBACK!” excited. I am excited to the point where, when I think about it, my heart actually starts to beat a little harder and I get a stupid grin on my face. If I think about it in public strangers likely worry about my sanity as I stare off into space with what is probably a creepy, euphoric, “pull the children in close to you and don’t make eye contact,” look on my face. We have an awesome trip planned, all accommodation reservations have been made, friends have been notified of our dates, (SQUUUEEEE!), lists of “we have to go back here” have been started, revamped, and added on to several times.

First we are spending a week in Donegal and renting the lovely, traditional  Fawn Cottage. I have to stop myself from looking at its website anymore because the drool is causing a rash on my chin. Cannot. Wait. Then we head over ancient homestead way and spend a few days in Blacksod Bay, where will will be staying with our friend Hannah, who is loads of fun and owns the best B & B in County Mayo  (Leim Siar, check it out!). Visiting this part of Ireland is always very special for us, we get to see family, bring flowers to the graves of my great-great grandparents, drive by the cottage where my great-grandmother was born and raised, and stroll through Belmullet where every other shop has the name of O’Reilly on its front. My great-grandfather was a Reilly and our youngest, named Riley in honor of my family, feels like a king marching through those streets, chuffed that everything is named for him.

Our last stop is Dublin, it gives me a topsy turvey stomach just to type that because Dublin is, hands down, my very favorite city. We’ll be staying in Temple Bar in an apartment above the iconic Oliver St. John Gogarty pub. One of my Dublin friends teased me not to forget my ear plugs and I know he’s right but I’m so excited to be in the middle of that dynamic city! Just to stroll the cobblestone streets of Temple Bar in the morning with a coffee from my favorite little coffee house, to window browse on Grafton Street, picnic in Stephen’s Green, visit our favorite restaurants (if you’re ever in Dublin DO NOT miss a chance to eat at Urban Picnic in George’s St. Arcade, the food is phenomenal and inexpensive), heaven! I’m itching to go back to the museums where I spent countless rainy afternoons wandering, I’m pretty sure there was a meeting about putting my name on a chair in the room of the National Gallery where the paintings of Jack Yeats are hung because I spent so much time immersing myself in his work. Hopping the DART train to little coastal villages where we can sit with a properly poured Guiness and a heaping plate of chips, again, heaven! I could go on but that drool thing is kicking in and my chin needs a break. An Irish friend of mine sent me a text after I told him I was blogging about our trip that read “You got it bad!” He’s not remotely exaggerating.

So, Ireland is amazing, everything about it. The natural beauty, the vibrant cities, the warmth of the people, it’s got everything I feel I need in a country in order to be truly happy, and the hubby and I fully intend to plant our creaky butts in a tiny cottage on the coast of Donegal when the time comes to retire. But it’s also far more. We first visited Ireland eight years ago when my father, now retired from the Foreign Service, and step-mother were posted to our embassy in Dublin. We stayed for five weeks, had an incredible time, and my memories of that trip, like many memories I have of Ireland, are in technicolor. I savored every sight, every smell, every taste, every hug, every raindrop. Each experience, down to the smallest detail, was carefully tucked away by my brain, which often has trouble remembering why I’ve walked into a room so this is saying something.

The highlight of a trip full of highlights was when we went to Belmullet. Visiting the place where I was rooted, where my children were rooted, made me feel something I have difficulty putting into words. I was raised to feel a deep connection to Ireland; my grandmother felt it gave me a sense of history, an understanding of myself, and that it was important to remember the sacrifices my great-grandparents made in coming to a new country, leaving behind the place, and family, that they loved. Growing up I was surrounded by Ireland–the music, writings, folklore, photos, heirlooms, family stories–so walking the shores of the Atlantic, knowing that I was on the land of my ancestors, was something I did with great reverence. I remember crouching down to softy stroke the earth, overwhelmed by a sense of belonging to something greater than myself, feeling tears sting my eyes because it was the only way my body had to respond to such a piercing sense of place. Being able to tell my children “this is where it all started, this is how you came to be,” well, when I think about it I still get tears in my eyes.

The purpose of our trip to Belmullet, other than to visit the place of our roots, is a sacred memory for all of us. On a cold and blustery Sunday we went with my folks and our children to a tiny church whose priest, my cousin Liam, baptized our daughter. The church was empty except for us, the scent of the incense Liam had used in mass hung in the air, the wind roared outside, and I’d never felt such a sense of peace. I remember listening to Liam softly recite the baptismal rites in both Irish and English, remember watching him tenderly bathe Aisleen’s soft hair in water from the font, remember him smiling at our oldest, also a Liam, as he ruffled his hair and said he had the best name in the world. That afternoon is one of the most special we have spent as a family, my husband and I still talk about it and how it was a turning point in our lives and our communal sense of self. We have a baptismal certificate for Aisleen from the same parish as the baptismal certificate of my great-grandmother, it’s a special thing.

Our lives as nomads can be a whirlwind of adventure. They can be full of incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They can also be lonely and isolated because we are usually very far from family and friends. My husband and I struggle to give our children a sense of belonging and to nurture the roots that we gently uncover, pull up, and travel with every few years. It isn’t always easy and our kids sometimes have difficulty understanding that they have a nationality, they are American. They feel connected to the US, they love going home and seeing family and friends, but they also live with the realization that they are children of the world and in many ways their roots are global. They feel a deep and binding connection to Ireland. I know it is in part because we lived there for a good chunk of time, in fact it is the first “home” that our younger two remember. It is also because it is so much a part of me that it is an easy love for me to nurture in them, but they have their own love for it and, most importantly, they know in a tangible way the story of them started there. They’ve been shaped and molded by their experiences there–long afternoons spent racing through rolling, green hills, early evenings spent in conversation in front of a roaring fire in our cousin’s home, countless days spent on beaches where they swam until their teeth chattered and we would fold them in their towels for a warming snuggle. Their imaginations have been fertilized by abandoned famine villages, ancient castles of the Pirate Queen, hikes through forests where pookas are said to roam. So, while America is their home, Ireland is also their home, and being able to go back in two months is an incredible gift.

I was chatting with a friend of mine with whom we are planning a mad night of fun in Dublin and he said “Heather, we will give ye a proper homecoming!” A homecoming. That has such a lovely ring to it …

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My Antidotes to Nasty, I Will Take as Needed

Election season. Yea. Sometimes you just need to step back from it and bleach your brain out. So I’ve been thinking on the things that make me smile, that make me feel grateful. These are the bottom lines of my life, so to speak, the things or people that, when I think about everything that is hard or negative or wrong I remind myself of–yea, this sucks, yea, people can be crappy but my kids are safe, happy, and well loved; my husband is there for me, a true partner and a stunning example of unconditional love. Or they are the random focal points of my life, the things that help me come back to myself if I get upset, that lift me when I’m down, or just make me smile. I thought I would put a few of those things in this blog just to remind myself that they are far more important than any negativity and ignorance, that they impact my life in greater ways than random asshatery.

First in line is a very silly poem my husband and I wrote when I was pregnant with our first child, Liam, now eleven years old. Last night I stood in the doorway of our office and watched Liam typing away on the computer, hard at work on a project for school. It was one of those moments of clarity, “Whoa! Eleven. Wow.” How did that happen? He’s always seemed older than his years, he’s an old soul, that one. He’s also scary smart and his school here discovered that within about five minutes of meeting him, so they asked if we would be okay with moving him ahead a grade. We hemmed and hawed, a lot more went into it than is relevant for this particular blog piece, and agreed. He struggled academically last year, for the first time ever, it wasn’t a bad thing. He learned he had to work, be dedicated, be responsible. This year I’ve seen him rise to the challenge of seventh grade and, last night, he said “I’m not going to use my video game time today, too much homework.” Without grumbling, just this matter of fact statement. If you know any 11-year old boys you’ll know this is a big deal. Watching him mature into a young man who makes me very proud brought me back to this poem, written very close to his due date, when he was just a little creature kicking it in my womb:

Twas the night before Christmas and in our little house a tiny creature was stirring underneath Heather’s blouse

The hospital bag was packed with great care in hopes the sweet baby soon would be there

Parents-to-be snuggled warm in their bed while visions of dirty diapers danced in their heads

When suddenly in the quiet there arose such a clatter “Ouch! ouch!” “Is it labor?” “No, it’s just my bladder.”

“Patience, patience” said the Daddy, the Mommy just sighed. “Oh this waiting!” she exclaimed. She was fit to be tied

So on Otto, on Moya, on Arthur, and Guini! Please bring us labor pains and bring them aplenty

We’re waiting, you see, for this sweet little baby. Will he be here next week? Who knows! But, just maybe …

Next in line is this rug:

When my husband was serving in Iraq it was hard on our entire family, for whatever reason it was hardest on our middle child, who was seven. She had a tough time talking to him on Skype, I think it was just too taxing emotionally, and she would cry after because she missed him so much. Hardest was bedtime because he is the story reader, she didn’t even want me to read to her, I wasn’t daddy. One thing you should know so the rug makes sense is that she has a phenomenal imagination, she creates different characters for herself and weaves fables around those characters. So, on his first R & R, he brought her this rug. He told her it was a magic rug and that, when she sat on it and closed her eyes, she would fly on the rug to Iraq and they could be together. After he went back to Iraq I would see her sitting on the rug in her room with her eyes closed, a smile on her face because she was with her daddy.

Then there is the absolute silliness and charm of our youngest. This morning he was upset because he’d hurt his mouth, I was considering keeping him home. For a sore mouth. My husband just laughed, shook his head, and held up his little finger. “This is Ry.” Then he wrapped his other hand around his finger. “This is you.” Ha! It’s true though, for some reason that little one has me wrapped tightly (also, his grandfather, probably even more so, AMIRITE, Dad??). All I have to do is see his face and I smile. How could you not?

There’s also this, my husband leaves the flowers from our gardenias and roses on my bedside table so I see them when I wake up or when I am rushing around to get ready in the morning

To complete this list is the music of a man I discovered the first year we were living in Ireland. We’d gone to see one of my all time favorite musicians, Christy Moore, and this man was a guest of his–to say his music has been a cornerstone of my mental health since is a slight understatement. He is an incredibly gifted singer, songwriter, and musician but, more to the point for this list, he is a person with great compassion, empathy, and passion. He has a way of examining the difficulties of life, in the personal and political, and still remain unfailingly positive and whole. His grace shines through in his music and has lifted me many times:

Title track of his new album: 

Rainy Night in Soho, written by Shane McGowan and covered beautifully by Damo here: 

Interview that encapsulates, in three and a half minutes, why this man is so special: 

So, there it is. This will be the piece I read during this election season when I get angry, frustrated, bogged down in the spins and nastiness. These people, memories, and things are my antidotes.

Cottages of Donegal, Ireland

Some of my favorite memories from Ireland were made in traditional cottages in Donegal. From the first time we stayed in a traditional cottage I was smitten–their charm, their traditional beauty, their history, I was completely enamored. In all I stayed in three cottages on five different holidays, all of them I recommend with a loud and hearty “YES! GO THERE!” I found them on a fabulous website called Donegal Cottage Holidays where you can search for cottages based on location, size, cost, and other important factors. Without exception the landlords were warm, welcoming, and helpful without being at all intrusive. One of the cottages where we stayed, Miller’s Cottage in gorgeous Ramelton, was originally built for the family of the miller and was around three hundred years old. In an unbelievable move that can only be classified as “DOH!” I forgot my camera for that trip, I still can’t believe it. It’s no longer available for rent but there are some other adorable cottages in Ramelton, which is a sweet, tiny village with very friendly people. If you go make sure you check out McDaid’s Wine Bar and Conway’s Bar, both define Irish village charm.

Cloverfield Cottage is a cottage I went to twice, each visit for a week at a time. I took my “alone” holidays when my husband was in Iraq, they were crucial for recharging my batteries. I dropped the kids with my folks who were living in Belfast and went off on my own, the kids got spoiled by grandma and grandpa and I got to do all the stuff I can’t do when the kids are around–sleep in, take long, quiet walks, drink wine with lunch, eat Doritos for dinner, that kind of stuff. After dropping the kids off I would stop at Marks & Spencers (M & S), buy all my favorite foods, including pre-made dinners I only had to heat up, pile back in the car and head off to paradise, this cottage:

                                 Charming Cloverfield Cottage

This cottage was perfect for me, just enough space for me to relax and remote enough that I could gather my thoughts and enjoy the solitude. Sitting in front of a living room window of the cottage, watching the sunrise over Trawbreaga Bay while sipping tea was lovely, especially since I could climb back into the warmth of my bed and drift off to sleep before waking up and taking a stroll along the road that led to some of the beaches on Doagh Island (not actually an island, though it was a very long time ago). I got to pass by friendly horses who would always come over for nose tickles

I soaked in views like this one

Overlooking Trawbreaga Bay

I stopped off at one of my favorite patches of earth anywhere, this little alcove under the hills and along the bay, where I never saw another person

Continuing on, past a few farms, I stopped off at the local ruined castle

Carrickabraghy Castle


I always ended up at what I think of as my favorite beach anywhere. I spent hours on this beach, both with my family on other holidays and alone. There is something about it that I found peaceful and restorative, I would stroll from one end to the next collecting shells and rocks, trying to find new ways to implant it in my memory so every time I closed my eyes and thought of it I could hear its surf, feel the spray on my face, feel the sand crunching under my wellies, and remember how good I felt standing on that beach.


Then I would sigh and turn back towards the cottage and the serene beauty of Trawbreaga Bay



Grace’s Cottage, which is over one hundred years old and has been lovingly restored



This cottage is the perfect place for a family, in part because it has an addition that provides a lot of extra space so it has three bedrooms and three full baths. One of our favorite things about it is the big, traditional fireplace and an unending supply of turf.

Another favorite thing of ours about traditional cottages in general are the beautiful, deep windowsills


On our first trip to Grace’s Cottage we took full advantage of the sites that were close by. We went to a ton of fun places, including Grianan Ailligh, a ring fort from the Neolithic period; Fort Dunree (in English it is Fort of the Heather, which I particularly like); Doe Castle, built in the early sixteenth century; Inishowen Museum and Planetarium; Doagh Famine Village, which teaches visitors about the Great Hunger in Ireland as well as about Travelers and the Civil War in the North; and Donegal Friary, founded in 1474. We also hiked through Swan Park, which is not only gorgeous but has quite a lot of historical significance as it holds the spot where Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen, was arrested in 1798.

We spent an enjoyable, and mostly dry, day in lovely Glenveagh National Park, 16,000 hectares of beauty nestled in the Derryveagh Mountains


We explored Donegal Town and got to step back in time by touring Donegal Castle, which dates back to the 15th century and was built by the O’Donnell Clan Chieftain

The kids playing in one of the massive fireplaces of the castle


We also explored another castle, Greencastle Castle, which has not stood the test of time as well as Donegal Castle but is lovely in its own way

Then, of course, there were the beaches. Our favorite family beach is Five Fingers Strand



Inishowen, Donegal pretty much defines “perfection” for me!




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