One of the best hikes in Ireland on the magical northern coast

In the wilds of Ireland, fairies dwell.

A well-known fairy bush in County Clare delayed the building of a new motorway. The reason? Fear that its destruction could cause higher driving fatalities.

“All over Ireland, one finds remains of fairy forts (originally Iron Age or early Christian ring forts),” explains Patricia Doe, General Manager of Wilderness Ireland, a company with a focus on providing active and immersive adventures. “Local peoples have traditionally attributed them to the mythological – these ‘fairy forts’ are supposedly imbued with magic from the druids and fairies, and to this day, no one dares to alter or even go inside them.”

And fairies aren’t the only mythical residents.

“All across the Irish countryside and wilderness, hikers will come across hills, lakes and mountains named after or associated with giants, fairies and legendary heroes,” says Doe.

As I travel along the Wild Atlantic Way between the Giant’s Causeway and Sligo (Hiking the Causeway Coastal Route & Donegal), it’s easy to see why myth and legend have such strong roots here.

In the footsteps of giants

My journey along the coast of the Emerald Isle begins at the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Northern Ireland. Here, a surreal landscape of basalt columns formed by a volcanic eruption over 60 million years ago has given rise to one of the island’s most famous mythical figures, Finn McCool.

I won’t get into the well-documented details, but the tale involves a fight between Irish and Scottish giants, a camel, and a lost size 93.5 boot.

Looking down at Giant’s Causeway from the clifftop trail — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

But whether you believe the science or the myth, the site is undeniably spectacular, especially from the clifftop hiking path running along the coast from the ruined Dunseverick Castle to the Giant’s Causeway itself. On a clear summer day, you can gaze down across the volcanic features jutting from the sea, dotted with some of the million visitors who explore the site each year.

A staircase leads down to the water’s edge, where you can scramble along the rocks or sit in the Wishing Chair as you imagine the giant Finn McCool hopping from one stone to another on his pathway toward Scotland.

Movie magic

Dunluce Castle, a.k.a. Castle Greyjoy in Game of ThronesPhoto courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

Rich folklore saturates both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The ruins of St. Mahar’s Church rise from a tuft of grass by a beach in Malin Head. Behind it sits the Wee House of Malin, a small man-made cave. Stone seats line the interior of the former hermit hole, believed to magically accommodate any number of those who enter – whether one or 100.

Our party of eight fits just fine.

More recently, pirate kings and Jedi have joined the ledger of legends associated with Ireland. Its northern coast is dotted with filming locations for famous movies and TV shows alike. The 16th-century Dunluce Castle doubled as Castle Greyjoy in HBO’s Game of Thrones, while nearby Ballintoy Harbour was used to film scenes of the Iron Islands.

Malin Head in County Donegal — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

And in 2016, Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley and the cast and crew of Star Wars: The Last Jedi set up camp on the spectacular sea cliffs of Malin Head to film scenes of Ahch-To, the island where Luke Skywalker trains a young Rey.

The reality behind the myth

The prevalence of fairy tales probably had to do with the isolated and difficult life in this challenging and unpredictable landscape. Particularly during times of war and famine in the 19th and 20th centuries, these stories not only offered an escape, but in many cases, an explanation for something heretofore unexplained.

A young child who falls suddenly ill is in fact a changeling left by fairies who stole the real child. The potato blight that killed roughly a million people was the fallout of warfare between rival bands of fairies. Find yourself hip deep in peat after stepping on what appeared to be solid ground? Perhaps it’s the work of a mischievous leprechaun.

Or maybe it’s all the green.

Coastal forest in County Donegal — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

As I walk the coastal paths, each landscape makes me feel like I’m on a different planet. But it is the color in all its shades that primes the imagination.

There’s the green of the forests, dark and earthy, and that of the bog tinged with the yellows and reds of Sphagnum moss. It’s all too easy to get disoriented, to lose all points of reference. And when a fog rolls in, and my eyes start playing tricks on me, it’s unsurprising that even the skeptic within begins – for at least a fleeting moment – to believe in magic.

War and workhouses

If struggle creates the conditions for magic to arise, then Ireland is ripe for it. While hiking the quiet trails or tucking into a fish pie in one of countless small town pubs, it’s easy to assume that life here has always been so quaint and pastoral.

But there are reminders of a different past.

Drive through the island’s northern reaches and you’ll likely spot red, white and blue stripes painted on sidewalks, reminiscent of traditionally unionist towns. Fifteen years ago you wouldn’t dare drive a car with Irish plates through these places, like our tour van does today.

Most of us have heard of the Irish potato famine and the war for independence, but these aren’t the only struggles in Ireland’s history book.

The village of Dunfanaghy — Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland

The picturesque village of Dunfanaghy is a popular seaside resort amid the majestic Derryveagh Mountains. But during the 19th century, the residents – like much of County Donegal – were struggling to survive. For some 80 years, the workhouse became one of Ireland’s most notorious institutions.

There were 163 of them in total, including the one in Dunfanaghy that is now a museum, where those who could not support themselves would turn as a last resort. Whole families came together and were brutally separated into different quarters; some never saw each other again.

Hunger, boredom and abuse by staff were common occurrences. While residents were free to leave at any time, most had nowhere else to turn, particularly unmarried women, children born out of marriage, the old and the infirm.

Glenveagh Castle in Glenveagh National Park — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

Glenveagh National Park, home to some of Ireland’s most hauntingly beautiful landscapes, was also the setting for one of its great tragedies. Several people have called the castle home throughout its history, but never children. If local lore is to be believed, this “curse” dates back to April 1861 when Captain John George Adair, the man who first built the castle, evicted 44 families (244 individuals) from their lands in order to expand his estate.

Many of those evicted ended up in the workhouse in Letterkenny. It’s said that one such individual placed a curse on the castle that no subsequent owner would ever bear any heirs to the family name. Whether by curse or by coincidence, that proved true.

Ireland’s “Forgotten County”

Most people only ever experience the Giant’s Causeway as a quick day trip from Belfast. Yet, the Causeway Coastal Route and Wild Atlantic Way together stretch for more than 1,600 miles. It’s a slice of Ireland forgotten, lost in time.

Perhaps this is why myths, legends, curses and heroes are still so alive in the psyche of Donegal and Ireland’s wild north, where you’ll encounter Irish-speaking pockets, thatched cottages and traditional tweed-weaving shops. As we drive through the countryside en route to an afternoon hike, we see families out in the bog cutting peat to warm their houses for the winter.

Cut peat drying in the summer sun — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

The scenery of Donegal also remains largely free from encroachment by the modern world. Where the Giant’s Causeway welcomes over a million visitors each year to its state-of-the-art visitors center, much of this remote and diverse county gets overlooked. The sea cliffs of Horn Head and Slieve League (among Europe’s highest) easily rival the more famous Cliffs of Moher.

More often than not, you’ll have castles, hiking trails and pilgrimage paths all to yourself, save for a few roaming sheep (and maybe a fairy or two).