Over centuries and millennia the crashing Atlantic Ocean has carved a unique coastline along Ireland’s western seaboard. I’ve been fortunate to experience living on the northeastern seaboard for the past four months.
This week I ventured westward to what’s fondly called ‘Ireland at its best’ or ‘pure Donegal.’ County Donegal has 800 miles of beaches and one third of the beaches in the Republic of Ireland. I set a goal this year to walk on each beach and dip in the water. Ballymastocker Beach was my first. Voted the second best beach in the world by Observer Magazine (coming second only to the tropical Seychelles), it sits on the Fanad Peninsula and has lovely secluded sandy dunes which provide a natural coastline defense.
Majestic sheep are scattered along the steep cliffs above Lough Swilly. The Lough is a glacial fjord or sea inlet lying between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula. It’s one of three glacial fjords in Ireland.
One of Ireland’s worst ever marine disasters occurred in this beautiful area in the 1800’s. The HMS Saldanha was a Royal Navy warship. From her base in Lough Swilly, she patrolled the seas against attack from Napoleon. After setting sail with HMS Talbot on the night of December 4th, 1811, a fierce storm forced the ships to turn back. Men on the signal tower of HMS Talbot witnessed Saldanha’s last moments, After hitting rocks, her hull broke in two and she was swallowed by the waves. Those who escaped died in the freezing water. Over two hundred bodies were washed up on the shore. It is said that the Captain died after a local tried to revive him with whiskey on the beach. Twenty miles away, a servant shot what turned out to be the Captain’s parrot. Its collar was inscribed: ‘Captain Pakenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha.’ Earlier Pakenham had been Captain of Greyhound when she wrecked off the coast of Luzon in the Philippines in 1808.
On Sunday December 4, 2011 a special ceremony was held to mark the 200th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Saldanha. It was the first commemorative event. Until then there had been no permanent memorial to their deaths.
There is fascinating history everywhere in Ireland. I can’t wait to see what my second Donegal beach visit yields.