Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: Voices of Donegal and Derry

Kerry Dexter's picture

The Wild Atlantic Way: it’s a connection of roads which invites travel along the west of Ireland, from the western part of County Cork far in the south to Ireland’s far northwest in Donegal and Derry.

Donegal and Derry: two counties, two countries. Donegal lies in the Republic of Ireland: Derry lies in Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: Voices of Donegal and Derry

The Wild Atlantic Way could get no wilder -- and that’s saying something-- than when it comes to its route in Donegal. Along this northwestern path there is wilderness, there are remote places. There are cliffs-- Ireland’s highest, in fact --and there’s crashing surf. There are quiet places as well, sheltered bays and pristine beaches. There is history; indeed  it is history that defines the border between Derry and Donegal, and lives in the streets and walls of Derry City, where the way ends at the mouth of the River Foyle.

There is music is all these places, music of landscape, of community, and of history. Take a listen to the work of these musicians for your soundtrack for this part of your journey along the Wild Atlantic Way:

Though they’ve recorded in a number of languages and several styles over the decades, formed and formed again in membership, won top awards (Grammys among them), and traveled the world, the family based group Clannad has always held an element of expressing the the ethereal aspect of Donegal’s landscape and legend.

Leo’s Tavern is owned by family members of Clannad, and Paul Brady turned up there one evening, as you will see in this video. Along with him were a number of musical compatriots, and hosting the gig and singing along was Moya Brennan, lead singer with Clannad.

Paul Brady is a storyteller who began his career in music exploring folk song with songs such as Arthur McBride and The Lakes of Ponchartrain, both of which remain regular parts of his repertoire. Later he shifted toward rock with his style, still keeping the emphasis on story, with songs such as The Island and Follow On. Brady was born in County Tyrone, right across the border from Donegal, went to school in Derry and in Dublin, and began his work as a musician playing in clubs in Donegal. All of this makes him well familiar with even the smallest towns in the county, many of which he calls out by name while singing the song Homes of Donegal at a gig which was part of a benefit to help save the natural landscape of the area.

That landscape provided both the band name and the name of a recent recording for the group Altan. Anchored by the fiery fiddle playing and graceful singing of Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, Altan too has toured the world, bringing the sounds of Donegal to places from Tokyo to Milwaukee to Tennessee, from Australia to France to Scotland. They take their name from a loch in Donegal and they drew the name of their album Poison Glen, Gleann Nimhe in Irish, from a beautiful valley there (the name of the valley, in case you were wondering, comes from a legend about a giant or a cartographer’s mistake -- take your pick. “I like the giant story better!” says Ni Mhaonaigh). In their work, they honor their roots in traditional styles of Donegal. This is a music which holds songs in both English and Irish along with distinctive styles of fiddle playing and of tunes which incorporate influences from Scotland and well as rhythms of the native Gaeltacht. Note: one of the fiddlers backing Ni Mhaonaigh in this next video is Aly Bain from Scotland.

Moya Brennan, Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, and sisters Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill have known each other since they were children growing up along what is now the Wild Atlantic Way. Each created a career as a top notch professional musician. When they crossed paths, they’d say “you know, the four of us should do something together,” but those careers came with full schedules. Eventually, though, they carved out time to work together, and they liked doing concerts so well they decided to make time to do an album. They named their group, and the album, T With the Maggies. In their work you’ll hear the stories and the rhythms of landscape and life in Donegal and Derry and along the border between, in English words and in irish ones, and in melody.

The Wild Atlantic Way winds to an end -- or picks up its beginning, depending on your route -- in Derry, across the border from Donegal in Northern Ireland. That is a place Cara Dillon knows well, as she grew up in Dungiven a bit to the east of Derry. She knows Donegal, too, having gone there to study Irish when she was young, and though she choose to sing mainly in English, she remembers those days and  relishes being able to bring songs in Irish to her audiences as well.

The west of Ireland and the Wild Atlantic Way are places to explore the soul of Ireland through landscape and to learn of the heart of place and people through music. For an end -- or a beginning -- of your journey along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, take a listen to the spiritual side of things as Cara Dillon sings Bright Morning Star.

You may want to take a look at the other stories in this series

The Wild Atlantic Way: the music begins
Fiddles along the Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way: the music continues



Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com

Find more of Kerry's work in Journey to Scotland, National Geographic Traveler, Ireland and the Americas, Perceptive Travel, and other places online and in print, as well as at her site Music Road.


Feature photo: Killybegs, County Donegal, Ireland. Wikimedia Commons: Andreas F. Borchert, adapted by Wandering Educators