Standing on the Magic Road at the foot of the Urris Hills, John McGroary opened with a warning: “The first part of this walk is strenuous. We’re going to do it fairly fast and that’ll test whether you’re ready for the hills or not. On the mountain there are four ups and there are none of them easy. So if you have any doubts once you turn off the road up there, there’s no comeback except for the helicopter.”
One of the organisers, Noreen D’Arcy, shouted at our guide: “Jesus John, you are putting the fear of God into us.” He merely laughed, as the music of the Carndonagh Brass Band who had played us away faded in the distance and we hit the hills.
I sat down on a rocky seat beside Donegal royalty Noel Cunningham at the top of the first of those Urris Hills. The 69-year-old had practically sprinted up and I couldn’t be sure if it was the 2022 Donegal person of year’s indomitable spirit, some crazy level of fitness or the Donegal air.
My slower pace was not a result of being bereft of all the aforementioned skills, but that I fell into natural conversations with fellow walkers as is the nature of this event. However, when I did manage to catch him, I asked: “Noel, please explain to me what we are doing here?”
His familiar musical voice – the singing version of which we had heard in all its glory the previous night in the Railway Tavern – answered: “we are here on the Donegal Camino on the Urris Hills looking out over Fanad Head and Fanad lighthouse and around to the right Malin Head. These are the most northern parts of our beautiful Co Donegal, parts in my opinion that are unsurpassed in terms of just sheer natural, stunning beauty.”
Noel, Dublin-based, Inishowen business woman and Donegal doyen Peggy Stringer, and Deirdre McGlone, past proprietor of Harvey’s Point Hotel and ambassador for Donegal Tourism, are responsible for the event, which this September raised over €50,000 for Cancer Care West.
“Keep going Noel,” I encouraged, “you are selling it.” I didn’t need to ask twice.
“Well, I’m patron of Cancer Care West. A few years ago, Peggy did a solo run on some hills around Donegal and donated the sponsorship to my charity. Then Deirdre and I jumped on board to make it more formal and perhaps create something that would not only raise money for a great cause, but would also promote Donegal. That’s how it kind of came about.”
This was the second Camino and Noel remarked that its growth in popularity, with a much larger group of participants this year, is down to it being a really special “almost pilgrimage-like Camino. We’re connecting with ourselves, connecting with nature, walking beautiful hills and mountains and valleys, surrounded by sea. We traverse almost the entire county, a different part each day. So it’s rather special and rather unique.”
Cancer Care West
In relation to the charity itself, Noel said that he went to the Cancer Care West headquarters in Galway a few years ago and was amazed that the 35-odd guests staying that particular week were all from Donegal.
What struck Noel was the lack of a facility similar to the other service in Galway – a drop in centre – in Donegal. This centre offers services that people on the cancer journey want, he explained: “It was their cup of tea – wine tasting, library, some medical assistance like physiotherapy and psychology. We made a promise to ourselves that we would try and get such a centre in Donegal.”
That centre is now open in Letterkenny with thousands availing of its services. There was nowhere in Donegal for people to go who were on the cancer journey.
“Once they got their treatment, it was back home and you’re on your own. We are a big county but very remote in parts so to have that centre is incredible.”
Cancer Care West, gets a bit of help, Noel remarked, but “is very much voluntary and we really depend on things like the Donegal Camino and other fundraisers to keep us afloat”.
This voluntary effort, Noel credits to his colleagues: “Deirdre has given up months of her own time to organise this and Peggy the same. We don’t take any expenses. The only expenses incurred on this walk are those that are essential – insurance and guides.”
Noel looks forward to the first day the most because, “people join with a little bit of fear and trepidation and anxiety, even those of us who’ve done these hills before [could have fooled me, Noel]. Once you get that first day over, everybody settles into a routine.”
Deirdre McGlone describes herself as Donegal born and bred: “I love this, the hills of Donegal.”
Having spent 30 years of her life hotel keeping at Harvey’s Point, a business that the family have now sold, together with her husband and three children, Carl, James and Christina (some of whom drove rescue cars on the Camino) they are doing charity work and opening a “little place in France. It’s an old mill we’re restoring as a holiday rental”.
Deirdre takes a role in the promotion of the event, much of which is through social media.
“Noreen D’Arcy has helped us with that and just getting the word out. Everyone enjoyed last year so much that the word spread very quickly. You can walk one day, three days or seven days. It’s a whole week of hiking but you can dip in, dip out and it’s all about bringing people together, seeing the beautiful scenery of Donegal and it’s all for a good cause.”
You can take the lady out of Donegal tourism but you can’t take the Donegal tourism out of the lady.
That good cause is twofold she explained as “people reading this can go on and donate to Cancer Care West which is very much appreciated but it [the Camino] is also a showcase of the beautiful county of Donegal. It’s a world class destination for hiking and we are vising all sorts of hotels, B&Bs and restaurants and we will have good fun along the way.
“After a day’s walking we will have a nice dinner and some fun with all the walkers.”
The welcome get-together was held in the railway tavern in Fahan (it’s pronounced F-A-W-N). The tavern has a great history, the meal was superb and so was the singing; both Pat Rondell and friends and the sing along after.
But that was only the start and over the seven days, Donegal music and hospitality came out in force. Lorna Henry and the Inishowen Honora Singers made a surprise appearance on the Urris Hills, followed by a slew of famous faces day after day in support of the charity.
Walkers had the company of high-profile Donegal faces including former Eurovision singer Mickey Joe Harte who played an acoustic set after dinner on day two and adventurer Jason Black, who shared expert advice on safety in the mountains. Blind since birth, Jennifer Doherty provided huge motivation, detailing her recent trek to Mount Everest basecamp.
The McNelis Cunningham School of Dancing’s Cian McGinley, Ciara McKelvey and Ellie Campbell who will compete in the World Championships in Canada in 2023 entertained walkers in Glenties. Two Scottish entertainers Seamus O’Sullivan and Kieran Hepburn were live on Rosbeg Beach before they led the happy walkers across the finish line at the Sliabh Liag Visitor Centre, well supported by Kilcar Pipe Band.
The Camino raised over €50,000 but you can donate to Cancer Care West anytime at www.cancercarewest.ie/donate/