Lighting the way: A unique stay in Donegal

The Lighthouse Keeper's Cottages at St John's Point, Co Donegal
The Lighthouse Keeper's Cottages at St John's Point, Co Donegal

Growing up, I yearned to live in a lighthouse. I fancied extreme Crusoe-like seclusion, penning romantic elegies and enjoying vigorous sea breezes.

Sadly, my briny daydream remained just that, but I did finally cure my lighthouse fantasy with a two-night stay at a lighthouse keeper’s cottage on St John’s Point Lighthouse station in Co Donegal.

For that special “I vont to be alone” Greta Garbo moment, there are few better bets than this recently restored self-catering property; its isolated setting at the end of a tapering seven-mile long promontory is impossibly perfect.

St John’s Point is a haven for walkers and peace-seekers, located in southwest Donegal, about eight miles from the single-street village of Dunkineely.

Once off the main road, it’s quite a thrill driving down to our accommodation, to see the looming lighthouse peeking above the fields, before gradually coming into full glorious view. It’s a breath-taking moment.

On a dank Donegal day this literal landmark is a Persil-white beacon set against a backdrop of extraordinarily dramatic coastal scenery. It is absurdly picturesque and my two children are giddy with excitement.

Huddled beneath the lighthouse are two tidy white cottages, the nautically-named SJ Schooner and Clipper, which were occupied by a succession of lighthouse keepers down through the years.

Both cottages have been faithfully restored by the Irish Landmark Trust, a Dublin-based charitable organisation which saves Irish heritage properties at risk of being lost through neglect.

Its portfolio includes an array of quirky self-catering properties including lighthouses, castles and gate lodges scattered throughout Ireland,.

My family were staying in the two-bedroom SJ Schooner and were met and shown around by the very affable and helpful house manager, local man Gerard Boyle.

Inside the single-story cottage is a triumph of restoration. Original features have been retained where possible. The cottage has been tastefully decorated in neutral shades and furnished with a mixture of antique and contemporary furnishings. It is fresh and airy, but not out of keeping.

The well-equipped kitchen has all-white crockery, every imaginable utensil, microwave, radio, electric cooker and a quarry-tiled floor. But best of all is the peerless view from the window out over to the mammoth sea-cliffs of Slieve League.

There’s also a useful utility room with washing machine and clothes-drying rack.

The bathroom is a delight, painted in sea green shades with a free-standing claw-foot bath and covetable Art Deco cabinet. There’s also a separate, modern wet room.

In the bedrooms (one with a double bed, the other with two singles) fluffy towels lie on pristine white beds.

And should you ever tire of looking at the stunning views, you can sink into comfy modern sofas and curl up by the open fire in the cosy lounge, read a book or gaze wistfully at the stout-looking lighthouse standing proud in the front garden.

The cottages stand within an enclosed courtyard with cattle grid and gate and each has its own garden - great if you have little people in tow.

The Trust has done its homework and provided guests with some print-outs about the history of the lighthouse and cottages. I read that in 1825 the merchants and traders of Killybegs requested a light on St. John’s Point in 1825.

Made of cut granite, the lighthouse’s tower was designed by George Halpin Senior, one of the era’s most lauded civil engineers.

The lighthouse came into operation in 1831. It was automated in November 1932, and converted to electric operation 30 years later.

St John’s Point is a harbour light to guide from Donegal Bay and to mark the north side of the bay leading to Killybegs Harbour from the entrance up to Rotten Island.

Tucked up in bed, the light from this working lighthouse comes on as darkness falls, radiating a sense of calm as well as reassurance. Blinking every few seconds, the beam is not an irritant as the light shines out in the other direction, therefore you don’t feel like you are living in a laser show.

Next morning we entertained ourselves by wandering the grassy hills dotted with custard-yellow primroses and daisies, watching the light leech from the sky as the sea churned up, turning from blue to the colour of gunmetal.

The wind and wildlife provide the sound and visuals in this television-free zone. There’s a handy pair of binoculars in the cottage for would-be twitchers, and we passed the time playing Scrabble and cards, whilst a wall in the backyard was perfect for a good old-fashioned game of bat and ball. My children loved it.

St John’s Point is famed as one of the finest spots in Europe for scuba diving and we met a few hardy souls togged up in diving gear ready to brace the cold waters.

There’s also a crumbling castle at the tip and great views over Donegal Bay, especially back towards the narrow entry of Killybegs Bay, with the curiously-named Rotten Island at its mouth.

But the highlight for us was Coral Beach, a beautiful arch of sand, where we skimmed stones and built our own crumbling sand castles.

Southwest Donegal is an area rich in scenery and sights. We explored Killybegs, the atmospheric fishing port, where the aroma of the seas hangs heavy in the air. Then on to the Slieve League cliffs, where, in a scene which could have been straight out of Father Ted, an enterprising female farmer had set up a pen with a donkey, named Bridget, a tethered goat and a couple two-week old lambs. For a small donation, my children were able to pet Bridget and give the lambs a bottle of milk.

It would be criminal to be in this part of Donegal and not stop off in Ardara. Traditional music and Aran sweaters are big business in this bustling village, but we were here for the a small libation and some sustenance in Nancy’s, a 200-year-old pub, with a warren of small, cosy rooms, and a mouth watering menu.

On our way to Maghera beach, we passed the transfixing Assarancagh Waterfall, my daughter wedging a coin into the wishing tree.

Maghera itself is an enchantingly remote place, dwarfed by the backdrop of hills and glens and fronted by an expansive and deserted strand that extends westwards to a rocky promontory riddled with caves.

We did do a bit of exploring whilst staying at the cottage, but it would be equally as tempting to do nothing more taxing than gaze at the mesmerising views, for this is as cosy and as comfortable a nest as you could wish for.