Donegal - Raphoe and Oakfield Park

by - Tuesday, September 15, 2020

I'm a bit late getting to this post as we returned from holidays ages ago, but between work and family stuff, I just couldn't seem to find the time to settle down and write. However, I wanted to share two new places to visit in Donegal. If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that Donegal is one of my favourite places and we go there almost every year. You would think at this point that there would be nothing left that is new to us, but there's always some wonderful new disovery - helped of course by having a Donegal native as tour guide :)
We headed to Raphoe in east Donegal (not too far from Tyrone border) for our first visit to Oakfield Park - en route though, we stopped off to visit the Bealtany Stone Circle.  This is a really incredible place - there is a small area to park and a short track up to the field itself, where the circle is situated. It's very impressive as stone circles go, large and with an integral circular shape of 64 stones (remaining out of the original 80). Perhaps it is fanciful, but the sense of peace there was tangible - we all felt it. It comes upon you as you approach the circle and even if you don't believe in the power of past spirits, the harmony of the construction is something to behold.  
Standing in the steps of our ancestors always feels a little magical to me and I imagined cloaks and horses and majestic rituals. The name Bealtany comes from Bealtaine, meaning 'bright fire', the Irish for May Day, a major Celtic festival which marks the beginning of Summer and which would have been marked with bonfires - for celebration and protection. So this magnificent place with panoramic views, would have undoubtedly been the centre of many rituals and it was something special to imbibe those ancient spirits for a little while.

 
Bealtany Stone Circle Full View

Bealtany Stone Circle Stones

Sideways leaning stones Bealtany

Bealtany Stones in a row

We had a brief look around Raphoe also - interesting for its castle and masonic building. I think perhaps some people are more sensitive to the atmosphere of a place than others, and the castle here has a forbidding and shadowy presence which I found uncomfortable. Given its history, that is probably not surprising. It has a bloody association with plantations and violence - Bishop Leslie who built the castle, was known as 'The Fighting Bishop' and the castle itself was put under attack many times - by such people as Cromwell and the United Irishmen.  The castle was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1838 and has been in ruins since.

Raphoe Castle on the hill

Interior Raphoe Castle Ruins

Side View of Raphoe Castle

Unsurprisingly, given the motto above the door 'Hear See and Remain Silent, I found little concrete history on the masonic hall in Raphoe, but it is an interesting building with masonic symbols on the front - the lodge dates from 1870 but the building itself from 1903 - according to Buildings of Ireland.

Masonic Hall Raphoe

There are other things to see in Raphoe but we wanted to get to Oakfield Park so we headed off.

Oakfield Park is a spacious verdant estate with a house which was built in 1739 for the Dean of Raphoe. It was then acquired by Thomas Butler Stoney, who then left it to his son. The house has passed through ownership a number of times until it was bought by Gerry Robinson in 1996. Gerry and his wife Heather did major restoration and refurbishment work on the house and grounds and the estate is now a wonderful tranquil place to visit. As we visited in these pandemic times, we preferred to bring a picnic and stay away from people. This was easy enough to do as the gardens are spread out extensively. I loved the space and the varied sculptures and there is a train (interestingly, I saw recently on a tv program that Gerry is a talented carpenter and made some of the train) which goes around the garden. The lower lake has swans and a folly and there are little woodland areas and a tea room. Towards the house, at the time we visited, my favourite thing was the wildflower meadow. It was absolutely glorious, abundant with colour and happily buzzing insects. It was honestly one of the most beautiful wildflower meadows I have ever seen. 

Path through wildflowers Oakfield

Flower in Oakfield Wildflower Meadow

Oakfield Donegal Wildflower Meadow

The nymphaeum at the upper lake was another one of my favourite parts - it is wonderfully tranquil and gentle

Nympaeum Oakfield Donegal

Oakfield Nymphaeum Lake

In a little wooded area we came across this magnificent tree, isn't it incredible?!

Bent Tree Oakfield Donegal

Sculptures are dotted around and there are little ponds with fish and water lillies. There is so much to see and plenty of space for kids to run around too.  There are picnic tables and good parking and toilet facilities on site and there is partial wheelchair access. (There is a wheelchair carriage on the train).

Deer Sculpture Wire

Nun sculpture Oakfield Park

Deer in wood Sculpture

The fairy tree is adorable - 

Fairy Tree Oakfield Park

I spent a wee bit of time reading through the messages and I was struck by this one in particular:

Message on Fairy Tree Oakfield Park

Aaron seems like a lovely young man and I'm sure his parents are really proud of his kindness.

I really recommend Oakfield - it's €9 per adult at time of writing and there are family rates. There are also events throughout the year and Santa Express tickets can be booked at the moment. I think there is probably something to suit everyone here. You could easily spend an entire day and bring a picnic or go to the restaurant. It is outdoors of course, so weather dependent but it is open from Wednesday to Sunday in September so not too late to plan a visit for this year. Check out their website for current info and events listings.
So that brings me to the end and probably another year before I get to Donegal again but hopefully sooner!

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