Is Donegal really as good as they say it is?

If you're yet to visit Donegal International, you really are missing out

Dirtfish Day 2-6749

Guinness. I’d never had one, I thought I’d like it and I absolutely loved it.

Fitting then that I should’ve had my first sat in the Mount Errigal Hotel, as that same analogy extends for the Donegal International Rally.

I’d never been, I’d only ever heard fantastic things about it, and now I want to go back. I’d do it again next weekend if I could.

In years gone by the mammoth five-day challenge of the Circuit of Ireland, the charm of Killarney or the combined British and Irish entry in Ulster may not have lifted Donegal into first place on the list of must-see Irish events.

Image from iOS

But today it absolutely is. The atmosphere, the length of the rally – it’s the only three-day affair left standing in Ireland – and the fever in the host town of Letterkenny make this the stuff of legend.

That’s why I engineered a way to get myself there this year for the 50th anniversary edition. I’d always had an excuse not to go, but if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that next year isn’t guaranteed. Seize a chance when you can.

I’d only been to Ireland once before (for the Ulster Rally in 2018) so I don’t want to compare the Donegal experience to anywhere else in Ireland – that wouldn’t be fair. But what I can tell you is absolutely everything you’ve ever been told about this rally is true.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a town so energized by the presence of a rally before I saw Letterkenny last weekend. You couldn’t move for traffic and people snapping pictures of cars going by their front lawns. Out on the stages it was even more impressive – I don’t reckon there was a single corner last weekend that didn’t have some spectators on it.

And you couldn’t ask for a more welcoming bunch of organizers either – sorting us out with accommodation right around the corner from rally HQ at the Mount Errigal Hotel, bending over backwards to make sure we were happy. It’s this spirit that makes the rally work.

Us by the way was myself and DirtFish’s videographer Eliot Barnard who was over to shoot a video on Max McRae’s first ever European rally. I had a hand in there too, but I was also around to cover the rally up front – and for that I have friend and fellow journalist Adam Hall to thank.

What Adam doesn’t know about Irish rallying isn’t worth knowing, and he hooked me up big time in terms of where to go and how to get the most out of the Donegal experience. Adam’s mate Roger Dawson was so lovely I’d now consider him my mate as well (with a brilliant playlist for a rally) – and I promise that has nothing to do with the fact he bought me my first Guinness!

Roger, you still owe me five euros for those candid portraits. I’ll be in touch.

Image from iOS (1)

Eventual third place finisher Meirion Evans, and his co-driver Jonathan Jackson, were both super keen to find out my appraisal on the event as fellow British visitors to the rally. But they needn’t have asked, because they knew what my answer was going to be.

“It’s like rallying turned up to 11.”

But perhaps the best way to summarize the Donegal Rally is by saying it’s like Glastonbury for rally fans: fun, intense, completely in demand and a safe space to enjoy a passion that others may not understand.

The proof isn’t just in the spectator numbers but the entry forms. Rarely will you find rallies that can cater for 200 cars and still have to turn competitors away. Everybody wants to be there, and that just makes the atmosphere electric.

I’m racking my brains trying to think of a finer spectating experience than what I had on Saturday up on Knockalla, but I really can’t think of one. Careless planning in forgetting to apply the sun cream aside, I cannot fault it. And not once did I get bored, which is quite something considering I watched every single car on both passes of the stage.

Those that know me best know that I’m a massive patriot and love my home country, Scotland. Whenever I’m away, I get withdrawal symptoms. Whenever I’m back, I get excited by the simple things like the local accents or the more regular presence of Irn Bru on the shelves.

But sat here, typing this on the ferry back home, I’m considering asking the captain to turn the vessel around. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want this to end.

Donegal has absolutely won my heart. It’s what a rally should be: competitive, vibrant and a damn good adventure. And it’s storied too. It really was a shock (and an honor) to be there at the finish of the last stage to see just how much winning this one meant to Josh Moffett – a driver who’s made winning an addictive habit in 2022.

Don't do what I did. Don't sit on the fence and wonder if going over is a sensible use of your savings

Some say rallying has lost its way a bit these days, but so long as there’s events like this around it makes you feel safe that the future is bright. Passion produces results, it’s as simple as that. And you’d have to go very far and wide to discover a love for a rally as deep as what exists for Donegal.

Don’t do what I did. Don’t sit on the fence and wonder if going over is a sensible use of your savings. Grab your mates, book the ferry, reserve the bed (and you will need to do this quickly, trust me) and get yourself over there for a top class experience.

“You’ve got to go to Donegal,” you’ll hear. “You’ll love it,” they’ll add.

And they’re right, you do. And you will.

Here’s to the next 50 years.