The refined little port of Rathmullan has a tranquillity that belies the momentous events that took place here from the 16th to 18th centuries. In 1587 Hugh O'Donnell, the 15-year-old heir to the powerful O'Donnell clan, was tricked into boarding a ship here and taken to Dublin as a prisoner. He escaped four years later on Christmas Eve and, after unsuccessful attempts at revenge, died in Spain, aged only 30. In 1607, despairing of fighting the English, Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O'Donnell, the Earl of Tyrconnell, boarded a ship in Rathmullan harbour and left Ireland for good. This decisive act, known as the Flight of the Earls, marked the effective end of Gaelic Ireland and the rule of Irish chieftains. Large-scale confiscation of their estates took place, preparing for the Plantation of Ulster with settlers from Britain. Also in Rathmullan, Wolfe Tone, leader of the 1798 Rising, was captured.
This picturesque Carmelite Rathmullan Friary is so entangled in vines that it would probably crumble should they be cleared away. It was founded around 1508 by the MacSweeneys, and was still used in 1595 when an English commander, George Bingham, raided the place and took off with the communion plate and priestly vestments. Bishop Knox then renovated the friary in 1618 in order to use it as his own residence.
Sprawled over wooded gardens on the shores of Lough Swilly, the Rathmullan House hotel might be large and luxurious but the welcome from the family owners is so warm that you feel like you're staying with friends. The original house dates from the 1780s, but extensions are sympathetic and stylish. Higher-priced rooms have claw-foot baths and some open to balconies or terraces. There's a tennis court, two genteel bars, and a glass-paned restaurant, the Weeping Elm, utilising organic produce from the property's walled gardens.
It's worth heading out of town to find the modern Glenalla Lodge B&B with its four spacious guestrooms. Decked out with tasteful wooden furniture, crisp bedspreads and contemporary rustic style, and with the helpful knowledge of a local historian on tap, it's an excellent spot. Glenalla Lodge is 8km north of Rathmullan on the R247.
Set right on the edge of Lough Swilly, the new Water's Edge restaurant has giant windows overlooking the waterfront. With glorious views and a menu of steaks, pastas and other classics, it's a good place to stop. There are also 10 tranquil, spacious rooms decorated with pale tones and uncluttered style. The restaurant is just south of Rathmullan on the R247.
The Lough Swilly bus from Letterkenny runs to Rathmullan (€4.40, 45 minutes) once on Saturday, en route to Milford.