The lonely county

If you follow me on social media, and haven’t already figured out from my repeated assertions that Roy Keane was ONE-HUNDRED PERCENT RIGHT in Saipan, I’m from Cork. Cork, for the international/Dublin readers, is a city in the very south of Ireland. Cork is also, I say from my objective standpoint as a journalist, the greatest place in the world. And with an international airport, several bus and rail routes, and decent road infrastructure Cork is easily accessible to all who may want to visit it. Except for Mick McCarthy. We still remember.

I swear this entire article isn’t entirely about Cork

Cork, like any other city, town or village, has its own culture, its own humour, its own history – its own identity – and while Corkies such as myself are forever aware of our inherent Corkonian charm (and to be fair so are the rest of ye, we don’t really ever shut up about the greatness of Cork)  it can be hard for the millions of tourists who flock to the Real Capital every year to get a proper grip of the place. Things like the Young Offenders help as a sort of international cultural envoy, but I used to watch a lot of The Royle Family back in the day, and that didn’t really prepare me for what Manchester had to offer. So what’s another way to get a general gist of a place, to confirm or dispel the notion that the place is for you, before you actually traipse hundreds if not thousands of miles around the world?

Tanora Gif

Tanora. Well, not specifically Tanora, but….Tanora. Tanora, if you didn’t know, is a soft drink/mineral/soda (originally) made in Cork by Cork people for Cork people. Sure, you can buy it in parts of the wider Munster area, but it’s absolutely just for Cork people. And it makes for a good way to judge if Cork is for you, if you’re stuck for time. A signature drink or dish is a signature dish for a reason: it was either invented there or, as I’ve found is the case more often than not, it’s just what the people there want. So, inevitably, whenever I go somewhere for the first time I search out the indigenous soft drink – their Tanora.

(Small tangent: We are all sleeping on Appelsin, the favoured local tipple of Reykjavik/Iceland, it is the BOMB and should be available everywhere)

Come to me, sweet nectar of the Gods (photo: dandlymambly)

I wouldn’t quite say I have an obsession with trying every random soda, but if I’m in a shop and I spot something weird or new I’m definitely going to try it. For the longest time I thought Tanora was the only regionally-specific unique soft drink in Ireland, and that’s a fairly specific title to be fair, but I was wrong: there’s always Football Special. Football Special was reportedly first brewed in Donegal in 1949 by the McDaid family to celebrate the success of local soccer club Swilly Rovers, and since then it has been a much beloved drink of generations of people living throughout ‘the Forgotten County’. I found out about Football Special through a friend of a college roommate a few years back, who told me that my beloved Tanora paled in comparison to their mighty Swilly swill, and since then I’ve (periodically) had a strong desire to go to Donegal just to try it.

Question: If you’re not from Donegal, or don’t have a familial link to Donegal, how many of you have ever been to or planned to travel to County Donegal?


I imagine any of you reading this who live in Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Leitrim probably have popped to the next county over for a look, but beyond that I can’t see a huge number of people flocking to the far north-west of the country. Which isn’t a slam on Donegal, its people or its culture, it’s an opinion purely based around how hard it is to get to. Looking at those tourism stats I quoted earlier it seems I’m probably right (but feel free to prove me wrong), as Donegal’s tourist population is minuscule in comparison to that of Cork, Galway or even Kerry (though to be fair they vastly overshadow their neighbours Leitrim, for example). A few months ago I finally decided, after years of a need to try Football Special, to actually see how I could go about it.

Counties of Ireland
Handy map of Ireland by County, just in case you need a refresher

I can’t drive at all, so I would need to rely on public transport links. I generally tried to use Letterkenny, the most populous part of the county, as an end-point of my journey, but that didn’t work for everything. Trains are immediately be ruled out, for example, as Google claims it is impossible to get from Cork to Letterkenny just by train, with the railways apparently dropping short when you arrive in Derry or Sligo, depending on which way you go. Buses seem the most obvious route, with a return trip setting you back around €83 (€41.50 each way) for your tickets, and 17 hours (8 1/2 hours each way) of your time. You might be thinking that’s the only option, but did you know Donegal has its own airport? Be honest. You didn’t. I only know because I once got a press release from a Healy-Rae about the funding for regional airports. And while flying from Cork to Donegal is, well, significantly much more expensive, it doesn’t take too much longer to do. In roughly the same amount of time I could get from Cork to Letterkenny on two-or-three buses I could fly from Cork to Amsterdam (with an hour layover), Amsterdam to Dublin (three hour layover) and, finally, from Dublin to Donegal. The return flight is even quicker, cutting out around 2 hours of travel time.

“Just popping down to Dublin to do a bit of Christmas shoppin”

In case you weren’t *totally* sure, this is really not how it should be. You can fly from Cork to Lanzarote and back in the time it takes just to get to Donegal. Hell, if you can stick an extra two hours of travel time (which is conveniently spent on a layover in Heathrow anyway) you can get from Cork to New York. But it wasn’t always this way: in 1906, though it might have taken you several days, you could theoretically travel from Cork to Donegal entirely by rail without coming within an ass’ roar of Dublin (and we all know staying far away from Dublin is the ultimate end goal of everything), but as time went on routes fell into disuse, and now, at the time of writing, the Limerick to Waterford route is the only non-Dublin Intercity line in operation.

(Tiny gif grabbed from Wikipedia)

And while this pains us all (and made my crusade for Football Special much harder than it needed to be), it adversely affects people in the west of Ireland, particularly Donegal, effectively cut-off from the rest of the Republic by Northern Ireland itself. Donegal has the second highest unemployment rate in Ireland at 18% (Longford tops the list at 19.6%), and Donegal is possibly the county hit the hardest by emigration & internal migration in recent years.

I reached out to people on Twitter who either live in Donegal, lived there for some time, or at least live near Donegal, to ask them how they felt about the isolation of Donegal:

Well, a friend who grew up in Donegal told me that there used to be a fairly good rail system in the county back in the day but it’s all gone now.

She also told me that the rate of voluntary double-mastectomies in Donegal was sky-high because the only option women had was to go all the way down to Dublin for breast cancer treatment…and that could mean weeks away with no one to look after the family, so they opted for the radical surgery. This was before the new cancer centre opened at Altnegelvin in Derry a year or so ago.

  • Twitter user*

I suppose the main thing to realise is that Donegal is huge. There’s a difference between Letterkenny where I grew up and the west and the south. Letterkenny is 40 minutes from Derry so we’re very closely linked. There’s definitely a feeling of being closer to the people of the north than to the rest of the republic.

Belfast is 2 hours aways [sic], it’s accessible. Dublin is 4, Galway 5. It’s a pain. But the West isn’t linked to anything.

As much as Cork has a reputation for being The Rebel County as far as I can tell the independent spirit of Cork city pales in comparison to the ferocious independence of Donegal.

  • Tomás Barriscale, Donegal native now resident in Cork

Tomás regularly goes between Cork and Donegal, so if I were to be selfish enough to use someone’s real-life experience as a way to scope out the potential for my soda pop-pilgrimage this would be my moment. Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, I asked him how he would do it (and how feasible the air route was):

I get the bus to Dublin and then to Letterkenny. It’s 8 hours but its the only way. Donegal relies very heavily on private bus companies, Feda O’Donnell, Joseph Mangan, Patrick Gallagher, John McGinley. They’re the real connections in the county. Bus Eireann barely services the place and obviously there are no trains.

The thing about flying is the Donegal Airport is on the west coast. Which is great if you live in the west but it can take 2 hours to drive from there to Letterkenny on a bad day. – Tomás

Ah well. As it turns out, you can actually just order Football Special directly from McDaids themselves (in quantities of 15 minimum). Well, if I won’t be going there myself any time soon, at least I can somehow experience Donegal through the great taste of its native drink-

Oh btw do you know Football special isn’t made in Donegal anymore? The company had to leave Ramelton and move to NI. – Tomás

Oh bollocks. 

Then again, Tanora has been made in Northern Ireland since the closure of the Cork Coke bottling plant (say that five times fast) in the 2010s, but it still represents Cork, and the people of Cork, as it did for many decades, despite now being produced over three-hundred miles away in Antrim.


Thank you to everyone who contacted me & provided quotes for this article. Thanks to Tomás for giving his insight into the commute from Donegal to the rest of the country, you can follow him on Twitter here. If you want to try Football Special yourself (I think it tastes like a non-alcoholic version of Captain Morgan & Coke), you can do so by ordering directly from McDaids themselves. For more of me, search @JournalistRob on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Medium.

*The person quoted asked to remain nameless, a request with which we have complied.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.