Few football fans outside Ireland know where Ballybofey is – or why they might have to find it. Older Everton, Derby and Aberdeen supporters, though, will remember the name of Finn Harps, generous opposition on random European adventures in the 1970s.
The Harps are based in Ballybofey but, as their badge suggests, represent County Donegal as a whole. Way up in Ireland’s top left-hand corner, Ballybofey rivals Derry in the North-West Derby, one of the most colourful in the Irish football landscape.
Matters came to a head at a 2003 play-off. Derry City had not been relegated since reaching the top tier in 1987 – Finn Harps were looking to rejoin the elite. An absurdly late equaliser from Kevin McHugh, later to join Derry, gave rise to his infamous greyhound impression to celebrate, mocking the opposition. As inflatable sheep floated over Derry’s Brandywell, a hint at Harps’ fans rural pastimes, The Candystripes maintained Premier Division status with an extra-time winner.
Back hosting top-flight football since 2015, Ballybofey – one Main Street, one bus stop but no train station – is, in fact, two towns in one, the Twin Towns. The river that divides Ballybofey from neighbouring Stranorlar gives its name to Finn Harps. The capacity at dilapidated Finn Park is roughly the equivalent to the population of the Twin Towns it serves.
A new stadium is slowly being built over the Finn in Stranorlar but it’s now ten years since planning permission was granted. A proposed unveiling date in the summer of 2013 has been and gone.
Bus Éireann runs services to Ballybofey from Sligo (every 2hrs, 90min journey time, €12 single) and Derry (hourly, 1hr journey time). Sligo has good connections with Dublin, with hourly buses (4hr journey time) and regular trains (3hr journey time) but there’s no way of getting back to the capital from Ballbofey via Sligo after an evening game.
In theory, you can leave Ballybofey at 10.30pm and reach Dublin at 5am but it would mean a 3hr stopover at Letterkenny. All bus connections between Dublin and Ballybofey (4-5hr journey time, €15) require one change, at Letterkenny, Lifford or Donegal Abbey Hotel.
Late-afternoon services provided by Bus Feda between Galway and Donegal via Sligo also go on to Ballybofey 25min on from Donegal Town.
Ballybofey bus stop is by McElhineys store/Butt Hall Centre on Main Street. There’s a taxi office (+353 87 262 0446) near the Villa Rose Hotel.
Ballybofey has two high-standard hotels. By the Finn, Jackson’s is a four-star with a heated indoor pool, sauna and gym, plus the Garden Restaurant. Nearby, the four-star Villa Rose (‘Located in the bustling town of Ballybofey’) also has its own spa and restaurant, Fara’s. It combines with the Ballybofey & Stranorlar Golf Club to provide midweek and weekend packages.
Further along Main Street, Rockvale House offers wallet-friendly B&B digs. All six rooms are en-suite.
Anyone’s first port of call should be Barretts, opposite the Villa Rose, an honest haunt for hard-drinking sports fans. A big screen is set up in the beer garden for major tournaments.
Further down Main Street, Cheers likes a good party and puts on DJs. Opposite Alexander’s store, J McLaughlin’s is a regular local, handy for a quick jar.
Nearby McKelvey’s on Glenfin Street is another live-match spot, with DJs on Saturday nights.