Updated December 2022: While its tourism board has done much in recent years to publicize the county’s natural beauty, the beauty of Donegal is getting an additional dose of great publicity from a cute border collie named Iggy and her owner, freelance photographer James O’Donnell.
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The duo (affectionately known as “Meself and Herself”) have been racking up fans on social media for the past couple of years and in the process, have become Donegal’s best tourism ambassadors.
But since James, a Falcarragh native, starting showcasing his native county with Iggy, he has added another cute border collie to the mix.
Her name is Frida.
It includes the county’s most spectacular scenery, as well as some adorable pictures of both dogs and even one of them with James himself!
Putting Donegal on the Map
To get an idea of Donegal’s reputation as a tourism destination, you only have to turn the pages of Lonely Planet’s “Ireland” guide.
It describes Donegal as the wild child of Ireland and home to some of its most ravishingly sublime scenery
It is also on the Wild Atlantic Way, an approximate 1,500-mile driving route that begins in Malin Head in Co. Donegal and ends in Cork.
It showcases some of the most beautiful scenery in Ireland.
And of course, it’s all true.
James and Iggy have shown their fans, many of whom come from all parts of the world, what Donegal is made of.
“We love getting out on hikes mainly, but beaches/dunes are a favorite too,” said James, who left London 14 years ago to return to his home place.
“We are so lucky to live in a place where we can choose so many different walks. There are rugged coasts, beaches, clifftops, rivers, lakes, country lanes, and local woodlands to enjoy. But definitely, it’s up on the hills where we love it most!”
There’s plenty of hillwalking to be done in Donegal, which borders Counties Derry, Fermanagh, and Tyrone, with a small part of it touching County Leitrim.
Ireland’s fourth-largest county consists of two mountain ranges, the Derryveagh Mountains in the north and the Blue Stack Mountains in the south.
James and Iggy have climbed Errigal, which is the highest of the Derryveagh Mountains, as well as Croaghgorm in the Blue Stack Mountains.
A Perfect Partnership
To get an idea of how this partnership began, it’s important to go back to April 16, 2011, when Iggy arrived in Falcarragh from a farm in Co. Meath.
She was 9 weeks old at the time.
After settling into life in Falcarragh, James said Iggy quickly became his sidekick, traveling with him wherever he went.
“There has never been a day when Iggy decided she wanted to stay at home,” he said. “I just say, ‘walk?’ and she’s at the door in seconds waiting for me!”
A year later, James took Iggy on her “first big hike” to Errigal Mountain, beginning a trend that would take them to various parts of Northwest Donegal and begin their quest to highlight the beauty of the county.
At first, they went by themselves.
But as word got out, they naturally became unofficial tourist guides, showing visitors around the most beautiful parts of their beloved county.
James and Iggy have also been known to frequent the odd pub here and there. In fact, The Shamrock in Falcarragh is their local and one of the first pubs that Iggy set foot in.
Iggy is also a Dog Ambassador representing the award-winning Rusty Mackerel in Teelin, Co. Donegal.
Social Media Turns Iggy Into a Star
James said he didn’t’ take to social media at first, at least not until a photo he took of Iggy went viral on the Reddit platform.
“It was really mad,” he said, referring to the overnight success that turned Iggy into a social media sensation.
James described the windy day when he took the photograph at Ballyness Bay, which is close to his home.
“It was dry, but the wind was hitting us from all directions, and my plan was to just get to the pier and come straight home. But when we landed, I thought I’d get a quick shot of Iggy up on the small hill in the bay with the wind blowing her coat,” he remembered.
Just as James was about to take her photo, Iggy yawned, allowing the self-taught photographer to capture the moment perfectly.
“Her tongue hangs out normally when she yawns, but the wind caught it and it flapped back toward her ear! It was a very funny moment.”
Later that evening, James posted the photo to his Instagram feed, and as they say, the rest is history.
James started getting new followers pretty quickly.
“I didn’t know what was going on until a friend on Facebook told me that he’d spotted Iggy on the front page of Reddit,” James added.
The friendly dog had made it to number 5 on their top global news feed that day. The photo was later posted to Imgur, an online image-sharing community.
“That’s where it all kicked off,” James said.
Today, James, Iggy and Frida have 33,000 followers on Facebook and over 13,000 fans on Instagram, and the demand for news of their adventures just keeps growing and growing.
Iggy’s Worldwide Appeal
When James started taking photographs of Iggy in Donegal’s many spectacular settings, he couldn’t have imagined the interest it would attract.
But that was nothing compared to the outreach he received when Iggy needed two hip surgeries following a freak accident in 2018.
Unbeknownst to James, a friend had set up a crowdfunding page in the U.S. to cover the cost of the surgery.
In a matter of hours, $800 was raised to help fund the surgery. A further $2,000 was raised in one day for the second operation.
James has been overwhelmed by the generosity.
“When I looked at the list of names of those who had donated, I was amazed to see names I didn't even recognize and some were also local to me,” James said of the “lovely gesture” that was established by a fan in Milwaukee.
Last summer, he carefully monitored Iggy’s recovery, bringing her back to the veterinarian for additional surgery when she experienced a setback.
Currently, Iggy is receiving additional, more experimental surgery for her injury.
Iggy and Frida's Talents
Asked how he captures Iggy and the scenery so well, James said it’s been pretty easy because she is a true natural with the camera.
In Donegal, there’s so much beauty around that it’s not difficult to capture Iggy and the scenery at the same time.
“It’s happened so many times, where I’d turn to look for her and a photo opportunity would just arise! She’s mostly ahead of me on walks, so I’m eyeing up shots quite a bit, but at the same time, enjoying the scenery myself.”
But, it's evident that Frida is catching up quickly and is just as smart as her mentor, James adds.
Asked for recommendations beyond his hometown, James said he often encourages visitors to take a trip to Tory Island, which sits off the Falcarragh coast.
“We have so many beaches to enjoy locally too and just up the road there’s a great selection of mountains to climb,” James said.
But it's not just Donegal that's been promoted by the trio.
James and his dogs have traveled the length and breadth of Ireland and he is equally happy to promote other great attractions around the country, including several dog-friendly hotels like the 4-star Sligo Southern Hotel, where Iggy also serves as a Dog Ambassador.
A Bright Future Ahead
The future is looking bright for the trio.
In December 2020, Iggy and James were featured on RTE”s daytime show, Today, and since Frida has arrived on the scene, there are plenty more portraits to display of them both, which James was able to do on a recent trip to the U.S.
In a Facebook post in 2020 on Iggy's 9th birthday, he reflected on their years together.
“We started our journey together and have ended up somewhere now, that was unimaginable back then.”