The Donegal Gay Walking Group is tackling rural isolation one step at a time

Set up by Julian Cunningham, the group has grown from having six members to 59 members in the space of nine months.

Members of the Donegal Gay Walking Group pose on a cliff overlooking the coast.
Image: Julian Cunningham

The Donegal Gay Walking Group was set up last year by Julian Cunningham who hoped to tackle the rural isolation that he was facing. GCN spoke with the group’s organiser about its formation, their adventures so far, and how our readers can get involved.

Julian came up with the idea while living in Donegal through the Covid-19 pandemic, and going through various lockdowns. “While Donegal is incredibly beautiful,” he said, “I really felt I missed the camaraderie of having a circle of gay friends.

“Searching on Google for any social groups or activities for gay men turned up absolutely nothing. Rather than sit and bemoan the lack of activities for gay men, I decided to create a Facebook group and invite the few gay people I had met by chance.

“Initially there were just six members, but that didn’t matter. Just to have a group of people to plan and do something with was incredibly rewarding.”

In its nine months of existence, the Donegal Gay Walking Group has grown from strength to strength, now boasting 59 members. It is open to all LGBTQ+ people, not just gay men, and Julian is “particularly keen to attract more women” with roughly half a dozen currently involved.

For the current members, not only has the group been a great social outlet, but participants have also been feeling the mental and physical benefits.

“I think that friendship is incredibly important for mental health,” Julian begins.

“In a rural community, it is very easy to become isolated and have no circle of friends, no support network, and no social life. Lots of gay people have had to face the risk of, or live with, rejection from their families. They’ve had to endure judgments of strangers, possibly endure homophobic abuse.

“Having a safe place where you can walk with and talk with a group of friends who will accept you completely for who you are is really nourishing for the soul. I think everyone who has joined us on a walk has been surprised at how much they enjoyed meeting and talking with new people.

“After years of lockdown and isolation, it felt like being in sunshine again,” he added.

Together, group members have explored many of Donegal’s beautiful trails – “we are spoiled for choice,” Julian comments.  

“Our first walk was in the Knockalla Hills, which had stunning views of Lough Swilly and Portsalon Beach,” he fondly recalls.

“Since then, we’ve had walks in Ards Forrest, Glenveagh and along the Muckish Railway Walk.”

Although this is a walking group, Julian ensures that you do not have to be a fitness fanatic to get involved. 

He explains, “Our walks are at an enjoyable pace, and are more about having great conversation, and a bit of craic.

“We underestimate how enjoyable it is to meet new people and talk about their lives and our own. Each friendship that I make with the group feels like another strand in a safety net. When I need to face difficult things, I know now that I have a circle of friends who can support me and help me through whatever I’m facing.”

Creating the Donegal Gay Walking Group has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for Julian, and he encourages others who feel like they are missing something in their life “to search for it, and if it doesn’t exist, to create it.”

“The chances are that other people are missing the things that you are missing, and even a small group can make a great difference to how you feel about your life.”

Those interested in getting involved can visit the Donegal Gay Walking Group Facebook page, and submit a request to join. All LGBTQ+ people are welcome, and it is a great opportunity to meet new people, get active, and discover one of the most scenic counties Ireland has to offer.

Members of the Donegal Gay Walking Group meet in a local pub.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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