County Donegal

(Under construction)

County Donegal (Contae Dhún na nGall), regarded by many as the most beautiful parts of Ireland, features a deeply indented coastline, impressive mountains and wild isolated valleys. One of three counties in Ulster that were not included in Northern Ireland, its proximity to the border, along with its geographic isolation from the rest of the Republic of Ireland, has led to a rather special outlook.

Large parts of Co. Donegal are designated Gaeltacht areas. The Donegal variant of Irish is distinctive, sharing traits with Scottish Gaelic. Scots is also spoken in east Donegal. Like other areas of Western Ireland, Donegal has a distinctive fiddle tradition.

Donegal has one of the most important collections of megaliths in Europe. The many wedge-tombs, cist burials and examples of rock art are evidence of settlement during the Bronze Age, as are artefacts including gold lunalae and ribbon torcs. Stone Circles at Beltany recall the Celtic springtime festival of Beltane (the ancient equivalent of May Day), traditionally associated with the lighting of hill-top fires to regenerate the sun.

Local History


In the C5th AD most of the area was conquered by the northern Ui Neill / O’Neill clan, the Cenel Conaill, and thereafter was known as Tír Chonaill. Based in Dún na nGall, their main branch became the Ui Domhnaill / O’Donnell clan, while the Cenel Eogain and the Cenel Enna continued as O’Neills. The story of Donegal could in large part be said to be the story of these two great Ulster dynasties, whose rivalry lasted a thousand years.

By the C12th the O’Donnells had, with the aid of the O’Doherty clan of Inishowen, pushed the O’Neills back as far as Tyrone, and they successfully resisted the Anglo-Normans for several centuries more. At its zenith their kingdom extended to parts of modern Sligo and Derry. Their Lucht Tighe (Royal Household) comprised several hereditary offices performed  by  members of other families, and they also employed Scottish gallowglasses (gall óglaigh or foreign soldiers). The C15th and C16th are recalled as a Golden Age of enlightened rule, prosperity and trade with Britain and the Continent.

Feuding between the O’Donnells and O’Neills continued.  By the time the O’Donnells finally united with the O’Neills and other Gaelic chieftains to fight the English in the Nine Years War at the end of the C16th it was too late. Following the disastrous Battle of Kinsale and the death of Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1602, the last king of Tír Chonaill was his brother  Ruairí Ó Domhnaill / Rory O’Donnell (1575-1608), who, having submitted in London to King James I, was created 1st Earl of Tyrconnell in 1603, and was further granted the territorial Lordship of Tyrconnell in 1604. When he and Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, discovered they were both to be arrested and imprisoned, they set sail from Lough Swilly with their families and followers for exile in Spanish Flanders and Rome – the Flight of the Earls, 14th September 1607. Their titles were attainted and their lands forfeit to the Crown in 1614.

Although the County of Donegal had been officially shired in 1585. by amalgamating the kingdom of Tír Chonaill with the lordship of Inishowen, Crown authorities were unable to establish any control over the area until the C17th was well advanced. Along with most of Ulster, Donegal was divided into plantation estates, initiating an era characterised by religious rivalry, poverty and subversion.

County Donegal was one of the worst affected parts of Ulster during the Great Famine, which left many areas permanently depopulated. Vast numbers of the county’s people emigrated at this time, mainly through the Port of Derry. Many settled in southern Scotland, creating a strong link between County Donegal and Glasgow that has endured to this day.

A few converted railway stations are all that remain of Co. Donegal’s extensive C19th British government subsidised narrow gauge rail network, closed in 1953. Poor public transport in the region has led to the development of private local bus lines, often the best transport links in the area; one such is still called the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway company.

Co. Donegal (Dún na nGall) is one of three counties in Ulster which are not part of Northern Ireland. Geographically the county consists chiefly of rather impressive mountains and valleys, with a deeply indented coastline forming natural loughs. Some say it is the most beautiful county in Ireland, and certainly the few parts I’ve seen of it – Killybegs, Glencolmcille, Glenties and (separately) Rathmullen – were all extremely attractive. It has the highest seacliffs in the world. Watch out for Golden Eagles. Avoid Letterkenny and Bundoran.

Donegal Town is situated on the Eske River which flows into Donegal Bay. The town is the gateway to south Donegal and in summer time visitors flock to the 15th century Donegal Castle which was built by the O’Donnell’s, the ruling family in west Donegal until the 17th century. Donegal Town is also home to the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre which contains many artifacts of railway history from the County. Just outside the town is the Donegal Craft Village which is very popular with tourists throughout the summer. There are also the ruins of a 15th century Franciscan Abbey at the mouth of the Bay, generally agreed to be where the Four Masters wrote their famous Annals. The Monastery was sacked many times and was twice burned down before its demise in 1601.

The name comes from the Irish, meaning the fort of the foreigners. When first created, it was sometimes referred to as County Tyrconnel (Irish: Tír Chonaill), after the Tyrconnel earldom it succeeded.

County town: Lifford

Largest town: Letterkenny (was once the fastest growing town in Western Europe) Letterkenny (Irish: Leitir Ceanain – translated literally as “The Slope of the Cannon Family”) is the largest town in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, located 35 miles north of Donegal Town and 20 miles west of Derry in Northern Ireland. Its name is an Anglicisation of the Irish language name, which,

The current population of Letterkenny is approximately 12,000, and the total population of the areas surrounding it is estimated to be 25,000-30,000 people. Despite its size, it is not the administrative center of Donegal, which is Lifford. It is situated at the base of the picturesque Lough Swilly.

Letterkenny began as a market in the 17th century and was the first crossing point of the River Swilly. Letterkenny achieved town status in the early 1970s when the Irish punt replaced the English Pound Sterling as the national currency of Ireland. This led to many Irish banks that had been previously located in Derry in Northern Ireland being forced to open branches in Co. Donegal, including in Letterkenny. Public services and industry followed the banks and led to Letterkenny being the fastest growing town in the European Union for many years. Some of the towns most industrious employers, including the General Hospital (which grew from St. Conal’s Asylum), Unifi, and a large branch office of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, led to Letterkenny quickly becoming the largest town in Co. Donegal.

Its proximity to the border with Northern Ireland, along with its geographic isolation from the rest of the Republic of Ireland, has led to Letterkenny (and indeed, the rest of Co. Donegal) diverging in attitude substantially from that of either side of the border. The economy in the town is strongly dependent on cross-border trade, and times of ecomonic boom are determined mostly by the currency exchange rate between the Euro and the English Pound.

The town was, in times past, connected with the once extensive narrow gauge rail network of County Donegal. This provided connections to Derry (and through there to Dublin and Belfast), to Lifford and Strabane, to Gweedore and Burtonport, and to Carndonagh, north of Derry. The rail system was built in the late 19th century, with the last extensions opening in the 1900s. Some of these lines were never profitable, built using British government subsidies, described as an attempt to kill the Home Rule movement “with kindness”. Only a couple of decades later, political events resulted in rail companies operating across two jurisdictions where there had previously been one. This had devastating effects on an already fragile economic situation, resulting eventually in the total closure of all parts of the rail system in the area by 1953. See History of rail transport in Ireland.

The railway station was converted to a bus station that today serves Bus Eireann. However, poor public transport in the region has led to the development of local privately-owned bus companies such as Lough Swilly Bus, which are often based in the surrounding Gaeltacht. The Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway company has continued to operate as a bus company. These private companies often provide the best transport links in the area.

Other prominent buildings in Letterkenny include St. Eunan’s Cathedral, St. Eunan’s College, the Workhouse (now functioning as the town’s museum), and St. Conal’s Hospital.

Letterkenny Institute of Technology is a higher education institution in the town.

Highest point: Errigal, 752 metres (2,467 feet)

Like other areas of Western Ireland, Donegal has a distinctive fiddle tradition.

The variant of the Irish language spoken in Donegal is distinctive, and shares traits with Scottish Gaelic. Ulster Scots is also spoken in east Donegal.


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