On one of our days based outside Sligo, our travelling group of six family members decided we needed to see Donegal while we were within striking distance. I suspect that most of us were familiar with the town’s name from having had to listen to the song “Dear Old Donegal’ too many times in our childhood.
Donegal is only about 78 kilometres from Sligo so it wasn’t too arduous a drive, particularly as we had a great stop at Drumcliff along the way. We found a park not far from the centre of town and easily found our way to ‘The Diamond’ which is the old market place of Donegal and today is a thriving pedestrian area with plenty of seating and shade. The day we arrived, the area was in the throes of preparations and celebrations caused by the town’s team being involved in a the final of the big Gaelic Football Match.
Unfortunately for us visitors, there was a lot of temporary fencing about as part of the predicted football celebrations later in the day so it distracted attention from the only monument in the square. Unfamiliar with the history of Donegal, I initially thought it was a war memorial or monument recalling some horror from Irish History, but I was very wrong. It was a 1939 monument to the monks who lived in the Friary on the Eske River not far down the road from the square. The names of four monks were engraved (one on each side of the column) for their efforts in writing a local history, “The Annals of the Four Masters”, back in 1630. It’s a rare event when the centre of a town is set aside for a memorial to historians!
From the Diamond, it is not far to the most significant historic sites of Donegal Town. One of these is the Donegal Town Church of Ireland. It is a gothic style church built in 1828. Since this time the church has had minor additions such as the convenient clock in the centre of the front of church in 1910.
Not far from the church is the most significant site in Donegal Town, its ancient castle. It’s easy to see from the map below of our short tour around town why the castle was built on this spot, a strategic point looking out over the bay and close by access to the hinterland.
The Gaelic name for Donegal is ‘Dún na nGall’ which translates as ‘Fort of the Foreigner’. The Vikings arrived on the west coast of Ireland in the late 8th century and their main target were the monasteries that held the gold and jewels the Vikings were seeking. There is no doubt a small settlement existed at the mouth of the Eske River at the time. However the structure of Irish society in the 8th century was not based on organised towns but family group settlements that often had ring forts built to resist raiding enemies. The Vikings at the beginning of the 9th century decided the best option was to winter over in Ireland rather than make their way back north so they apparently built a garrison at the end of Donegal Bay, probably where Donegal Castle is today. ‘Fort of the Foreigner’ takes on a clear meaning. Like other world empire builders, the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland eventually brought about the development of towns around the Irish Coast, particularly at places like Dublin and Wexford. It is reported that human remains were found in the grounds of Donegal Castle and are thought to be of Viking origin. Over the next three centuries there were many battles between the native Gaelic armies and the Vikings; the Irish ‘Annals’ record that in 848 CE, Nial Caille (King of Tara) defeated a Viking horde near Donegal. The fortress of the foreigners on the shores of Donegal Bay was destroyed in 1159 but alas only bones are left from that early structure.
As can be seen from the map on the right, the O’Donnell clan were the Gaelic Rulers of what is today Sligo County from around the 5th century up unto the early 16th century.
Red Hugh O’Donnell I built the castle keep at Donegal in 1474. The name of this Gaelic ruler can be confusing as one of his descendants was also known as ‘Red Hugh O’Donnell’ and was a famous figure in the fight against the English in the late 16th, early 17th century. If you look carefully at the statue of ‘Red Hugh O’Donnell’ that stands near the ruins of the Franciscan Friary, you will note that the image is of the first Red Hugh whose life span is inscribed on the base of the statue as 1427-1505. He was 47 years old at the time he built Donegal castle and he had been ruling as king of Tyrconnell in Ulster from 1461 to 1505. He was buried in the cemetery of the Donegal Friary. His descendant, Red Hugh O’Donnell II after fleeing Ireland in 1607, was buried in Spain, unsurprisingly in a Franciscan Monastery in Valladolid in the Castile Region.
The grey stone castle in Donegal, renovated in 1990, is an impressive structure to visit today, consisting of two main buildings; the 15th century rectangular keep built by the O’Donnells and an attached manor house added after the Nine Years war against the forces of the English monarchy. It is curious to contemplate that Irish history would have been very different but for a series of storms in the Bay of Biscay and the English channel that destroyed various armadas sent by Phillip II & III of Spain to destroy England’s control over its Irish territories. A Spanish army had landed in southern Ireland and the Gaelic Lords and their followers joined forces with them at the Battle of Kinsale but the English won this key battle. Loss at Kinsale brought about the so-called ‘Flight of the Earls’ who fled Ireland to Europe hoping to resurrect their cause. The Earls did not return and the hope of driving the English from Ireland faded with them.
“To the victors the spoils’ and so Donegal Castle, like so many other estates in Ireland was handed over to English settlers. In 1611, during the process called the ‘Plantation of Ulster’, the castle was handed over to an English Captain, Basil Brooke. He restored the castle and added the manor house wing to the original keep. The castle passed on to various other families over the centuries but the castle was abandoned in the early 1700s and was in ruins for two centuries. The castle was handed over to the government in 1898 and was fully restored in the 1990s.
We took the time on our visit to Donegal to have a very enjoyable tour of the castle and were very impressed by the renovations and the educational posters around the castle.
Around the same time as Donegal Castle was built, the royal couple also decided they needed a monastery in their town. The story goes that it was Red Hugh I’s first wife Finola O’Brien who was the moving force in the construction of the Friary. Finola made a long journey to Galway to attend a Franciscan Chapter to request the founding of a Franciscan monastery at Donegal. After some powerful language (“What! I have journeyed a hundred miles to attain the object that has long been dearest to my heart, and will you now venture to deny my prayer? If you do, beware of God’s wrath”), she overcame initial refusal and she returned home with some Franciscans who began the construction of the monastery. Finola died before the abbey was completed but Red Hugh’s second wife completed the task.
The story of the building of the Donegal Friary is a heart rending one given the efforts of the good wives of the first Red Hugh. However their selfless efforts in building the Friary did not protect it from being a house of prayer that could not protect itself from the treachery, deceit and breaches of faith by the various branches of the O’Donnell Family in the last 20 years of the 16th century. Fanned by English money and support, Family infighting brought about the destruction of this monastery after only about 125 years of its existence. It’s a complex story but in brief, Donegal by 1601 was controlled by the English but run by a descendant of Red Hugh O’Donnell I who was using the Friary as a military stronghold, storing gunpowder here as preparation against future attacks on the town. In an attempt to capture Donegal Town, the second Hugh O’Donnell attacked Donegal Friary, started a fire which ignited the stored gun powder, blowing the friary (as well as large numbers of soldiers) into the ruin it is today. The amazing thing is that it is a ruin that has survived 400 years and still attracts many admirers (like ourselves) to this day. The map of the ruins here shows what is left and how it fitted in to the design of the original abbey. (Original Map: http://monastic.ie/tour/donegal-franciscan-friary/)
The remnants of the doomed friary have a lovely view out over the Eske River and out into Donegal Bay. After a slow inspection our little group headed back along the river path to the centre of town with one stop on the way to inspect the impressive statue of Red Hugh. It was time to drive back down the coast past Sligo to our temporary home in Markree Castle, an old Irish Castle whose history mirrors the end of old Irish Rule in Donegal.