County Donegal

County Donegal (Irish: Contae Dhún na nGall. Sometimes unofficially known in Irish as Tír Chonaill) is a county located in the west of the Province of Ulster, in the northwest of Ireland. It is one of three counties in the Province of Ulster that does not form part of Northern Ireland. It is the most northern county in all of Ireland, and is part of the Republic of Ireland. County Donegal is the fourth largest county in Ireland and the largest county in Ulster. The name 'Donegal' comes from the Irish, meaning 'The Fort of the Foreigners'. The county was named after the former administrative centre of Donegal Town, the old stronghold of the O'Donnell royal family in the south of the county. When first created, it was sometimes referred to as County Tyrconnell (Tír Chonaill), after both the old original Tír Chonaill kingdom and the Tyrconnell earldom that succeeded it. Calling the whole county Tír Chonaill is technically incorrect as the Inishowen Peninsula (Inis Eoghain) is historically distinct from Tír Chonaill.

Uniquely, Donegal shares a border with only one county in the Republic of Ireland, County Leitrim in north Connacht. The rest of its land border is shared with the United Kingdom (the Northern Irish counties of Londonderry, Tyrone and Fermanagh). This apparent isolation has led to Donegal people and their customs being considered distinct from the rest of the country and has been used to market the county with the slogan Up here it's different. Much of the county is seen as being a stronghold of the Irish language and Gaelic games within Ireland. The people of County Donegal are famous for their accent (or more correctly accents), which is very much an Ulster accent. Despite Lifford being the county town (and there also being a Donegal town), the largest town is Letterkenny.

County Donegal has always had a very strong and close relationship with the City of Derry, the unofficial regional 'capital' of the North-West of Ireland. Before circa 1600, Derry was considered part of the Inishowen Peninsula. Derry has acted for centuries as the main economic and transport hub and seaport for both County Donegal and West Tyrone. This was especially so before the rapid growth and development of nearby Letterkenny from the late 1960s. Huge numbers of people from County Donegal work - and often live - in Derry. Likewise, many natives of Derry City also work - and often live - in County Donegal. In addition, large numbers of young Donegal people attend secondary schools in Derry and/or study at the city's third-level institutions, especially Magee College (part of the University of Ulster) and North West Regional College (popularly known as Derry Tech). Both Donegal County Council and Derry City Council co-operate closely with each other on many projects and initiatives.


County Donegal is famous for being the home of the once mighty Clan Dálaigh, whose most famous branch were the Clan Ó Domhnaill, better known today in English as the O'Donnell Clan. Until around A.D. 1600, the O'Donnells were one of Ireland's richest and most powerful Gaelic (native Irish) ruling-families. Within the Province of Ulster only the Clan Uí Néill (known in English as the O'Neill Clan) of modern County Tyrone were more powerful. The O'Donnells were Ulster's second most powerful clan or ruling-family from the early thirteenth-century through to the start of the seventeenth-century. For several centuries the O'Donnells ruled Tír Chonaill, a Gaelic kingdom in West Ulster that covered almost all of modern County Donegal. The head of the O'Donnell family had the titles An Ó Domhnaill (meaning The O'Donnell in English) and Rí Thír Chonaill (meaning King of Tír Chonaill in English). Based at Donegal Castle in Dún na nGall (modern Donegal Town), the O'Donnell Kings of Tír Chonaill were traditionally inaugurated at Doon Rock near Kilmacrenan. O'Donnell royal or chiefly power was finally ended in what was then the newly created County Donegal in September, 1607, following the Flight of the Earls from near Rathmullan. The modern County Arms of Donegal (dating from the early 1970s) was influenced by the design of the old O'Donnell royal arms. The County Arms is the official coat-of-arms of both County Donegal and Donegal County Council.

The modern County Donegal was shired by order of the English Crown in 1585. The English authorities at Dublin Castle formed the new county by amalgamating the old Kingdom of Tír Chonaill with the old Lordship of Inishowen. However, the English authorities were unable to establish control over Tír Chonaill and Inishowen until after the Battle of Kinsale in 1602. Full control over the new County Donegal was only achieved after the Flight of the Earls in September, 1607.

County Donegal was one of the worst affected parts of Ulster during the Great Famine of the late 1840s in Ireland. Vast swathes of the county were devastated by this catastrophe, many areas becoming permanently depopulated. Vast numbers of County Donegal's people emigrated at this time, especially through the Port of Derry. Huge numbers of the county's people who emigrated were to settle in Glasgow in southern Scotland. This created a very strong link between County Donegal and the City of Glasgow, a link which endures to this day.


Physically, the county is by far the most rugged and mountainous in Ulster. The county consists chiefly of low mountains, with a deeply indented coastline forming natural loughs, of which both Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle are the most notable. The famous mountains or Hills of Donegal consist of two major ranges, the Derryveagh Mountains in the north and the Bluestack Mountains in the south, with Mount Errigal at 749 metres the highest peak. The Slieve League cliffs are the second highest sea cliffs in Europe, while Donegal's Malin Head is the most northerly point on the island of Ireland.

The climate is temperate and dominated by the Gulf Stream, with cool damp summers and mild wet winters. Two permanently inhabited islands, Arranmore and Tory Island lie off the coast, along with a large number of islands with only transient inhabitants. Ireland's second longest river, the Erne, enters Donegal Bay near the town of Ballyshannon. The River Erne, along with other Donegal waterways, has been dammed to produce hydroelectric power. The River Foyle separates part of County Donegal from parts of both County Londonderry and County Tyrone

An extensive rail network used to exist through out the county and was mainly operated by the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee and the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company. The Great Northern Railway (Ireland) L.t.d. also ran a line through the Laggan Valley in the east of the county, along the River Foyle into Derry. Even though the railways in Donegal are fondly remembered, the network was completely closed by 1960. Today, the closest railway station to the county is Waterside Station in the City of Derry, which is operated by Northern Ireland Railways (N.I.R.). County Donegal is served by both Donegal Airport, located at Carrickfinn in The Rosses in the west of the county, and by City of Derry Airport, located at Eglinton to the east. The nearest main international airport to the county is Belfast International Airport (popularly known as Aldergrove Airport), which is located to the east at Aldergrove, near Antrim Town, in County Antrim, around fifty-seven miles from Derry City and around seventy-five miles from Letterkenny.

County Donegal can be divided up into a number of traditional districts. In the west there is The Rosses (Irish: Na Rosa), centered on the town of Dungloe (Irish: An Clochán Liath), and Gweedore (Irish: Gaoth Dobhair). Both of these are formally Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) areas, although little or no Irish is spoken in Dungloe. In the county's north-west is Cloghaneely (Irish: Cloich Chionnaola), centered on the town of Falcarragh (Irish: An Fál Carrach), also in the Gaeltacht. Inishowen, Fanad and Rosguill are three peninsulas in the north of the county. Inishowen (centered on the town of Buncrana) is one of Ireland's largest peninsulas. In the east of the county is located both the Laggan Valley (this Laggan Valley is usually spelled with two g's in order to distinguish it from the more famous Lagan Valley in the south of County Antrim. Donegal's Laggan is centered on the town of Raphoe) and the Finn Valley (centered on Ballybofey), districts with very fertile land.

Culture and heritage

The variant of the Irish language spoken in Donegal is distinctive, and shares traits with Scottish Gaelic. The Irish spoken in the Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) is of the West Ulster dialect, while Inishowen, which became English-speaking only in the early 20th century, used the East Ulster dialect. Ulster Scots is still widely spoken in the Laggan Valley and Finn Valley of East Donegal. Donegal Irish has a strong influence on learnt Irish across Ulster.

Like other areas on the western seaboard of Ireland, Donegal has a distinctive fiddle tradition which is of world renown. Donegal is also well known for its songs which have, like the instrumental music, a distinctive sound. Donegal musical artists such as the bands Clannad and Altan and solo artist Enya, all from Gaoth Dobhair, have had international success with traditional or traditional flavoured music. Donegal music has also influenced people not originally from the county including folk and pop singer Paul Brady. Popular music is also common, the county's most famous rock artist being the Ballyshannon born Rory Gallagher, Kilcar based indie band The Revs also had some good success in the Irish charts. A well known fiddler from Donegal is P.V. O'Donnell. He currently lives in Manchester, CT, USA.

Donegal has a long literary tradition in both Irish and English. The famous Irish Navvy-turned novelist Patrick MacGill, author of many books about the experiences of Irish migrant itinerant labourers in Britain at around the turn of the 20th century, such as The Rat Pit and the autobiographical Children of the Dead End, is from the Glenties area. There is a literary summer school in Glenties named in his honour. The novelist Peadar O'Donnell hails from The Rosses in west Donegal.

Modern exponents include the Inishowen playwright and poet Frank McGuinness and the playwright Brian Friel. Many of Friel's plays are set in the fictional Donegal town of Ballybeg.

Authors in Donegal have been creating works, like the Annals of the Four Masters, in Gaelic and Latin since the Early Middle Ages. In modern Irish Donegal has produced famous, and sometimes controversial, authors such as the brothers Séamus Ó Grianna and Seosamh Mac Grianna from The Rosses and the contemporary (and controversial) Irish-language poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh from Gortahork in Cloghaneely, and where he is known to locals as Gúrú na gCnoc ("the Guru of the Hills").

Although the vast majority of its population is Roman Catholic, County Donegal also has a large Protestant minority. The county's Protestant community was founded during the Plantation of Ulster in the early seventeenth-century. A large percentage of the county's Protestants are Presbyterians. Many County Donegal Protestants are members of the Orange Order, a religious and social society. The vast majority of the county's Protestants live in the Laggan Valley and Finn Valley of East Donegal. There is also a large Protestant population in Donegal Town in the south of the county.

Donegal has also contributed to culture elsewhere. One Donegal native, Francis Alison, was one of the founders of the College of Philadelphia, which would later become the University of Pennsylvania.Rev Francis Makemie from Rathmullan founded the Presbyterian Church in America.


Donegal County Council (which has officially been in existence since 1899) has responsibility for local administration, running alongside Town Councils in Letterkenny, Bundoran, Ballyshannon and Buncrana. Both the County Council and Town Councils have elections every five years (alongside local elections nationally, and elections to the European Parliament), the last of which took place on the 11 June 2004. Twenty nine councillors are elected using the system of Proportional Representation, across five electoral areas (Inishowen, Letterkenny, Donegal, Stranorlar, Glenties and Milford). Donegal County Council's main offices are located in the County House in Lifford, but regional offices are located in Carndonagh, Milford, Letterkenny, Dungloe and Donegal.

For general (national) elections, the county is divided into two constituencies, Donegal South West and Donegal North East, with both having three representatives in Dáil Éireann. For elections to the European Parliament, the county is part of the Ireland North-West constituency (formerly Connacht-Ulster).


Gaelic football and Hurling

The Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.) sport of Gaelic football is very popular in Donegal. Hurling is not such a big sport in the North-West of Ireland. Donegal's inter-county football team have won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship title once (in 1992). In 2007 Donegal won only their second national title by winning the National Football League. The county senior hurling team has never managed a title. There are 16 senior G.A.A. Clubs in county Donegal, with many others playing at a lower level.

Rugby Union

There are several Rugby Union teams in the county. These include Ulster Qualifying League Two side Letterkenny RFC, whose ground is named after Dave Gallaher, the captain of the 1905 New Zealand All Blacks touring team, who have since become known as The Originals. He was born in nearby Ramelton. Ulster Qualifying League Three sides include Ballyshannon RFC, Donegal Town RFC and Inishowen RFC.


Finn Harps play in the Football League of Ireland and won promotion to the Premier League in 2007 following a 6-3 aggregate win in the playoff final. They are now back alongside their arch-rivals Derry City F.C. with whom they contest the North-West Derby. No other Donegal teams have achieved the status of Finn Harps, but teams abound across the county.


Cricket is also played in County Donegal. This sport is chiefly confined to the Laggan Valley and Finn Valley in the east of the county. The town of Raphoe and the nearby village of St. Johnston, both in the Laggan Valley, are the traditional strongholds of cricket within the county. The game is mainly played and followed by members of County Donegal's Protestant community.

Other sports

Donegal's rugged landscape lends itself to active sports like climbing, hillwalking, surfing and kite-flying. Many people travel to Donegal for the superb golf links—long sandy beaches and extensive dune systems are a feature of the county, and many links courses have been developed.

Rock climbing is of very high quality and still under-developed in the county. The complete Donegal climbing guidebook is available at the Colmcille Climbers website. There is a wealth of good quality climbs in the county from granite rocks in the south to quartzite and dolerite in the north; from long mountain routes in the Poisoned Glen to boulder challenges of excellent quality in the west and in the Inishowen Peninsula.

Surfing on Donegal's Atlantic coast is considered to be as good as any in Ireland and up there in the world ratings. The old Victorian seaside resort of Bundoran, located in the very south of the county, has been 'reborn' as the centre of surfing in County Donegal. Indeed, Bundoran is now the main surfing 'resort' in Ulster.


With its sandy beaches, unspoilt boglands and friendly communities, Co.Donegal is a favoured destination for many travellers, Irish (especially Northern Irish) and foreign alike. One of the county treasures is Glenveagh National Park (formerly part of the Glenveagh Estate), as yet (February 2008) the only official national park anywhere in the Province of Ulster. The park is a 140 km² nature reserve with spectacular scenery of mountains, raised boglands, lakes and woodlands. At its heart is Glenveagh Castle, a beautiful late Victorian 'folly' that was originally built as a summer residence.

The Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking district) also attracts young people to County Donegal each year during the school summer holidays. The three week long summer Gaeltacht courses give young Irish people from other parts of the country a chance to learn the Irish language and traditional Irish cultural traditions that are still prevalent in parts of Donegal. The Donegal Gaeltacht has traditionally been a very popular destination each summer for young people from Northern Ireland.

Scuba Diving is also very popular with a club being located in Donegal Town.

Towns and Villages in County Donegal

Notable residents and natives

Flora and Fauna

Seaweed: Morton, O. 2003. The marine macroalgae of County Donegal, Ireland. Bull. Ir. Soc. No. 27: 3–164.

Mammals: Fairley, J.S. 1975. An Irish Beast Book. Blackstaff Press, Belfast. SBN 85640 090 4.

See also

Further reading

  • Sean Beattie (2004). Donegal. Sutton: Printing Press. ISBN 0-7509-3825-0.(Ireland in Old Photographs series)
  • Morton, O. 2003. The marine macroalgae of County Donegal, Ireland. Bull. Ir. biogeog.soc. 27: 3–164.
  • Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Annála Ríoghachta Éireann) by the Four Masters, from the earliest period to the year 1616, compiled during the period 1632–36 by Brother Michael O’Clery, translated and edited by John O'Donovan in 1856, and re-published in 1998 by De Burca, Dublin.
  • Parks, H.M. 1958. A general survey of the marine algae of Mulroy Bay, Co. Donegal. Ir. Nat. J. 12: 277–83.
  • Parks, H.M. 1958. A general survey of the marine algae of Mulroy Bay, Co. Donegal: II Ir. Nat. J. 12: 324–30.
  • Brian Lalor (General Editor), The Encyclopaedia of Ireland. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 2003.
  • Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (Paperback Edition). Blackstaff Press, Belfast 2005.
  • Willie Nolan, Máiread Dunleavy and Liam Ronayne (Ed.'s), Donegal: History & Society. Geography Publications, Dublin 1995.
  • Alistair Rowan, The Buildings of Ireland: North-West Ulster (Pevsner Guides). Yale University Press, London 1979.
  • Jim MacLaughlin (Editor), Donegal: The Making of a Northern County. Four Courts Press, Dublin 2007.
  • John McCavitt, The Flight of the Earls. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 2005.


External links

Commemorative Biographical of the Counties of Wayne and Holmes, Ohio 1889

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