Donegal Castle

Donegal Castle

Donegal Castle is the headquarters of Donegal County Council and home to a substantial exhibition about the castle, its origins, architecture, archaeology and history. Visitors to Donegal are welcome with advance bookings, tours are conducted by guide and visitors can take part in the castle’s audio-visual tour. Visitors may also avail of a guided tour on foot or by rolling roadshow, both departing from outside the castle’s grounds.

The 13th-century walls enclose 500 acres (2 km²) of gardens and woodlands surrounding two lakes – Lough Melvin in front of Donegal Castle with Lough Eske beyond it on a fine day when seen from the balcony on level 2A. The castle was the subject of a £1.95m restoration programme, which has allowed it to be reopened to the public as the centrepiece of a heritage centre, attracting over 160,000 visitors per annum.

In 1602 when Hugh O’Donnell defeated the English garrison at Kinsale, one of his first acts was to return to Donegal and reclaim his title of The O’Donnell. He marched into Donegal bearing the keys of Kinsale and declared himself once more The O’Donnell. As a direct result of Hugh’s actions, Donegal Castle was never again held by an English soldier and remained in Irish hands until it passed into the hands of King George II through marriage in 1719.

The earliest known reference to Donegal Castle dates from 1537 when Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex complained that the castle was in the hands of Domnal O’Donnell. He had taken the castle from an English garrison only a month earlier and refused to give it back without compensation. The English commander’s report on this is unclear but it appears that Domnal himself left Donegal for safekeeping during a period of intense fighting. The Donegal men had been driven out by a Gaelic group who then turned on one another. There was intense fighting at Ardcarne, not far from the castle, in 1537.

It is not until 1585 the castle is again mentioned, when it appears to be in good condition and inhabited. This was a time when Gaelic families were struggling with one another for regional supremacy and Donegal was no exception. Yet despite several battles between different factions, most of them were fought outside the walls of the castle -it must have felt like a safe haven to those inside its strong walls. The O Donnells did not live in the castle at this time and it seems to have been used as a communal fortress that could be defended by anyone who held it.

By the early 17th century Donegal Castle was in the possession of Sir Art MacDermott, who was a friend and ally to Hugh Roe O’Donnell and Red Hugh O’Donnell. They were two of Ireland’s most famous O’Donnells – Hugh the Yellow Earl and his son, Red Hugh. Both men lived in Donegal Castle which would have made it one of the most important strategical points in Ireland at that time. Sir Art MacDermott pledged himself to support Red Hugh when he met with James I at Mellifont Abbey in 1602 as he had done with his father before him. James I, who was a huge supporter of the MacDertiches, gave Hugh an official pardon on 24 June 1603. When Hugh was killed in an ambush outside Dungannon in 1608, Red Hugh inherited the title of Earl of Tyrconnell and kept his father’s position as overall leader of Donegal until his death in 1616.

There are many stories about the building of Donegal Castle. One tells us that it was built by Prince Domnall O’Donnell (Domnall Rua) who died in 1201 and whose remains supposedly lie beneath the castle. Another legend claims that it was built by Roderick O’Conor between 1251 and 1268. It is widely accepted that the first castle was built by Hugh Roe O’Donnell in the early 16th century.

In 1601 Hugh O’Donnell defeated the English garrison at Kinsale, one of his first actions was to return to Donegal and reclaim his title of The O’Donnell. He marched into Donegal bearing the keys of Kinsale and declared himself once more The O’Donnell. As a direct result of Hugh’s actions, Donegal Castle was never again held by an English soldier and remained in Irish hands until it passed into the hands of King George II through marriage in 1719.

In 1602 when Hugh O’Donnell defeated the English garrison at Kinsale, one of his first acts was to return to Donegal and reclaim his title of The O’Donnell. He marched into Donegal bearing the keys of Kinsale and declared himself once more The O’Donnell. As a direct result of Hugh’s actions, Donegal Castle was never again held by an English soldier and remained in Irish hands until it passed into the hands of King George II through marriage in 1719.

Donegal Castle was visited by Oliver Cromwell in 1650 after which a map was made for him showing the castle as being small but defensible – ‘fitt to defend itself.’ The castle was badly damaged in 1662 during the Battle of the Boyne, during which there was much damage and loss of life.

The original structure only included the inner bailey. In 1633 Hugh O’Donnell began building a new limestone curtain wall around it together with an impressive winged bawn tower on the north-east side. This has since been demolished but there are still remnants of it to be seen that were built into the new bawn wall and also some stones in Donegal Jail that were taken from this tower.

In 1635, Donegal then led by Sir Art O’Melaghlin, was attacked and captured by Royal forces. There is much said about the brave lady of the Castle, Aylett O’Donnell who cursed Oliver Cromwell that he would never return from Ireland alive. She is said to have foreseen his death and to have been right all along since he died on his way back from Ireland, perhaps as a result of the curse, in 1658. It is also possible that it was because of this curse that he marched through Derry on his way to lay siege to Donegal Castle.

By 1650, Donegal Castle had been repaired and remodelled to a design similar to that of Londonderry Castle. In 1683 the bawn was partially demolished and remodelled again and a new entrance gate had to be built as the old one no longer matched the new bawn wall. From map evidence it has been calculated that by 1700 the castle would have looked like Londonderry but significantly smaller.

In 1719, Donegal passed into the ownership of King George II through marriage. In 1727, it was inherited by the Duke of Bedford and sold to an Ulsterman in 1741. The castle fell into a state of disrepair and was offered for sale in 1787 following the death of its owner.

The only masonry still standing is that at the very top and part of the base of the walls with some windows that can also be seen on the north wall but this has fallen down over time. It was necessary to step over a large gap in one portion of wall as it has collapsed forward into a garden below. The drawbridge was not in its original position with one of the crutch type bridges now fitted.

The castle has a large walled garden that covers an area of . This was built in the 19th century as a Victorian walled garden and holds around 2,000 plants and shrubs. There is also an 18th-century gate lodge, keeper’s cottage, stables and barns. It is stated by some sources that there is an underground passage connecting the Castle to Donegal Town but this has never been proven. The gardens are open to the public and are an attraction in their own right.

The Castle is still a family home and is not open to the public but there is a huge range of events held at the venue. These include flower shows, concerts, exhibitions and theatre productions.

References

“The Castles of County Donegal” by Michael McDonagh published 2007 by The O’Brien Press
Castle Ward on visitdonegal.com
https://www.donegalcountycouncil.com

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Amy Green

Hi, my name is Amy and I am a UK based teacher and blogger. I spent most of my childhood summers exploring castles of England and Wales, and most of my adulthood teaching humanities in Secondary schools. I love visiting and learning about Norman and Medieval Castles.

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