Donegal, Ireland (County) - Encyclopedia

GEOGRAPHICAL NAMES Spanish Simplified Chinese French German Russian Hindi Arabic Portuguese

DONEGAL, a county in the extreme north-west of Ireland, in the province of Ulster, bounded N. and W. by the Atlantic Ocean, E. by Lough Foyle and the counties Londonderry and Tyrone, and S. by Donegal Bay and the counties Fermanagh and Leitrim. The area is 1,197,153 acres, or about 1871 sq. m., the county being the largest in Ireland after Cork and Mayo. This portion of the country possesses little natural wealth; its physical characteristics are against easy communications, and although its northern coast affords one or two good natural harbours, there is no commercial inducement to take advantage of them. The fine scenery and other natural attractions of Donegal thus remained practically unknown until late in the ,9th century, but an effort was then made by Lord George Hill to introduce wealth from without into the county, and to develop its resources in this, almost the only possible direction. The county possesses a large extent of sea-coast indented by numerous inlets. Ballyshannon harbour, the most southern of these, is small, and has a bar at its mouth, as has Donegal harbour farther north. Killybegs harbour is well sheltered, and capable of receiving large vessels. These, with Bruckles or M'Swiney's Bay, and Teelin harbour, suitable for small vessels, are arms of the fine inlet of Donegal Bay. The western shore is beautified by the indentations of Loughros Beg, Gweebarra, Trawenagh and Inishfree Bays. On the north is Sheephaven, within which is Dunfanaghy Bay, where the largest ships may lie in safety, as they may also in Mulroy Bay and Lough Swilly farther east. Lough Foyle, which divides Donegal from Londonderry, is a noble sheet of water, but is shallow and in part dry at ebb tide, contracted at its entrance, and encumbered with shoals. A few miles west of Malin Head, the most northerly point of the mainland of Ireland, the varied and extensive Lough Swilly runs far into the interior. From these two loughs much land has been reclaimed. Numerous islands and rocks stud the coast. The largest island is North Aran, about 15 m. in circumference, with a lofty hill in its centre, and a gradual declivity down to the sea. On the northern coast are Tory Island, and, farther east, Inishtrahull, the ultima Thule of Ireland. The inhabitants of these islands obtain a precarious livelihood by fishing, kelp-burning and rude husbandry, but are often reduced to extreme destitution.

Mountains and irregular groups of highlands occupy the whole interior of the county, and a considerable portion is bog and moorland. Errigal mountain in the north-west attains an elevation of 2466 ft. and commands from its summit a fine view over a considerable portion of the country. In its vicinity, the Derryveagh mountains reach 2240 ft. in Slieve Snaght; Muckish is 2197 ft.; in the south Bluestack reaches 2 219 ft.; and in the Innishowen peninsula between Loughs Swilly and Foyle, another Slieve Snaght is 2019 ft. in elevation. At the western extremity of the north coast of Donegal Bay stands Slieve League, whose western flank consists of a mighty cliff, descending almost sheer to the Atlantic, exhibiting beautiful variegated colouring, and reaching an extreme height of 1972 ft. From these details it will appear that the scenery of the highlands and the sea-coast often attain a character of savage and romantic grandeur; whereas the eastern and southern portions are generally less elevated and more fertile, but still possess considerable beauty. A considerable portion of the surface, however, is occupied by bogs, and entirely destitute of timber.

With the exception of the tidal river Foyle, which forms the boundary between this county and Tyrone and. Londonderry, the rivers, though numerous, are of small size. The branches of the Foyle which rise in Donegal are the Derg, issuing from Lough Derg, and the Finn, rising in the beautiful little lake of the same name in the highlands, and passing through some of the best cultivated land in the county. The Foyle, augmented by their contributions, and by those of several other branches from the counties Tyrone and Londonderry, proceeds northward, discharging its waters into the southern extremity of Lough Foyle, at the city of Londonderry. It is navigable for vessels of large burden to this place, and thence by lighters of fifty tons as far as Lifford. Boats of fourteen tons can proceed up the Finn river as far as Castlefinn. The fine river Erne flows from Lough Erne through the southern extremity of the county into the southern extremity of Donegal Bay. Its navigation is prevented by a fall of 12 ft., generally called the Salmon Leap, in the neighbourhood of Ballyshannon, and by rapids between Ballyshannon and Belleek, on the confines of Co. Fermanagh. The Gweebarra, the Owenea, and the Eask are the only other streams of any note. Lakes are very numerous in Donegal. The most remarkable, and also the largest, is Lough Derg, comprising within its waters several islets, on one. of which, Station Island, is the cave named St Patrick's Purgatory, a celebrated place of resort for pilgrims and devotees. The circumference of the lake is about 9 m., and the extent of the island to which the pilgrims are ferried over is less than 1 acre. The landscape round Lough Derg is desolate and sombre in the extreme, barren moors and heathy hills surrounding it on all sides. Salmon, sea-trout and brown trout afford sport in most of the rivers and loughs, and Glenties for the Owenea river, and Gweedore for the Clady, in the west; Killybegs for the Eanymore and Eask, in the south; and Rathmelton and Rosapenna for the Owencarrow and Leannan, in the north, may be mentioned as centres. Ballyshannon and Bundoran, in the extreme south, are centres for the Erne and other waters outside the county.

Table of contents


The dominant feature in the geology of this county is the north-east and south-west strike forced upon the older rocks during earth-movements that set in at the close of Silurian times. The granite that forms characteristically the core of the folds is probably of the same age as that of Leinster, or may possibly represent older igneous masses, brought into a general parallelism during the main epoch of stress. The oldest recognizable series of rocks is the Dalradian, and its quartzites form the white summits of Muckish, Errigal and Aghla. The intruding granite, which predominates in the north-west, has frequently united with the metamorphic series to form composite gneiss. In the southern mass near Pettigo, once regarded as Archaean and fundamental, residual "eyes" of the hornblendic rocks that are associated with the Dalradian series remain floating, as it were, in the gneiss. North of this, the country is wilder, consisting largely of mica-schist, through which a grand mass of unfoliated granite rises at Barnesmore. The course of the Gweebarra, or Glen Beagh, of the Glendowan mountains, and the Aghla ridge, have all been determined by the general strike imparted to the country. At Donegal Bay the Lower Carboniferous sandstone and limestone come in as a synclinal, and the limestone extends to Bundoran. Small Carboniferous outliers on the summits of the great cliff of Slieve League show the former extension of these strata. Bog iron-ore is raised as a gas-purifier; and talc-schist has been worked for steatite at Crohy Head. In most .parts of the west the patches of glacial drift form the only agricultural land. The fine-grained sandstone of Mount Charles near Donegal is a wellknown building stone, and the granites of the north-west have attracted much attention.


The modes of agriculture present little that is peculiar to the county, and the spade still supplies the place of the plcugh where the rocky nature of the surface prevents the application of the latter implement. The soil of the greater portion of the county, i.e. the granite, quartz and mica slate districts, is thin and cold, while that on the carboniferous limestone is warm and friable. Owing to the boggy nature of the soil, agriculture has not made much progress, although in certain districts (Gweedore, for instance) much land has been brought under cultivation through the enterprise of the proprietors. Roughly speaking, however, about 45% of the land is waste, 35% pasture and 15% tillage. Wheat and barley are quite an inconsiderable crop, and in this as well as in other respects Donegal is much behind the rest of Ulster in the extent of its crops. It bears, however, a more favourable comparison as regards its live stock, as cattle, sheep and poultry are extensively kept.

In Donegal, as in other counties of Ulster, the linen manufacture affords employment to a number of inhabitants, especially at Raphoe, while the manufacture of excellent homespun, woollen stockings and worked muslin is carried on pretty extensively. The trade in these manufactures and in the domestic produce of the county finds its principal outlets through the port of Londonderry and the inland town of Strabane, Co. Tyrone. The deep-sea fisheries are important, and are centred at Killybegs,. Gweedore and Rathmullen. The salmon fishery is also prosecuted to a considerable extent, the principal seats of the trade being at Ballyshannon and Letterkenny.

The railway system includes the County Donegal railway from Londonderry south-west to Donegal town and Killybegs, with branches to Glenties, a village near the west coast, and to Ballyshannon; and the Londonderry and Lough Swilly, serving Letterkenny, and continuing to Burtonport with a branch north to Buncrana, a watering-place on Lough Swilly, and Cardonagh in the Innishowen peninsula. From Letterkenny the line continues to Dunfanaghy on the north coast, thence to Gweedore and Burtonport.

Population and Administration

The population (185,635 in 1891; 173,722 in 1901) decreases less seriously than in most Irish counties, though the proportion of emigrants is large. About 78% of the population is Roman Catholic, and almost the whole is rural. The native Erse naturally dies out slowly in this remote county, and the Donegal dialect is said to be the purest in the Irish language. The towns are small in extent and importance. Lifford (pop. 446), the county town, is practically a suburb of Strabane, in the neighbouring Co. Tyrone. Ballyshannon (2359) on the river Erne, Letterkenny (2370) at the head of Lough Swilly, and Donegal (1214) at the head of the bay of that name, are the other principal towns. The principal watering-places are Moville on Lough Foyle, Buncrana and Rathmelton on Lough Swilly; while, following the coast from north to south, Rosapenna, Dunfanaghy, Gweedore, Dungloe and Ardara, with Bundoran in the extreme south, are seaside villages frequently visited. Resorts deserving mention for the attractive scenery for which they are centres, are - Ardara, on the Owenea river, where the cliffs of the neighbouring coast are particularly fine; Carrick, Malin Head, the beautiful land-locked bay of Mulroy, Narin on Boylagh Bay, Portsalon on Lough Swilly, and Stranorlar, a small market town near the fine mountain pass of Barnesmore.

Donegal contains seven baronies and fifty parishes. Assizes are held at Lifford, and quarter sessions at Ballyshannon, Buncrana, Donegal, Cardonagh, Glenties, Letterkenny and Lifford. The county is in the Protestant dioceses of Clogher and Derry,.

and the Roman Catholic dioceses of Raphoe, Clogher and Derry. The county returned twelve members to the Irish parliament; after the Union it returned two; but it is now divided into north, east, south and west divisions, each returning one member.

History and Antiquities

The greater part of Donegal was anciently called Tyrconnell or the country of Conall; and it was sometimes called O'Donnell's country, after the head chieftains of the district. This district was formed into the county of Donegal in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in 1585, by the lord-deputy Sir John Perrott. The most noteworthy architectural remains of antiquity in the county are to be found at the head of Lough Swilly, where, situated on the summit of a hill 802 ft. high, some remarkable remains exist of a fortress or palace of the northern Irish kings. These are known as the Grianan of Aileach, and evidently date from a period prior to the 12th century. On Tory Island there are one of the best specimens of a round tower and some other interesting remains. Numerous ruins of ancient castles along the coast prove that much attention was formerly paid to the defence of the country from invasion. The principal are - Kilbarron Castle, an ancient stronghold of the O'Clerys, near Ballyshannon; Donegal Castle, built by the O'Donnells, anciently their chief residence, and now a fine ruin standing close to the water's edge; Burt Castle, built in the reign of Henry VIII. on the shores of Lough Swilly by Sir Cahir O'Dogherty, to whom is also attributed the erection of Green Castle, one of the strongholds of the clan on Lough Foyle. Near the Castle of Doe, or M'Swiney's Castle, at Horn Head, is a natural perforation in the roof of a cave, called M'Swiney's Gun, formed by the workings of the ocean into the overhanging cliff. When the wind blows due north, and the tide is at half flood, the gun is seen to spout up jets of water to a height of loo ft., attended with explosions heard occasionally in favourable weather at an immense distance. Gulmore Fort, on the coast of Lough Swilly, supposed to have been erected by the O'Doghertys, having come into the possession of the crown, was granted in 1609 to the corporation of London. It was afterwards enlarged or rebuilt, and acted a prominent part in the celebrated siege of Derry. Traces of religious houses, some existing only in traditionary or documental records, are also numerous. The ruins of that of Donegal, founded in 1474, afford proofs of its ancient grandeur. At Raphoe, 5 m. N.W. of Lifford, is the cathedral of a former diocese united to that of Derry in 1835.

Custom Search

Encyclopedia Alphabetically

A * B * C * D * E * F * G * H * I * J * K * L * M * N * O * P * Q * R * S * T * U * V * W * X * Y * Z

Advertise Here


- Please bookmark this page (add it to your favorites)
- If you wish to link to this page, you can do so by referring to the URL address below.

This page was last modified 29-SEP-18
Copyright © 2018 ITA all rights reserved.