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Ireland Gazeteer

County Donegal 1837

History and Antiquities

The southern part of Donegal, down to the plantation of Ulster, was known as Tyrconnell. and was the patrimony of the O'Donnells, whose chief tributaries were the O'Boyles in Boylagh and the Rosses; the Mac Swines (Mac Suibhne) in Bannagh, Rossguill, and Fanad: and the O'Doghertys in Inishowen.

Prior to the fifteenth century, Inishowen had been in the possession of the Mac Loughlins, a family of the Kinel Owen or O'Neills.

The most distinguished of the chieftains of Tyrconnell was Hugh O'Donnell, surnamed the Red, whose entrapment by Sir John Perrot, and subsequent imprisonment at Dublin as a hostage for the good conduct of his clan, caused much hostility against the government of Queen Elizabeth in this part of Ulster.

O'Donnell, after more than three years' confinement, escaped, and with much risk made his way through the English pale and reached Dungannon, the residence of the disaffected earl of Tyrone. Here, it is supposed, the plan of the great rebellion, commencing with the attack on the fort of the Blackwater, was originally formed.

From Dungannon he proceeded to Ballyshannon, the residence of his father, who immediately resigned the chieftainship into his hands. A council of the tribe was then held on Barnesmore mountain, the result of which was a sanguinary irruption into Connaught, which they wasted as far as Galway and Limerick.

O'Donnell next turned his arms to the assistance of Tyrone, who had risen in rebellion, and was present at the battle of the Blackwater. His confederates, Maguire and O'Rourke, soon after obtained an equally signal victory over Sir Conyers Clifford, the governor of Connaught, whom they met in a pass of the Carlow mountains on his way to lay siege to Belleek.

O'Donnell next invaded Thomond, which he laid waste; but he soon after returned to oppose Sir Henry Dockwra, governor of Loch Foyle, who had seized on his castle of Donegal in his absence, and had set up his cousin Neal Gary O'Donnell, who was in the queen's interest, as chieftain in his place. But the Spanish troops who had been sent by Philip II to the assistance of the rebels, having landed at Kinsale in the mean time (23rd of September, 1601), he was obliged to raise the siege of Donegal and march into Munster.

Here having formed a junction with Tyrone (23rd of December), they attempted the relief of Kinsale, in which the Spanish auxiliaries were besieged by the lord deputy, but owing, it is said, to a dispute about precedence, their armies did not act in concert, and a total defeat was the consequence.

O'Donnell then sailed for Spain, to solicit in person new succours from Philip. After spending a year and a half in fruitless negotiation, he was seized with fever and died at Valladolid, where he was interred with royal honours in the church of St. Francis.

On the death of Hugh, Neal Gary having proved refractory, his cousin Rory O'Donnell was promoted to the chieftainship, and afterwards to the earldom of Tyrconnell, which produced an ineffectual rebellion on the part of Neal and his allies the Mac Swines; but on the 7th of May, 1607, a letter accusing Rory of having entered into a conspiracy with Tyrone, Maguire, O'Cahan, and other Irish lords, was dropped in the council-chamber at Dublin Castle, in consequence of which it was judged expedient for him to accompany the flight of his alleged associates, who immediately went beyond seas.

In the mean time a town had been walled in at Derry by Sir Henry Dockwra, who had also built a castle at Lifford for the control of Tyrconnell.

The vicinity of an English garrison proved so unsatisfactory to the proprietor of Inishowen, Sir Cahir O'Dogherty, that on some vague assurances of aid from Spain, communicated by the exiled earls, he broke into open revolt May 1st, 1608, and having surprised Culmore and put the garrison to the sword, advanced on Derry next day, which he carried with little resistance and burned to the ground.

He then fell back on Kilmacrenan, and took up a strong position on the rock of Doune, where he held out for five months until he was killed by a Scotch settler, who shot him as he leaned over the edge of the rock. O'Dogherty being thus slain in rebellion and the exiled earls attainted of high treason, Donegal, along with five other counties of Ulster, escheated to the crown.

On the plantation, the district about Lifford was allotted to English undertakers, of whom the chief were Sir Ralph Bingley and Sir John Kingsmill; the whole of Boylagh and Bannagh was allotted to John Murray, Esq., and his sub-patentees; the district of Portlough to Scottish undertakers, of whom the chief were Sir John Stewart and Sir James Cunningham; the district of Kilmacrenan to servitors and natives, of whom the chief were Sir William Stewart, Sir John Kingsmill, Sir George Marburie, Captain Henry Hart, Sir Mulmory Mac Swine, Mac Swine Banagh, Mac Swine Fanad, and Tirlagh Roe O'Boyle. In Inishowen Muff was granted to the Grocers' Hall. Letterkenny owes its origin to Sir George Marburie, and Rathmelton to Sir William Stewart.

At the time of the plantation the old Irish were in a very uncivilized state: in many of the precincts those who were permitted to remain, still practised their barbarous method of ploughing by the tail at the time of Pynnar's survey.

During the wars that succeeded the rebellion of 1641, the British of the district along the Foyle, called the Laggan forces, did excellent service in this and the adjoining counties.

There were some few forfeitures among the proprietors of Irish descent at the time of the Act of Settlement. The forfeitures consequent on the war of the revolution of 1688 did not extend into Donegal.

The last historical event connected with this county was the capture of the French fleet off Tory Island by Sir John B. Warren in 1798.

The most remarkable piece of antiquity in Donegal is the Grianan of Aileach, the palace of the northern Irish kings from the most remote antiquity down to the twelfth century. It stands on a small mountain 802 feet in height, near the head of Loch Swilly.

The summit of the mountain, which commands a noble prospect, is surrounded by three concentric ramparts of earth intermixed with uncemented stones. The approach by an ancient paved road leads through these by a hollow way to a dun or stone fortress in the centre.

This part of the work consists of a circular wall of Cyclopean architecture varying in breadth from 15 feet to 11 feet 6 inches, and at present about 6 feet high, enclosing an area of 77 feet 6 inches in diameter. The thickness of this wall is diminished at about 6 feet from the base by a terrace extending round the interior, from which there are flights of steps somewhat similar to those at Steague Fort, another remarkable Cyclopean erection in the county of Kerry.

There was probably a succession of several such terraces before the upper part of the wall was demolished. Within the thickness of this wall, opening off the interior, are two galleries, 2 feet 2 inches wide at bottom and 1 foot 11 inches at top by 5 feet in height, which extend round one-half of the circumference on each side of the entrance doorway, with which however they do not communicate: their use has not been determined.

The remains of a small oblong building of more recent date but of uncertain origin, occupy the centre. The space contained within the outer enclosure is about 5 acres, within the second, about 4; within the third, about 1; and within the central building, or cashel, . The stones of the wall are generally of about 2 feet in length, polygonal, not laid in courses, nor chiselled, and without cement of any kind.

The description is thus minute, as, from an ancient Irish poem published in the first part of the 'Memoir of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland,' and which bears conclusive internal evidence of having been written before A. D. 1101, the building of Aileach ('the stone fortress') is attributed, with every appearance of accuracy, to Eochy Ollahir, whose reign is one of the very earliest historical epochs in Irish history.

In this poem are preserved the names of the architects, the number of the ramparts, and the occasion of the undertaking. Until the publication of the Memoir, the uses and history of this remarkable edifice were totally unknown.

It was reduced to its present state of ruin A. D. 1101, by Murtagh O'Brien, king of Munster, who, in revenge of the destruction of Kincora by Donnell Mac Loughlin, king of Ulster, A.D. 1088, invaded this district and caused a stone of the demolished fortress of Aileach to be brought to Limerick for every sack of plunder carried home by his soldiery. This event was remembered as late as 1599, when the plunder of Thomond by Hugh O'Donnell was looked on as a just retaliation.

On Tory Island also are some Cyclopean remains, not improbably connected with the very ancient tradition of the glass tower mentioned by Nennius. Tory signifies the island of the tower.

On the same island are also a round tower and the remains of seven churches and two stone crosses.

Throughout the county are numerous memorials of St. Columba, or as he is more usually known in Ireland, St. Columbkille.

This distinguished saint, the apostle of the Picts and founder of the church of lona, was born at Gartan, a small village south of Kilmacrenan, where he founded an abbey which was afterwards richly endowed by the O'Donnells.

Near Kilmacrenan is the rock of Doune, on which the O'Donnell was always inaugurated.

The remains of the abbey of Donegal still possess interest for the antiquarian, and on the north of Glen Veagh are some very ancient remains of churches.

But by much the most celebrated ecclesiastical locality in this county is the Purgatory of St. Patrick, situated on an island in Loch Derg. The ancient purgatory was in high repute during the middle ages: the penitent was supposed to pass through ordeals and undergo temptations similar to those ascribed to the Egyptian mysteries. (See O'Sullivan, Hist. Cathol. Hib.) In Rymer's ‘Foedera,' are extant several safe conducts granted by the kings of England to foreigners desirous of visiting Loch Dora; during the fourteenth century.

On Patrick's day, 1497, the cave and buildings on the island were demolished by order of Pope Alexander VI, but were soon after repaired: they were again razed by Sir James Balfour and Sir William Stewart, who were commissioned for that purpose by the Irish government A.D. 1632.

At this time the establishment consisted of an abbot and forty friars, and the daily resort of pilgrims averaged four hundred and fifty. The cave was again opened in the time of James II, and again closed in 1780.

At present the Purgatory, which has been a fourth time set up, but on an island at a greater distance from the shore than the two former, draws an immense concourse of the lower orders of Roman Catholics from all parts of Ireland, and many from Great Britain and America every year.

The establishment consists, during the time of the station from the 1st of June to the 15th of August, of twenty-four priests: the pilgrims remain there six or nine days; the penances consist of prayer, maceration, fasting, and a vigil of twenty-four hours in a sort of vault called the 'prison.' The fees are 1 shilling 4 pence each, of which 6 pence is paid for the ferry.

During the time the pilgrims remain on the island they are not permitted to eat anything but oaten bread and water. Water warmed in a large boiler on the island is given to those who are faint: this hot water is called 'wine,' and is supposed to possess many virtues. One of the pilgrims whom Mr. Inglis saw here, had her lips covered with blisters from the heat of the 'wine' she had drank.

The number of pilgrims is variously estimated from 10,000 to 13,000 and 19,000 annually, and is at present on the increase. A station was advertised here in the year 1830 by a Roman Catholic bishop.

For the state of education in this county, see Raphoe, with which diocese the county of Donegal is nearly coextensive.

The only newspaper published in this county is the Ballyshannon Herald ; number of stamps used in 1835, 7,185.

The county expenses are defrayed by Grand Jury presentments, the amount of direct taxation averages about £24,000 per annum.

Assizes are held twice a year at Lifford, where there is a county gaol: there are bridewells at Donegal and Letterkenny.

The district lunatic asylum is at Londonderry. The share of the expense of erecting this establishment, which falls on Donegal, is £9,055, 10 shillings, 1 penny.