powered by FreeFind
Ireland Gazeteer
County Donegal on 1837

Surface and Hydrography.

Donegal forms the north-western extremity of Ireland. The inland boundary preserves a general direction of south-west by north-east, and from Lifford northward is formed by the navigable river and harbour of Loch Foyle.

The maritime boundary is extremely irregular, being deeply indented on the north by the estuaries of Loch Swilly, Mulroy, and Sheephaven, and on the south by Donegal bay.

The whole county is uneven and mountainous, with the exception of the midland district extending from the liberties of Londonderry westward to Letterkenny and Rathmelton, on Loch Swilly, and southward along the Foyle to Lifford and Castle Finn; and some other inconsiderable tracts around Ballyshannon and Donegal on the south, and Dunfanaghy and Buncrana on the north.

The mountain groups of Donegal together with the highlands of Tyrone and Derry present a deeply withdrawn amphitheatre to the north-east, enclosing the basin of the Foyle.

That portion of the mountainous circuit which lies within this county is broken only in the north by the openings of Loch Swilly and Mulroy Bay; and on the south (where the connecting highlands of Donegal and Tyrone are narrowed between the valley of the Finn and the Bay of Donegal) by the gap of Barnesmore. Slieve Snaght, which rises to a height of 2,019 feet in the centre of the peninsula of Inishowen, forms the extremity of this chain on the north.

Westward from Slieve Snaght and similarly situated in the centre of the peninsula of Fanad between Loch Swilly and Mulroy Bay, is Knockalla (1,196 feet); backed in like manner by Loch Salt mountain (1,541 feet), between the head of Mulroy Bay and the low country stretching inland from Sheep Haven.

Westward again from the Sheep Haven is Muckish, 2,190 feet in height, which slopes down on the north to the promontory of Horn Head; and Carntreena, (1,396 feet), which extends to the sea at Bloody Foreland.

Southward from Muckish stretches a vast region of highlands, which expands towards the west in wide extended tracts of bog, interspersed with small lakes and covered with black heaths down to the sandy beach of the Atlantic: on the east it presents a series of bold continuous eminences overhanging the basin of the Foyle.

The chief eminences of the chain are Erigal and Dooish on the north, the first 2,462 feet in height (the highest ground in the county), the second 2,143 feet; and Bluestack and Silver-hill on the south, 2,213 and 1,967 feet respectively.

From Bluestack extends a series of considerable elevations westward, along the northern boundary of the bay of Donegal, which terminate in the precipices of Slieve League, and the promontory of Malin Beg; the Barnesmore mountains sweeping eastward continue the chain into Tyrone.

This mountainous tract covers upwards of 700 square miles, or more than twice the area of the county of Carlo. It contains several spots of great interest to the tourist; such as Loch Salt, the prospect from which over Horn Head and Tory Island has been justly celebrated, and Glen Veagh, under the eastern declivity of Dooish, where cliffs of 1,000 feet hang for upwards of two miles over a glen and lake; the opposite bank being clothed with a natural forest which is still the retreat of the red deer.

From the liberties of Londonderry northward, the coast of Loch Foyle between the mountains of Inishowen and the sea, is well inhabited and improved.

Muff, close to the county boundary, and Moville, near the mouth of the Loch, are much frequented, the latter especially by the citizens of Derry during the bathing season.

From Inishowen Head at the entrance of Loch Foyle, the coast, which from this point is very rocky and precipitous, bends north-west to Malin Head, the most northern point of this county and of Ireland.

The cliffs at Inishowen Head are 313 feet in height: at Bin Head, about half-way between Culdaff and Malin, they rise to the altitude of 814 feet above the sea. On the Loch Swilly side of the peninsula the coast is low, and in many places covered with sand, which the north-westerly gales heap up in immense quantities on all the exposed beaches of this coast.

Loch Swilly extends inland upwards of twenty miles, and forms a spacious and secure harbour: the average breadth is about one mile and a half, and the inner basin is completely land-locked; but the vicinity of Loch Foyle, which floats vessels of 900 tons up to the bridge of Derry, renders Loch Swilly of less importance as a harbour.

On the river Swilly, a little above its entrance into the Loch, stands Letterkenny, a thriving town, which supplies most of the country to the westward with articles of import. Rathmelton, and Rathmullen are situated on the western shore of the Loch, the latter nearly opposite Buncrana, and all in the midst of well improved vicinities.

The rise of spring tides opposite Buncrana is 18 feet. Westward from Loch Swilly, the coast of Fanad, which is peninsulated by the Bay of Mulroy, is very rugged, and in many parts overspread with sand blown in between the higher points of rock.

The Bay of Mulroy is encumbered with sandbanks and intricate windings: it extends inland upwards of ten miles, and is completely land-locked, being scarcely half a quarter of a mile wide at the entrance.

The small peninsula of Rosguill intercepted between this bay and Sheep Haven, has been almost obliterated by the sands which have been blown in here within the last century. Rosapenna-house, built by Lord Boyne, on the neck of the isthmus, with all its demesne, gardens, and offices, has been buried to such a depth, that the chimneys of the mansion-house some years since were all that was visible.

On the opposite shore of Sheep Haven stand Doe Castle, and the house and demesne of Ardes, the most remote, and at the same time the most splendid seat in this quarter of Ulster.

On a creek of Sheep Haven is the little port-town of Dunfanaghy, immediately under Horn Head, which rises north of it to the height of 833 feet, with a cliff to the ocean of 626 feet.

On the western side of Horn Head is a perforation of the rock, known as Mc Swine's Gun: when the wind sets in from the north-west, the sea is driven into this cavern with such violence as to rise through an opening of the rock above in lofty jets, with a report which, it is said, may be heard at a distance of many miles.

In the sound between Horn Head and Bloody Foreland are the islands of Innisboffin, Innishdoony, and Tory Island, which last is at a distance of eight miles from the shore.

Tory Island is three miles and a half in length, by half a mile to three quarters in breadth, and is inhabited by perhaps the most primitive race of people in the United Kingdom.

In 1821 the island contained 59 houses and 296 inhabitants, few of whom had ever been on the main land.

It is stated by the only tourist who has given an account of his travels through this remote district, that seven or eight of the inhabitants of Tory having been driven by stress of weather into Ardes Bay about the year 1825, 'Mr. Stewart of Ardes, gave these poor people shelter in a large barn, and supplied them with plenty of food and fresh straw to lie on;—not one of these people was ever in Ireland before; the trees of Ardes actually astonished them —they were seen putting leaves and small branches in their pockets to show on their return. Mr. Stewart had the good nature to procure a piper for their amusement, and all the time the wind was contrary those harmless people continued dancing, singing, eating, and sleeping—a picture of savage life in every age and clime.' (Sketches in Ireland by the Rev. Caesar Otway, p. 13.)

The average elevation of the western part of the island is no more than from 50 to 60 feet above the level of the sea, and the want of shelter is felt very severely in those north-westerly gales which set in with such violence on this coast.

In the summer of 1826, it is said, a gale from this quarter drove the sea in immense waves over the whole flat part of the island, destroying the corn and washing the potatoes out of the furrows.

From Bloody Foreland south to Malin Beg Head, a distance of 40 miles in a straight line, nothing can be more desolate than the aspect of the western coast of Donegal.

Vast moors studded with pools of bog water descend to the Atlantic between barren deltas of sand, through which each river and rivulet of the coast winds its way to the sea.

In winter when these sandy channels are overflowed, it is impossible to proceed by the coast line, as there are no bridges over any of the larger streams north of the village of Glanties.

The wildest part of this district is called the Rosses, in which the village of Dunglo or Cloghanlea containing, in 1821, 253 inhabitants, is the principal place.

A great number of islands lie off this coast separated from the main land, and from one another by narrow sounds and sand-banks.

Of these, eleven are inhabited; of which the principal are Aranmore, or the north Island of Aran, containing in 1821, 132 houses, and 788 inhabitants; Rutland or Innismacdurn, containing 29 houses, and 173 inhabitants; Innisfree, containing 25 houses, and 171 inhabitants; and Owney, containing 12 houses and 76 inhabitants. The cause of so dense a population in this desolate country is the success of the herring fishing here in 1784 and 1785, when each winter's fishing was calculated to have produced to the inhabitants of the Rosses a sum of £40,000, who loaded with herrings upwards of 300 vessels in each of these years.

These successes induced the government, in conjunction with the Marquis of Conyngham the proprietor, to expend, it is said, £50,000 in the improvements necessary to erect a permanent fishing station on the island of Innismacdurn.

A small town was built and called Rutland, but it was scarcely completed when the herrings began to desert the coast; at the same time the sands began to blow, and have since continued to accumulate to such a degree that at present the island is nearly half covered, and the fishing station quite obliterated.

Below high-water mark on the coast of Innisfree, grows a marine grass peculiarly sweet and nutritive for cattle, which watch the ebb of the tide and feed upon it at every low water.

The district of the Rosses is separated from the more reclaimed country about Glanties and Ardara, on the south by the river Gweebarra, the sandy channel of which is from a mile and a half to a quarter of a mile in breadth throughout the last eight miles of its course, and can only be passed by fording in dry weather.

On the whole line of coast from Bloody Foreland to Malin Beg Head there is but one gentleman's seat: this is at Ardara, a village at the head of Loughrosmore Bay, from which there is a pretty good communication over the heights that stretch from Bluestack to Malin Beg, with Killybeggs and Donegal. Westward from Ardara, the coast again becomes precipitous, being lined with cliffs from 500 to 600 feet in height on the northern side of the great promontory terminated by Malin Beg Head.

The loftiest cliffs, however, on the whole line of coast are those of Slieve League immediately east of Malin Beg, where the height from the sea to the summit of the shelving rock above is at one point 1,964 feet.

Eastward from Slieve League to the town of Donegal, the northern shore of Donegal Bay affords excellent shelter from the north-west gales in the successive creeks of Teelin Bay, Fintragh Bay, Killybeggs Bay, Mc Swine's Bay, and Inver Bay.

Of these the harbour of Killybeggs is by much the most sheltered and commodious, being the only one secure from a gale from the west or south-west.

The harbour of Donegal itself at the head of the bay is sufficiently good for a much more trading place; and ten miles south from it is the embouchure of the navigable river Erne, which flows from Loch Erne through Ballyshannon.

Four miles from Ballyshannon on the coast, at the junction of the counties of Donegal and Leitrim, is Bundoran, a fashionable watering-place, much frequented by the gentry of the neighbouring counties.

Round the head of Donegal Bay from Killybeggs to Bundoran, cultivation extends more or less up all the seaward declivities: the neighbourhood of Ballyshannon is well improved; and north-east from the town of Donegal a good tract of arable land stretches inland to the picturesque lake of Loch Eask, and the Gap of Barnesmore, where a mountain defile about seven miles in length connects it with the south-western extremity of the district of the Foyle at Ballybofey and Stranorlar, two thriving villages on the Finn.

The Finn, which is the chief feeder of the Foyle on this side, issues from a lake 438 feet above the level of the sea, situated in the centre of the mountain chain extending south from Erigal, and after a course of about thirty miles eastward, joins the Foyle at Lifford bridge, eight miles below Castlefinn, where it is navigable for boats of 14 tons.

Other feeders of the Foyle, out of Donegal, are the Derg, which comes from Loch Derg in the south-east extremity of the county of Donegal and joins the main stream in Tyrone; the Deele, which has a course nearly parallel to the Finn, and descends upwards of 800 feet in its course from Loch Deele to the Foyle, which it joins a mile below Lifford; and the Swilly burn or brook, which passes by Raphoe, and is navigable for a few miles above its junction.

Loch Derg is about 2 miles wide each way, and surrounded on all sides except the south by steep and barren mountains: it is 467 feet above the level of the sea, and its greatest depth is 75 feet. This lake is subject to violent gusts of wind. It abounds in excellent trout.

The Swilly river, although it has a course of little more than fifteen miles, brings down a good body of water through Letterkenny to Loch Swilly. The Leannan river, which likewise flows into Loch Swilly by Rathmelton, is a considerable stream, as is also the Lackagh, which discharges the waters of the lakes of Gartan, Loch Veagh, Loch Salt, and Glen Loch into Sheep Haven.

The waters of Loch Salt, which is perhaps the deepest pool in Ireland, descend 731 feet in a course of little more than three miles to Glen Loch.

Of the rivers of the western coast the chief is the Gweebarra already mentioned: of a similar character is the Gweedore, which separates the Rosses on the north from the district of Cloghanealy.

The Owenea, which flows through Ardara, is the only other considerable river on this coast; the minor streams issuing from small lakes, and the torrents which descend from the moors in winter, are almost innumerable.The general direction of all the valleys which intersect the highlands of Donegal is north-east and south-west, and this natural disposition marks out the three chief lines of mountain road; viz., from Ballyshannon and Donegal to Lifford and Londonderry, through the gap of Barnesmore; from Ardara to Lifford and Letterkenny, by the head of the Finn; and from Dunfanaghy and the cultivated country about Sheep Haven into the Rosses, by the passes between Dooish and Erigal.

These latter roads are little frequented, so that west of Enniskillen the gap of Barnesmore is the only ordinary communication between Connaught and Ulster. The district along the Foyle and round the head of Loch Swilly is as well supplied with means of communication by land and water as any other part of Ireland. Throughout the county the roads are good.

The climate of Donegal is raw and boisterous, except in the sheltered country along the Foyle. The prevalent winds are from the west and north-west, and the violence with which they blow may be estimated from the effects of the storm of December 4, 1811, in which His Majesty's ship Salhander was lost in Loch Swilly.

The maws and gills of all the fish cast on shore—eels, cod, haddock, lobsters, &c.—were filled with sand; from which it would appear, that by the furious agitation of the sea, the sand became so blended with it, that the fish were suffocated. Eels are fished in fifteen fathoms, and cod in twenty to thirty; hence making allowance for their approach nearer shore before the storm, we may judge of the depth to which the agitation of the water descended: the ordinary depth in a gale of wind is seven feet below the surface, and in a heavy storm twelve to fourteen feet. (Geological Transactions, iii. c. 13.)

 From the remains of natural forests in many situations where no timber will at present rise against the north-west blast, it has been inferred that the climate is now more severe than it formerly was, a conjecture which would seem to be corroborated by numerous ruins of churches and houses, overwhelmed by sand blown in on situations where, had such events been common at the time of their foundation, no one would have ventured on building.

The deposit of sand at the bottom of the sea is daily increased by the detritus of loose primitive rock brought down by every river of the coast; so that with each succeeding storm a greater quantity may be expected to be blown in, until the whole coast becomes one sandy desert, unless the danger be obviated by timely plantations of bent grass and the extirpation of those multitudes of rabbits whose burrows now extend, in many places, for several miles along the shore, and prevent the natural grasses from binding down the loose matter.