The Province of Ulster region
County Donegal (Dhún na nGall) is a county in North West Ireland. It is part of the Border Region and is also located in the province of Ulster.
In terms of size and area, it is the largest county in Ulster and the fourth largest county in all of Ireland. Uniquely, County Donegal shares a border with only one other county in the Republic of Ireland – County Leitrim. The greater part of its land border is shared with three counties of Northern Ireland: County Londonderry, County Tyrone and County Fermanagh. This geographic ‘isolation’ from the rest of the Republic has led to Donegal people maintaining a distinct cultural identity and has been used to market the county with the slogan Up here it’s different. While Lifford is the County Town, Letterkenny is by far the largest town in the county. Letterkenny and the nearby city of Derry form the main economic axis of the north-west of Ireland.
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 (often known as ‘the 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 (2,457 ft) the highest peak. The Slieve League cliffs are the sixth-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 warm, 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 counties Londonderry and Tyrone.
At various times in its history, it has been known as County Tirconaill, County Tirconnell or County Tyrconnell (Irish: Contae Thír Chonaill). The former was used as its official name during 1922–1927. This is in reference to both the old túath of Tír Chonaill and the earldom that succeeded it. County Donegal is famous for being the home of the once mighty Clann Dálaigh, whose most famous branch were the Clann Ó Domhnaill, better known in English as the O’Donnell Clan. Until around 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 Clann 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 13th-century through to the start of the 17th-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. The county was one of those ‘planted’ during the Plantation of Ulster from around 1610 onwards.
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, chiefly through the Port of Derry. Huge numbers of the county’s people who emigrated were to settle in Glasgow in southern Scotland.
The Partition of Ireland in the early 1920s was to have a massive direct impact on County Donegal. Partition cut the county off, economically and administratively, from Derry, which had acted for centuries as the county’s main port, transport hub and financial centre. Derry, together with West Tyrone, was henceforward in a new, different jurisdiction officially called Northern Ireland. Partition also meant that County Donegal was now almost entirely cut off from the rest of the jurisdiction it now found itself in, the new dominion called the Irish Free State. This dominion became fully independent in April 1949 when it left the Commonwealth and became the Republic of Ireland. Only a few miles of the county is physically connected by land to the rest of the Republic. The existence of this border, cutting Donegal off from her natural hinterlands in Derry City and West Tyrone, has greatly exacerbated the economic difficulties of the county since partition. The county’s economy is particularly susceptible, just like that of Derry City, to the currency fluctuations of the Euro against Sterling.
Added to all this, in the late 20th-century, County Donegal was, by the standards of the rest of the Republic of Ireland, to be adversely affected by The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The county was to suffer several bombings and at least two assassinations. In June 1987, Constable Samuel McClean, a Donegal man who was a serving member of the R.U.C., was shot dead by the I.R.A. at his family home near Drumkeen. In May 1991, the prominent Sinn Féin politician Councillor Eddie Fullerton was assassinated by the U.D.A. at his home in Buncrana. This added further to the economic and social difficulties of the county. However, the Good Friday Agreement (G.F.A.) of April 1998 has been of great benefit to the county.
It has been labelled the ‘forgotten county’ by its own politicians, owing to the increasing regularity with which it is ignored by the Irish Government, even in times of crisis.
Road signs in Irish in the Gaoth Dobhair Gaeltacht.
Much of the county is seen as being a bastion of Gaelic culture and the Irish language, the county holding the second-largest Gaeltacht area in the country with a population of 24,504. 16% of the county’s population lives in the Gaeltacht. Gweedore is the largest Irish-speaking parish with over 4,000 inhabitants. All schools in the region use Irish as the language of instruction. One of the N.U.I.G.’s constituent colleges, Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge, is based in Gweedore. The version of the Irish language spoken in County Donegal is Ulster Irish.
The variant of the Irish language spoken in Donegal shares many traits with Scottish Gaelic. The Irish spoken in the Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area) is of the Ulster dialect, while Inishowen (parts of which only became English-speaking in the early 20th century) used the East Ulster dialect. Ulster Scots is often spoken in both the Finn Valley and The Laggan district 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 acclaimed rock artist being the Ballyshannon-born Rory Gallagher.
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 19th to 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 and socialist politician Peadar O’Donnell hailed from The Rosses in west Donegal. The poet William Allingham was also from Ballyshannon. 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. The Irish philosopher John Toland was born in Inishowen in 1670. He was thought of as the original freethinker by George Berkeley. Toland was also instrumental in the spread of freemasonry throughout Continental Europe. 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 Cloughaneely, and where he is known to locals as Gúrú na gCnoc (‘the Guru of the Hills’).
Although approximately 85% of its population is Catholic, County Donegal also has a sizeable Protestant minority. Most Donegal Protestants would trace their ancestors to settlers who arrived during the Plantation of Ulster in the early 17th-century. The Church of Ireland is the largest Protestant denomination but is closely rivalled by a large number of Presbyterians. The areas of Donegal with the highest percentage of Protestants are The Laggan area of East Donegal around Raphoe, the Finn Valley and areas around Ramelton, Milford and Dunfanaghy – where their proportion reaches up to 30–45 percent. There is also a large Protestant population between Donegal Town and Ballyshannon in the south of the county. In absolute terms, Letterkenny has the largest number of Protestants (over 1000) and is the most Presbyterian town (among those settlements with more than 3000 people) in the Republic of Ireland. Some County Donegal Protestants (mainly those concentrated in The Laggan and the Donegal Town/Ballintra areas) are members of the Orange Order, a controversial religious and social society.
The Earagail Arts Festival is held within the county each July. It is considered to be one of the best arts festivals in Ireland, North or South. It is certainly one of the main arts festivals within Ulster.
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. The Rev. Francis Makemie (originally from Ramelton) founded the Presbyterian Church in America. The Rev. David Steele, from Upper Creevaugh, was a prominent Reformed Presbyterian, or Covenanter, minister who emigrated to the United States in 1824. He maintained a strict testimony for the Covenanted Reformation until his death, in Philadelphia, in 1887.