In the centre of Donegal Town in County Donegal in Ulster, Ireland lies a beautiful, restored beauty known as Donegal Castle. It is commonly known as the largest and strongest fortress in all of Ireland and throughout time, people have grown to love it. It truly is one of the finest Gaelic castles in all of Ireland.
The history of Donegal Castle
Until the year 1607, Donegal Castle was a seat of formidable power and now, it is a lovely, historical tourist attraction. It went from being a gorgeous castle to a magnificent ruin, and now it is a restored beauty. However, while it now stands mighty and tall, it had to go through a long and somewhat treacherous history to become this way.
Let’s take a look into the history of Donegal Castle and all it went through to become what it is today.
The early history
Situated in the heart of Donegal Town and towering over the lovely River Eske, Donegal Castle is a fine example of an earlier Gaelic Castle. It was built in the year 1474 by the wealthy clan chief, Red Hugh O’Donnell, who intended for it to be his personal fortress. At the same time, he and his wife, Nuala, built a Franciscan monastery further along the river.
There are some old legends saying that there was a tunnel connecting the two buildings. However, no evidence for this has ever been found. In the year 1566, in a letter to William Cecil (created the 1st Baron Burghley in 1571), the Lord High Treasurer described Donegal Castle as “the largest and strongest fortress in all Ireland”.
He also went on to say “it is the greatest I ever saw in an Irishman’s hands: and would appear to be in good keeping; one of the fairest situated in good soil and so nigh a portable water a boat of ten tonnes could come within ten yards of it”
The O’Donnell Clan
After the Nine Years’ War, in 1607, the leaders of the O’Donnell Clan, in the Flight of the Earls, decided to leave Ireland. A few years later, in 1611, during the Plantation of Ulster, the castle (including the lands), were given to Basil Brooke, an English Captain. However, when the O’Donnell Clan departed, Red Hugh O’Donnell set the castle on fire.
It is said that he did this to ensure it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the English. The fire ravaged the castle and left it severely damaged, however, it wasn’t beyond repair.
The Brooke Family
Basil Brooke then went forth and added windows, a gable, and even a large manor-house wing to the keep. It was all done in a Jacobean Style. The Brooke family made many repairs and changes throughout their time at the castle. However, in the 1670s, they moved to Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh.
The Brooke family then sold the castle at that time to the Gore dynasty who later on became Earls of Arran in the Peerage of Ireland. However, under the care of the Gores, in the very early 18th century, the castle fell into a ruinous state. Then, in the year 1898, the then owner, the 5th Earl of Arran, vested the castle in the care of The Office of Public Works.
The Office of Public Works
Once handed over to the Office of Public Works, the castle finally got what it deserved. In the early 1990s, the castle began its restoration. The tower house had new roofing and flooring done and this was all done in accordance with the original styles of the castle. The stonework was also restored, and the manor wing was partially roofed.
Parts of the exterior of the tower house were also harled.
The current day
These days, the castle is open to the public and readily invites people to enjoy all it has to offer. It even hosts events such as Gaelic cultural evenings or Ulster-Scots events. These events usually attract many people who can’t get enough of this gorgeous castle. It truly is a sight to see and something you most definitely don’t want to miss.
You may enjoy reading about other castles such as Kilmartin Castle.
Donegal Castle Timeline
- 1474- Donegal Castle is built by the wealthy clan chief, Red Hugh O’Donnell, who intended for it to be his personal fortress
- 1566- The Lord High Treasurer describes Donegal Castle as “the largest and strongest fortress in all Ireland”
- 1601- The leaders of the O’Donnell Clan, in the Flight of the Earls, decide to leave Ireland
- 1611- During the Plantation of Ulster, the castle (including the lands), are given to Basil Brooke, an English Captain
- The 1670s- The Brooke family move to Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh and sell the castle to the Gore dynasty
- Early 18th century- The castle falls into a ruinous state
- 1898- The then owner, the 5th Earl of Arran, puts the castle in the care of The Office of Public Works
- Early 1990s- The castle begins its restoration
Donegal Castle facts
- Donegal Castle is commonly known as the largest and strongest fortress in all of Ireland
- The castle was set on fire by Red Hugh O’Donnell because he didn’t want the English to get their hands on it
- Under the care of Basil Brooke, the castle underwent restoration to add windows, a gable, and even a large manor-house wing to the keep
- Under the care of the Gores, the castle fell into complete ruin
- The castle very often holds Gaelic cultural evenings or Ulster-Scots events
- In 2016, the castle was visited by The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall, during their official visit to County Donegal
Books on Donegal Castle
- Red Hugh: Prince of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly (1997)
Who owns Donegal Castle?
In the year 1898, the 5th Earl of Arran donated the castle to the Office of Public Works. To this day, it remains in their care. During their ownership, the castle has undergone a lot of restoration including a new roof and flooring in some areas as well as new stonework. It has been restored in the original style by the Office of Public Works.
Donegal Castle is right in the heart of Donegal Town. You can enter for €5.00 for adults, €4.00 for seniors and groups, €3.00 for children and students, and €13.00 for families. You should allow around an hour to visit as it is packed full of history and interesting interiors. Nearby, you can also visit the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre or take a ride on the Donegal Bay Waterbus.