Excursion to Donegal – 2011


The Rabble Children

The County Kildare Archaeological Society undertook a 3 day tour to Donegal on 9, 10 and 11 June 2011. The tour leader was Hugh Crawford, Vice President of the Society, who being a native of Donegal, researched and in consultation with Colonel Declan O’Carroll, President of the Donegal Historical Society drew up a schedule and made arrangements for visits to a number of leading historical, archaeological and heritage sites.  The theme of the visit was based firstly on the great Irish saint, Colmcille who through his mother had close links to the kings of Leinster and had himself ministered in Co. Kildare; secondly, on the O’Donnells of Donegal together with the Flight of the Earls and thirdly on the Plantation of Ulster.

En-route to Donegal a commentary was provided on the coach by both Con Manning and Hugh Crawford with regard to the various monuments, castles, landscapes and historical sites including the Battle of the Boyne, Monasterboice, Kavanagh country and the towns of Aughnacloy and Omagh and the beautiful Mourne River as it wound northwards through the valley to join with the River Finn at Strabane to form the River Foyle.  The remnants of the   former Great Northern Railway line that once served the market towns of Omagh, Newtownsteward, Sion Mills, Strabane and Derry can be seen.  This railway provided a very important infrastructural link to connect Donegal to the rest of the Republic of Ireland, but, sadly the line was closed in the 1960s by the Northern Ireland administration of that time for reasons other than economic.

Close to Strabane the coach passed through the quaint village of Sion Mills and the Society members were taken by the Architecture some of which has been allowed to fall into disrepair.  The village has a history of mills powered by the Mourne River which flows nearby and in particular the flax mills set up in the early 19th century.  The village is famous for Cricket and it was here that the Irish team famously beat the West Indians in 1969.  On leaving Strabane, near the site of the once famous Camel’s Hump and Railway complex, the sculpture affectionately known as the “tinnies” came in to view. This metal sculpture of five figures, musicians and dancers depicts reconciliation between the two Irish traditions and is called “Let the Dance Begin”.  On the outskirts of Letterkenny the Society members were overwhelmed with the Art work at the roundabouts.  First at the Dry Arch is the piece known as “The Workers” which is a stone arch with men depicted lifting a heavy stone.  The design is by Maurice Harron to commemorate the workers who built the original bridge and train track at the Dry Arch.  A little further on at the Port Bridge roundabout is the striking “Polestar” monument which is the creation of Locky Morris.  This has the outline of a boat together with a railway track, constructed of wooden poles and steel supports and commemorates the towns past development by means of ships rail and road transport.

The Radisson Blu Hotel in Letterkenny was to be the base for the stay in Donegal.  The Society members were welcomed by Claire Harkin, Reservations Manager, who took wonderful care of the group for the duration of their stay.  Following refreshments the party set off to Gartan the birth place of St. Colmcille.  At the Heritage Centre Martin Egan with the assistance of the display at the Centre gave a detailed account of St. Colmcille’s life from his birth in 521 in Gartan to his death in Iona in 597.

The birth of Colmcille is very much part of Donegal folklore and beyond so the party proceeded to the site of the flagstone on which his mother Eithne finally delivered him following a long and difficult labour.  It is said that this flagstone has the power of curing loneliness and homesickness and many people visit this site for that purpose.   Prior to moving to the flagstone Eithne lay down on a secret spot and some blood fell from her which was covered by one of the kinsmen and so the story of Gartan Clay begins.  Eithne told the kinsman that it was not necessary to hide the spot as only he and his descendents (the O’Friel/Friel clan) would ever find the spot again.  To this day only a member of this family can collect this clay.  Gartan Clay is known worldwide for its spiritual powers and if carried is believed to keep one safe from burning, drowning, accidents, sudden death and many other difficulties of life.  Following on from the birthplace the party proceeded to the site of Colmcille’s chapel built in his honour in the 16 century by Manus O’Donnell, Colmcille’s Well which is said to have many cures including eye problems, a Stone Cross dating back to 6/7 century, the site of an Abbey and the grave of the O’Donnell, the chieftains of Donegal.  After this very enjoyable visit to Gartan where the sun shone brightly to highlight the outstanding natural beauty of the area and where the party was enriched with the heritage, culture and folklore of Gartan thanks again to our guide Martin Egan, it was time to adjourn to the Radisson for sustenance and rest.

However, some of the party had sufficient energy to take in some of the sites in Letterkenny itself and took time to view the magnificent Cathedral, which overlooks the town and was designed by William Hague and dedicated to Saints Eunan and Columba (Colmcille). The foundation stone of the Cathedral was ironically laid in the same year as the County Kildare Archaeological Society was founded.  The Cathedral is built in the late Gothic style architecture with the distinguished Mountcharles sandstone.  Saint Eunan, also known as Adamnan was a relative of Colmcille’s and was also an Abbot of Iona where he died in 704.  He wrote the ‘Vita Columbani’ – the Life of Colmcille some years after his death and was also the author of the Law of the Innocents, a document appealing for women and children to be spared the excesses of violence under war conditions. Anne O’Byrne, during her walkabout captured this lovely photograph of art in the Market Square called the “Rabble Children”. This was designed by Maurice Harron and depicts the Hiring Fairs held in Letterkenny in May and November where children as young as 11 years were hired for periods of 6 months to rich farmers from the good farming areas to carryout various farm tasks.

Day 2 of the Donegal trip began with a visit to Glenveagh Castle where the party was welcomed at the Visitor Centre by Rosaleen Nelis and viewed an Audio Visual on the creation of the Estate.   Then, by way of the Centre’s transport, to the Castle passing along the lovely Lough Veagh with magnificent views of the glen followed by a guided tour of the Castle and a visit to the superbly created gardens.  The Glenveagh Estate was created shortly after the Famine in 1857-9 by George Adair a native of Ballybrittis in Co. Laois who had earlier made a fortune in the USA.  Adair purchased a number of land parcels for the purpose of creating a hunting estate but got off to a bad start when he evicted some 240 tenants on a cold April day in 1861in order to do so.  Many of these were forced to emigrate; others ended up in the workhouses in the area or died on the roadside.  In any event he constructed the Castle, which is a castellated mansion between 1870-3 based on a design by his cousin John Townsend Trench with rough-hewn granite having battlements ramparts, turrets and round tower overlooking the lake.  Adair died in 1885 and was succeeded by his American born wife who was more fondly remembered for her kindness and who lived much longer until 1921. She was responsible for the building of the memorial cross at the birthplace of Colmcille.  The layout of the gardens, which contain many exotic plants, was begun by Mrs. Adair and completed by a later owner Henry McIlhenny.  The visit to Glenveagh ended with a beautiful gourmet lunch provided in the Visitor Centre Restaurant by Michelle Hunter.

En-route to Rathmullen the coach passed through the town of Milford which is known in Irish as Baile Na nGalloglach translated as the town of the gallowglass.  During various times in the 13, 14 and 15 centuries the Ulster Chieftains including the local O’Donnells recruited professional fighting men from Scotland to assist them in the various battles among themselves and with English forces.  The current town of Milford owes it origins to the Clement family of Co. Kildare the major landlords in the area in the 18th and 19th Century.   The family member most remembered was William Sydney Clements or the 3rd Earl of Leitrim or Lord Leitrim as he was known in the area.   He did not enjoy good relations with his tenants locally either Protestant or Catholic or with their clergy or with the Government of the day.  He was regarded by most as ‘evil at its worst’ for the way he behaved and carried out evictions.  Eventually, he paid the ultimate price when he was assassinated near Milford in April 1878.


Con Manning & Hugh Crawford with Aine Ni Dhuibhne


In Rathmullan the Society members were met and welcomed by local historian Aine Ni Dhuibhne who gave a comprehensive history of the area and its rich heritage and folklore and its direct connection with Lough Swilly and its maritime history.   Evidence from the archaeological findings in the nearby Kinnegar in 1914 suggests that people may have lived in Rathmullan as far back as the Mesolithic period.  Monastic life has existed from the 6th century with St. Garvan who gave his name to the Parish.  Red Hugh O’Donnell was captured in Rathmullan under a plan by the English Lord Deputy while he was visiting the MacSweeney clan at Rathmullan Castle in 1587 for the purpose of keeping the O’Donnells under control.  No visible trace of this castle now exists.  After the defeat at Kinsale, came the Flight of the Earls including Red Hugh’s successor, Hugh O’Neill and Maguire and some of their families.  In addition Aine spoke of the fortification of Lough Swilly by the Government to prevent invasion and the building of the Battery and Blockhouse in 1813.  This is not to forget the arrest and the taking ashore of Wolfe Tone shortly before his death in Dublin. The group made their way to the ivy-clad former Carmelite Priory founded in 1516 which has so many features in need of preservation.  All present felt that some arm of government needs to take charge of the building and make arrangement to carryout urgent conservation works immediately before the structure collapses.  The President of the Society, Con Manning thanked Aine for her wonderful presentation and tour of Rathmullan.  Finally Aine brought the group to Rathmullan’s most intriguing antiquity – a decorated stone on which a horned cruciform figure is depicted.  This stone lay on the nearby shore for many years until erected on a safe grassy bank.  There are various suggestions as to its origin but it could have been part of a larger Christian or even pre-Christian monument.  Before leaving Rathmullen a presentation was made to Aine by the Society for her wonderful contribution to the Society’s visit to the area.

En-route to Ramelton the view gave evidence as to why the shore line of Lough Swilly is renowned for its outstanding natural beauty. Many points of note were pointed out by Hugh Crawford starting with Portnamurry Bay where the Earls and their party, 99 in all, departed from, then Ray Bridge and the Saltpans, Aughnish Island, Brownknowe School and the location for the song “The Maid of the Sweet Brownknowe” and then the village of Ramelton itself and the bridge built in 1794 over the River Lennon famous for its rich salmon fishery.  Upstream of the bridge there is the remains of a Tannery and Spinning Bleaching Mills of Ramelton’s once linen industry.   The group was then welcomed by local historian Mary Haggen who proceeded to give an in-depth history of Ramelton pointing out that there is archaeological evidence to indicate that the place was inhabited, like Rathmullan, as far back as the Mesolithic period.  Mary told the group that the lands bordering the River Lennon from Lough Gartan to Ramelton were the original homeland of the O’Donnell clan.  This was also Colmcille’s homeland and from here the O’Donnell’s grew into the ruling family in Donegal and became very rich due to export of fish, mainly salmon.

Following the defeat at Kinsale and the subsequent Flight of the Earls, the Plantation of Ulster got underway.  William Stewart of Galoway in Scotland was granted 1,000 acres by James 1 for military services rendered in Ireland, but, it was established later that this figure was substantially more.   Stewart built the town as it is known today between 1619 and 1622.  Mary pointed out the Old Tullyaughnish Church which was a Reformation Church built in 1620, the window and the fragment of carved stone above the window were brought from the medieval church on Aughnish Island.  The Reformation Church was used continuously until the building of the Church of Ireland in 1824.  The nearby Presbyterian Church built in 1907 in a late gothic revival style reflects the architecture of Belfast.  Also nearby is the Robertson School with its 3 gothic windows built in 1842 for primary education in the English language. As the town continued to grow in the 18th century many industries were developed including the extraction of chemicals from seaweed and one of these products was displayed at the Great Exhibition of London in 1850.  The tour continued on to the Quay area and the party observed the Town Hall built in 1878, a former creamery, the entrance to the Cholera Hospital and the skeletal remains of a boat in the sea mud.  This was a schooner built on the Clyde which traded from Ramelton Quay across the Atlantic and to Europe. The Quay itself was built in the latter half of the 19th century and unfortunately some of the stones were taken from a number of megalithic monuments.  Alongside there are a number of warehouses, many in decline, one of which belonged to the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company. The railway promoters wished to extend the line from Letterkenny to Ramelton, but, due to the lack of support from the business people of the town, who having already spent considerable sums on the development of the town, felt that a railway venture would not be advantageous.  However, the opposite happened and the trade shifted to Letterkenny putting Ramelton into decline

Leaving the quayside the group came into the Market Square or Corn market where flax and grain was traded and here Mary outlined the remains of a wall of the O’Donnell Castle.  It was from here that the Tánaiste  or second in command of the O’Donnell operated from.  Just beside this are ancient stone steps leading to a hall known as the Guildhall in which the Grand Jury of Donegal, predecessor of Donegal County Council, held their meetings.  Proceding to the older part of the town the group came to a little bridge over a mill race, then the 17th century Corn Mill together with the Millers House.  Further on there are some 18th century houses and the Methodist Chapel built in 1810 but sadly in poor condition.  Next came the Old Presbyterian Meeting House constructed in the early 18th century which incorporated an earlier structure which Mary described as the centre of Ramelton’s historic buildings.   An archaeological survey carried out in 1988 unearthed coins dating to the 1690s.  During renovation works in the early 19th century use was made of the mast of the salvaged Portuguese-built warship Saldhana which sank during a storm at the entrance to Lough Swilly in 1811.  The Old Meeting House is now used as a Community Library and thanks to the local Librarian the group were allowed to view the building and its remaining artefacts.  For the record, Mary Haggen gave an account of the type of worship practiced by its members on the Sabbath outlining that it commenced with at least 2 hours before lunch and continued for up to 4 hours in the afternoon – no fun or game here!!.   Seeing that the group were in a meeting house Hugh Crawford formally thanked Mary for her wonderful informative tour of Ramelton and the President, Con Manning, made a presentation on behalf of the Society in appreciation of all her efforts.  Before departing Ramelton for the Hotel, Mary pointed out a significant building (currently being used as a Cafe) as being one of the original town houses dating back to 1619 and evidence of this was gained from a green oak purloin during recent renovation.


Declan O’Carroll, Mary Haggen & KAS Officer


Back at the Hotel following some rest and refreshments, the Society hosted a wine reception for the travelling party and guests, Colonel Declan O’Carroll, and his wife Eleanor and Mary Haggen.  Hugh Crawford, Vice President and leader of the Donegal trip, welcomed the guests and introduced the Guest Speaker, Declan O’Carroll, President of the County Donegal Historical Society saying that even though they had come from different ends of the County, they had in fact known each other for many years and more so in recent years through the Department of Defence.  Hugh thanked Declan for his help in putting the Itinerary for the Donegal trip together and hoped that in future County Kildare Archaeological Society could return the compliment.

Declan in his address said that the Donegal Historical Society was founded in 1947 and had in excess of 900 members and while not all members were active, nevertheless, they had a good spread of workers throughout the county.  They publish the Donegal Annual every year and in that regard a lot of credit must go to their Editor, Sean Beattie who is a minefield of information.  They also have Museum at Rossnowlagh in the Franciscan Friary which is open daily and which features artefacts from the county.  In addition they organise a number of Field Days together with the McGill Memorial Lecture and the Emerson Lecture.

The President, Con Manning, thanked Declan for his talk and said his organisation will be jealous with regard to the number of members in the Donegal Historical Society and it gives food for thought regarding all the activities being pursued.  In conclusion, he wished the Donegal Historical Society every good wish for the future and expressed his thanks to Declan for his attendance and support for the County Kildare Archaeological Society’s visit to Donegal, to Mary Haggen and Aine Ni Dhuibhne for their wonderful guide to Ramelton and Rathmullan respectively and also Martin Egan for his guidance on the visit to Gartan.

Day 3 began with an early checkout and departure for Fort Dunree which is some 7 miles north of Buncrana on the Inishowen Peninsula and apart from the historical interest the group were again subjected to dramatic and breathtaking scenery.   The Museum at Fort Dunree was set up in 1986 and the group were shown the latest DVD and interactive technology explaining the unique history of the Fort.  After Wolfe Tone’s arrest nearby in 1798 a small fort was first created here to prevent invasions by the French and the area was further fortified in the late 19th century.  It played a valuable role during World War 1 and remained under British control until just before World War 2 when the Ports held under the Irish Free State Treaty were handed back by the British Government.  From 1937 onward the Fort was manned by the Irish Defence Forces until its closure in 1990s.  There is wide range of military memorabilia and artefacts as well as an array of large guns from the 20th century on display.   In addition a new wildlife exhibition has been introduced in the Old Fort Hospital.


St. Mura’s Cross Slab at Fahan


After enjoying a complimentary coffee the group next stop was at Fahan with a visit to the early ecclesiastical site which is incorporated in a graveyard.  Con Manning was the guide in this case and he gave an account of the ruined old Church which was in existence in 1642 and continued in use until the new Church was built in 1820.  South east of this old Church is the St. Mura’s cross-slab which stands over 2 metres high x 1 metre in width. Both faces have a carved Greek cross mounted on a stem giving the effect of a Latin cross while there are 2 rudimentary arms protruding from the slab and an inscription in Greek said to be Glory and honour to the father the son and Holy Spirit.  The cross is said to mark the spot of St. Mura’s grave dating back to 654A.D. There are many other interesting grave stones dating back to 1652 and include the names of early Plantation families. There is another interesting grave, that of Agnes Jones who died in 1868 and was a nursing colleague of Florence Nightingale.

Finally, to the last site on the Itinerary and to one of the most imposing archaeological sites in Donegal known as Grianan of Aileach, under the guidance of Con Manning.  The site is located on the summit of Greenan mountain with outstanding views of Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle together with the surrounding countryside covering parts of counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone.  The site consists of a restored stone cashel within a series of three earthen banks, an ancient road, holy well and a destroyed tumulus.  Described as multi-period as the destroyed tumulus dates to the Bronze Age, the earthen banks to the late Bronze Age or Iron Age and the cashel to the early historic period.  The cashel is believed to be the seat of the northern Ui Neills, kings of Ulster and was destroyed in 1101 by the O’Briens kings of Munster.  The cashel was restored under the supervision of Dr. Walter Bernard in the 1870s and the restored work was marked with tar to distinguish it from the original masonry.  The cashel is a circular dry stone enclosure having an internal diameter of c. 23.5 metres and rises in three terraces by stone stairways to a height of 5 metres.

The group celebrated the end of the Donegal trip by stopping off at the lovely An Grianan Hotel.  Here the group enjoyed a beautiful gourmet lunch under the supervision of Patricia Allt and served in the quaint restaurant converted from a deconsecrated church.  The Hotel is located beside the unique St. Aengus Catholic Church built in 1967 to a design reflecting the ancient Grianan of Aileach. To round things up Monica Martin a member of the group gave a sample of her beautiful singing voice with her rendition of “My Lagan Love” which was very appropriate in that the route from Letterkenny that morning to Dunree had passed through the Lagan area.

On the homeward journey the route was through Derry City which has been selected as the UK City of Culture for 2013.  The City is also referred to as Londonderry and to Doire Colmcille as it was here he founded his first monastery.   Hugh Crawford provided a guide to the various parts of the city including its streets and buildings many of which are still remembered from the daily media coverage during the recent troubles in Northern Ireland.  These landmarks included the former Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Station, the new Peace bridge over the river Foyle, the Bogside, Bishop Street, the famous Derry Walls, Austins of the Diamond, the magnificent Guildhall, and the former Great Northern Railway terminus.  Finally across the Craigavon double-deck bridge to Derry’s Waterside and home to Kildare.

Hugh Crawford would like to thank the members of the Sub-committee, Elizabeth Connelly, Mary Kirby, Mary Glennon, Siobhan McNulty and the President Con Manning for their assistance in making the trip a wonderful success.