County Donegal (/ˌdʌnɪˈɡɔːl, ˌdɒn-, ˈdʌnɪɡɔːl, ˈdɒn-/ DUN-ig-AWL, DON-, -awl tae Dhún na nGall) is a county of Ireland in the province of Ulster. It is named after the town of Donegal (Dún na nGall, meaning 'fort of the foreigners') in the south of the county. Donegal County Council is the local council and Lifford is the county town.
The population was 159,192 at the 2016 census. It has also been known as (County) Tyrconnell (Tír Chonaill, meaning 'Land of Conall'), after the historic territory of the same name.
Geography and political subdivisions
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 small 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 with a population of 19,588. Letterkenny and the nearby city of Derry form the main economic axis of the northwest of Ireland. Indeed, what became the City of Derry was officially part of County Donegal up until 1610.
There are eight historic baronies in the county:
- Inishowen East
- Inishowen West
- Raphoe North
- Raphoe South
The county may be informally divided into a number of traditional districts.
According to the 1841 Census, County Donegal had a population of 296,000 people.
The county is the most mountainous in Ulster consisting chiefly of two ranges of low mountains; the Derryveagh Mountains in the north and the Blue Stack Mountains in the south, with Errigal at 749 metres (2,457 ft) the highest peak. It has a deeply indented coastline forming natural sea loughs, of which both Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle are the most notable. The Slieve League cliffs are the sixth-highest sea cliffs in Europe, while 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.
A survey of the macroscopic marine algae of County Donegal was published in 2003. The survey was compiled using the algal records held in the herbaria of the following institutions: the Ulster Museum, Belfast; Trinity College, Dublin; NUI Galway, and the Natural History Museum, London. Records of flowering plants include Dactylorhiza purpurella (Stephenson and Stephenson) Soó.
The animals included in the county include the European badger (Meles meles L.).
There are habitats for the rare corn crake (Crex crex) in the county.
At various times in its history, it has been known as County Tirconaill, County Tirconnell or County Tyrconnell (Irish: Tír 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 was the home of the once mighty Clann Dálaigh, whose best known branch were the Clann Ó Domhnaill, better known in English as the O'Donnell dynasty. Until around 1600, the O'Donnells were one of Ireland's richest and most powerful native Irish ruling families. Within Ulster, only the 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), the O'Donnell Kings of Tír Chonaill were traditionally inaugurated at Doon Rock near Kilmacrennan. 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, although detachments of the Royal Irish Army were stationed there, the Dublin 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 Donegall was only achieved after the Flight of the Earls in September 1607. It was the centre of O'Doherty's Rebellion of 1608 with the key Battle of Kilmacrennan taking place there. The county was one of those 'planted' during the Plantation of Ulster from around 1610 onwards. What became the City of Derry was officially part of County Donegal up until 1610.
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 Foyle Port.
The Partition of Ireland in the early 1920s had 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 in which it now found itself, the new dominion called the Irish Free State, which in April 1949 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 a border cutting Donegal off from her natural hinterlands in Derry City and West Tyrone greatly exacerbated the economic difficulties of the county after 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 adversely affected by The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The county suffered several bombings and assassinations. In June 1987, Constable Samuel McClean, a Donegal man who was a serving member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was shot dead by the Provisional Irish Republican Army at his family home near Drumkeen. In May 1991, the prominent Sinn Féin politician Councillor Eddie Fullerton was assassinated by the Ulster Defence Association at his home in Buncrana. This added further to the economic and social difficulties of the county. However, the greater economic and administrative integration following the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 has been of benefit to the county.
It has been labelled the 'forgotten county' by its own politicians, owing to the perception that it is ignored by the Government of Ireland, even in times of crisis.
The Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area) is the second-largest in Ireland. The version of the Irish language spoken in County Donegal is Ulster Irish.
Of the Gaeltacht population of 24,744, 16% of the county's total population, 17,132 say they can speak Irish. There are three Irish-speaking parishes: Gweedore, The Rosses and Cloughaneely. Other Irish-speaking areas include Gaeltacht an Láir: Glencolmcille, Fintown, Fanad and Rosguill, the islands of Arranmore, Tory Island and Inishbofin. Gweedore is the largest Irish-speaking parish, with over 5,000 inhabitants. All schools in the region use Irish as the language of instruction. One of the constituent colleges of NUI Galway, Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge, is based in Gweedore.
Outside the Gaeltacht, over 1,000 students attend the five Irish-medium primary schools (Gaelscoileanna) and two Irish-medium secondary schools (Gaelcholáistí). The 2006 census reported 7,218 people outside the Gaeltacht who identified as being daily Irish speakers.
Government and politics
Donegal County Council (which has officially been in existence since 1899) has responsibility for local administration, and is headquartered at the County House in Lifford. Until 2014, there were also Town Councils in Letterkenny, Bundoran, Ballyshannon and Buncrana. The Town Councils were abolished in June 2014 when the Local Government Reform Act 2014 was implemented and their functions were taken over by Donegal County Council. Elections to the County Council take place every five years. Thirty seven councillors are elected using the system of proportional representation-Single Transferable Vote (STV). For the purpose of elections the county is divided into 5 Municipal Districts comprising the following local electoral areas: Donegal (6), Glenties (6), Inishowen (9), Letterkenny (10) and Stranorlar (6).
For general elections, the county-wide constituency elects five representatives to Dáil Éireann. For elections to the European Parliament, the county is part of the Midlands–North-West constituency.
Voters have a reputation nationally for being "conservative and contrarian", the county having achieved prominence for having rejected the Fiscal Treaty in 2012 and both the Treaty of Lisbon votes. In 2018, Donegal was the only county in Ireland to vote against repealing the 8th Amendment, which banned access to abortion.
The Freedom of Donegal is an award that is given to people who have been recognised for outstanding achievements on behalf of the people and County Donegal.
An extensive rail network used to exist throughout the county and was mainly operated by the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee and the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company (known as the L. & L.S.R. or the Lough Swilly Company for short). Unfortunately all these lines were laid to a 3-foot gauge where the connecting lines were all laid to the Irish standard gauge of 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in). This meant that all goods had to be transhipped at Derry and Strabane. Like all narrow gauge railways this became a major handicap after World War 1 when road transport began to seriously erode the railways goods traffic.
By 1953 the Lough Swilly had closed its entire railway system and become a bus and road haulage concern.
County Donegal is served by both Donegal Airport, located at Carrickfinn in The Rosses in the west of the county, and by City of Derry Airport, located at Eglinton to the east. The nearest main international airport to the county is Belfast International Airport (popularly known as Aldergrove Airport), which is located to the east at Aldergrove, near Antrim Town, in County Antrim, 92 km (57 mi) from Derry City and 127 km (79 mi) from Letterkenny.
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, The Pattersons, and Altan and solo artist Enya, 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 singers Paul Brady and Phil Coulter. Singer Daniel O'Donnell has become a popular ambassador for the county. Popular music is also common, the county's most acclaimed rock artist being the Ballyshannon-born Rory Gallagher. Other acts to come out of Donegal include folk-rock band Goats Don't Shave, Eurovision contestant Mickey Joe Harte and indie rock group The Revs and in more recent years bands such as In Their Thousands and Mojo Gogo have featured on the front page of Hot Press
Donegal has a long literary tradition in both Irish and English.
Authors in Donegal have been creating works, like the Annals of the Four Masters, in Irish 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 a number of (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 "Guru of the Hills".
Donegal is known for its textiles, whose unique woolen blends are made of short threads with tiny bits of color blended in for a heathered effect.
Although approximately 85% of its population is Roman Catholic, County Donegal also has a sizeable minority of Ulster Protestants. Many Donegal Protestants 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.
The Earagail Arts Festival is held within the county each July.
People from Donegal have also contributed to culture elsewhere.
Places of interest
Donegal was voted number one on The National Geographic Traveller (UK) 'cool list' for 2017, and the area's attractions include Glenveagh National Park (formerly part of the Glenveagh Estate), the only official national park anywhere in the Province of Ulster. The park is a 140 km² (about 35,000 acre) nature reserve with scenery of mountains, raised boglands, lakes and woodlands. At its heart is Glenveagh Castle, a late Victorian 'folly' that was originally built as a summer residence.
The Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking district) also attracts young people to County Donegal each year during the school summer holidays. The three-week-long summer Gaeltacht courses give young Irish people from other parts of the country a chance to learn the Irish language and traditional Irish cultural traditions that are still prevalent in parts of Donegal. The Donegal Gaeltacht has traditionally been a very popular destination each summer for young people from Northern Ireland. Scuba diving is also very popular with a club being located in Donegal Town.
Higher education within the county is provided by Letterkenny Institute of Technology (L.Y.I.T.; popularly known locally as 'the Regional'), established in the 1970s in Letterkenny. In addition, many young people from the county attend third-level institutions elsewhere in Ireland, especially in Derry and also at the Ulster University at Coleraine (U.U.C.), Ulster University at Jordanstown (U.U.J.), Queen's University Belfast ('Queen's'), and NUI Galway. Many Donegal students also attend the Limavady Campus of the North West Regional College (popularly known as Limavady Tech) and the Omagh College of Further Education of South West College (popularly known as Omagh Tech or Omagh College).
The Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.) sport of Gaelic football is very popular in County Donegal. Donegal's inter-county football team have won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship title twice (in 1992 and 2012) and the Ulster Senior Football Championship ten times. Donegal emerged victorious from the 2012 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final on 23 September 2012 to take the Sam Maguire Cup for only the second time, with early goals from Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden setting up victory of 2–11 to 0–13 over Mayo. In 2007, Donegal won only their second national title by winning the National Football League. On 24 April 2011, Donegal added their third national title when they defeated Laois to capture the National Football League Division Two, they added another Division Two title in 2019. There are 16 clubs in the Donegal Senior Football Championship, with many others playing at a lower level.
Hurling (often called 'hurley' within County Donegal), handball and rounders are also played but are less widespread, as in other parts of western Ulster. The Donegal county senior hurling team won the Lory Meagher Cup in 2011 and the Nicky Rackard Cup in 2013.
There are several rugby teams in the county. These include Ulster Qualifying League Two side Letterkenny RFC, whose ground is named after Dave Gallaher, the captain of the 1905 New Zealand All Blacks touring team, who have since become known as The Originals. He was born in nearby Ramelton.
Ulster Qualifying League Three sides include Ballyshannon RFC, Donegal Town RFC and Inishowen RFC.
Finn Harps play in the League of Ireland and won promotion to the Premier Division in 2015 following a 2-1 aggregate win over Limerick F.C. in the playoff final. They retained their status in the Premier Division in the 2016 season. Harps' main rivals are Derry City F.C., with whom they contest Ireland's North-West Derby*. Finn Harps are Donegal's only League of Ireland club, with the county's other clubs playing in either the Ulster Senior League or the local junior leagues.
There are a number of golf courses such as Ballyliffin Golf Club, located in the Inishowen peninsula. Other courses of note are Murvagh (located outside Donegal Town) and Rosapenna (Sandy Hills) located in Downings (near Carrigart). The Glashedy Links has been ranked 6th in a recent ranking taken by Golf Digest on the best courses in Ireland. The Old links was ranked 28th, Murvagh 36th and Sandy Hills 38th.
Cricket is chiefly confined to The Laggan district and the Finn Valley in the east of the county. The town of Raphoe and the nearby village of St Johnston, both in The Laggan, are the traditional strongholds of cricket within the county. The game is mainly played and followed by members of the Ulster Protestants of Co. Donegal. St Johnston Cricket Club play in the North West Senior League, while Letterkenny Cricket Club play in the Derry Midweek League.
Donegal's rugged landscape and coastline lends itself to active sports like climbing, mountain biking, hillwalking, surfing and kite-flying.
- List of towns and villages in the Republic of Ireland
- List of abbeys and priories in the Republic of Ireland (County Donegal)
- People from County Donegal
- Donegal County (Parliament of Ireland constituency)
- Earagail Arts Festival
- High Sheriff of Donegal
- Lord Lieutenant of Donegal
- SS Donegal
- The Troubles
- Wild Atlantic Way