In 1872 James Stephens published a book called “An Illustrated Handbook of the Scenery and Antiquities of South Western Donegal” The book complete with many illustrations gives an account of the scenery of the area and includes sketches on the history of the ancient castles, churches, holy wells, stone crosses and giants graves as well as other remarkable features of the district.
Of particular interest is the sketch of Kilbarron Castle in which he quotes Dr. George Petrie’s description that “the singularity of its position situated on a lofty, precipitous, and nearly insulated cliff, exposed to the storms and billows of the Western Ocean, one would naturally conclude, that this now sadly dilapidated and time worn ruin must have owed its origin to some rude and daring chieftain of old, whose occupation was war and rapine and whose thoughts were as wild and turbulent as the waves that washed his sea-girt eagle dwelling; and such, in ignorance of its unpublished history, has been the conclusion formed by modern topographers, who tell us that it was supposed to have been the habitation of freebooters. But it was not so-
about Kilbarron castle being the home of freebooters is found in Samuel Lewis’s
Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, published in 1837)
with an account of its true origins as a place of learning and study he remarks
that, “This castle was the residence of the Ollamhs, bards and antiquarians of
the people of Tirconnell, the illustrious family of the O’Clerys.
He ends the sketch with a poem called “Kilbarron’s last Bard to his Harp
Who was James Stephens? James Stephens was born in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal a member of the well known merchant family and where his brother John Stephens continued the family business. James graduated from Maynooth College in 1826 with a degree in Rhetoric and in 1833 he became a curate in the parish of Killaghtee in west Donegal.
In 1843 he became parish priest of the combined parishes of Taughboyne All Saints & Raymoghy and part of Killea. Whilst in that part of the diocese, he was responsible for the building of St Blaithin’s Church in the village of St Johnston in 1857 and for the building of a school in the nearby Newtowncunningham. In 1863 he was promoted to Vicar General of the Diocese of Raphoe and took up his responsibilities in Killybegs where he remained until his death in 1886.
The book additionally gives
notes on the history of the Clan MacSuibhne (MacSweeny) and can be read on
In 1775 Richard Twiss wrote: ‘The next day I arrived in Ballyshannon and was so pleased by its beautiful situation that I remained there four days. It is a small town situated near the sea with a bridge of fourteen arches, over a river, which a little lower falls down a ridge of rocks, about twelve feet, and at low water forms the most picturesque cascades I ever saw. It is rendered still more singular and interesting being by being the principle Salmon Leap in Ireland”
In 1776 Richard Twiss wrote a book called “A tour of Ireland in 1775” which must be one of the earliest observation and account of Irish life taken from a purely tourist perspective.
His Irish visit took place a year earlier when he arrived in Dublin on the fifth of June 1775 after sailing from Aberystwyth in Wales. Whilst in Dublin he saw the new Irish Houses of Parliament in College Green which he greatly admired and remarks that the building was begun in 1729 and took ten years to complete. After visiting some hospitals and other buildings that took his interest in Dublin he went south to Co Wicklow visiting Powerscourt House and waterfall.
He commented about the predominance of the Irish language been spoken,
“The Irish language is still understood and spoken by most of the common people but by few of the better sort: The books which are printed in it consist only of a few devotional tracts”
He adds a small dictionary of
Irish words into his guide that would be useful to the visitor or traveller.
In July of that year he set out north to Drogheda, visiting Armagh, Belfast, Derry and Donegal and many other places, he eventually arrived in Ballyshannon where he was particularly impressed by the falls sited above the island of Inish Saimer remarking that:
‘The next day I arrived in Ballyshannon and was so pleased by its beautiful situation that I remained there four days. It is a small town situated near the sea with a bridge of fourteen arches, over a river, which a little lower falls down a ridge of rocks, about twelve feet, and at low water forms the most picturesque cascades I ever saw. It is rendered still more singular and interesting being by being the principle Salmon Leap in Ireland”
After the four days Richard
continued his journey passing through Belleek remarking that the river was a
succession of waterfalls and cascades. He travelled onwards to Castlecaldwell
where he spent time visiting Sir James and Lady Caldwell where he admired the
castle and the wonderful vista overlooking the islands on Lough Erne.
Richard Twiss was born in
Rotterdam in 1747, a son of an English merchant residing in Holland. Being of
independent means allowed him to travel extensively, firstly visiting Scotland
and then onwards to the countries of continental Europe until 1770 when he
published an account of his travels. His travels continued and he visited Spain
and Portugal in 1772.
After explaining the life cycle of the salmon and the methods used to catch the salmon on the River Erne, he warned of the dangers of overfishing and remarked that the fisheries on the Erne rented at £600 per annum yet the salmon were sold at only a penny per pound giving us a good idea of the probable number of salmon caught each year at that time!
Richard Twiss was elected a
fellow of the Royal Society in 1774, but withdrew from it in 1794. He died in
Somers Town on 5 March 1821.
You can read the full account
of his visit to Ireland at:
Around a 1km from the Castle lies the ruins of the old church for the parish of Kilbarron.
These ruins, once dedicated to St. Barron, may stand on the site of the original 6th Century Church.
Bridget Brennan, a graduate from Sligo IT in Applied Archeology, made a study of the ruins and their surrounds. Here is an extract of that work.
Kilbarron Church is a small ruinous edifice in the townland of Kilbarron approximately four kilometres north west of Ballyshannon, County Donegal. It has been variously dated from the 14th to the 16th century and it thought to have been built by the O’Clearys who were historians to the O’Donnells. The church may have been built as a re-dedication to St Barron as it is situated on the site where an earlier 6th century church may have stood. It is also situated within an area that would have been a politically contested landscape as far back as the Neolithic, considering its strategic position as a fording point and a boundary between the west and north west of Ireland.
Landscape Analysis of Kilbarron Church and the Surrounding Area.
In a book published in 1897 called “Captain de Cuellar adventures in Connaught and Ulster” written by Hugh Allingham, there is a curious reference to a lock found in the vicinity of Kilbarron Castle some years beforehand which was believed to have been the lock belonging to the main gate of the castle. However the story is even more intriguing which may have started with events that occurred in 1588. Read more on our website at https://www.kilbarroncastle.org/?p=826
The entry for 1588 in the Annals of the Four Masters records
In modern Irish
“Tháinig cabhlach mór ina raibh ocht long scór ó Rí na Spáinne. Deir cuid acu go raibh sé ar intinn acu an cuan a thógáil agus teacht i dtír ar chósta Shasana, dá bhfaigheadh siad an deis. Ach níor tharla sé seo dóibh, mar gur bhuail cabhlach na Banríona leo ar an bhfarraige a ghabh ceithre long; agus bhí an chuid eile den chabhlach scaipthe agus scaipthe feadh chóstaí na dtíortha comharsanachta, eadhon, soir ó Shasana, soir ó thuaidh na hAlban agus iarthuaisceart na hÉireann. Bádh líon mór de na Spáinnigh agus scriosadh a gcuid long go hiomlán sna háiteanna sin. ”
“A great fleet consisting of
eight score ships came from the King of Spain. Some say that their intention
was to have taken harbour and landed on the coast of England, if they got the
opportunity. But this did not happen to them, for they were met on the sea by
the Queen’s fleet which captured four ships; and the rest of the fleet was
scattered and dispersed along the coasts of the neighbouring countries, namely,
to the east of England, the north east of Scotland and the north west of
Ireland. Great numbers of the Spaniards were drowned and their ships were
totally wrecked in those places.”
The events described are that of
the fleet sent by Philip II 0f Spain, to invade England, known as the Spanish
Armada. As described the ships were scattered when the English commander, Admiral Howard, ordered fireships to be sailed into the
fleets at anchorage near Calais and Gravelines forcing them into the North Sea
by the prevailing winds and having to sail northwards around the northern tip
of Scotland and into the Atlantic Ocean and on the 10th of September
were struck by a vicious storm which wrecked over twenty seven ships on the
west coast of Scotland and Ireland losing an estimated seven thousand sailors and
Those survivors of the wrecks in Ireland did not often fair well once reaching land. The Lord Deputy Sir William Fitzwilliam issued a proclamation whereby ‘Harbouring Castaways’ was punishable by death. To his own officers he wrote;
‘Whereas the distressed fleet of the Spaniards by tempest and contrary winds, though the providence of God have been driven on the coast… where it is thought, great treasure and also ordinance, munitions [and] armour hath been cast. We authorize you to… to haul all hulls and to apprehend and execute all Spaniards found there of any quality soever. Torture May be used in prosecuting this inquiry.’
The Lord President of Connacht Sir Richard Bingham and the Lord President of Munster Sir John Norris enforced this edict in both provinces and most Spanish survivors were hanged when found. In North Connacht many Spaniards survived including a number of about one hundred who were among the four ships wrecked at Streedagh in Co Sligo. Although robbed of their possessions by the local Gaelic population they were allowed to travel to the relative safety of Breffni under the control of Brian O’Rourke the clan chieftain who helped them escape to Scotland. Later he too had to flee to Scotland where he was handed over to the English and hanged at Tyburn in London.
One survivor at
Streedagh Captain Francisco de Cuellar wrote a testament to his experiences in Ireland, living for some
years along with the McClancy clan of Rossaclogher in modern day Co Leitrim,
after he returned to Spain.
Many years later
Hugh Allingham, a half brother of the poet William Allingham and an antiquarian
whose publications include a history of Ballyshannon in Co Donegal, wrote a
book called “Captain de Cuellar adventures in Connaught and Ulster”. Published
in 1897 it consists of
a translation and commentary of Francisco de Cuellar’s journal of his time
Within the book is an interesting reference to a lock from a Spanish sea chest being found in the vicinity of Kilbarron Castle. It was in the possession of General Tredennick of Woodhill House, Ardara and had originally been identified as the lock of the main door of Kilbarron Castle until correctly been identified by Hugh Allingham who remarked that “this discovery proves beyond question that these chests were in use in Ireland, whether brought over in Spanish or other vessels at a much earlier date than others supposed. The lid found at O’Clery’s Castle, it is reasonable to infer belonged to a chest which was used by the historians of Tyrconnell for the safe keeping of their valuable manuscripts and other articles; and, looking at the fact that their house and property was confiscated within a period of twenty years or so after the Spanish wrecks, and that Kilbarron was plundered and dismantled, there can be no doubt that the chest in question belonged to the period when the O’Clerys flourished in their rock bound fortress”
Hugh Allingham continues “The lid itself offers a curious bit of evidence of its past history: a portion of one of the hinges remains attached showing that it had been wrenched off with violence, and that the chest to which it belonged had been forced by some plundering enemy who had not possession of the master key, which actually bolts the lock. A similar lid was found in the ruins of O’Donnells castle at Donegal which is still in existence in the neighbourhood.”
We can only speculate if this chest came from an armada wreck as these sea chests were available and used by other nations. Apart from the wrecking of three ships at Streedagh, there were others wrecked in west Donegal but the wrecks at Streedagh were closer and presumably flotsam could have been carried into Donegal Bay.
Major General James Richard Knox Tredennick, was a member of the Tredennick family of Camlin Castle between Ballyshannon and Belleek. His older brother the Reverend George Nesbitt Tredennick was the Church of Ireland Rector of Kilbarron parish from 1839 until his death in 1877 and who lived in the Glebe house in Kildoney close to Kilbarron Castle. He also owned Woodhill House in Ardara and willed it to his brother General Tredennick who inherited the property in 1880.
Unfortunately we don’t know if the lock still exists or if it remains at Woodhill house situated near Ardara. General Knox Tredennick’s estate was sold to the Congested Districts Board and offered for sale on the 30th March 1909. The house is currently a guesthouse and restaurant.
Perhaps someone out there knows whatever happened to the lock that was found in the vicinity of Kilbarron Castle?
In this, the third part of the story of Kilbarron Castle, we cover the transition of the Ollamh to the Uí Domhnaills from the family of Uí Scingín to Uí Cléirigh in the mid-1300s.
In 1342 a young Brehon lawyer called Cormac Uí Cléirigh travelled north from Tír Amhlaigh in north Connacht to Abbey Assaroe situated on the estuary of the Erne in Tír Connaill.
Seventy years earlier in 1264 William FitzAdelm DeBurgo seized the Uí Cleirigh ancestral lands in Co. Galway stretched from north east of Kilmacduagh Monastery, near modern Gort, to Lough Rea.
In the Uí Cléirigh Book of Genealogies, now in the Royal Irish Academy, it records that Domhnal Uí Cléirigh had four sons and two Sean Sgiamhach and Daniel went north to Tír Amhlaigh. Tomás went to Breifne Uí Raghallaigh (Co Cavan) and the youngest Cormac to Cill Ceannaigh (Kilkenny).
“Seaan sgiamhach o ttát Sean muinter Clerigh tire conaill: Daniel o ttát muinter Cleirigh thire h-amhalgadha ; Tomas o ttát clann Cleirigh a breifne i raghallaigh; Corbmac o ttát muinter Cleirigh cille caindigh.”
Uí Cléirigh Book of Genealogies
Cormac Uí Cléirigh, grandson of Sean Sgiamhach, spent some time with the Cistercian monks at Assaroe where he met Matha (Matthew) Uí Scingín, Ollamh to Niall Garbh Uí Domhnaill I, who ruled Tír Connaill from 1342 to 1348.
The story records that Giolla Brídhe, Matthew Uí Scingín’s son had died some time beforehand. He was destined to succeed his father as Ollamh and in order to continue this hereditary office, Matthew agreed to the marriage of his daughter to Cormac on condition that their sons would train to become Ollamhs so that they would continue the legacy and succeed their grandfather in that role. Giolla Brídhe Uí Cléirigh in time, succeeded his grandfather as Ollamh to the Uí Domhnaills.
We know that Matthew Uí Scingín was in possession of the lands in the vicinity of Kilbarron Castle at this time. This Matthew Uí Scingín was possibly the grandson of the Matha Uí Scingín whose death is recorded in the Annals of Connacht in 1289.
In this, the second part of the Castle’s story we will cover the second half of the 1200s where the Ui Domhmaills (O’Donnells) will drive the Normans out of the North West of Ireland and establish the Uí Domhnaills as kings of Tír Conaill where they will install the Uí Scingín as Ollamh (Bard) in Kilbarron.
In this, the second part of the Castle’s story we will cover the second half of the 1200s where the Ui Domhmaills (O’Donnells) will drive the Normans out of the North West of Ireland and establish the Uí Domhnaills as kings of Tír Conaill where they will install the Uí Scingín as Ollamh (Bard) in Kilbarron.
In 1257 Goffraidh Uí Domhnaill defeated the Normans led by Maurice FitzGerald at the battle of Creadran Cille near Ros Ceide (Rosses Point) in the territory of Cairbre Drom Cliabh (Drumcliff) in Co Sligo. This defeat of the more powerful and more militarily successful Normans would confirm the Uí Domhnaills in the Kingship of Tír Conaill and inaugurated on the Rock of Doon with the religious ceremony in Kilmacrennan Abbey.
The former Cenél Connaill heartland of Tír Aodh became the mensal land for the ruling Uí Domhnaill kings of Tír Conaill who now moved from their tradition seat at Kilmacrennan to Dún na nGall (Donegal town). Dún na nGall was named after the Norse traders that had built a trading post at the estuary of the River Eske in the 10th Century. The Uí Domhnaills also known as “na Dálaigh” did maintain their link with their ancestral territory by keeping their inaugural site at the Rock of Doon right up until the early 17th Century.
They invited refugees from the advancing Norman conquest of Uladh in eastern Ulster, people with now familiar Donegal names as, Mc Nulty (Mac an Ultach) Son of the Ulster man and the former kings of Uladh Donlevys (Mac Dun Sléibhte) the latter would become the physicians to the Uí Domhnaills. They and other families serving the ruling Clan were offered lands in Tír Aodh in payment for services given.
From Magh Luirg near Lough Key in modern day Co Roscommon, the Uí Domhnaills brought the Uí Scingíns, a family of Ollamhs, who in modern terms were public relations people –the Uí Domhnaills wanted to cement their rule in Tír Conaill and the work of the Uí Scingíns and others would help to this end.
Eventually the Uí Domhnaills would claim that they were of the Cenél Conaill and true successors to the Kingship of Tír Conaill, no doubt helped by the work of people such as Matha Uí Scingín, who wrote many poems in praise of the Uí Domhnaills and whose death is recorded in the Annals of Connacht in 1289. a It can be supposed that he was granted Kilbarron as his home sometime before this date.
The Uí Scingín clan came to Tír Conaill in the 13th Century as Ollamhs to the Uí Domhnaills. They came from Ard Carne, an area north of Lough Key known as the territory of “Maigh Lurg”. This area is now part of the modern County Roscommon.
Only one family named “Skinnion” which might be the direct anglicised form of the name, is recorded in the 1901 census living in Castlefore, Co Leitrim but apart from that occurrence the name is lost. However it is noted that the name was transcribed from the Gaelic to the name “Hyde” or De La Hyde as the English translation of the word Skin to Hide or Hyde. (See: Rev Patrick Wolfe Irish Surnames 1923)
Perhaps Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League and later first President of Ireland (1938- 1945), family’s name was originally “Uí Scingín” He was born in Frenchpark Co Roscommon in 1860 where his father was the Church of Ireland rector.
Kilbarron Castle was built on the scenic wild Atlantic coast of County Donegal. Here we will lay out the history of the Castle and it’s people.
The route to the castle on the landward side leads to a narrow causeway over a deep ditch. It must have been a very defensible location but perhaps not too sheltered or comfortable whenever there was a raging Atlantic storm!
For anybody who has visited the ruins of the Kilbarron Castle the first thing you notice is that the ruins are perched on a rocky promontory jutting into Donegal Bay and surrounded by cliffs on three sides lapped by the Atlantic waves.
The site is much older than the existing stone walls would suggest as these walls date from the early 14th Century. The Kilbarron Castle Conservation Report of 2014 estimated that the place began as an Iron Age settlement.
We do not yet know much about this early settlement but by the 7th Century the area between the River Erne and the Ballintra River was under the control of the Uí Maoildoraidh clan who were centred in or near Droim Thuama (Drumholm). The territory north of this to the River Eske was ruled by the Uí Canannáin clan. They both shared common ancestry and the kingship of the Cenél Connaill but were often in bitter rivalry.
Further south from Kilbarron on the Erne estuary is a similar promontory fort called Dún Cremthain (Dungravenan) there in 650 AD two factions of the Cenél Conaill fought each other for supremacy. This battle of Dún Cremthain is referred to in the “Annals of Ulster”.
In 1178 Flaghertagih Uí Maoildoraidh founded the Abbey Assaroe. He is buried in Drumhome (Drumholm) Old Graveyard and his death was to signify the end of the Kingship of the Uí Maoildoraidhs and soon after that the Kingship of the Uí Canannáins as a new power was coming into prominence from the north western part of Tír Conaill.
The parish gets its name from this ancient church and Flahertaigh Uí Maoildoraigh, King of the Cenél Conaill is buried here.
Drumhome Old Church Graveyard is part of the site of Drumhome monastery, which was founded by the monks of Columcille in the sixth century. The Graveyard is still used as a burial ground.
In the 10th Century the Norsemen or Vikings began raiding and plundering the coastal areas of Ireland travelling along the rivers systems as the Erne and Shannon to attack and plunder such monasteries as Devenish and Clonmacnoise, However by the 11th Century they had settled down somewhat in the coastal areas trading and founding such modern coastal cities as Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway.
Not as well known is that they also founded trading stations at Ath Seanaidh Ballyshannon and Donegal, the latter in the Irish language, Dún nan Gall means the “fort of the foreigners” testifying to its Viking foundation. The Cinél Connaill by and large were content to allow such trading posts and would have exacted a tribute to allow them to continue their trading operations.
Lughaidh Uí Cléirigh (Lewes O’Clery) was the last chief Ollamh to the O’Donnells so was probably one of the last occupiers of Kilbarron Castle. By 1609 he was recorded as living at Rossnowlagh rather than Kilbarron Castle. His public life can be traced during 1603-1616. Here is his story during the times of the Flight of the Earls and the first decade of Plantation of Ulster.
In September 1609
Lughaidh Uí Cléirigh was summoned to Liffer (Lifford) to act as one of the
jurors at the inquisition being held in front of the Lord Deputy Sir Arthur
Chichester and George Montgomery, Bishop of Derry, Raphoe and Clogher, into the
ownership of the various lands in the County of Donegal. The enquiry
started on the 12th September and it set out to determine which lands and dues
belonged to the Earl Rory O’Donnell, his cousin Niall Garbh O’Donnell. These lands
had been confiscated to the Crown at an earlier Inquisition held in 1607 and on
which jury Lughaidh had also served upon. Perhaps in hope of saving his own
clan’s lands he stated that:
the sept of the Cleries or freeholds
Kilbarron Parish in the said Barony contains 5 qrs. One of which is herenagh land possessed by the sept of the Cleries as herenagh who pay yearly to the Bishop of Raphoe 13s 4d rent. 6 meathers of butter and 34 of meal, one qr. named Kildonnel(Kildoney?) in possession of the said sept is wholly free from tithes to the bishop, the late abbot of Asheroe was parson and vicar of the said parish in right of his house and received 2/3 of the house in kind, the remainder being payed to the bishop, the church being maintained by both according to the same proportion.
Lughaidh or Lewes in its anglicised form, had been the chief Ollamh to the O’Donnells. An Ollamh was expected to chronicle the history and feats of the clan chieftains usually in verse and act as an adviser to the ruling chieftain. The role was hereditary and Lughaidh was the last of a long line of Uí Cléirighs who served in this role dating back to the mid 14th Century.
With the office came lands to support the role and Lughaidh was head of the senior sliocht or branch of the Uí Cléirighs called the Sliocht Tuathail (the other two being the Sliocht Giolla Riabach and the Sliocht Diarmaida), the latter being the branch of the clan that Mícheál Uí Cléirigh family belonged to.
In the inquisition of 1609 it is stated that Lughaidh was living in nearby Rossnowlagh and not in Kilbarron Castle which may indicate that the castle had been abandoned at this stage. Might it have been destroyed during the Nine Years War?
The clan lands in the parishes of Kilbarron, Inishmacsaint and Drumholm parishes were confiscated and granted to the Bishop of Raphoe and Trinity College. Lughaidh and his brother Seán were considered “deserving Irish” in the Plantation and given 960 acres in the Barony of Kilmacrennan which was reserved for the Gaelic Irish. These lands near Glenswilly included Dromenagh (now Drumenan) and Killomastie (now Killymasny) The grant was to be shared between eleven other people leaving them with less than 100 acres each.
Though most of the land grants were made around 1610, both Lughaidh and his brother Seán are listed as still living in Ballymagroarty and Rossnowlagh respectively in Drumholm parish in the Inquisition of 1613, at which they both acted as Jurors.
Lughaidh wrote a book on the life of Red Hugh O’Donnell who died in Salamanca, Spain in 1602 called the “Beatha Aodh Ruaidh UíDomhnaill”. The book was probably commissioned by Fionnuala O’Donnell, “Inion Dubh” and it is believed written sometime around 1616. Extracts from the book were later used extensively in the Annals of the Four Masters. The only surviving copy of Beatha Aodh Ruaidh UíDomhnail is in the Royal Irish Academy in the handwriting of Cú Coigcríche Uí Cleirigh who may have acted as a scribe for his cousin when the book was written.
Lughaidh also took part in a dispute between poets from Munster and Ulster in what became known as the Iomarbhágh na bhFileadh “Contention of the Bards” This debate between the poets started in 1616 and went on until 1624.
In the book called “The O Cléirigh Family of Tír Connaill” by Fr. Paul Walsh, he states that the land grant given to Lughaidh and his brother Séan was for their lives only and by the time Nicholas Pynnar carried out his survey on the progress of the Ulster Plantation in 1619, there is no mention of Lughaidh or Séan and the lands in the barony of Kilmacrennan are in the possession of Sir Paul Gore in the survey.
All this raises the possibility that Lughaidh and his brother Seán never went north to Kilmacrennan to take up their grant. Might they have stayed in their locality near Kilbarron? In Bernadette Cunningham’s book “The Annals of the Four Masters”, it is documented that Mícheál O’Cléirigh used a copy of the Beatha Aodh Ruaidh Uí Domhnaill belonging to Muiris Uí Cléirigh, Lughaidh’s son, who may be the same Muiris who is renting lands at Coolbeg(Keran) townland near Rossnowlagh from Trinity College in 1630. We are told that Lughaidh was living in 1616 when the Beatha Aodh Ruaidh Uí Domhnaill was written and it is likely that he died sometime before 1623 when Br Mícheál O’Clery returned to Ireland from Louvain or else, due to his status, he would have been involved in the various projects being undertaken by Br Mícheál.
In 1866 a travel book was published in Dublin by the firm of A. Murray & Co of Fleet & Westmoreland Street, Dublin called “The Donegal Highlands” by a young Donegal author called James McDevitt.
The book is set out by giving an overall history of the County and by giving details of a number of excursions that could be taken whilst making a journey through the county starting at Ballyshannon and travelling northwards to Inishowen. Whilst based in Ballyshannon he recommends a visit to the nearby Kilbarron Castle writing that,
“The tourist may enjoy some good coastal scenery and at the same time gratify a very meritorious antiquarian curiosity by a visit to Kilbarron Castle”.
The Donegal Highlands by James McDevitt
While another author named simply as Murray writes
“…an ancient fortress of the O’Clerys, renowned in their day for their skills in science, poetry and history”.
The piece goes on to describe the location of the Kilbarron Castle as
“… commanding a magnificent view to the north of Donegal Bay, its inlets and its mountain barriers against the ocean and to the south and west hardly less magnificent views of the mountain views of North Connacht ”.
The piece on the castle further remarks about the work of John O’Donovan in bringing the story of the Four Masters and its leader Br Michel O’Clery to prominence. He remarks that at a Inquisition in Lifford in 1632 that Peregrine or Cugory O’Clery “being a mere Irishman and not of English or British descent or surname was deprived of his estates, his lands were forfeited to the King. The Lord of Kilbarron found a humble shelter in Mayo”.
These were lands at Coobeg and Doughill in the precinct of Monarche near Killybegs being leased by Corgary or Cú Coigcríche from the Earl of Annandale and this forfeiture was due to the ban on the Ulster Plantation grantees giving leases to Gaels, although this was often ignored as the Gaels were willing to pay more rent in order to stay in or near their own lands or districts. Cú Coigcríche or Cugory went to Ballycroy in west Mayo in 1652 along with many from Donegal led by Ruairi O’Donnell son of Colonel Manus O’Donnell who was killed at Benburb and a grandson of Niall Garbh Uí Domhnaill who died a prisoner in the Tower of London sometime around 1626.
The author of the 1866 travel guide, James McDevitt was born in Glenties in 1831, the son of Daniel McDevitt, a Glenties merchant and hotelier and his wife, Mary O’Donnell.
He was educated by his uncle, Fr. James. An sagart rua ‘Ac Daeid, PP Lr Templecrone; at Drumbeigh Classical School, Inver under Patrick McGoldrick; at Letterkenny High School, under Dr Crerand, and at Maynooth (1850-59). After two years’ postgraduate studies, he was ordained in 1859. He later became a professor at All Hallows remaining there until his appointment as Bishop of Raphoe in 1871.
He keenly promoted the use of Irish and was very much involved and supportive of the agitation for tenants’ rights which became so contentious in Ireland but particularly in Donegal in the aftermath of the events of the Derryveagh Evictions of 1861.
James McDevitt’s tenure as Bishop was to be short as he developed Pneumonia and died in 1879.
The lot of a student has not become any easier over time with constant demands for higher grades to get into college or university. However if student life seems unbearable, cast a thought about what life was like for the students studying at a Bardic School, such as the one founded in 1442 by Diarmaid (na dtrí Sgol) Uí Cléirigh at Kilbarron Castle.- perhaps things will seem not too bad!!
The school year started at Michaelmas (29th September) and lasted to the 25thMarch. There was a short break for Christmas.
At the start of the school year, students gave gifts and other payments to their masters to defray the expense of their instruction, lodging and meals. Gentlemen landowners and farmers supported the schools, supplying abundant quantities of provisions as well as entertaining students at weekends.
The course of study lasted a minimum of seven years to become a File (Poet)
Rise at Dawn
On the morning student wrote down all verses of the poem memorised from the night before. This was listened to and corrected by the master Ollamh.
Breakfast- Oatmeal or porridge Study day
Language study- Latin, Greek or English
Study of Gaelic formal poetic language and metre.
Recitations (The Ceann Ollamh’s recitations etc.)
Lunch – Fish, Oatmeal bread, beer
An aspiring poet had to complete twelve years of training to qualify as a scholar.
A trained scholar (ollamh) could versify on any subject on demand, as well as recite any one of c. 350 long verse poems and prose tales. He was a master of grammar, law, philosophy, history, geography, genealogy, myths and the near-forgotten older Irish of the poet class.
Study of Chronicling (History, Genealogy etc) Literature (Greek, Latin, English as well as Gaelic)
Students accompanied Master Ollamh to the houses or castle of lords to read or recite his verses in a manner of his choosing. These will always include old or archaic words or phrases not in common use.
His poems could praise his chief’s bravery and hospitality, pronounce on enemies curses whose words were believed to carry a magical power to inflict harm, incite plunder of clan rivals, recount feats of heroism, and mark births, marriages and deaths in the chief’s family.
Student went to bed in a dark room to begin memorising their new poetic composition for the following day.
Between 1437 and 1442 Dairmaid Na dTrí Sgol Uí Cléirigh founded a bardic school specialising in Poetry, Chronicling and Language, on a rocky outcrop on the coast of Donegal Bay at their castle at Kilbarron. This school would continue until the early 17th Century.
The Uí Cléirighs were the Ollamhs to the Uí Domhnaill (O’Donnells) and Ollamhs were expected to be able to know and recite the pedigree of the ruling clan as well as being conversant on any subject. This tradition was much older dating back to the time of the Druids.
By the 15th Century many learned Gaelic clans established Bardic schools in Connacht and Ulster and in parts of Munster that had remained Gaelic. The practise was to send their children and other gifted children of similar status backgrounds to a fellow bardic family to be educated in the various arts. Prominent amongst these were such clans as the Mac Bhairds (Wards)who came originally from South Connacht moving to Tír Conaill to become the File(Poets) to the Uí Domhnaills. The Mac Con Mide (MacNamee) were poets to the Uí Nialls (O’Neills) whilst the Uí hUiginn school on the northern borders of Sligo, wrote poems to the chieftains of Ulster and Connacht. Others included such clans as the Uí hEodhusa (O’Hussey) poets of Fermanagh and the Ua Gnímh (Agnew) family of eastern Ulster.
As well some learned clans specialised in other professions. In medicine the Uí Siadail (O’Shiel), Uí Duinnsleibe (Dunlevy), and Uí Caiside (Cassidy) families of Longford, Donegal, and Fermanagh respectively. Usually in these medical schools Latin textbooks were translated and used and surprisingly they were able to keep up with the current medical thinking on Continental Europe.
The clans that specialised in law were the Mac Aeducain (Egan, Keegan) of north Ormond (Tipperary) codified in writing the Brehon laws. Other Brehon law schools were run by the Uí Deoradain (O’Doran) family in Leinster, Uí Breislein (O’Breslin) in Fermanagh, and Mac Birrthagra (MacBerkery) in Eastern Ulster.
The bardic tradition has its roots in the much earlier druidic practices of the pre-Christian Celts. Druids were the holders of knowledge, though perhaps best known as religious leaders, they were also legal authorities, adjudicators, lore keepers, medical professionals, and political advisors.
In old Irish they were called druí, in middle Welsh dryw which literally meant a seer or sorcerer. The Romans were very fearful of these druids and wherever they conquered in Gaul and Britain they rigorously suppressed them.
Most accounts describing the druids come from Roman sources, so their descriptions are biased but they do say that both men and women could be druids and it could take up to twenty years to qualify for the role. In Irish there are several words for female druids, such as bandruí “woman-druid”, found in tales such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Bodhmall, featured in the Fianna Cycle, and one of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s childhood caretakers;and Tlachtga the daughter of the druid Mug Ruith who, according to Irish tradition, is associated with the Hill of Ward, site of prominent festivals held in Tlachtga’s honour during the Middle Ages
With the coming of Christianity in Ireland the religious role of the druids ended but they kept their secular role, now known as ollamhs, by remaining as the legal authority, lore keepers medical professionals and political advisors.
Their power remained great and they were feared for their satire and curses. It was believed that a well-aimed bardic satire, “glam dicenn”, could raise boils on the face of its target! This oppression became intolerable and in 574 AD at the convention of Drum Cetta, the High King of Ireland, Aed mac Ainmirech, along with the nobles of Ireland, decided to suppress the whole order. However St Columcille interceded on their behalf determining that one ollamh could be kept by each ruling chieftain. Strict rules were laid down on their training and future practices and they were ordered to keep schools and were given land for their maintenance.
The old Gaelic order ended with the onset of the Tudor conquest in the 16th Century. The English authorities were conscience of the power of these ollamhs, following the dictum that the” pen is mightier than the sword” and this social class were rigorously suppressed along with many of their chieftains. Those clan chiefs that remained were banned from keeping ollamhs. Banished from their lands many like Cú Coigcríche Ui Cléirigh continued to follow their profession but found it difficult in these new circumstances, starved of patronage and by the early 18th Century few remained. However some parts of this social class remained by making a living as “fili” poets and as musicians into the 19th Century.
Most of their written work remained, kept as precious objects by their descendants but no doubt much was lost. It was lucky that some foresightful people like George Petrie saw the need to preserve these works for posterity and began to purchase manuscripts for the Royal Irish Academy who were able to restore and maintain them for future study.
This book of romantic fiction, published in 1841 and written by Edmund Getty, tells the story of Hugh O’Neill’s rise to the Chieftaincy of Tí Eoghan (Tyrone) and later Red Hugh O’Donnell’s escape from Dublin Castle and his return to Tír Connaill. The book got our attention as accordingly the first place he rests on entry to his homeland is Kilbarron Castle.
“Nor did he and his faithful attendant rest until they reached the strong Castle of Kilbarron whose gates were at once thrown open to receive the fugitive chief of the principality”
The author Edmund Getty was born in 1799, son of Robert Getty who was a merchant carrying out a business in North Street, Belfast.
Edmund was educated at the Belfast Academy (then situated in Academy St in Belfast) under the headmastership of Dr Bruce and later at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He became Ballast Master of the Belfast Ballast Board in 1837. Later as Secretary to the Belfast Harbour Board, he was responsible for the reclamation of the slob lands on the Co. Down side of the harbour.
He was also associated with the inception of most of the Belfast literary and scientific societies of the early part of the nineteenth century-the Natural History and Philosophical Society, the -Belfast Museum; the Literary Society, and the Botanic Gardens He was one of the founders of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, his contributions to which show him to have been endowed with considerable powers of investigation and antiquarian research. He pursued a literary interest with publications such as; The History of the Harbour Board; The Island of Tory; Its History and Antiquities; and Notices of the Round Towers of Ulster.
He also had a keen interest in the Irish language and was one of the members of a group of Gaelic scholars who regularly met in Belfast including Dr. Samuel Bryson, Samuel Nielson and Robert Mc Adam, the latter the scholarly editor of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology and who in 1835 printed at Belfast his “Introduction to the Irish Language”, intended for use at the Belfast Royal Academy. In 1845 Edmund Getty was elected as a member of the Royal Irish Academy. A tall and imposing character he died suddenly in 1857 of heart disease.
Today he is relatively unknown but he contributed greatly to the growth and prosperity of Belfast in the early 19th Century and was also instrumental in the foundation of the strong artistic cultural and scientific life of Belfast.
In the years since Kilbarron Castle became a ruin it has hosted a number of distinguished visitors who have left a written record of their visit. The earliest that we know of is the visit of Mervyn Archdall sometime before 1768 when his book was published.
In 1768 Mervyn Archdall wrote a book called “Monasticum Hibernicum ” listing all the churches priories and monasteries of ancient Ireland. Many errors were subsequently corrected in a new edition of the book revision of the book with notes by Patrick F. Moran and other antiquaries began in parts, at Dublin in 1871.
Where this book is of particular interest for those researching the history of Kilbarron Castle is that the publication includes an entry for Kilbarron Church and a passing mention of the castle. This extract is taken from the revised edition of 1871.
“Kilbarran- This is the name of a locality about four or five miles north-west of Ballyshannon. It possesses much antiquarian interest for it has the remains of the old castle or fortress of the O’Clerys, as well as those of the church or monastery from which the parish derives its name”.
It continues by giving the background of the Church’s founder. “Its foundation is attributed to St Colum-cille himself. Manus O’Donnell, in his life of the saint, mentions the fact, and adds a long and beautiful account of the circumstances which let him to establish it. St Barrainn whom he appointed to govern it, was a relative of his own and a descendant of Conal –Gulban.”
Mervyn Archdall was a descendant of John Archdale or Archdall of Abbotts Hall, Darsham, in Suffolk who was granted estates in Co Fermanagh to be later known as Castle Archdale, as part of the Plantation of Ulster.
Ruins of the first Castle Archdale which was built in 1615. It was burned during the 1641 rebellion and again during the Williamite wars. Eventually fell into ruin when the family built a new house in the 18th Century. It was demolished in the early part of the 20th Century.
Melvyn was born in Dublin in 1723 and later graduated from Trinity College taking Holy Orders. There too he developed his interest in history and when his mentor Richard Peacock, Archdeacon of Dublin, became Bishop of Ossory he appointed Mervyn Archdall to the living of Attanagh (partly in Queen’s County and part in Kilkenny) He was also a member of the Royal Irish Academy. He died in 1791.
Thinking that we had found evidence that Kilbarron Castle was a ruin when Mervyn Archdall’s “Monasticum Hibernicum” was published in 1768, further research has revealed that all the footnotes were added to the original text by Patrick F. Moran in the second edition in 1871 and the above extract was most likely written in 1871. Other references in the extract mention Cú Coigcríche Uí Cléirigh’s will which in 1768 was still in the possession of his descendants in Drung in Co Cavan and was unlikely to have been available to Mervyn Archdall, though not impossible. It was only after the UíCléirigh manuscripts were purchased by George Petrie in 1831 that this information became available.
So we are no further on in determining when exactly Kilbarron Castle was abandoned- The quest continues!
Copies of Mervyn Archdall’s original book are to be found in the British Library and Trinity College where it would be interesting to double check the original entry for “Kilbarran” to see what exactly are the differences in the information there and the information in the second edition of the book.
The next distinguished visitor who wrote about Kilbarron castle was the Reverend Henry Major who contributed an article on Kilbarron Parish for a publication called “A statistical account or Parochial survey of Ireland” by William Shaw Mason, a book with facts and observations from a selected number of parishes around Ireland.
The Reverend Henry Major was the Rector of Kilbarron Parish. His ancestors had come to the district in the early 18th Century. Henry Major was a lawyer who became an agent for the Conolly estate sometime before 1745.
In 1719 William (Speaker) Conolly, whose father was an innkeeper in Ballyshannon, bought the Ffolliott estate which comprised of most of the land in the parishes of Kilbarron and Inishmacsaint as well as part of the parish of Drumhome.
William Conolly was Speaker, the presiding officer, in the Irish House of Commons. Due to his modest background he never got a title even though he was one of the richest and most powerful men in Ireland in the 18th Century.
A native of Ballyshannon, Conolly’s chief residence was at Castletown House in Co Kildare but they kept a summer residence at Cliff House overlooking the Cliff falls on the Erne between Ballyshannon and Belleek.
Henry Major also became one of the major landholders in the area by the 1770s leasing the townland of Camlin Erwin, which would later become known as Camlin Major, the other part of the townland known as Camlin Tredennick.
The Reverend Henry Major, possibly a grandson of the elder Henry Major, was born in 1770 and on his tombstone in the graveyard of St Anne’s Church in Ballyshannon it further states that became “rector and vicar of the United Parishes of Killireran and Knockmoy in the diocese of Tuam and vicar of Kilbarron in the diocese of Raphoe.”and that he died in 1819.
The essay gives a very general view of life and times in the parish of Kilbarron. He states that there is about 1,051 families in the parish, allowing for six persons per family giving a total 6,306 persons. He remarks that “the lower orders are generally lively and docile; quick in apprehending the trades to which they are apprenticed to and friendly and well disposed. They generally speak English but Irish not unfrequently. In stature they are of a size usual in most other parts of the Island”.
The full essay by Reverend Henry Major can be read on Google Books.
In 1802 some twelve years before the account on the parish of Kilbarron by the Reverend Henry Major, Dr James McParlan published a “Statistical Survey of County Donegal”. He was employed by the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society) who asked him to carry out a survey of a number of Irish counties on their economy both urban and rural and to make suggestions on how to improve it.
The report on Donegal can be read online (Trove) and is a very interesting snapshot of life in the county at that time.
Front piece of the survey which can be read on the Trove website (National Library of Australia see
There is also attached a survey of Co Tyrone by McEvoy for Lord Jim Mountjoy
Doctor James McParlan, a medical doctor by profession, was interested in the health and wellbeing of the people and blamed the distillation of spirits as the chief ill of the lower classes. He complained that they used what barley they grew, not to feed themselves but to make their spirits (poteen).
The Dublin Society asked him to particularly report on the state of education and that of tithes. The latter was the tax collected from each landholding tenant, regardless of their religious persuasion for the support of the clergy of the Established Church. This tithe was deeply despised by all faiths but particularly by Presbyterians and other non-conformist sects, as well as Catholics, who had the added undertaking of supporting their own clergy and churches. In this, James reports that generally the tithe in Donegal is not onerous and says
“it is impossible however, that this could be otherwise, for the clergy of this county, to most of whom I have for some years had the honour of being known, are composed of gentlemen conspicuous for every species of virtue and of worth”
He reports on the state of agriculture in the county, remarking that in the area south of the Erne around Ballyshannon the Leitrim “loy” spade is used for most spadework. He reports that work had started near Belleek in building a canal bypassing the various falls and rapids on the Erne between Belleek and Ballyshannon. (This part of the canal bypassed the waterfall at Belleek was completed but the project was eventually abandoned) He writes about various ruins of castles in the county mentioning Donegal Castle, Doe Castle and Greencastle but the ne of particular interest to us is his remarks on Kilbarron Castle.
The map of Donegal published in the Statistical Survey of Co Donegal bt Dr James McParlan 1802 see
“Kilbarren Castle-two miles north-west of Ballyshannon, built by O’Skineens, on a precipice over the sea; it does not seem to have been strong or important; very few of only of the ruins remains”
This remark possibly confirms our belief that Kilbarron Castle was not a castle as such but a bardic school – stone buildings that were not churches or monasteries of any antiquity were invariably referred to as “castles”.
These amazing images are the results of Simon Downing’s photogrammetry survey of Kilbarron Castle in January 2018.
Simon is a community pharmacist in Waterford with a background in computational modelling and engineering. He has a keen interest in applying the emerging scanning technique of photogrammetry to Archaeology.
These images show the site of the Castle and the surrounding fields along with images of potential anomalies that need further investigation.
Thank you to Simon for permission to share these images here on our website.
In 1837 Samuel Lewis published his book called the “Topographical Dictionary of Ireland“in which he gives a description of the main features and landmarks in every civil parish in Ireland. Main towns are given a separate description.
The Parish of Kilbarron in the Barony of Tirhugh, in the County of Donegal, in the Province of Ulster, has a very interesting entry. It tells us that there are over forty townlands and a population of 10,251 people living in the Parish. The main town in the parish is Ballyshannon. In its own separate entry Ballyshannon’s population is given at 3,775 people with over 1,000 living in the “Purt” situated on the south side of the River Erne and in the neighbouring parish of Inishmacsaint. (In 2016 Ballyshannon’s population is given at 2,229).
He stated that the parish comprises of almost 23,933 acres of which 900 acres are under water, half the parish was arable land, the remainder meadow, pasture and mountain bog.
The principle seats listed by Samuel Lewis were
Parkhill belonging to the representatives of the late J. O’Neill, Esq;
Cavangarden, the residence of T. J. Atkinson, Esq;
Cherrymount of Dr Crawford;
Camlin Tredennick of I. Tredennick, Esq;
Fort William of W. Tredennick, Esq;
Danby of J. Forbes, Esq;
Wardton of J. Ffolliott, Esq;
Laputa of J.F. Johnson, Esq and
Cliff House of Col. Conolly.
In fact most of the parish belonged to the Conolly family of Castletown House in Kildare (Speaker Conolly who was born in Ballyshannon, bought the Manor of Ballyshannon from the Ffolliott family in 1718) The above mentioned gentry owning leases from the Conolly estate and others such as John Ffolliott, a descendant of Henry Ffolliott, the first Baron Ballyshannon, held a lease of Ballymacaward townland from Trinity College.
Wardtown Castle, built in the 1740s by the Ffolliott family, was abandoned in 1916 and was in ruins by the 1920s.
The tragic tale of Colleen Bawn (Cáilín Bán) is reputedly based on an elopement at Wardtown Castle in the 18th Century by Helen Ffolliott.
Many of these grand houses were demolished and flooded as a result of the Erne Hydro Electric Scheme in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Samuel Lewis in his essay on the parish of Kilbarron goes on to mention Kilbarron Castle stating that “near the glebe house on a stupendous rock rising almost perpendicular out of the sea, are the ruins of the castle of Kilbarron which is supposed to have been inhabited by freebooters”.
This latter statement seems odd but it is possible that in the years after its destruction or decay of the castle in the 17th Century, that it may have been used as a lookout point for smugglers landing contraband at the castle flag situated below the castle. We know that there was a brisk illegal trade in Spanish and French wines their import being prohibited during the Napoleonic wars between France and England between 1793 and 1815.
However apart from this assertion we have not heard or seen any other spoken or written evidence that Kilbarron was ever used by freebooters.
On January 16th 1841 an extensive article on the history and background of Kilbarron Castle was published in the Irish Penny Journal along with a woodcut showing the ruins of the castle. This woodcut shows that the ruins of the castle were much more extensive at that time than they are today.
The Irish Penny Journal was a weekly magazine with stories of the people and history of places all around Ireland.
The Irish Penny Journal published 52 issues between 1840 and 1841. It was a weekly paper edited by the antiquarian George Petrie, containing original contributions by the William Carleton, James Clarence Mangan, John O’Donovan James Hardiman, Anne- Marie Hall and Edward Walsh. Many of the illustrations were by William Frederick Wakeman. A number of these had previously contributed to the earlier Dublin Penny Journal which existed between 1832 and 1837.
It was a magazine which hoped to reach a mass audience throughout Ireland costing one penny but its format of being non-denominational and apolitical perhaps was its downfall and it remained in existence for only over a year.
The contribution about the bardic O’Clery family and their lofty home overlooking Donegal Bay was written by “P” almost certainly George Petrie who had purchased the various manuscripts originally belonging to Cúcoigcríche (Cugory) Uí Cléirigh and handed down through the various generations of his descendants until loaned or sold to Edward O’Reilly by John O’Clery. These including the Uí Cléirigh Book of Genealogy a copy of the Leabhair Gabála, The book of Invasions and various other manuscripts. These George Petrie bought at the late Edward O’Reilly’s auction in 1837 for the Royal Irish Academy.