A diary of the work on the West Gable Wall of Kilbarron Church

Work has now been completed on the west gable wall of Kilbarron Church situated near Rossnowlagh in south Co. Donegal. The church was founded by St Barrainn, a kinsman of St Columcille, in the 6th Century. This is a diary of the conservation work undertaken in 2023.

A view of Kilbarron Church pictured some years ago before conservation work was started

Work has now been completed on the west gable wall of Kilbarron Church. In addition the lintel over the window in the west gable wall has been repaired. As well the lintel over the entrance doorway of the church has been reinforced with stainless steel supports cleverly concealed above the lintel taking the weight of the stonework above the lintel.

The timeline of the work was as follows

The group were awarded funding through the Community Monument Fund administrated by Donegal County Council in March 2023. After sending work out to tender and getting quotes we were able to employ Michael McGroarty as contractor. Later in May, a site meeting was held with interested parties including; Geraldine McManus, Conservation Architect; Tamlyn McManus, Archaeologist; Martin Reed, National Monument Service; Dr Joe Gallagher, Donegal Heritage Officer and Michael McGroarty, Contractor and Stonemason. Additionally members of the Kilbarron Castle & Church Conservation Group who have been instrumental in getting this project underway.

Seen above are: Martin Reed, Tamlyn McManus, Molly Reynolds & Michael McGroarty

The main discussion was on the perilous state of the lintel over the main entrance that showed signs of fracturing and the state of the window in the west gable wall. It was agreed that a structural engineer was needed to assess the problem.

Above are left to right: Martin Reed, Tamlyn McManus, Molly Reynolds & Michael McGroarty

Left to right Dr Joe Gallagher, Tamlyn McManus, Michael McGroarty, Geraldine McManus.
Committee members Martina Needham, Molly Reynolds, Philip & Ruth Cleary pictured with Martin Reed & Geraldine McManus.

Visit to the site of Paul O’Doherty, the structural engineer. By the beginning of September the scaffolding was in place, delayed by the poor weather conditions which meant that the surrounding meadow was late in being mown and saved.

Examining the window lintel Structural engineer, Paul O’Doherty along with Geraldine McManus, Conservation architect & Contractor Michael McGroart

It was decided that the lintel would need to be supported from the weight of the stones above. The lintel above the window was also checked and a plan to repoint the lintel replacing missing stones to make the opening secure from further deterioration.

Conservation work began in October clearing the brambles on the outside of the church and repointing the west gable wall, later replacing the missing corner stones on the south west corner of the gable.

Michael working on repointing the stonework on the outside of the west gable wall
Uncovered base of the west gable wall showing the large foundation stones underpinning the walls. The stone church is believed to have been built in the early 15th Century replacing a much older structure.
Close up of the window before repair
Above the missing cornice stones

View of the re-pointed west gable wall looking south

Pictured on the right.

This is looking southwards along the outside of the newly repointed west gable wall. Two formerly missing corner stones have been replaced on the south west corner.

The project continued through October and November with the meticulous work carried out on re-pointing all the stonework. The weather made work difficult as all the repointing was using lime mortar as the binding. This material is very temperature sensitive and the walls had to be covered in sacking to allow the mixture to mature whilst setting.

The lintel over the entrance doorway after repair
Entrance doorway before lintel repaired and supported
Contrasting view of the west gable wall of the church from the inside on the left before work and on the right as it looked after conservation work was completed
Kilbarron Church after completion of the conservation work on the 4th December. The site will be tidied up in the next few weeks

Conservation work on Kilbarron Castle will begin again in 2024 and other work on Kilbarron church will also be undertaken. We acknowledge the kind co-0peration of the landowners of the site and surroundings and are grateful of ther understanding whilst this conservation work was in progress.

If you wish to help the project with a small financial contribution follow the link to ‘Adopt a Stone’

Help our Castle and Church conservation work by donating to our Adopt-A-Stone appeal.

The Living Heritage of Kilbarron Church- Heritage Week Sunday August 13th 2023

The Kilbarron Castle and Church Conservation Group held their Heritage Week event on Sunday 13th August at the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Primary School Hall in Creevy, situated some two miles outside Ballyshannon on the road to Rossnowlagh.
The event was called the Living Heritage of Kilbarron Church and are demonstrated some of the crafts and skills that went into its construction in the early 15th Century.

View of the recently conserved east gable wall of Kilbarron Church

The  Heritage Week event took place on Sunday 13th August at 2.30pm in the hall of the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Primary School  in Creevy, situated some two miles outside Ballyshannon on the road to Rossnowlagh (R231).

Skills such as the preparation of hot lime used to build the walls, was explained by stonemason Michael McGroarty who earlier in 2022 completed the work on the east gable of the church and who will work on the west gable wall beginning in late August.

Michael McGroarty explaining the techniques used in the preparation of hot lime mortar and its importance in ancient structures. Here also seen is the replica of Kilbarron Church at the school.

Wood carving was demonstrated by local artist Jim McIntyre. These techniques would have been used in the ornamentation of the interior of the church but Jim gives it a distinctly modern twist with his pantheon of wood sprites, fairies and bearded figures.
Ruth Cleary demonstrated the art of quilting fabric showing the techniques and skills used to make sure that pieces of fabric could be repurposed and recycled, something that our ancestors understood and we in this age are realising is something we should all do.
There was a guided visit to the ruin guided by Archaeologist Franc Myles who told those assembled about the architecture and history of the site. He also explained the current conservation plans and work that will begin in late August 2023.

Light refreshments of tea and coffee and home made scones, and pastries were enjoyed by everyone afterwards.

Many thanks to all those who helped organise, participate and attend the event which hopefully has made more people aware of the conservation project being undertaken by the group.

The Story of Kilbarron Castle Part 6

In the Ulster Plantation the Abbey Assaroe lands north of the Erne were granted to Sir Francis Gofton who later sold these to Sir Henry Ffolliott. The O’Clery lands were divided between Trinity College and the Established Bishop of Raphoe. In compensation Lughaidh O’Clery was given a freehold for his life in Glenswilly shared with eleven other individuals dispossessed of their lands in the barony of Tirhugh.

Later in 1613, four hundred of the six hundred acres belonging to the Diocese of Raphoe in the parish of Kilbarron were leased by the Anglican Bishop Knox to Francis Bracey for thirty years, the remaining 200 acres comprising of the townland of Kildoney became the glebe land for the parish. It is not known for certain if Francis Bracey ever lived in Kilbarron Castle but he probably did as it would have been one of the few stone structures on the leasehold.

Bishop Andrew Knox Anglican  Bishop of Raphoe

As for the former owner, it is believed that Lughaidh Uí Cléirigh (now listed as Lewis O’Clery in documents of the period) died before 1623 but quite likely before then, as both Lewis and Sean were no longer listed as living in Glenswilly in the barony Kilmacrennan in 1619 according to Pynnar’s Survey of that year. As their portion of the 960 acres (shared between eleven other people) was a freehold for Lewis’s life only, it reverted to the Crown and was subsequently granted to Sir Ralph Gore.

Francis Bracey or Brassy leased the Kilbarron lands from the Bishop of Raphoe, Andrew Knox in 1613, holding a lease for thirty years. Francis Bracey came from England possibly from Worcestershire where incidentally Henry Ffolliott family seat, Pirton Hall was situated. It is not known if he lived in Kilbarron Castle or was it already abandoned by this time.

Those listed as sharing the 960 acres in Glenswilly

In 1641 rebellion broke out across Ulster, an abortive attempt was made to seize Ballyshannon in October of that year but it was relieved by Sir Frederick Hamilton of Manorhamilton who defeated the insurgents and took prisoners which were later hanged in the Manorhamilton Castle including one Donnell O’Clery.

Manorhamilton Castle

South Donegal remained largely in government control during the next ten years although in the shifting sands of loyalties it was Royalist first and later gave support the Parliamentary  forces under Oliver Cromwell. In the aftermath of the Parliamentary victor a survey was ordered and carried out between 1652 and 1655 where all land and property was assessed with the view to seizing from both former Royalist supporters of the executed King Charles I and the supporters of the Confederate Parliament in Kilkenny. The Kilbarron lands were assessed as being the property of The Bishop of Raphoe, a prominent royalist, Bishop Leslie and one of the leaders of the Laagan army. The survey shows that Kilbarron is a ruin described in the survey map as “the ruins of a stone house”

Map Courtesy of the Downs Survey Trinity College showing the Cromwellian confiscations of 1654.
Close up of above map showing “The ruins of a stone House”

The Bishop’s lands were forfeited over the period of Parliamentary rule but were returned to the diocese of Raphoe when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.

Heritage Week Event Sunday August 21st 2022

Ruth explaining the story of the Catesby cave

Kilbarron Castle & Church Conservation Group held their Heritage Week Event on Sunday 21st August at the Abbey Mill meeting room beside their tearooms. We had originally planned to have it at Kilbarron Church but with the conservation work about to start on the east gable wall it was decided to switch to the Abbey Mill for access reasons due to scaffolding being erected at the church site. The weather was fine and sunny and we had a large attendence.

Abbey River

The event began with an introduction by Ruth Cleary who told us about the efforts of the group to improve the biodiversity of the evirons inside the ruins of the church by removing invasive species such as bramble and allow the return of wild flowers She ten spoke about the special bio-diversity of the Abbey River system which has been largely undisturbed since the 19th Century and has an abundance of plant species only found in the Donegal Bay area.

The attendees exploring the Catesby cave

We then had a short walk to the nearby Catsby cave where in the secluded glade masses were said, clandestinely during Penal times in Ireland.

The group then walked to the other side of the Abbey Mill to the Abbey Well which is dedicated to St Patrick and where Ruth Cleary told the group of the plant species found on the Erne estuary.

The rag tree beside the Abbey Well(St Patrick’s)
Listening to the talks by Dr Milton Matthews and Gerry McCafferty of Inland fisheries Ireland

Afterwards the group returned to the meeting room where they heard three presentations firstly on the history of Kilbarron old Church by Fergus Cleary and later a talk on the role of Inland Fisheries Ireland by Gerry McCafferty and a talk on the efforts to save the migrating fish species of Atlantic Salmon, Sea trout and Eels by Dr Milton Matthews. Aterwards we were all treated to some light refreshments in the Abbey Mill Cafe which is entirely run by a dedicated band of Volunteers.

Many thanks to all who attended and to the volunteers who all helped to make the day such a success.

The story of St Barrainn

St Adomnán

In the 1532 Manus Uí Domhnaill (O’Donnell) King of Tír Connaill, wrote a book on the life of St Columcille called “Betha Choluim Chille” The book relies on a much earlier manuscript written by St Adomnán (St Eunan) in the 7th Century called “ Vita Columbae” St Adomnán is patron saint of the Diocese of Raphoe and Columcille’s successor as Abbot of Iona.

In the Betha Choluim Chille there are references to St Barrainn  when St Columcille visited  Tír Aedha (Tirhugh) and Eas Ruaidh (Assaroe) where Columcille undone a curse place by St Patrick on the south bank of the Erne where no fish could be caught

“And it is thus Assaroe was at that time: the fish could not cross over it up the river. And Padraig had cursed the south side thereof long while afore, by reason of a grudge against Cairbre son of Niall of the Nine Hostages that would not take the Faith from him, and because Cairbre did not suffer Padraig to make churches or dwellings there- abouts. (For from Drobais to Assaroe the land to that side thereof belonged to Cairbre, having been given him by Conall Gulban as largesse, along with his allotted portion.) But he blessed the north side

Of the blessing that Columcille laid upon the south side of Assaroe, that Padraig had cursed, and upon the north side, that Pádraig in his honour had blessed but partly. And of the staff of Barrann macMuredhaigh that was returned to him by a miracle of Columcille, and of the Trough of Barrann. its name from that day till now.

St Columcille

And by reason of Pádraig ‘s blessing there had been caught no fish in that place save on the north side only, and there not many. And Pádraig had prophesied at that time, and had said that it was to honour Columcille that he had blessed that side, and that Columcille himself should come to bless it after him, and from that time there should not be a place in Erin where more fish should be caught than there.

‘Columcille went then towards Assaroe. And he made a stay at the mouth of a little river called the Fuindsennach that issueth into the sea to the north thereof. And he spoke to a certain holy man that was in his fellowship, one Barrann mae Muiredhaigh son of Echaidh son of Conall Gulban, that was a kinsman to him by blood, and he inquired of him where his staff was.

Barrann made answer and said to him, “I cast it at the demons as they went into the sea when we were driving them from Senglenn,”” said he, “and I have not chanced upon it since that time.””

“It is my will if it be God’s will,” saith Columcille, ““for thy staff to come to thee to this place.””

With that they saw the staff coming up to them from a rock before them. And a stream of water gushed forth in the track thereof, so that there is a well of fresh water in that place to this day. And Columcille said that he would give as an honour to Barrann that, the well should be named from him. So that the Stone Trough of Barrann hath been its name from that day till noirighw.

Abbey Riv

The Fuindsennach is now commonly called the Abbey River which flows past the ruins of the later 12th Century founded Cistercian Abbey Assaroe.  

Work completed on East wall of Kilbarron Church

The conservation work on the east wall of the church was completed in October 2022.. The ivy that was putting the wall out of shape has been removed and all the stonework reset and repointed using recommended lime mortar mix.

The conservation work on the east wall of the church was completed in October 2022.. The ivy that was putting the wall out of shape has been removed and all the stonework reset and repointed using recommended lime mortar mix.

Conservation Architect Geraldine McManus discussing the mortar mix with Michael McGroarty
Scaffolding in place and work begins

Our thanks to the stonemason Michael McGroarty ably assisted by Dermot who carried out the work and to Mary Roper, the landowner, who gave permission to carry out the conservation work on her property.

A view of the work progressing inside the east gable wall of the church

The work began in late August 2022 and was in progress until mid- October. The plan involved resetting the stones and re-pointing the stonework with lime mortar which would have been used in the original construction. One unexpected discovery made was finding a very large Ivy rood inbedded deep into the north east corner of the gable(see below) Lastly thanks to the hard-working committee and especially to the Heritage Council who part funded the project.

Michael McGroarty with the Ivy root removed from the wall September 2022
Outside of the east gable wall before and after conservation work
View of Inside of the eastgable wall before and after conservation work completed October 2022.

The Story of Kilbarron Castle Part 5

In the aftermath of the defeat of the Ulster chieftains and their allies at the Battle of Kinsale in December 1601 , most returned northward and retreated into their home territories There they fought on for some time until they realised that there was no aid coming from Spain. Many lesser chiefs had already sued for peace by the time Hugh O’Neill met Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, at Mellifont Abbey, the home of Garret Moore, for surrender terms in the spring of 1603.

Melliifont Abbey, Co Louth

Unexpectedly the terms given seemed very generous but they had not realised that Queen Elizabeth I had died some days previous and Lord Mountjoy was anxious to make peace before King James the VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne as James I and might have made even more generous terms with the Gaelic Chieftains, after all he had aided them overtly in their rebellion against the English.

The main leaders Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell  were restored in their English titles as the Earl of Tyrone and the Earl of Tyrconnell respectively. Other minor chieftains were also confirmed in their titles but not restored to all their lands.  Initially all Monasteries in Ulster were dissolved and  the monastic lands were forfeited to the crown. The lucrative Cistercian Abbey Assaroe lands in south Tyrconnell near Áth Seannaigh (Ballyshannon) were offered for sale and Rory O’Donnell tried to acquire these but neither he or the Earl of Tyrone were fully trusted by the English officials. This became more acute when Charles Blount returned to England in 1605 and was replaced by Arthur Chichester whose own brother, the governor of Carrickfergus had been murdered by the McDonnells of the Glens of Antrim during the Nine Years War.  He felt that many the officers of the army had not been compensated for their service during the war, whilst the former rebels had got off lightly.

In 1607 Lughaidh Uí Cléirigh, Ollamh to the Ui Domhnaills was summoned to the inquisition at “Liffer” (Lifford). Lewis O’Clery along with eleven other jurors were selected from the Gaelic nobility to act in judgement of the recent departure of Rory O’Donnell, his immediate family and followers who left Rathmullen along with the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill and Cú Connacht Maguire Lord of Fermanagh and  others .

The findings of the court were somewhat of a foregone conclusion and the Earl was dispossessed of his lands and property. Similar inquisitions were held throughout Ulster resulting in the same conclusions and opening the way for the colonisation of Counties; Donegal, Coleraine, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh and Cavan in Ulster and Leitrim in Connacht which became known as the Plantation of Ulster.

In Co Donegal the lands belonging to Niall Garbh O’Donnell in the barony of Raphoe and those of Sir Cahir O’Doherty in the two baronies of Inishowen also became available after Cahir O’Doherty’s revolt and subsequent suppression in 1608.

A further inquisition was held in Lifford in August 1608 with Sir Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy and Sir John Davies, Attorney General and chief architect of the project  in attendance. The freeholders of the county, including Lewis O’Clery. listed their properties and dues.

“Herenaghs- 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 Raphoe13s 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.

beatha Aodh Ruaidh O’Donnell

The Barony of Tirhugh in south Donegal, the mensal lands of the O’Donnells, became an area reserved for Government use. The former Assaroe monastic lands were divided between Sir Henry Ffolliott, Governor of Ballyshanny Castle who was granted the monastic lands south of the River Erne on condition he kept fifty horsemen and maintained the Castles at Ballyshanny, Bundrowes and Belleeke (the latter castle was possibly on the hill where the later Battery fort was built in the 1790s). The monastic lands north of the Erne were granted to Sir Ffrancis Gofton royal auditor and colleague of Sir John Davies (he later sold his grant to Sir Henry Ffolliott) 

For a time Lewis O’Clery was left in possession of Kilbarron, and may have written the Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Ui Dhomhnaill, the Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell whilst still living there but all was to change…………….

The Story of Kilbarron Castle Part 4

Part Four of the story tells of the golden age of the castle when it became a place of learning when Diarmaid na dtrí Sgol founded a bardic school on the site.

“Caislén Cille barrainne do briseadh la Domhnall mac muircirtaigh”

This short sentence is all that is written about the destruction of Kilbarron Castle in 1391 by Donal MacMortagh, one of the O’Conor Clan of Sligo in the entry for the year 1391 in the “Annals of the Four Masters” (Annála Riochta Na hEireann). It reads in English ” Kilbarron Castle was destroyed by Donal MacMortagh” (O’Conor)

He was descended from Brian Luighnech Uí Conchobhair the son of Toirdelbach Uí Conchobair who was High King of Ireland in the 10th Century.

At this time the Normans, who a century earlier had almost conquered the whole of Connacht, were in decline and the resurgent O’Conors were expanding their power northwards, in this case under their chieftain Donal MacMortagh who ruled from1368-1395.

The land south of the Erne had been part of the ancient Kingdom of Breffne and part of Connacht but by this time, the Uí Domhnaill (O’Donnells) also claimed lordship over the area between the River Erne and the River Drowes. This ultimately led to conflict. The Uí Domhnaill made an interesting solution –they granted most of the land south of the Erne to the Cistercian Monastery of Assaroe that would become in later documents described as “Baile na managh” the home of the monks.

The intention was that marauding O’Conors would first destroy church property and face the wrath of the monks and ultimately that of God – quite often areas on the boundaries of rival clan lands was given to the Church, although this didn’t stop clans raiding their rival’s lands and properties!

Meanwhile Cille Barrainne was restored by the Uí Cléirighs, we suppose that they rebuilt the tower house, the other two buildings on the site were built many years later.

The Ua Cléirigh clan did very well over the ensuing years under the patronage of the ruling Uí Domhnaills. In addition to lands around Kilbarron Castle granted originally to the Ua Scingín, they were granted other lands in the surrounding area some of these we can recognise from the modern townland names such as Craoibheach(Creevy) Cill Domhnaigh (Kildoney) Cúl Reamhar (Coolmore) and Droim a Crionn (Drumacrin) in the plain of Magh Ene (The Moy) Others we cannot identify readily such as Ceathrama na  Cuchrach and Ceathrama anTighe Cloiche as the names no longer exist except that likely they are in the near vicinity of the ones we do recognise.

In 1442 Diarmaid Uí Cléirigh established a bardic school at the castle and established three schools of learning Language, Poetry and Chronicling. He became known as Diarmaid na dTrí Sgol (Dermot of the three schools)Members of the clan continued to act as Ollamhs to the Ua Domhnaill ruling clan for the next one hundred and sixty-five years, expanding their control, becoming erenachts to the Assaroe Abbey lands- this was a role akin to a type of land stewards who managed the abbey lands while the Cistercian monks gave their full attention to more heavenly matters! 

Kilbarron Castle 1500 -an artistic impression

The Ua Cléirigh clan did not confine their activities to temporal duties alone and began to fulfil a clerical role within the area. Cosnamhach Ui Cléirigh was appointed rector of the Kilbarron parish in 1430. This continued up onto 1655 when one James O’Clery became parish priest. Their wealth and status was on an upward trend but all this was to come crashing down with the onset of the Nine Years War between the Gaelic Chieftains of Ulster in their attempt to stem the authority of Elizabethan rule in their lands, a struggle that would ultimately lead to momentous change at Kilbarron Castle.

Kilbarron Church (model as displayed in Donegal castle)
Present day ruins of Kilbarron Church

An Illustrated Handbook of the Scenery and Antiquities of South Western Donegal

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.

Dr.. George Petrie

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-(this remark about Kilbarron castle being the home of freebooters is found in Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, published in 1837)

Sketch of the ruins of Kilbarron Castle as seen in Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, &c, by Samuel Carter Hall 1843.

James continues 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.

View of Ballyshannon as illustrated in the book.

The book additionally gives notes on the history of the Clan MacSuibhne (MacSweeny) and can be read on Google Books.

An 18th Century visitor to Ballyshannon

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”

Richard Twiss by Mary Dawson Turner

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.

Irish Houses or Parliament now the Bank of Ireland building in College Green

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:

Illustration of the Salmon Leap at Ballyshannon in “A Tour of Ireland” by Richard Twiss

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”

A view of Ballyshannon showing the fourteen arched bridge by artist Thomas Creswick A.R.A.(1811-1869)

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.

The Salmon Leap photographed in the late 19th or early 20th Century

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:


The ruins of Kilbarron Church and its place in the landscape

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 ruins looking toward Sliabh Liag (Slieve League) on the far side of Donegal bay

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.

Read this study on full here: Kilbarron Church : Landscape Analysis

West wall, Kilbarron Church
Church doorway, south wall.

A Mysterious Lock

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 that:

Excerpt from the Annals of the Four Masters

In modern Irish this excerpt reads as follows

Streedgh Strand north Co. Sligo

“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 Spanish Armada in the Strait of Dover,1588

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 soldiers.

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;

Sir William Fitzwilliam Ist Earl of Southhampton

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.’

In 1587, as Governor of Fotheringhay Castle, in England, Sir William had supervised the execution of the death sentence on Mary, Queen of Scots.

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 in Ireland.

Armada chest in Hugh Allingham’s book “Captain de Cuellar adventures in Connaught and Ulster”
A similar sea chest but made circa 1690

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.”

Map showing the route of the Armada and where the many ships were wrecked

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.

Bill of sale for Woodhill House 1909

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?

The Story of Kilbarron Castle Part 3

In this, the third part of the story of Kilbarron Castle, we cover the transition of the Ollamh to the Ua Domhnaills from the family of Uía Scingín to Ua 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 eight 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.

Abbey Assaroe, overlooking the mouth of the RIver Erne and the sand-dunes of Finner beyond. Photo courtesy of Philip Cleary
The Monastery of Kilmacduagh in Co. Galway.

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 Annals of Connacht record the death of Maithú Uí Scingín in 1289.

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.

The Story of Kilbarron Castle Part 2

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.

Ben Bulben towering over the site of the battle at Creadran Cille. Photo courtesy of Philip Cleary.

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.

Kimacrennan Abbey, Co. Donegal

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.

Lough Key in Co Roscommon.

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.

Annals of Connacht

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.

Uí Scingín

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)

Douglas Hyde (1860- 1949)

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.

The Story of Kilbarron Castle Part 1

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!

View from the castle ruins looking south towards Ben Bulben in Co Sligo

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.

We have a map to help, see Castle Locality

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”.

Artistic impression of the 10th Century wooden promontory fort on the Kilbarron site

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.

Illustration of a Viking ship

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.

Last Occupant of Kilbarron Castle

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.

Rossnowlagh Beach at sunset..
Sir Arthur Chichester (1563 – 1625), 1st Baron Chichester of Belfast

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:

Herenaghs- 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?

Assigned Baronies in Co Donegal 1610

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 Uí Domhnaill”. 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 Uí Domhnail 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.

Beatha Aodh Ruaidh O’Donnell

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.

Visitors to Kilbarron Castle Part 4 (1866)

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.

Glenties Fair Day
Bishop James McDevitt, Bishop of Raphoe 1871-1879

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.

Bardic School

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.
  • Memorisation drills
  • Composition exercises
  • 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)


Image of an Ollamh in the Book of Kells

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.

Bards and Ollamhs

Who were the Bards and Ollamhs?

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.

Kilbarron Castle looking toward Kildoney and River Erne.

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.

Image from the Book of Kells depicting what an Ollamh looked like in the 12th Century.

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

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.

19th Century illustration of a druid (Gallic Wars Book iv H.J. Edwards Loeb 1927

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.

Map showing the lands of the main bardic clans and their patrons

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.