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thoughts were as wild and turbulent as the waves that washed his sea-girt eagle dwelling; and such, in ignorance of its unpublished history, has been the conclusion formed by modern topographers, who tell us that it was supposed to have been the habitation of freebooters.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 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 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.