Donegal Castle (Irish: Caisleán Dhún na nGall) is a castle situated in the centre of Donegal Town in County Donegal in Ulster, Ireland. For most of the last two centuries, the majority of the buildings lay in ruins but the castle was almost fully restored in the early 1990s.
The castle consists of a 15th-century rectangular keep with a later Jacobean style wing. The complex is sited on a bend in the River Eske, near the mouth of Donegal Bay, and is surrounded by a 17th-century boundary wall. There is a small gatehouse at its entrance mirroring the design of the keep. Most of the stonework was constructed from locally sourced limestone with some sandstone. The castle was the stronghold of the O'Donnell clan, Lords of Tír Conaill and one of the most powerful Gaelic families in Ireland from the 5th to the 16th centuries.
Donegal (Irish: Dún na nGall), translates as Fort of the Foreigner possibly coming from a Viking fortress in the area destroyed in 1159. However, due to hundreds of years of development, no archaeological evidence of this early fortress has been found. Red Hugh O’Donnell (Red Hugh I), wealthy chief of the O’Donnell clan, built the castle in 1474. At the same time, he and his wife Nuala built a Franciscan monastery further down the river. A local legend tells of a tunnel connecting the two but no evidence for this has been found. The castle was regarded as one of the finest Gaelic castles in Ireland. This was indicated by a report by the visiting English Viceroy, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, in 1566, in a letter to William Cecil (created The 1st Baron Burghley in 1571), the Lord High Treasurer, describing it as "the largest and strongest fortress in all Ireland", adding:
"it is the greatest I ever saw in an Irishman's hands: and would appear to be in good keeping; one of the fairest situated in good soil and so nigh a portable water a boat of ten tonnes could come within ten yards of it"
In 1607, after the Nine Years war the leaders of the O'Donnell clan left Ireland in the Flight of the Earls. In 1611, during the Plantation of Ulster, the castle and its lands were granted to an English Captain, Basil Brooke. The towerhouse had been severely damaged by the departing O'Donnells to prevent the castle being used against the Gaelic clans but was quickly restored by its new owners. Brooke also added windows, a gable and a large manor-house wing to the keep, all in the Jacobean style.
The Brooke family owned the castle up until the 1670s, when they moved to near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh. At that time, in the 1670s, the Brookes sold the castle to the Gore dynasty, who later became Earls of Arran in the Peerage of Ireland. The castle fell into a ruinous state under the Gores in the early 18th century. In 1898, the then owner, The 5th Earl of Arran, vested the castle in the care of The Office of Public Works.
In the early 1990s, the castle was partially restored by The Office of Public Works (The O.P.W.). The towerhouse has had new roofing and flooring added, in keeping with the original styles and techniques used in the 15th and 17th centuries. The stonework has been restored and the manor wing has been partially roofed. Some of the oak timbers used came from the Colebrooke Estate, just outside Brookeborough in County Fermanagh. Parts of the exterior of the towerhouse have been harled. The castle is now open to the public and often hosts events such as Gaelic cultural evenings or Ulster-Scots events.
- Calendar of State Papers for Ireland, 1566
- Donegal Castle on the Heritage Ireland website