Set into a curve in the river Eske in what is now the center of Donegal Town, Donegal Castle was once one of the most important strongholds for one of Ireland’s most powerful clans. The fearsome O’Donnells built the castle in the 15th century and stayed in the tower house until they were forced to abandon their home (and all of Ireland) during the Flight of the Earls.
Today, the restored structure offers an incredible look inside one of Ireland’s best Gaelic Castles and has guided tours to highlight the fascinating history.
Here is all you need to know about how to visit Donegal Castle in Co. Donegal.
The name Donegal is the English translation of Dún na nGall, which means “Fortress of the Foreigner” in Irish. The name probably referred to a Viking settlement that was once located in this corner of Ireland, but no archaeological evidence of a large fortress has ever been found. In fact, the largest fortified structure in the area seems to have been Donegal Castle.
Built strategically along the River Eske, Donegal Castle was controlled by the O’Donnell Clan – one of the most powerful families in Ireland. The O’Donnells exerted huge influence across the Emerald Isle from the 13th to the early 17th century, and Donegal Castle was one of their preferred strongholds.
Donegal Castle was built by the clan chief, Red Hugh O’Donnell, in 1474. It quickly became known as one of the best Gaelic castles ever constructed. In 1566, the Lord Deputy of Ireland wrote home to England describing Donegal Castle as:
"...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."
As perfect as the castle was, the O’Donnell Clan was forced to abandoned it in 1607 when they escaped Ireland in the Flight of the Earls following the Nine Years War. As they fled, the family destroyed the castle’s tower in an attempt to stop the castle from being used to fight any Gaelic clans.
The English monarchy quickly handed Donegal Castle over to Captain Basil Brooke as a reward for fighting for the crown in the war, and as part of a plan to colonize Ireland known as the Plantation of Ulster. The Brooke family restored and expanded the castle and lived on the grounds until 1670. Unfortunately, the next owners allowed Donegal Castle to fall into disrepair and it sat in a ruinous state until it was handed over to the Office of Public works at the end of the 1800s.
Restoration work on Donegal Castle did not begin until the 1990s. The partial reconstruction has been carefully carried out to maintain the historical look of the buildings, and has largely added new roofs and restored some rooms.
What to See
Donegal Castle is made up of original structures built by the O’Donnell clan and additions that were built in the 17th century by the English family who later owned the castle.
The most distinguishing feature of Donegal Castle is the tower house – the tallest part of the building complex. It is likely original, but the Brooke family expanded the tower and added windows and turrets when they lived here in the 1600s. The Brooks also constructed the English Manor House directly below the tower in 1623. It has beautiful Gothic doors which were reserved for servants on the ground floor, and much more elaborate entrances on the second floor.
The best place to see some of the original architecture from the O’Donnell Clan’s time is in the ground level storerooms which have vaulted ceilings and cobblestone floors dating back to the construction of the castle. You can also admire the so-called “trip staircase” which was built with uneven stairs to trip up any invading enemy fighters.
Location and How to Visit
Donegal Castle is located right in the middle of Donegal Town in the Province of Ulster in the Republic of Ireland. The elegant stone building is built near the mouth of Donegal Bay, nestled into a bend of the River Eske.
Donegal Castle truly an unmissable stop whenever you are passing through town. It is open every day from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Easter through mid-September, and then 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. for the rest of the year), and offers guided tours every hour.
Admission is €5 for adults and €3 for children and you need about 45 minutes to experience everything.
What Else to Do Nearby
Donegal Castle is one of the most famous sights in Donegal town but the entire area is beautiful and worth exploring. The O’Donnell Clan also built the nearby Lough Eske Castle, which is now rebuilt as a five-star hotel with a spa.
For unforgettable scenery, head out to the Slieve League – the highest cliffs in Europe which look out over the crashing Atlantic Ocean in Co Donegal.
And if you want to look the part while exploring this part of Ireland, stop into Magee’s tweed shop in the center of Donegal Town for luxurious takes on the classic cozy fabric.