Historic Donegal

County Donegal lies in the far north-west corner of Ireland. It is noted for the beauty of its rugged coastline and heather-covered moors. The wildness of its geography has provided a defence against invasion for many centuries.

Flight of the Earls, DonegalThe older name for Donegal is Tyrconnell ("land of Conall"), commemorating a monarchy founded in the fifth century by Conall Gulban, the son of the famed king Niall of the Nine Hostages. (The name "Donegal", meaning "fort of the foreigners", is thought to derive from a Viking settlement on the site of present-day Donegal Town.)

During the Middle Ages Tyrconnell was the principality of the O'Donnells, one of the two major branches of the Uí Neill dynasty that ruled Ulster for more than a thousand years.

For more information about the O'Donnells visit Wikipedia

In 1601 the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell and their cousins the O'Neills of Tyrone were defeated by the English at the Battle of Kinsale and fled to the Continent from Lough Swilly in northern Donegal. After this "Flight of the Earls" the English government began a long-term program of pacifying Ulster by giving land to Protestant settlers from Lowland Scotland. Because of the poor quality of the arable land in Donegal, however, most of these settlers preferred to remain in the rich agricultural lands of eastern and central Ulster. As a result, in 1922, when the present border of the Irish Republic was established, predominately Catholic Donegal was separated from the rest of Ulster and it became a part of the Republic, to which it is connected by a narrow corridor of land.

Donegal has a long connection with Scotland. Before the Flight of the Earls, the Scottish Highlands and Ireland were one region united by a single language and culture. Even today, Scotland is jokingly said to be "the northernmost county of Ulster". During the days when the O'Donnell chiefs ruled Donegal, they based their military might on "gallowglasses", mercenary soldiers from the Scottish Isles, which were ruled at the time by another of the great Gaelic dynasties, the Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles.

Musicians—at that time the harpers were the most prestigious—moved freely among the courts of the Gaelic nobility in both Ireland and Scotland, and there was no distinction made between the musical styles of the two countries.

After the fall of the Gaelic aristocracy, Scotland became the key to the economy of Donegal. The English landlords demanded rents in cash from their tenants, but the struggling farmers could barely grow enough to feed and clothe themselves, and the local economy was based mainly on barter, with very little money circulating. The system that evolved was that virtually all the adult men in the poorer areas spent the summer months working as migrant farm-workers in eastern Ulster and Lowland Scotland, earning the money to pay the farm rents. Meanwhile the farms were tended by old men, women and children to grow food and wool for clothing. Although the worst excesses of landlordism were abolished by the late 19th century, Donegal remained a poor region and the pattern of seasonal migration to Scotland continued well into the 20th century.

While Donegal may have been financially impoverished, culturally it is one of the richest areas in the Western world. It is one of the last remaining strongholds of the Irish language, and preserves as well a wealth of folklore and traditional customs. The ancient epic poems of the Celts, composed when the Roman Empire was still in existence, were handed down by memory there to be collected by scholars as late as the 1930s. The poetic tradition of sean-nós ("old style) singing in Irish preserves a body of literature that has its roots in the medieval troubadours. Today Donegal is known for its rich and unique musical tradition.