The following is a brief description of the geography, population, economy and culture of Donegal. It is designed to give readers a taste of Donegal.
Donegal lies in the north west of Ireland bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the south west, west and north and by the counties of Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Leitrim to the east and south east. It is the northernmost county in Ireland. Its sense of an identity separate somewhat from the rest of the Republic of Ireland is reinforced by the fact that it has a border of approximately 140km with Northern Ireland and only 9 km with the rest of the Republic. County Donegal comprises an area of 483,042 hectares, equivalent to 1,193,621 acres. Less than half, only 160,000 hectares [400,000 acres], are suitable for agriculture. Almost twice that amount consists of rough pasture and upland bog and is used mainly for sheep grazing, where it is used at all. This land is 200 metres or more above sea level. Some 10,117 hectares are under sea level, including lakes and major tidal inlets.
If Ireland is on the periphery of Europe, then Donegal is on the periphery of Ireland. Its location has been perceived for many years as a distinct disadvantage. Improvements, particularly to major roads, are allowing greater access into the County, but public transport is poor. The poor state of local transportation and roads impacts on people’s quality of life. In cultural terms, however, its location adds to its distinct identity.
It might be said that proximity to Northern Ireland, in the past, acted as a deterrent for economic development in the county. By the same token the recent cessation of violence and the peace process open up new opportunities for the county.
County Donegal is also served by Aerphort Dhún na nGall, the regional airport in Carraig Fhine / Carrickfin. It has the capacity to be a major factor in the development of the County in terms of tourism and commercial/industrial activity.
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According to geologists, such as J. B. Whittow, Donegal is one of the most complex areas in Ireland in terms of its geology. It is, on the other hand, one of the best studied. The Gweebarra fault, which was carved through granite rock by glacial erosion, is one of the key geological features of the county. This fault line was formed as part of the earth movement that led to the Caledonian mountains, and the fault continues under the Atlantic and forms another diagonal rift through Loch Ness, Loch Lochy and Loch Long in the Scottish Highlands.
As recently as ten thousand years ago North Donegal was covered in ice, with only a few peaks visable - Errigal, Slieve Snacht, Muckish. The ice was moving towards the sea, bringing with it rough gravel , smoothing the rocks and leaving them more rounded than before, in a process rather like the effect of giant sandpaper. In some places the movement of the ice led to deep and distinctive scores on the rocks, which allow us today to see the direction of the iceflow.
The ice from the Derryveagh Mountains swept down Glenveagh, along the bays of Mulroy and Sheephaven, over Horn Head and on over the northern coast as far as Bloody Foreland and into the sea. This massive sheet of ice caused the hollowing out of the landscape which gave us Lough Salt, as well as Lough Veagh and Glen Lough; it also created the smaller and more shallow lakes dotted around the Rosses. On top of the ice were thousands of large boulders, known as ‘erratics’ by geologists, which were then left on the ground when the ice finally melted. Near Crolly, in West Donegal, is one such ‘erratic’, called Cloch Mór Léim a tSionnaigh - the 'big rock of the fox’s leap' in Gaelic. The slopes of Errigal are also littered with ‘erratics’.
During the formation of mountains in Donegal rocks were put under unimaginable stress, making them molten and merging them with older rocks. These igneous rocks, as they are known from the Latin word for fire, are one of the main types of rock in Donegal. Granite which is so associated with this part of Donegal, was formed in this way. A walk around the Rosses in the west of the county will provide excellent examples of exposed granite. In the Rosses it has a pinkish tinge and the crystals of glass-like quartz, feldspars - pink and white in colour - and black mica are very visible evidence of how the granite was formed.
In addition to granite the area has plenty of examples of metamorphic rocks. Metamorphic rocks are those which have been changed by heat, where you will see signs of faults and folding. Schists and gneisses are typical metamorphic rocks. Schist - schistus meaning easily cleaved in Latin, is fairly easy to break up, in contrast to both granite and quartzite. Quartzite is a sandstone that has been changed into hard quartz; this is the type of rock you see in the exposed face of Knockalla, Errigal, and Horn Head.
The mountains of Donegal are of interest not only for their rock formation, but also for their height and scenic beauty. The double range of granite mountains on either side of the Gweebarra fault are flanked by other parallel ranges to the south-east and north-west, which consist mainly of quartzite, schist and limestone. These ranges are higher in places than the granite range. Slieve Snacht West is the highest granite mountain in Donegal at 682 metres [2,240 feet], followed by Dooish at 654 metres [2,147 feet], both of them on the northern side of the Gweebarra fault. Moylennanav is the highest granite mountain on the southern side of the fault at 540 metres [1,771 feet]. Mount Errigal, at 751 metres or 2,466 feet, is Donegal’s highest and best known mountain, and as a quartzite mountain is similar in make-up to other mountains in the Caledonian province, found as far south as the Twelve Bins in Connemara and Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. Near Mount Errigal are other quartzite mountains - Muckish 669 mteres [2,197 feet] and Aghla More 364 metres [1,196 feet]. Quartzite mountains such as Aghla at 584 metres [1,916] and Lough Salt Mt. at 501 metres [1,646 feet], are found to the south of the fault. The Knockalla Mountain which overlooks Lough Swilly so dramatically, is a continuation of the Erris Hills in Inishowen. As one would expect the granite hills are generally more rounded in appearance, with the quartzite rocks more jagged; Errigal, for instance is cone shaped, ending in a peak.
The highest mountain in Inishowen is Slieve Sneacht [619 metres] located right in the centre of the peninsula. This is made of Dalriadan quartzite. Nearby are the two large outcrops known as the Mintiaghs, made of greenstone - geological name imetadolerite. Like Slieve Sneacht the rock at Malin Head is Dalriadan quartzite. By way of contrast the island of Inishtrahull, only a few miles offshore, is similar in make-up to the Hebrides, and in particular the island of Lewis, emphasizing once again the geological links with Scotland.
Inishowen has yielded precious metals, and continues to yield them although in small quantities, a product of its complex geological make-up. During the 19th century silver was mined in Glentogher, the long deep valley which links Carndonagh with Lough Foyle. Copper is found in small quantities in the north east of the peninsula, and gold has been found in a number of its small rivers. Diamond prospecting was underway at the end of the 1990s, but without great success, while barite has also been found.
The landscape of South Donegal was also shaped by glacial erosion. In some places the movement of the ice led to deep and distinctive scores on the rocks, which allow us to see the direction of the iceflow, as in the northern half of the county. The Croaghs or Blue Stack mountains were scraped bare in this way, with the debris being left in the valleys below. The indented coastline, and the sea cliffs at Sliabh a’Liag and Malainn Mór (Malinmore) were shaped by erosion, which is still occurring. Glaciation and the movement of huge sheets of ice across the landscape thus had a huge influence on how south Donegal looks today, in particular it caused the scouring of the huge U-shaped valleys of Barnesmore and Glengesh.
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North Donegal, between Lough Swilly and Gweebarra, is a land of mountains and fjords, where small towns and villages cling to the coast, and the high ground is sparsely populated, if at all. It is cut in two in a North East / South West direction by the Gweebarra fault. Along this fault line you will find, beginning at the North East end, Glen Lough, the Owencarrow River, Lough Beagh and the Owenbeagh River, the River Barra and Lough Barrow, the Owenwee, and eventually the Gweebarra River. To the North and West of this fault are the Glenveagh Mountains, and to the South and East the Glendowan Mountains.
Most of the higher mountains are in the north of the county, including the county’s highest Mount Errigal, which is 751 metres or 2,466 feet high. Slieve Snacht West 682 metres high [2,240 feet] and Dooish at 654 metres [2,147] are both on the northern side of the Gweebarra fault. Near Mount Errigal are other sizeable mountains - Muckish 669 mteres [2,197 feet] and Aghla More 364 metres [1,196 feet)]. On the southern side, Moylennanav is 540 metres [1,771 feet] high, while nearby are Aghla 584 metres [1,916] and Lough Salt Mt. 501 metres [1,646 feet]. The Knockalla Mountain which overlooks Lough Swilly so dramatically, is a continuation of the Erris Hills across the lough in Inishowen.
The proportion of rough pasture, upland bog, and water is very high in Donegal, and is even higher in North Donegal than in the county at large. Most of the good land in the county is in the east, in the area known as the Lagan, near the border with Derry and Tyrone.
Afforestation is a feature of the landscape in more recent decades, but the county, and especially North Donegal, can still look bare. In October and November on the other hand, when the heather is in bloom, the upland areas are alive with purple. Until the late middle ages, woods were found along the Gweebarra River as far as Lough Barra in Gweedore and along Sheephaven Bay from the northern slopes of Muckish to Doe Castle. Both Glen Lough and Lough Veagh had wooded shores, as had the western shores of Mulroy Bay and Lough Swilly, right up to Fanad Head. There were also fairly significant woodlands along the shores of the River Swilly, in the Glenswilly / Gartan area, and in the low fertile country between Milford and Ramelton. It is perhaps difficult to envisage this today as people are used to seeing bare mountain and bog, and many people in the county are anxious that afforestation in the future will take the variety of form that it did three or four centuries ago, rather than a mono-culture of Sitka.
North Donegal can be characterised as a mass of higher ground sloping down to the sea, to the west, north and north east. The high ground, cleaved in two by the Gweebarra fault, slopes to the sea in a fan of large peninsulas and sea loughs, which resemble the fjords of Scandinavia. Much of the high ground today forms part of the Glenveagh National Park. It has always been a realm of wilderness; except for a period in the 19th century when population pressures pushed people from the more fertile east and northern fringes of the county into the west. It has seen almost no human settlement or enclosure for farming. The hard, impermeable granite on either side of the Gweebarra fault is covered with only a thin soil, or with peat, where it is covered at all, and is thus of little use to farmers. The coastal area of North Donegal is much more suited to farming, as it is covered by relatively generous deposits of boulder clay. There are groups of drumlins, the largest of them to the west of Lough Swilly and north of Letterkenny. Unlike the high ground, the area has been settled and farmed for many centuries, probably since the Mesolithic era.
The peninsulas and loughs of the north of the county have shaped the way that people have lived for millennia, and continue to influence economic activity even today. The peninsulas of Fanad and Rosguill are large enough to be considered distinct areas in their own right; the district of the Rosses takes it name from the many small headlands (ros in Gaelic) that push into the sea, north of the Gweebarra. There are many sandy bays along the coast, and offshore islands such as Toraigh, Árainn Mór, Gabhla [Gola], Owey Island, Inishboffin and many more smaller islands. North Donegal has an immense length of coastline because of the quite complicated indentations along the coast - Lough Swilly and Mulroy between them are well over 100 miles long, yet the surrounding county is only some 300 square miles in area. There are many lakes, known as tarns, to the west, and they contribute to one of the most beautiful districts in Ireland - the areas around Lough Gartan, Lough Veagh and Glenveagh, Lough Barra and the Gweedore lakes. North Donegal can be wind-swept, even storm-swept, although there are pockets which offer protection against the Atlantic.
The islands off the coast, in particular the major inhabited islands of Árainn Mór and Toraigh endure winds and storms each year which lesser mortals would not tolerate. Toraigh, around 9 miles off the coast, is perhaps the most wndswept of all. Árainn Mór off the west coast also gets its fair share of Atlantic storms, but the east facing part of the island, across from Burtonport, is more sheltered and has a gentler aspect.
The South of the County is like a horseshoe stretching around Donegal Bay. The Bay washes the shore from Sliabh a’Liag to Bundoran, and the Croaghs or Bluestack mountains act as a granite boundary to the north, ending in Barnesmore (the ‘Great Gap‘) the gateway between north and south Donegal. The massive Sliabh a’Liag peninsula with the highest sea cliffs in Europe is the western boundary, while the Gweebarra river is the boundary with the Rosses and northwest Donegal.
The land in the barony of Tirhugh - between Donegal Town and Ballyshannon, is good farming land, although the south west of the county contains extensive areas of rough pasture and upland bog as well as many lakes and inlets. The fertile area has been farmed since the early historic period, although archaeological evidence suggests that it was not settled in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age era, perhaps because it was so extensively forested at the time.
Many small lakes are a feature of that part of south Donegal surrounding Lough Derg and adjoining Fermanagh. Lough Derg has been a centre of pilgrimage for centuries, and in medieval times was the only place in Ireland which most Europeans would have heard of. One can easily see why people believed that this barren area, with its thin blanket bog covering metasedimentary rocks, led to the gates of Purgatory. The original forests of the area have almost entirely vanished, but as late as the early 1600s there was significant afforestation in the south of the county. Dr. Eileen McCracken, in her study of the woodlands of Donegal, found that the area around Donegal Bay from Ballintra west to Killybegs was covered by trees, as was the area between Ardara, Glenties and Narin. The River Eske valley up to Lough Eske, well inland from the coast, and the area to the west of Lough Derg were also heavily forested.
Drumlins - tightly compacted and rounded mounds of boulder clay sand and gravel, formed by glacial drift 10,000-12,000 years ago, are one of the distinctive features of the Donegal Town area. Druimlín means a 'little ridge or back’ and is the term applied to these hillocks usually between 60 and 100 metres high, although some are a little higher.
Drumlins are a feature of the geography of the southern fringes of Ulster, where the province meets both Connacht and Leinster. This drumlin belt has been a barrier to communication since prehistoric times and has also acted as a cultural barrier for most of that time, being in effect the physical boundary between the provinces. The drumlins around Donegal Bay are thus part of a chain which extends across Ireland from here to Strangford Lough on the County Down coast. The swarms of drumlins around Donegal Town - along the eastern shore of Donegal Bay down to Rossnowlagh, and westwards as far as Bruckless, are the dominant feature of the landscape. They dictate the pattern of roads and fields, even to the present day, while the rivers, like the Eske, the Drummenny and the Eany Water have to negotiate their way around them to flow into the Bay.
Some 8,000 years ago, around 6,000 BC, Ireland’s climate began to enter a colder and damper period, resulting in much of the country being waterlogged, lack of drainage being a feature of glaciated areas. Low lying land and forests became marshes, but did not become lakes. Instead the partly decomposing trees and other plants formed peat bogs. There are extensive areas of blanket bog in the Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolumbkille) area, many of them protected by law as repositories of a unique ecology, home to insect, animal and plant life which evolved there and which are not to be found in more fertile areas. The Pettigo and Lough Derg area also has extensive blanket bogs, vital to the inhabitants of these and other similar areas, as they continue to provide valuable fuel for domestic fires. While saving the turf is not as vital as it was, with the availability of alternatives and changing working patterns even in remote areas, it remains an important feature, a ritual even, of the year’s work, involving the entire community. The time to cut the turf is just when the bog has begun to dry out but before it dries out too much, leaving the sod hardened. This is usually in late April or May, but like many other things in Donegal, it depends upon the weather.
Inishowen is the most northerly peninsula in Ireland, culminating at Malin Head, the northernmost headland on the island. With an area of 800 square kilometers it is also one of the largest peninsulas in the country. It is the most clearly defined part of the county, with its northern shore washed by the Atlantic, its west defined by Lough Swilly and east by Lough Foyle. At one time it was, as the name Inis suggests, an island with water acting as its southern boundary. This was when sea levels rose towards the end of the last ice age, flooding the low-lying area where Burnfoot now stands. Even as recently as the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the surviving sailors and soldiers who were captured when they came ashore were marched through marshland on their way to Derry that virtually cut the peninsula off from the rest of the mainland. This flooding at the end of the ice age also affected other parts of the peninsula, making a smaller island at Malin by cutting through from Malin Town to Culdaff, and making the Isle of Doagh into a genuine island at its southern edge. The land eventually rose as the ice completely melted, leaving the geography of the peninsula as it is now. Nowadays the question of where Inishowen ends at its southern edge is open to some discussion: the Inishowen Electoral Area extends well south of where the water once lay to Manorcunningham, just a few miles from Letterkenny. There is another difference between Inishowen’s geographic and historical / political borders: the city of Derry is mostly located n the west bank of the Foyle, and thus part of Inishowen’s landmass.
Inishowen is a landscape unto itself, with its mountains, lakes, rivers and its two great sea loughs to the west and east. Lough Swilly which divides or connects (depending on your point of view) Inishowen from north west Donegal, is a deep lough which in its time could shelter the huge ships of the British Navy. The name is often translated as ‘The Lake of Shadows’, although more prosaically it comes from the Gaelic word súileach which means brackish water. Nevertheless the water does give the impression of shadows when the sun shines on it. The deepest part of the lough is between Fanad Head and Dunree Head, near where it meets the Atlantic.
On the eastern shore Lough Foyle is also a deep lough, and quite wide south of Moville and north of the port of Derry. It takes the waters of the River Foyle, which is itself fed by the rivers Finn, Mourne and Derg. In the wintertime, after heavy rains, the flow of water can be significant.
The peninsula offers many high vantage points. Most notable is the Grianán of Aileach, which is home to a circular fort used by the Northern Uí Néill for their inaugurations. This was a practical as well as symbolic spot to choose as one can see the entire north-west - counties Donegal, Derry and Tyrone - from here. Sliabh Sneacht at 619 metres offers the highest vantage point on the peninsula, while the Gap of Mamore, through the Erris Hills, offers breathtaking views over the Swilly and across to Fanad.
Donegal's bogs constitute, in effect, an outdoor museum, preserving the remains of flora, fauna and occasionally human beings as well as or better than modern conservation techniques. The museums of Ireland, both local and national, are full of items retrieved from bogs - manuscripts, golden chalices, weapons, as well as human remains from bits of bones, to skeletons to bodies preserved like leather. Bog butter, i.e. tubs of butter placed in the ground as a type of refrigeration, has been found in a number of places, most recently near Falcarragh. You will come upon stumps of pine trees which were growing here long before the first human set foot in Ireland. We have Donegal’s bogs to thank for the quality of our water, as they act as natural filters for ground water.
The sand dunes found in many parts of North Donegal, but especially in Cruit Island, and in the Downings - Carrigart area, are great places to explore. They are a fragile habitat which should be respected, and contain many different species of wildflower, including wild Thyme, Tricolour Pansy and Pyramid Orchids. Sand dunes are home to machair, a kind of grassland rich in lime. Mullaghaderg in the Rosses is a good place to see this.
Red Deer are the most distinctive and attractive mammal found in Donegal. Their home is Glenveagh National Park. Only stags have the distinctive antlers. There are many other types of animals - rabbits, hares, stoats (Donegal has no weasels), pinemartins, badgers, bats and mink. Off the coast you will see both grey seals and the common seal (confusingly the grey seal is more common than the ‘common’ seal). Increasing levels of traffic on Donegal's roads, even minor roads, and intensive farming methods, have affected mammal populations, but if you leave the road and wander the hills you will find them.
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The population of County Donegal was 159,192 in the 2016 census, down from 161,137 in 2011. All relevant populations and demographic information is available from the Central Statistics Office.
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The county continues to be one of the worst affected in terms of unemployment. The unemployment rate displays variation and concentrations in spatial areas of the county. Analysis of the figures shows high proportions of unemployed aged 25 years or under.
The economy to a large extent still depends upon agriculture. The mainstay remains in the area of sheep rearing in the upland areas and cattle farming in the lowland areas. In addition to this, barley, oats and potatoes are produced.
Donegal is the most important sea fishing county in Ireland and Killybegs is its busiest fishing port. Primary types of fish being landed in the county include herring and mackerel although large quantities of higher value fish (white fish) are also landed at various ports throughout the county including Killybegs, Burtonport, Greencastle, Moville and Rathmullan. In addition to sea fishing, Donegal has an aquaculture sector which is increasing in importance, both in the fin-fish and shellfish areas.
Manufacturing in common with the country as a whole has largely declined, although there is still a small textile industry is south Donegal.
The natural features of County Donegal with its rugged coastline, scenic mountains and excellent natural resources such as angling, natural environment/scenery, form a base in which the tourism industry continues to expand with a marked increase over the past number of years from continental visitors. The peace process in Northern Ireland also ensures an increase in the number of tourists from both Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The tourism sector provides much needed employment growth to the county and tourism income forms an essential part of the economic growth of both urban and rural areas in County Donegal. Cultural tourism, focused on the Gaelic language and culture, and on its literary traditions in both languages, will be a major element in attracting visitors.
The infrastructure of County Donegal has improved greatly over the past number of years, with notable European Union investment. These sources of support have provided and will continue to provide a much needed resource for the social and economic development and structural adjustment of County Donegal. Broadband and fibre optic communications networks to Donegal have improved tremendously, but is still patchy in some places.
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Donegal has the largest Gaeltacht area in the country. It is mainly to the west of the County and covers approximately 25% of the land area. Early school leaving is a major problem in some parts of the county.
Theatres in the county include, An Grianan, Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny and The Balor, Ballybofey.
In the Gaeltacht / West Donegal the most consistently active cultural facilities include:
Ionad Cois Locha, Dún Lúiche; An t-Sean Bheairic, An Fál Carrach; Teach na hÉigse, An Fál Carrach; Gealairí James Dixon, Oileán Thoraigh; Ionad Teampall Chróine, An Clochán Liath; Dunfanaghy Workhouse; Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair; Damhlann an Ghleanna, Gort A' Choirce; Áislann Cill Chártha.
In the South West, including Gaeltacht Iar-Dheisceart:
The Dolmen Centre, Ardara; Foras Chultúir Uladh, Gleann Cholm Cille; Taipéis Gaeil Studios, Gleann Cholm Cille; Summer Palace, Kilcar.
In South Donegal:
Abbey Centre, Ballyshannon; Donegal Craft Village, Donegal Town.
Along with An Grianán Theatre and the Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny and East Donegal is also served by:
Glebe Gallery, Churchill; Glenveagh National Park/Castle and Visitors Centre; Balor Theatre, Ballybofey; Letterkenny Artspace Studios; Cavanacor Gallery, Ballindrait; Lifford Old Courthouse, Lifford.
The principal arts facilities in Inishowen include:
Tullyarvan Mill, Buncrana; Artlink, Buncrana, Ballagh Artists Studios, Malin; Colgan Hall, Carndonagh; McGrory’s Hotel Culdaff; and Malin Parish Hall (performance arts).
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