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In search of the castle of the O'Donnell

Updated: May 1, 2022

I recently went back to Ireland where I was born, on a research trip to find out what was left of the old Irish clans that I write about in the Exiles books. There is only so much research you can do through books and the internet and despite being born in Ireland I did not grow up in the regions in which the book is set.

I will tell you all about my trip to the various castles and regions in this and my upcoming newsletters, on my blog on the website and have plenty of pictures on my Instagram account. In this first episode, I will discuss my visit to Donegal Castle, the home of the O’Donnell which features heavily in the 'Exiles' books.

Firstly, I would like to say that Fermanagh and Donegal where I did my research are both very beautiful parts of Ireland and are the backdrop for my 'Exiles' books. I was as much taken aback by the scenery as by any relics from the past I came across. I would recommend that you visit the region if you get the opportunity.

Donegal Castle is situated right in the centre of modern Donegal town and is literally just off the high street. I didn’t have to go looking for the castle for the tower loomed above the row of small shops right where I parked. Donegal Castle was the primary Castle of the O’Donnells when they ruled Tirconnell, which was more or less equivalent to the county of Donegal.

The O’Donnells ruled Tirconnell from 1200 until the flight of the Earls when the last of the Ulster chieftains left in order to recruit the assistance of the continental powers in their fight against the English in 1607. The last O’Donnell chieftain died in the Tower of London in 1626. Donegal Castle was built around 1474 by the first Red Hugh O’Donnell who died in 1505. It is rumoured, although without archaeological evidence, that the castle was built on the site of an old Viking fort. The castle was given to the English Captain Sir Basil Brooke around 1614, after the O’Donnells had been ousted, who made considerable amendments to the castle adding to and augmenting the original O’Donnell tower. The only original O’Donnell part of the building is the tower, and even that has been built upon.

The castle sits atop a hill on a curve in the river Eske, which gave it a natural defensive position and easy access to the sea. According to local folklore, there is a secret escape tunnel that links the castle to the local monastery which would have allowed the O’Donnell to flee if the castle were to come under siege. The tower has three levels, the first of which is the storeroom and kitchens which have the original cobblestones on the floor and the walls have been restored to look like they would have at the time of the O’Donnell. The second floor is the great hall where the O’Donnell would have carried out the business of ruling, and the third and top floor is the living quarters. The O’Donnells would have been comparatively wealthy in comparison to the other clans for they would have traded fish, textiles, linen and hides with continental Europe for leather, wool cloth and wine from the nearby wharf on the coast. The O’Donnell was known as the ‘King of the Fishes’ for his access to the rich fishing grounds of the North Atlantic Ocean.

However, the overall feeling I get is surprised by how small it is. It is certainly not a grand castle like the clichés from crusader or medieval times. It is a modest dwelling for what is referred to as a castle with a tower and a walled courtyard. There seems to have been little room for anyone to lodge beyond the immediate family and their servants and the surrounding town or farmsteads would also have been modest for there was little urbanisation in Gaelic Ireland at that time. The castle was restored in the 1990s but not much of the original O’Donnell castle which was the part I was interested in remains. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see it and certainly inspirational as I continue to write the Exiles series.

In my next ,blog, I will cover my trip to the Hill of the O’Neill, the site of Hugh O’Neill’s Dungannon Castle. If you want to see photos of my trip, please follow my Instagram account.

If you have bought one of my books and enjoyed it, please would you leave a positive review on the retail site where you purchased it? It really helps me to sell more books and to carry on writing. Until next month.


C R Dempsey


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