LivingTravelDonegal Castle: The Complete Guide

Donegal Castle: The Complete Guide

Located on a bend in the River Eske, in what is now the center of Donegal City, Donegal Castle was one of the most important fortresses 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 leave 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 finest Gaelic castles and has guided tours to highlight the fascinating history.

Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Donegal Castle in County Donegal.


The name Donegal is the English translation of Dún na nGall, which means “Stranger’s Fortress” in Irish. The name probably referred to a Viking settlement that was once located in this corner of Ireland, but archaeological evidence of a great fortress has never been found. In fact, the largest fortified structure in the area appears to have been Donegal Castle.

Strategically built along the River Eske, Donegal Castle was controlled by Clan O’Donnell, one of the most powerful families in Ireland. The O’Donnells exerted great influence on the Emerald Isle from the 13th to the early 17th century, and Donegal Castle was one of their favorite fortresses.

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 built. In 1566, the Lord Deputy of Ireland wrote home in England describing Donegal Castle as:

«… The largest I saw in the hands of an Irishman: and it seems to be in good condition; one of the most beautiful situated on good land and so close to portable water, a ten-ton boat could come within ten yards of it. «

As perfect as the castle was, the O’Donnell Clan were forced to abandon it in 1607 when they fled Ireland on the Flight of the Earls after the Nine Years’ War. While fleeing, the family destroyed the castle tower in an attempt to prevent the castle from being used to fight the Gaelic clans.

The English monarchy promptly handed over Donegal Castle 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 Ulster Plantation. The Brooke family restored and expanded the castle and lived on the grounds until 1670. Unfortunately, subsequent owners allowed Donegal Castle to fall into disrepair and it remained in a dilapidated state until it was turned over to the Office of Public Works at the end of 1800.

Restoration work at Donegal Castle did not begin until the 1990s. Partial reconstruction has been carefully carried out to maintain the historic appearance 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 that later owned the castle.

The most distinctive feature of Donegal Castle is the tower house, the highest 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 17th century. The Brooks also built the English manor house directly below the tower in 1623. It has beautiful Gothic doors that 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 era is in the ground-level warehouses that have vaulted ceilings and cobblestone floors dating back to the castle’s construction. You can also admire the so-called “travel ladder” which was built with uneven stairs to bump into invading enemy combatants.

Place and how to visit

Donegal Castle is located right in the center of the city of Donegal, in the province of Ulster, in the Republic of Ireland. The elegant stone building is built near the mouth of Donegal Bay, nestled in a bend in the River Eske.

Donegal Castle is truly a must see when passing through the city. It is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm (Easter until mid-September, and then from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm during 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 it all.

What else to do nearby

Donegal Castle is one of the most famous landmarks in Donegal City, but the whole area is beautiful and worth exploring. The Clan O’Donnell also built nearby Lough Eske Castle, which is now rebuilt as a five-star spa hotel.

For unforgettable scenery, head to Slieve League, the tallest cliffs in Europe that look out over the raging Atlantic Ocean in Co Donegal.

And if you want to see the place while exploring this part of Ireland, visit Magee’s Tweed Shop in central Donegal Town for luxurious take on the classic and cozy fabric.

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