Letterkenny Town

Letterkenny is the largest town in the County of Donegal. It is a centre of administration, commerce and education.

There are two suggestions as to how Letterkenny got its name.

The first suggests it came from Leitir Ceanainn (Ceann-fhionn), the white/fair-headed hillside.

The second, that it came from Leitir Ceanainn, i.e., the Hillside of the O’Cannons, whose stronghold in the Medieval period was based at Conwal, about one mile outside Letterkenny.

During the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century, Captain Patrick Crawford was granted 1,000 acres at Letterkenny. After he was killed in Scotland, his widow married Sir George Maybury, who built a plantation house beside Lough Swilly. He also constructed a market town called Letterkenny. This had fifty thatched houses. A bridge was built over the river Swilly at Oldtown and many of the native Irish families settled there.

The Civil Survey of 1657, describes Letterkenny as a town with a market every Friday and two annual fairs. The town prospered during the 17th century. Plantation houses were built including those at Rockhill, Ballymacool, Magherennan & Ballyraine.

During the 18th Century, industry continued to develop including the port and the mills. Letterkenny has developed over the centuries from a tiny hamlet into the largest industrial and commercial centre in the county, with a population of over 17,000.

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The Port – Letterkenny Shipping

W. G. McKinney purchased the area of the Port, Ballyraine in 1900. He set up a coal importers in direct competition with local merchant Charles Kelly, who had been operating from the Port for 15 years. Coal was the main import. In the early 1930’s, there was a railway sliding which ran onto the Port Quay. This allowed the transfer of goods from the ships to all over Donegal. Most ships left with ballast or “light ship”, to pick up cargoes elsewhere. The River Swilly was extremely hard to navigate and visitors to Letterkenny described the sight of an inward bound ship as ‘seeing a ship coming through the fields’. When a new pier was built at the Thorn in the 1960’s, trading ceased at the Port.

Market Square

In Letterkenny, the Hiring Fair, also known as Rabble Days were held annually in May and November. At these fairs adults and children, many from West Donegal, were hired out as manual labourers and servants, for the periods of up to six months to more wealthy farmers.This practice continued until the 1950’s. A sculpture by Maurice Harron is located in the Market Square to remember the Rabble Children.


St. Eunan’s Cathedral

Work began on Saint Eunan’s and Colmcille Catholic Cathedral in 1890. It was designed by William Hague. It is built of white stone from Mountcharles and cost £300,000. The ceilings are the work of Amici of Rome, while the wonderful stained glass windows which illuminate the Sanctuary and the Lady Chapel are by the Mayer firm of Munich. The carvings show stories from the lives of Saint Eunan and Colmcille. It was dedicated in 1901. The spire stands at 212 ft (c.65m).


Donegal County Museum

The Building which today houses the Donegal Museum has had a long and varied history. In July 1841 Letterkenny Board of Guardian decided to build a Workhouse in the town. Building began in 1843. The Workhouse opened in 1845 shortly before the Famine to admit 46 paupers. The Workhouse continued in use until 1922. The building then became a fever hospital until 1945, a maternity unit until 1960, the town council offices, the office of the Registrar of Births Deaths & Marriages and a Library before becoming the County Museum in 1987.

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