In the early 1830s and 1840s, the Stewart landlords embarked on a land reclamation project in the town of Dunfanaghy which completely transformed the centre of the town and turned it into the village that we know today.
Prior to the reclamation project, Dunfanaghy Bay as it was known, would lap up to street level which can be seen in old maps of the area prior to the 1830s. Dunfanaghy has long been a Market Town and the records show that there was a grant made to a Hugh Hamill to hold a market in Dunfanaghy and Castlederg, Co. Tyrone, on the 6th of March, 1679. According to the records, the present Pier was renovated around 1830 and then the area around the Pier and the Market Square was reclaimed. That area of the town from, Ramsay’s Stores, the Social Protection Offices (which were originally the Offices of the Stewart of Ards Estate) and the Stewart Arms Hotel were built and would go on to play an important part in the life of the local community ever since.
Towards the end of the reclamation and building of these structures, Ireland was hit by the Great Famine. The local Poor Law Commissioners had to come up with Famine Relief Schemes to support the local destitute and keep them out of The Workhouse. While the majority of these projects made little impact since they were quite literally roads to nowhere – known today as “Famine Roads” – in the Dunfanaghy area two of these relief works are still very much in use-The Market House on The Square in Dunfanaghy and Port na Blagh Pier.
Nowadays, the Market House is home to Revive and a Yoga Studio, but in days gone by the Market House was centre stage in some of the biggest historical and cultural events of the time as it served as a court house as well as being the centre of the monthly fairs and markets. From the time of its construction, the Square would be full of carts as the farmers in the local area would gather in to sell their animals and produce. Those were the days when cash was king and deals would be done on a hand shake, a far cry from the Cashless Society that nowadays we seem to be fast becoming. After the dealing was done, it was custom for the fair goers to retire to have a drink in one of the local Public Houses and it wouldn’t be uncommon for the day to end in a bout of fisticuffs in the square and some of the participants who might have earlier that day had made a ‘deal’ in the Market House would find themselves back in the same building at the next Petty Sessions to explain themselves to the magistrate.
Old pictures show gates in the ground floor of the Market House and this was to allow Judges and prisoners to get into the building, away from the public eye.
It was when the Market House was being used as a Court House that the building became known internationally. In 1888 Canon James McFadden was brought with 19 others following the death of Inspector Martin after he tried to arrest McFadden outside St. Mary’s Church in Derrybeg during the Land War. The trial was then moved to Portlaoise. After a protracted trial, McFadden was eventually released and would continue to fight for the rights of his community as well as play an important part in the Fundraising for the new Cathedral in Letterkenny.
A few years later in 1905, Padraig Pearse, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamatio, would defend Niall Mac Giolla Bhridge in the Four Courts in Dublin when the authorities decided to prosecute Mac Giolla Bhridge for having his name written in Gaelic on his cart, which was considered an “illegible script.” This court case began in the Market House before moving to Dublin and the event is commemorated by a memorial Plaque which was erected in 2016.
Although these were just a couple of the high-profile cases to come before, the Dunfanaghy Assizes in those a look at the old records would suggest that most of the cases were more mundane and of their time including cases of Poitín making, working/fishing on a Sunday and breaking the Sabbath Day. There were also convictions for assault and fighting and a case of rioting at Crossroads (Falcarragh), having illegal weights and measures was another common offence as were farmers getting fined for having livestock wandering on a public road or street. There is one unfortunate case where a mother was charged with assaulting the Master of Dunfanaghy Workhouse after getting charged with deserting her children just before that – a sign no doubt of the abstract poverty which existed in the Petty Sessions area at that time.
After independence the Market House continued to serve as the Court House in Dunfanaghy up until the early 1990s.
The Market House continued to play an instrumental part in the life of the local community over the years; from hosting showbands at the dances that were held there, to hosting boxing contenders and actors. The first of these to appear was Jack Doyle ‘The Gorgeous Gael’, who was billed to appear in a show there in the 1950s. Unfortunately for Doyle’s fans, who had gathered that night, were left a bit underwhelmed with their hero as Doyle who was known to enjoy a glass of Brandy or two or three enjoyed the hospitality of O’Donnell’s House across the street and only appeared at the end of the night where he gave a rendition of McNamara’s Band before promptly leaving the building and ending his visit to Dunfanaghy.
The Market House also housed a Badminton Club, and on occasion the late John Mandy Gallagher would come to show films with his travelling cinema. It was also home to the weekly Bingo Session as well as to Santa on his yearly visits to Dunfanaghy.
Dunfanaghy Boxing Club was founded over forty years ago and in the intervening years Eddie Harkin and the late Michael Durning and the other coaches of the club punched well above their weight producing multiple Ulster and Irish Champions a few of whom went on to fight in the professional ranks. Indeed, the Market House and The Square beside it was often the location to welcome home these boxing champions. Among the Boxing greats to visit the club during its time in the Market House was Derry’s own Charlie Nash and Randall “Tex” Cobb an American Boxer and Actor who in 1982 had boxed Larry Holmes for the WBC World Heavyweight Championship. Unlike Jack Doyle Nash and Cobb were only too delighted to meet and mingle with their fans.
The Market House was also the home of the Dunfanaghy Community Band and the Market Square was where the people of Dunfanaghy gathered to see Charlie Nash announce Sammy McGarvey as the Lord Mayor of Dunfanaghy in 1978 and where locals gathered to welcome Anthony Molloy and the Donegal Team with the Sam Maguire Cup in 1992.
In recent years there have been plans to refurbish the Market House which is a focal point for the town which has played a very important part not just in the life of Dunfanaghy but the wider north west area over the past 175 years.