The Bridge of Tears

Sheephaven History
The Muckish Gap is the name given to a stretch of road which links Creeslough and Letterkenny to Falcarragh. It is a lovely drive in a car and also one of the best rally-driving stages in Europe, if not the world. as it makes its way past the back of Muckish Mountain. It is still a very busy stretch of road in 2023 but if you travel from the Falcarragh side you will notice a sad memorial to former times – Droichead na Caointe nó Droichead na nDeor, which translates to “The Bridge of Tears”. A Gaelic inscription is now on the Bridge commemorating those times. The Inscription translates as: Friends and relatives of the person emigrating would come this far. Here they parted. This is the Bridge of Tears Long before the coming of the railway to Donegal, those emigrating from the area would travel with their families to the Bridge of Tears before parting with their loved ones to make their way on foot to get the boat at either Derry or Moville to take them to a new life in Glasgow or later on the New World in America. This was long before the advent of cheap air travel. The majority of those emigrating would not see their homes or their loved ones again and so many tears would be shed on both sides, hence the name of the Bridge. Often, the night before a young person or family would emigrate, an American Wake or ‘Convoy’ would be held in the family home and all the neighbours and friends would gather around to say goodbye to them as they would not expect to see them again.  These events would last until the morning when those emigrating would leave accompanied by their families to begin the long walk to a new life. At that time, Tickets for voyages could be bought in Dunfanaghy and sometimes those emigrating would get into a Curragh and leave Dunfanaghy or Port na Blagh. They would then jump on the Transatlantic Liners as they passed by the back of Tory Island – a journey not without risk as not only had they to brave the seas between the mainland and Tory but they also had to jump onto the moving liner which only slowed down and did not stop to let them on board! Many of those who left would never see their homeland again as back then even Glasgow seemed a long way away and the life of the Donegal emigrant has been well documented by such writers as Caisleáin Óir by Séamus Ó Grianna and Rotha Mór an tSaoil by Micí Mac Gabhann.  The latter is a posthumously published memoir which was dictated by Micí Mac Gabhann to his son in law Seán Ó hEochaidh and tells the story of Micki’s life working as a labourer in Scotland, Montana, and in the Klondike gold rush, where he made his fortune and was able to return to his native Donegal. In earlier times most of the emigration from West Donegal would have been to Glasgow where the Donegal people would have struggled to at first to make a living, having in most cases no English as they were Gaelic speakers and also discrimination because of their religious beliefs. They lived in tenement buildings in places such as The Gorbals which had little to no sanitation and made their lives there.  These buildings would eventually be torn down in the 1960s but the Southside of Glasgow is still very important to the Donegal Irish. In fact, the buses which still run during the summer season to and from Glasgow still begin their journey home at Gorbals Cross. Nowadays though through their sheer hard work and perveance their descendants occupy important jobs in both the political and business world of that city today. In the 1840s, and especially during the Great Famine, many of those emigrants made their way to America many on coffin ships, which were run by unscrupulous companies and captains to cash in on the crisis in Ireland with little thought for those whom they were transporting. In the beginning many settled in cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia after making the long sea voyage from their homeland. Eventually, as the American West opened up the Irish followed the Wagons and the Railroad west and they settled in cities all over the United States. Some of the Irish went on to have great political influence in some cities such as New York and the Irish American vote remains a very important vote to this day in U.S. Elections. Many of them did well for themselves never returned home again whilst some fell on hard times and even passed working to try to feed their families such as those who died at Duffy’s Cut. Two of these emigrants who left Donegal were Grace Strain and Manus McFadden near neighbours who were born in the Townland of Muntermellin in Hornhead in Dunfanaghy around 1831 and 1842 respectively. They got married in Doe Chapel in 1864 and shortly afterwards they left their thatched cottages behind in Horn head to sail to the new world, little knowing that over a century afterwards a descendant of their working in a medium which had then yet to be invented would grow up to be an award-winning actress. On sailing to America, the newly married Manus and Grace McFadden arrived at the port of New York aboard the ship Webster SS. By the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, the McFadden family had settled in Pennsylvania. Their child, Mary Agnes McFadden, later married Henry Charles Wolf. Henry Charles and Mary Agnes Wolf’s daughter  ‘Mamie’ is Meryl Streep’s grandmother. This is just one of many examples of how the Donegal Irish have made their mark in the land of opportunity. These days, emigration is not the life-changing event that it once was as nowadays most parts of the world are just a 24-hour plane journey away but nevertheless tears are still shed at ports and airports when our loved ones go away. So remember, that tucked away in a lonely corner of north west Donegal stands The Bridge of Tears. a sad monument to the thousands of people who emigrated from north west Donegal in search of a better life and never came home again.

The Dunfanaghy and Sheephaven Schools

Image of Holy Cross Church

Nowadays the children of the Dunfanaghy area have their education needs looked after with several local primary schools and their teachers – Holy Cross, Holy Trinity, Faugher, Ballymore and Murroe. In recent years, these schools have undergone some refurbishments and are equipped with the latest technology for learning in a digital age, though it has not always been like this.

The Irish School System has come a long way since the days of the Hedge Schools, when Teachers would teach pupils in the open air and in private homes to give children a chance of an education. The Hedge Schools were set up in response to the 1695 Stuart Monarchs which prohibited Catholics from getting an education. This remained in force until it was repealed in 1782. Its’s believed that by the 1820s, up to 400,000 students, in 9000 schools, were educated through Hedge Schools.

In the early 1800s, a formal education for Catholics in Ireland, was established by Ignatius Rice, and by 1831, the Board of National Education and the National School System was established. A Commissioner of National Education was set up and their role was to assist in the funding of primary school construction, textbook production, and the training/funding of teachers in National Schools. It wasn’t until 1967 with Free Secondary Education Act in the Republic of Ireland that secondary school education became open for all.

Just over 100 years ago in the Dunfanaghy area there were different National Schools to what we know now and some of these buildings are no longer standing. For the children of Hornhead, their school was located in a building in what is now Wilson’s farm in Lurgabrack. This was the school that my grandmother would have attended and she often spoke of having to run the gauntlet of passing Stewart the Landlords Bull which was in the field on the way to the school morning and evening on her way to school in the late 1800 and early 1900’s.  In those days’ children walked to school Summer and Winter often in the bare feet.  After the fall of the Landlords, this School was moved to the Gate Lodge for Hornhead House at The Bridge and it features on old pictures of when the sand blew in Hornhead and the Teacher and Pupils would have to dig themselves out of the sand in the evening and their Lunches would be filled with blowing sand!

In the late 1930s, it was decided to close this school and move the pupils to the Robertson School Board School which was located where the car park beside the Holy Trinity Parish Hall is now.  This decision did not sit well with the parents from Hornhead and there was a strike for a few months before the children eventually went to the Robinson School which was known as Dunfanaghy Number One National School. This meant a long walk for the children of Hornhead and there was no clock in the school. So, the Master would send the children over across the road to the Garda Barrack to get the time and often the Guard on Duty would give them the wrong time which meant the children would get sent home early! The headmaster here was Master Barlow and he went on to teach in Holy Trinity School when it was opened and the old School which was a landmark at the top of the town was demolished to make way for the car park.

100 years ago, the Catholic Children of Dunfanaghy would have been receiving their education in a school which is now also demolished at the entrance to the present day Holy Cross Cemetery.  The school then moved to the Old Fever Hospital in Dunfanaghy which is now the Gallery.  The teacher was Eamon Cannon who moved to Dunfanaghy from the south of the county and was to be instrumental in the Educational, Sporting and Musical life of Dunfanaghy for decades afterwards.

Both schools would share important information with each other such as when the School Inspector would put in an unexpected appearance. 

Master Cannon and his pupil, like their neighbours down the road, moved to a new school with the opening of Holy Cross NS which is still educating children today.

The Old Murroe School would have been providing education to the children in its area in the early 1900s, and like all schools at the time pupils would be absent from school when the hard work had to be done on the farm.  Ireland was largely a rural economy back then and the horses and carts were the driving force on the farms and the hiring fairs were still a fact of life which saw many children take the train to Letterkenny to be hired in the agricultural heartland of the Laggan and elsewhere. The new school at Murroe was built and opened in the 1960s. 

Among the other schools in the area were at Roshine which has closed and Kildarragh which only closed in the 1980s when its pupils moved to Creeslough.

100 years ago, Ballymore School would have been providing education to all the children in the area and among those who would have attended in the early 1920s would have been the late Bridget McBride from Knocknafaugher who only passed away recently. The School at Ballymore continued to educate the children of the area until Faugher NS was opened. 

Like Ballymore, Faugher NS continues to provide education for the children of the area and this is due in no small way to the campaign led by the parents in the 1980s to keep the school open when plans were afoot to close the school and move their pupils elsewhere. 

This is just a small history of some the schools in the area and things have certainly changed in the past 100 years and those at school then just at the start of the Irish Free State could hardly have thought that in a few short months a Civil War would have broken out and just 17 years later we would find ourselves in ‘The Emergency’ as the Second World War was known here would break out and they would certainly not have known about the technological advances which would take place during their lifetime and change their lives forever.     

The Port na Blagh and Dunfanaghy Fair

Dunfanaghy Fair Vintage Car

Monday the 7th of August was the annual August Bank Holiday here in the Republic, and for years it was traditionally a very busy day for Festivals in towns and villages up and down the country. None more so than in Port na Blagh and Dunfanaghy where Sports and Fairs have been traditionally held on this date for years.

For the months leading up to the Port na Blagh Sports Day, the hard-working local committee would be making preparations as well as getting the all-important sponsorship gathered up to keep the Sports Day going. The fundraising meant visiting businesses as far away as Letterkenny and members of the committee would spend a day visiting all the pubs and business premises on the Main Street in the Cathedral Town gathering much needed sponsorship.

The annual Port na Blagh Sports Day were held on ‘Mullens Keadue’ which is situated close to Port na Blagh Pier. This was one of the biggest sporting events in the North West, attracting the best athletes from around Donegal to compete as a medal won at this event was to be cherished. As well as the Track and Field events, there was also the Bonny Baby Competitions, Cycle Races, Curragh Races, Tug of War and the choosing of the lucky girl who would get the title of Miss Port na Blagh.

The Sports would be followed by the Annual Sports Dance in the nearby Pier Hotel, which used to be a mecca for dancers and disco goers for miles around but which is now sadly confined to the annals of history. 

The Portnablagh Sports ran for many very popular years before eventually fizzling out in the late 1990s, despite the best efforts of the organisers and this left a void in the Bank Holiday entertainment in the area.

It would not be too long however before this void was filled by another local event which from small beginnings grew into one of the biggest annual events in north west Donegal. 

In the early 1990s, Holy Trinity Church in Dunfanaghy were looking at ways of raising money for the Parish finances. For a number of years previously, the Church had been holding Coffee Mornings, Socials, ‘Donegal Evenings’ and teenage discos in the Parish Hall as well as a Table Quiz and Treasure Hunt. The Select Vestry at the time felt that another bigger event might be able to be held which would replace some of the smaller ones and put less pressure on the fundraisers. 

They had seen that the Sports in Port na Blagh had been discontinued and thought that it might be a good idea to start a new event in Dunfanaghy in its place.

To this end a ‘Car Boot Sale’ was organised for the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday in Charlie McKinley’s Field on the Horn Head Road and in the following years the Dunfanaghy August Fair Day, as it came to be known, was established. The event grew into one of the biggest and most popular events with thousands of people flocking to Charlie’s Field on a yearly basis to meet their friends and have a great day out. 

Over the years, all the local Churches used the Fair Day to raise finances and the Table Quiz and Treasure Hunt were also organised for the week prior to the Fair Day as well as new events added such as the Beetle Drive, Float Parade, Underage Disco and the Choosing of the August Fair Queen so that the event became the August Fair Festival Week. In the early years, events were also held in the Green at Arnolds Hotel on the Saturday and entertainment from the likes Conal Gallen would be held in the Marquee in the Field.  The Sheep Dog Trials and Sheep Judging in John Joe McGinley’s Field were also a very enjoyable part of the Fair for many years as was the Angling Competition on Purt Lake. In recent years also Dunfanaghy’s very own Dog Show has become a very popular event also.

The August Fair continued in Charlie’s Field for a long number of years before moving to its present location of a field in Figart Dunfanaghy overlooking the New Lake.

For a number of years also, Holy Cross Church organised a very enjoyable Country Concert in the Ozanam Centre in the weeks leading up to the August Fair and this has added to the pre-August Fair atmosphere in the area and the Creeslough and Killdarragh Fairs would also take place around this time of year bringing visitors into the area from far and near.

Sadly, due to the Pandemic, the Dunfanaghy August Fair Festival Week nor the Concert nor any of the forementioned events has not taken place for the for a few years. Then, in 2022, the August Fair Day returned to the Calander and is now being held on the Holy Trinity Parish grounds of the Hall, Church, Rectory and Church on the Horn Head Road with the majority of pre-fair events also returned. On Bank Holiday Monday last, crowds again gathered to enjoy the Dunfanaghy August Fair keeping the tradition of Festivals in this area going and hopefully it will continue long into the future.

The Hunters Moon

Whilst it can often be cloudy in these parts, when we get a chance there are often many things to see in the night sky. From the planes carrying their passengers to and from far flung destinations, to the stars and planets, asteroids and shooting stars, even the International Space Station or even a UFO or two. The sky is fully of wonderful things to see, but by far the brightest light in the night sky is the Moon. On October 9th, the Hunter’s Moon, also known as the Blood Moon or Sanguine Moon, was high in the evening sky.
The Hunter’s Moon is the first full moon after the Harvest Moon which occurred last month, and it gets its name from the tradition that after the harvest, hunters began tracking and hunting heir prey so to stockpile food for the winter ahead. On the farm, October was also a very busy month as the last of the crops such as potatoes would at least begin to be gathered up and in many cases the corn stacks would be thrashed in the Haggard This would involve a man arriving with a thrasher and the local farmers would gather at the first farm to be visited by the tractor and thresher and then travel to all the farms to the neighbourhood until the work was completed. This day of hard work would sometimes be followed by a supper and dance to celebrate the saving of the harvest.
In the autumn months, there’s no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise for several days in a row, around the time of full moon, meaning there’s prolonged periods of light which is the reason why these moons have traditionally been used by hunters and farmers to finish their work. This is where the name comes from in Native American Folklore where they primarily hunted big game like deer. In Ireland, it would be used to hunt smaller game like rabbits, hares, foxes and other animals. As well as that, country folk used the light of the moon as they moved around their neighbours to visit. This was locally known as “rakking”. This was a great tradition when neighbours would gather in different houses each night to visit and ceili and play cards which would sometimes mean that they would be rather late returning to their own homes over the country lanes, boreens and hillsides. This would give more importance to the light of the Hunters Moon as often there would be a storyteller in the rambling house who would frighten those attending with ghost stories making the journey home more frightening.
In olden times before the coming of rural electricity there were supposed to be ghostly happenings in many areas especially in poorly lit country lanes and byways. In this area there were reports of headless gentlemen roaming about as well as white ladies, strange lights and other unexplained paranormal activities.
Unfortunately, the coming of the electricity has seemingly done away with these stories or maybe the spirits have just retreated into the shadows and are still there waiting to greet the unwary traveller – a lovely thought as we approach Halloween!
Likewise, the month of October is the month of the Rosary and those attending the evening October Rosary’s in their local churches would have saw and walked under the light of the Hunter’s Moon as they made their way often over long distances to and from Church.
Interestingly, the Hunter’s Moon is not usually any bigger or brighter than any of the other full moons. The only notable difference between it and other full moons is that the time between sunset and moonrise is shorter, usually as little as 30 minutes.
These are just a few of the events and culture associated with the Hunter Moon and the long October Evenings. What do you think of when you see a Hunter Moon?

The Market Square

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.

Begging in Dunfanaghy

In the 19th century, alongside the tragedy that was the Great Famine, the people of Ireland were already familiar with their crops failing and imminent starvation. Prior to the introduction of the Poor Laws and the building of the Workhouses, there was no place for the poor to go for relief, and it would be years before the introduction of the old age pension. Due to these circumstances, our great grandparents would have been familiar with ‘beggars’ walking along the byways and boreens of county Donegal. 

Prior to the opening of the Workhouses and Asylums, there were few places for people to go for help. In 1836, a report from the Commissioners of Inquiry regarding the conditions of the poorer classes in Ireland was published. This report gives us an insight into what life was like for the poor in Ireland several years before the Famine, and includes a section on the Parish of Clondehorkey which includes the town of Dunfanaghy entitled “Vagrancy – as a Mode of Relief”. It says:

 “It is impossible to ascertain the number of vagrants here; there was, however, an apparent increase of vagrancy last year, most particularly which Mr. Harper, a farmer, attributed it to the failure of the crops. From April to August is the period of the year at which vagrancy is most common; their own stock of potatoes being exhausted; the poor people are obliged to have recourse to mendicancy.  The majority of traveling beggars (who generally consist of old people), and women with tribes of children, go to strange parishes to seek alms; shame prevents them from remaining in their own parishes.  When employment is scarce, the labourer’s wife starts on a begging tour and leaves the husband to support themselves as well as he can. It is a common practise with the cottier tenants (having set their potatoes) to wander about the country seeking alms. There are also many beggars who had been farm servants; but very few tradesmen, as they show the greatest reluctance to beg and suffer the greatest privation before they do so. There have been no instances of small farmers in this neighborhood having transferred their property to their children, in order to adopt a vagrant life.” 

Destitution is generally the primary cause, but laziness often induces mendicancy.  It depends on the season, the supply of food in the country, and the tale he tells of the state of the family behind him, whether a sturdy beggar can obtain much more food than he consumes; but in most cases they obtain more food than they can obtain themselves.

Those who can afford to do so, generally increase the quantity they give in proportion to the number in the group, though every poor giver can only give a trifle in either case; they seldom separate in order that different members of the same family should apply for alms to the same individuals, they find it more in their interest to remain in in groups so as to excite pity.  Among discriminating persons there is always a difference made in favour of the infirm; nevertheless, the able bodied may get more in the day from visiting more places; and their having children to take about aften prevents beggars from getting so much as they otherwise could, as they cannot travel so much as when unencumbered.

The plea of those persons who seem to be able to work always is that they cannot get the work.”

There are some instances of beggars encouraging the appearance of rags, dirt, and lameness, in order to excite sympathy, some, who state they were shipwrecked sailors, are in the habit of producing forged certificates. 

A Mr Hugh O’Donnell, speaking of the poor in the area, is quoted in saying: “they are forced to beg and it is only when they and their children are half starved, that they do beg”. The poor of Dunfanaghy were not of the dissolute habits and were never known to have been concerned in any outrages on persons or property. “I have seen” Hugh continues, “ a poor woman with only one child dividing her meal with another who had five children”.

Mr. Harper, the farmer referenced in the report, relates the following from his own account of witnessing beggars: “I knew one case where a woman having only one child of her own appeared with four and she admitted afterwards to me that she had borrowed them”.  A local man named Mr Stewart states that he frequently saw the same children coming with different individuals to his father’s house.

Our own Wee Hannah Herrity, whose story you can hear in our exhibition, took to begging towards the end of her life. She was not ashamed for begging, as she recognised that for many people this was their only means of survival during these harsh times. 

Alm = Something (such as money or food) given freely to relieve the poor distributing alms to the needy.

A Short History of Muckish Mountain

From the Parishes of Doe to Cloughaneely, there is an iconic part of the landscape that is impossible to miss, except perhaps on cloudy days when there’s a low cloud or fog in the way. This is the sight of Muckish Mountain. 

Muckish has stood overlooking this corner of Donegal for Millenia and has watched from above the many changes of our landscape since then -from the arrival of our ancestors, the marauding Vikings and the days of the great Irish Chieftains, to the colonization under the British Empire all the way to our Independence. It has also bore witness to our tragedies; The Great Hunger, Two World Wars, the Battle of the Atlantic off the coast of Tory Island which saw the death of hundreds of sailors, and the countless lives that have drowned along our coast. 

Muckish, coming from the Irish Mucais or An Mhucais (meaning “The Pig’s Back”) is a distinctive flat-topped mountain in the Derryveagh Mountains . At 667.1 metres, it is the third-highest peak in the Derryveagh Mountains and the 163rd highest in Ireland. Muckish is also the northernmost and second highest of the mountain chain known as the “Seven Sisters” by locals. The Seven Sisters include Muckish, Crocknalaragagh, Aghla Beg, Ardloughnabrackbaddy, Aghla More, Mackoght, and Errigal.  A large cairn (man-made mound of stones), can be found on the summit plateau which marks a Bronze Age court tomb. 

The mountain contains high-grade quartz sand that was mined on the flanks of the mountain for many years and the remnants of the quarry workings can be seen on its northern side to this day. The sand mined on Muckish was taken down the mountain on sluices and taken to Ards Pier on lorries where it was loaded into boats for export. Two of these boats were the Saxon Queen and the Gaelic. Unfortunately, the Gaelic sank after leaving Ards Pier after hitting the Black Rock off Rosguill. There was no loss of life and the ship’s remains have become a popular spot for divers. 

The miners who worked on the quarry would arrive at the bottom of the mountain by foot or by lorry and make their way up the mountain by what is now known as The Miners Path. The route of the Miner’s Path is to the summit, up the northern side of the mountain. Part of this route follows the path used by the workers to reach the quarry. A less difficult route to the summit begins from the Muckish Gap on the southern side of the mountain. These miners came from the townlands and towns surrounding Muckish, with the exception of Engineer Jack Smyth who came from England. He settled in the area and became an integral part of The Anvil Ceili Band as their drummer.  

In the past, families would gather at the Bridge of Tears in the foothills of Muckish to say goodbye to their family members who were leaving for a better life across the Atlantic, often never to return.  Percy French, the famous poet, visited the district at the beginning of the 20th century and while staying in Falcarragh he wrote a poem called “An Irish Mother”.  Once the Railway chugged along the base of Muckish, flanking its sides from Letterkenny to Burtonport, but even though the railway is gone now, it is still a very popular and expanding greenway.

Muckish Mountain has seen many changes down through the years and is now a very popular climbing route although care must be exercised as the mountain can be deceptively hard to climb. Up until recent years, a race known as ‘The Glover Marathon’ was held running along the ridges from Muckish to Errigal but this has now largely been abandoned in order to preserve the mountains from damage. The Muckish Gap is a name given to the road between Creeslough and Falcarragh on the southern side of Muckish and as well as being a shortcut to and from Letterkenny, it is also a world-famous rally stage for the Donegal Rally. 

In 2000, a large metal cross was placed at the summit of the Mountain, replacing a wooden one that had been erected by the workers of Muckish Sand in 1950. The new cross was placed much closer to the northern end of the mountain, while the cairn is towards the south. Among those who climbed the mountain to put up the Cross in the year 2000 were also there when the original Cross was put up 50 years beforehand. So, next time you’re looking to Muckish, keep an eye out for the cross!