Memory Lane: Letterkenny, Donegal

Posted: 14/08/2020 09:15:24

Hope you enjoyed our last trip down Memory Lane when we visited the medieval town of Kilkenny.
Today our Memory Lane destination is Letterkenny, the social centre of the north west and Donegal’s commercial hub.

The town derives its name from the Irish Leitir Ceannain (The Hill of the O’Cannons), named after the family whose stronghold was located just outside where the centre stands today.
In 1657 the team mapping Ireland in what became known as the “Downs Survey” visited this part of Ireland and one of the stops they made was to Letterkenny. They described it as a town with a market every Friday and a Fair twice a year. To be granted Royal Ascent to be able to hold a Fair was quite the prestigious honour as it was proof positive the people who oversaw the running of the town had moved up in the world. They were held either on religious or what we now call Bank Holiday days, and traders would come from far and wide to sell their goods to the assembled masses.
The infamous Plantation of Ulster saw many people from what is now the UK settle in the general area. In the 18th century the increase in population led to a sizable expansion of the town with the construction of mills for making flour or flax and a port for ships to dock. By 1930, a railway was built which linked the port to all corners of Donegal and beyond, with coal being one of the main items transported by rail.

The town

At the very heart of the town is the Market Square area, which was originally the area where the Medieval markets and fairs took place. A stand out feature of The Square is the monument in the centre which depicts a handful of children standing or sitting. It is believed that farmers visited the fair to pay a fee so they could ‘hire’ children from the ages of 11-16 to work on their farms for up to six months. This monument is in memory of these children and was erected by the artist Maurice Harron in December 1994.


One of the oldest standing commercial units in the town is R McCullagh jewellers which first opened in 1869.
If you are into quirky old fashioned items, Curiosity Corner has a range of Bric-a-Brac and Vintage Items. A more recent but well known establishment is “Pat’s on The Square” which is renowned far and wide for the quality of the cuisine it offers up.
Another outlet that has been there for quite some time is the Bank of Ireland branch, which has been serving customers in the town for over a century. 


At the top of The Square you will find the splendid example of ecclesiastical architecture that is Saint Eunan’s Cathedral. As is the case in many other towns across Ireland, the Cathedral occupies the highest point. Given its Baroque style, it might surprise you to find out that this building was not opened until the 20th Century – 1901 to be precise.

A church was first built on the site in 1830 at the behest of Doctor McGettigan, and 60 years later the then Bishop O’Donnell of Raphoe, set up a committee to campaign for the building of the Cathedral. The road nearby got the name of “Sentry Hill” as it is the place where someone kept lookout as mass was taking place, during the time of the Penal Laws, where such an event was banned.

Designed by the Dublin based Architect William Hague, the Cathedral was built using stone from Mountcharles in Co. Donegal. It is the main place of Worship in the diocese of Raphoe which covers part of the County of Donegal.
The smaller church building located across the road is that of Conwal Church of Ireland Parish Church which serves the needs of the Anglican Community in the town.

Things to see and do

A short walk away on High Road is the former workhouse building that now houses the Donegal County Museum, full of information and artefacts relating to that part of Ireland over the centuries. If you want a nice relaxing place to visit after your trip to the museum, the beautifully landscaped Letterkenny Town Park is a mere seven minute walk away on the Kilmacrennan Road.

After visiting one of the many fine eating establishments in the town, amongst them previously mentioned “Pat’s on the Square”, “The Honeypot” Restaurant or “CafĂ© Davitt”, you might be tempted to see a show in An Grianan Theatre, which has played host to a lot of Ireland’s most famous singers and bands over the years.

A tourist destination

In the past the fear of travelling “Up North” through Tyrone and Fermanagh due to the troubles, aligned with a slow journey on poor roads, meant generally only people who were from Donegal  ventured from counties in the Republic to places such as Letterkenny and Quigley’s Pont. However with the ending of “The Troubles” and construction motorways along the route, and the option of daily flights from Dublin to Carrickfinn airport, more and more people have realised what they missed.
Between being overawed by the scenery and bowled over by the hospitality shown by locals, it is no surprise that people from Cork to Cavan now take annual holidays to County Donegal. Without doubt one of the main beneficiaries of this increase in tourism is the town of Letterkenny and the number of new hotels that have sprung up in the last 20 or so years are a testament to that.

Has this feature whetted your appetite and made you want to take a trip to County Donegal?
To find out all that is in offer in Ireland’s most northerly county, download the Geo-Findit App, which is jam packed with the A-Z of things to see, do and eat in what has been nicknamed “The O’Donnell County”.

Interested in more?

Why not check out the rest of the Memory lane blog series, along with many more fascinating blogs on topics ranging from data tech to ice-cream!

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