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Your Are Here - Home > Counties > Donegal County > Letterkenny
Letterkenny (Irish: Leitir Ceanainn) is the largest town in County Donegal, part of the Province of Ulster in Ireland. It is located on the River Swilly. Despite its size, Letterkenny is not the County Town (administrative centre) of County Donegal. This function is fulfilled by Lifford, a small town to the east. Letterkenny dominates the economy of County Donegal, Ulster's largest county. The town is considered to be one of the fastest growing towns in all of Ireland. Letterkenny and the nearby City of Derry form the major economic core of North-West Ireland.

It has been said that the town's Main Street is one of the longest in Ireland. The town was voted "Best Kept Urban Centre" in the 2007 "Best Kept Town Awards" and "Tidiest Large Urban Centre" in the 2007 Tidy Towns competition an improvement on 2002, when after a National Anti-Litter League survey carried out by An Taisce, the town was compared to The Liberties in Dublin in relation to litter.

Letterkenny began as a market town in the 17th century (before the Great Famine) and was the first crossing point of the River Swilly. In the recent past the population of Letterkenny consisted of cattle and sheep grazing on what were then untilled hillside - when Conwall (3 km west of Letterkenny) was the ecclesiastical and seaport centre. The waters of the Atlantic had not yet retreated from the basin of the Swilly whose estuary at that time extended up almost as far as New Mills - proof of this may be found in those alluvial flat-lands between Oldtown and Port Road.

Rory O'Cannon, the last chieftain of the O'Cannon clan was killed in 1248. Godfrey O'Donnell succeeded Rory O'Cannon as King of Tír Conaill. He engaged Maurice Fitzgerald, the Norman Lord, in battle at Credan in the north of what is now County Sligo in 1257 in which both were badly wounded - Fitzgerald immediately fatally so. Godfrey (also dying from his wounds) retired to a crannóg in Lough Beag (Gartan Lake). O'Neill of Tyrone - taking advantage of Godfrey's fatal illness - demanded submission, hostages and pledges from the Cenél Conaill since they had no strong chieftain since the wounding of Godfrey. Godfrey summoned his forces and led them himself, although he had to be carried on a litter (stretcher). O'Neill and his men were completely defeated by the Swilly in 1258. Godfrey died however after the battle as he was being carried through the town. He was buried in Conwall Cemetery. A cross-shaped coffin slab marks his grave to this day.

The receding of the waters of the Atlantic eastwards enabled progress, and with the building of bridges etc, the town of Letterkenny started to take the shape it has today. In the wake of the Plantation of Ulster (which began around 1609), when a 4 km² (1,000 acres) area was granted to a Scotsman Patrick Crawford, the compact community formed.

The honour of formally launching the town fell to Sir George Marbury who married Patrick Crawford's widow - Crawford having died suddenly while on a return visit to his native Scotland. Initially there were possibly fifty simple habitations sited where the Oldtown is situated today.

The main streets, though now suffering traffic congestion, were simple pony tracks used by the hill farmers to come to the markets. The markets - started by Patrick Crawford with only a few animals - grew into much busier mart days of the recent past which are sadly not present today.

An ancient castle once stood near where St Eunan's Cathedral stands today. Letterkenny Castle, built in 1625, was located south of Mount Southwell on Castle Street. Outlaw Redmond O' Hanlon found refuge there in 1690. No remains of the castle exist today.

During the Irish Rebellion of 1798, on 12 October, a large French force consisting of 3,000 men, and including Wolfe Tone attempted to land in County Donegal near Lough Swilly. They were intercepted by a large British Royal Navy force, and finally surrendered after a three hour battle without ever landing in Ireland. After Wolfe Tone was captured he was held for a short time at Laird's Hotel (opposite the Market Square) in the Main Street of Letterkenny before being transferred to the nearby Derry Gaol. He was later tried by court-martial in Dublin and found guilty. He committed suicide in prison.

In 1824, when the first description of Letterkenny as a modern town was written, it was stated that: "Within half a mile is the Port of Ballyraine, whither vessels of 100 tons bring iron, salt and colonial produce and whence they export hides and butter". Nothing remains now except the warehouses with the example of 19th century warehouse architecture.

Letterkenny achieved town status in the early 1920s following the partition of Ireland. When the Irish punt replaced the British Pound Sterling in Co. Donegal in 1928, many Irish banks that had been previously located in Derry (in the new Northern Ireland) opened branches in Letterkenny.

The town proved it had the capacity to host major festivals by recently playing host to the annual Irish traditional music festival, the Fleadh Cheoil for two consecutive years. Both festivals were organised by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. The town has also hosted the international Pan Celtic Festival for two consecutive years (2006 and 2007). Celts from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Isle of Man, Brittany and Cornwall visited Letterkenny for the "craic agus ceoil". Along with the daily street performances on Market Square, An Grianán Theatre and The Courtyard Shopping Centre, song, fiddle, harp and dance contests also featured.

In 2008 Letterkenny represented Ireland in the Entente Florale, having scooped Gold in the Large Urban Centre category of the 2007 National Tidy Town Awards. Locally there was a minor furore as all flags of competing nations were displayed in prominent areas of the town, with some difficulty encountered when locals discovered the controversial Union Jack flag hanging from a pole adjacent to the library and Paddy Delap's newsagent. The flag is still upsetting to many people angered by continuing British rule in Northern Ireland and as such led to an intensely heated debate on local radio station Highland Radio on the day the judges were in town. The flag was first mounted the previous day (August 7) and had to be taken down when some concerns were raised about its safety on a busy Thursday night. It was remounted the following day. Nevertheless the town won gold in the competition.

Donegal Town
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In: Donegal
People: 10,868
Speak: English, Irish
Type: Market Town
GPS: -7.7204, 54.9566