Donegal Castle – A True Gaelic Masterpiece (History, Interesting Facts & Travel Tips)


In the heart of Donegal Town, Ireland stands the 15th-century marvel – Donegal Castle. It was built by Sir Red Hugh O’Donnell and has been associated with numerous influential clans of Ulster for almost 11 centuries. 

It is said that the site of this castle was once the grounds of a Viking stronghold – hence the moniker “Fortress of the Foreigner.” The structure of Donegal had succumbed to the tides of time over the centuries, but the ruins were restructured and turned into a nice visiting place in the latter half of the twentieth century. Let’s talk a bit more about it:

The Donegal castle has gorgeous gothic style hallways that feature intricately detailed doors.

Donegal Castle's view from the outside .
Donegal Castle’s view from the outside. DONEGAL CASTLE flickr photo by kunst.ftf shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Frequently Asked Questions


Early History

Construction & Influence of the Donegal Castle

Donegal Castle was commissioned by Sir Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1474. He was the ruler of Tyroconnel and head of the O’Donnell family – one of the very last chieftains of the Gaelic command. The castle sits proudly atop the mountainous curves that loom above the River of Eske and was originally constructed to house the O’Donnell family. 

Donegal Castle in the last decade of the 19th century
Donegal Castle in the last decade of the 19th century. See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons .

The O’Donnells were one of the last Irish clans to stand against the English. The castle was also, at one time an important fortification to the Lords of Tír Conaill. The aristocratic influence of these families spanned across many centuries, impacting the historical significance of this fortification.

The 16th Century Appreciation

The Donegal castle is a sheer masterpiece of Gaelic craftsmanship. Over the centuries, it has been appreciated by many, including Sir Henry Sidney, English Viceroy. He quoted in his 1566 report that the castle was one of the greatest that he had ever seen, also noting its sturdy foundation and architecture.

A painting of Sir Henry Sidney, the English Viceroy.
A painting of Sir Henry Sidney, the English Viceroy. Arnold Bronckorst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Flight of the O’Donnells

The Donegal castle has a very sordid history. Its inhabitants, the O’Donnell’s, left Ireland in 1607 (right after the Nine Years War) during the Flight of the Earls. However, Hugh O’Donnell didn’t want his castle falling into English hands, so it’s believed that he set it on fire. 

An interior view of the dining room of Donegal Castle.
An interior view of the dining room of Donegal Castle.The interior of Donegal Castle flickr photo by dmerino13 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Palace Granted to Basil Brooke

The castle had been seriously harmed by the leaving O’Donnell’s to forestall its use against the Gaelic families. However, its new owners sought out an immediate renovation in 1611, when Donegal and its properties were handed over to an English Captain, Basil Brooke. This new proprietor was all about maintaining the original Jacobean integrity of Donegal’s structure, so all the additions that he made were in cognizance of that style. From the brand new windows to an enormous villa wing, everything complemented the contextual fabric of the castle’s original style. 

Ruins at the Donegal Castle.
Ruins at the Donegal Castle. Donegal castle 5 flickr photo by rouilleralain shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

The Brooke family held ownership of the palace for quite some time, but then it started to disintegrate because of terrible maintenance. It wasn’t until 1898 when the Earl of Arran had it transferred to the Office of Public Works, that restoration was able to begin in the first decade of the 20th century.

Current Times

The Office of Public Works has since remodeled the palace to make contemporary use out of it. With new materials and an added deck – both of which complement the authentic styling of this building – it’s become a modern-day tourist attraction. Other revamped sections include the stonework and the roofing of the east wing. The oak work used in it was actually derived from the Brookeborough Estate, which is located in County Fermanagh. The palace is currently open to people in general and regularly hosts events like the Gaelic Social Nights.

Another  view of Donegal's Castle dining hall with chimney.
Another view of Donegal’s Castle dining hall. Donegal castle 6 flickr photo by rouilleralain shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Interesting Donegal Castle Facts

  • The palace is viewed as one of the best illustrations of a Gaelic castle in Ireland. Sir Henry Sidney even portrayed it as the biggest, and most grounded stronghold in all of Ireland.
  • The most distinctive element of Donegal Castle is its tower house – the tallest component of the complex structure. It was unique on its own, but the Brooks added more to its structure during the 1600s.
  • The Donegal castle has gorgeous gothic style hallways that feature intricately detailed doors.
  • You can even experience the original architecture of Donegal from the ground level store rooms. With vaulted roofs and cobbled floors, it’s definitely a scene worth reveling in.
  • There’s a “trip staircase” that traces back all the way to the O’Donnell time. It has uneven stairs and was specifically designed to trip enemy soldiers!

Visiting Donegal Castle – Tips and Tricks

Donegal castle is a valued part of the Irish architectural heritage and if it seems like a worthy place to visit for you, then here are tips and tricks to help you out.

A view from the balcony of the Donegal Castle where you can see another building and trees.
A view from the balcony of the Donegal Castle. Found Photo Ireland 19720507 Donegal Castle 5 flickr photo by David Pirmann shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

How to get to Donegal Castle?

If you want to visit the Donegal Castle, then here is some needed information:

Donegal castle is a drive of around 3-4 hours by car from Dublin city. You can reach Donegal via bus from Dublin for €27 ($32 USD) in 4-5 hours. From the bus station, the castle is a 10 minutes walk.

Ticket Prices, Visiting Hours & Travel Tips

Information was checked & updated on October 5, 2023.

Donegal Castle has seasonal opening times: from Easter till mid-September it opens daily from 10-6 pm, and from mid-September, till Easter it opens Monday-Thursday from 9:30-4:00 pm.

As for the tickets, it costs €5 ($5 USD) for an adult, €4 ($4 USD) for an individual in a group. For children and students, it’s as low as €3 ($3 USD), and families can get admission for €13 ($14 USD).

The beautiful sunset view at the bridge near Donegal Castle.
The beautiful sunset view at the bridge near Donegal Castle.

How Long Will It Take to Tour Around?

If you are interested in the history and in-depth information of a place then you should take the guided tour, which takes 1 hour and 30 minutes, while the self-tour takes only 30 minutes.

Some words of advice and tips: 

  • It is advised to book your tickets and guided tours early to get your spot in time.
  • If you’re an art and architecture aficionado, then you’ll love the beautiful decor and structural elements of this castle.
  • If you want to save your money and avoid the jam-packed spots then it is wise to visit the castle during the months of June and September.

Quick Video Tour of The Main Donegal Castle Areas

Zunaira Ghazal
Zunaira Ghazal
Zunaira is an architect and designer on paper, but a writer at heart. She’s got a Bachelors in Architecture and a passion for traveling, both of which combine in her writings about timeworn castles and fortresses that have withstood the tests of time and stand proud to this day.

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