Inishowen - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

From Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland by Rev. Hugh Forde

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Inishowen, now under the government of the Free State, has been the scene of many stirring events in the history of Ulster. The peninsula stretches 22 miles in length and 16 ½ miles at its greatest breadth. The coast is bold and majestic, the surface mountainous and wild.

Inishowen derives its name from Kinel Owen, one of the sons of Nial the Great, commonly called Nial of the Nine Hostages. In the commencement of the 5th century, when that monarch divided the greater part of Ireland between his twelve sons, this district was allotted to Eogan or Owen, who gave it the name of Inishowen—the Island of Owen—from the fact of its being surrounded almost entirely by water, Lough Foyle, Lough Swilly, and the Atlantic Ocean enclosing it on all sides except for a narrow neck of land about five miles across.

The Macloughlins, the O’Deerys, the O’Gormleys, are ancient families descended from the branch of the northern Hy Niall. It was on Lough Swilly that a ship lay at anchor off Rathmullan on the 14th September, 1607, and before nightfall it had carried away, to use the language of the Four Masters, “a distinguished company of whom the sea has not borne and the wind has not wafted in modern times a number of persons in one ship more eminent, illustrious, or noble in point of genealogy, heroic deeds, valour, feats of arms, and brave achievements than they.” It was “The Flight of the Earls” from their native land, the great Ulster Chieftains who so long resisted the power of England, and by their flight opened up the way for the Plantation of Ulster.

One hundred and ninety years later a French squadron under Bompard and Hardy appeared in Lough Swilly. The squadron consisted of the “Hoche,” a 74-gun ship, and eight frigates. On board the “Hoche” was Wolfe Tone. To avoid the English admiral, Sir John Warren, who was known to be on the watch for them, they made a long circuit into the Atlantic. They were separated in a storm, and on the 10th of October, 1798, the “Hoche” and three frigates found themselves alone at the mouth of Lough Swilly, with Warren, in pursuit of them, already in sight. The frigates, drawing little water, escaped. Wolfe Tone, says Froude, was entreated to fly with them, but chose to remain. The “Hoche” fought for six hours against four ships as large as herself, and did not strike till she was sinking. Wolfe Tone distinguished himself in action, and in his French uniform was not recognised.

The defeated were invited to breakfast by Lord Cavan, and Tone accompanied the French officers. He made himself known to an acquaintance, and was instantly arrested by Sir George Hill. He expected his commission in the French army would protect him, but he was ordered into irons, taken to Dublin, and brought before a court-martial, where General Loftus sat as president. He appeared in full dress as a French officer. He had been taken in the act of bearing arms against his Sovereign. “In a cause like mine,” he said, “success is everything. Success in the eyes of the vulgar is the test of merit. Washington succeeded; Kosciusko failed. I have forfeited my life. The court shall do its duty. I shall not be wanting in mine.” Having been tried as a soldier, he begged he might have a soldier’s death. The request was refused. He was sentenced to be hanged the following morning in front of the new prison. There was no time for an appeal, and in the night he cut his throat with a penknife. The execution was put off, and for another week Tone lingered in pain and then died.

Another event still fresh in our memory is connected with Inishowen. During the late war many of the German submarines, submerged in its waters, lay in wait for British and American merchant vessels, and many a fine ship and gallant seaman lie buried in the deep sea around the coast.

In Belmont, close to Londonderry, there is a much-venerated piece of antiquity, St. Columb’s Stone, generally believed to be the coronation stone of Aileach. In the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick mention is made of this stone—“The man of God accompanied Prince Eochan to his palace, which he then held in the most ancient and celebrated seat of the Kings, called Aileach, and which the holy bishop consecrated, promising that from his seed many kings and princes of Ireland should spring, and as a pledge he left there a certain stone blessed by him, upon which the promised kings and princes should be ordained.” The stone is in a rough, unhewn state, of an irregular square, about seven feet across. It exhibits the impressions of two feet about ten inches long. There is a very exact description of such coronation stones in Spenser’s “Concise View of Ireland,” which applies exactly to this stone.

About four miles from Derry is Culmore Fort. It was the great outpost of Derry and the principal fortress of Lough Foyle, but as a military station it has ceased to be used for the last 160 years. It was preserved from total dilapidation by Mr. Abraham M‘Causland in 1785, and in 1824 General Hart repaired it in a permanent manner. The walls are more than six feet thick, and the tower consists of three storeys. The fortalice was built some time in the 16th century, and is frequently mentioned in connection with the troubles in the North. In 1608, upon the breaking out of Sir Cahir O’Doherty’s rebellion, it was surprised and treacherously taken by him.

A striking and authentic anecdote is recorded in Cox’s “Hibernia Anglicana,” which illustrates the daring and unscrupulous character of the young chieftain O’Doherty. After the death of Sir John O’Doherty, Cahir, his son, pretended great affection for the English, and particularly for the young officer who was the Governor of Culmore Fort, near Derry. Much trust was reposed in him, and he was soon made a Justice of the Peace and looked on as a sincere friend. Upon a certain day Sir Cahir invited the Governor to dinner. He came with his wife and little child, to whom Sir Cahir was godfather, to the chieftain’s feast. After dinner O’Doherty arose and called the Governor aside and plainly told him that he hated the English, and that he must be revenged and have Culmore. “Surrender it quickly to me,” he said to the Governor, “or yourself, your wife, and child must die.” At this moment a band of armed kerns rushed into the room; the loyal Governor refused to yield up the fort, and Sir Cahir gave orders to his men to execute him.

At the instant Lady O’Doherty and the wife of the Governor rushed into the room, and by their urgent entreaties dissuaded the chieftain from the murder. He, therefore, sent the Governor out of the room well guarded, and, addressing his wife, said, “Madam, go off instantly to Culmore with this band of soldiers; get them peaceably into the fort, or your husband and child must die.” The distracted wife gave way. She went with the rebels to the castle and told the sentries that her husband had broken his leg. The sentry did not hesitate to admit her and her party, and when they had gained admission they murdered the garrison and took possession of the fort. The Governor’s life was saved, but he was utterly ruined. Sir Cahir O’Doherty then marched on Derry, sacked and burnt it, and slew the Governor and garrison. This happened in 1608, but six months later he was finally worsted and his lands confiscated.

Not far from the village of Kilmacrennan is the Rock of Doon, the royal coronation place of the chieftains of Tyrconnell, and the scene of the death of Sir Cahir O’Doherty. It is a natural fortress in a very inaccessible district, and well suited for the retreat of these daring warriors.

Before the Plantation of Ulster several Scots settled between Mulroy Bay and Lough Foyle under the auspices of Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell. One, Sandy Ramsay, obtained a grant in the valley of the Lennan, and built a bawn and residence. Sir Cahir O’Doherty and the Irish regarded these settlers with great hatred. During the absence of Ramsay upon one occasion, the chieftain made an attack upon his bawn, drove off the cattle, and slew his wife and children. Upon his return home the Scot found his newly-built bawn a smoking ruin, and his family slaughtered and himself bereft of all but his gun and dirk. Revenge became the passion of his soul. He knew there were 500 marks set upon the head of the rebel chieftain. Accordingly, he concealed himself from observation; he lurked upon the haunts of the chief, and at last a fortunate opportunity presented itself.

On Holy Thursday, as the chief rested himself upon the eastern face of the Rock of Doon, little dreaming of danger, the Scot discovered him by his Spanish hat and heron plume, and, resting his gun upon a rock which concealed him from view, he applied the match, and the next moment the chieftain fell a lifeless corpse at the feet of a body of his retainers, who immediately fled, panic-stricken, which when the Scot observed he approached, and, severing the head from the body, wrapped it in his plaid and set off in the direction of Dublin.

But he was unfortunate in his speculation, for, sleeping in the cabin of one Terry Gallagher, near one of the fords of the Finn, the Irishman observed blood oozing through the pillow of his guest; he slit it open, and out rolled the reeking head. He instantly recognised the features, mounted his garron, and set off for Dublin, leaving the weary Scotsman dreaming of the reward he was never fated to receive.

O’Doherty rests beside the rock, where his grave is pointed out by the peasants, by whom his memory is still held in high respect.


The old ruined castle at Greencastle is perhaps one of the most interesting relics in Inishowen. It was also for centuries called Northburgh Castle. The castle was built in 1805 by Richard de Burgh (or Burke), the famous Red Earl of Ulster. Great estates in Ulster were granted to him by Edward II., and he built this castle to secure the entrance to Lough Foyle. Richard was defeated by Edward Bruce, brother of Robert, King of Scotland, at the battle of Connor, in Antrim, in 1315; but afterwards Bruce was defeated and slain at Faughart, near Dundalk, in 1318. Edward Bruce spent nearly a year in Greencastle. Richard de Burgh died in 1326, and was succeeded by his son John, who in turn was succeeded by his son William, called the Dun (or Brown) Earl—a famous, or notorious, ruffian in his day. He seized his relative, Walter de Burgh, confined him in Northburgh Castle, and starved him to death. You can see traces of the tragedy to this day. The affair made so deep an impression for centuries afterwards, that Walter’s skeleton appears in the arms of the city of Derry as it was found in the castle dungeon after William’s death. William was assassinated at the Fords of Belfast in 1888 by Sir Richard de Mandeville, brother-in-law of the starved Walter, in revenge. William left only one child, a daughter, who married Lionel, Duke of Clarence, son of Edward III. This ended the Norman power in the northwest of Ulster, where, however, it had never taken root. The castle then, thus deserted, fell into the hands of the chieftain of the great O’Doherty clan of Inishowen, and his successors held it for 250 years until the insane rebellion of Sir Cahir O’Doherty in 1608, already alluded to. After his death the clan lands in Inishowen were confiscated and granted by King James I. to Sir Arthur Chichester, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His successors have held the lands, including the castle, ever since.

For this account of the castle I am indebted to Mr. W. Scott of Ayr, who explored every nook and corner of it in 1878. At that time some members of the Chichester family (relatives of Lord O’Neill) were residing in the adjacent mansion.

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