Doe Castle Donegal + Rory O’Donnell

Adhere | The Fight of the Earl | To Crown It All

The 19th century German traveller Johann Kohl maintained, “Irish ruins generally wear a very picturesque look.” That may bear some truth but if left entirely to nature’s devices, ruins disappear. Professor Finola O’Kane Crimmins, lecturer at University College Dublin, is a specialist in Ireland and the Picturesque. “There is an insouciance in English paintings of ruins,” she believes. “They are often used as framing devices. But ruins in Ireland have always been political in light of the country’s history.”

Doe Castle, sitting on a promontory jutting into Sheephaven Bay, County Donegal, is as picturesque as they come. It looks for all the world like a Scottish Highlands shortbread tin lid. Even more so recently, thanks to the addition of a striking high pitched roof bravely accentuating its silhouette. The roof is one of several daring interventions carried out by the Office of Public Works. Limewashing the keep and constructing new plinth walls are two others.

Doe” is derived from the Gaelic word “Tuath” meaning territory. The castle was for a time the stronghold of the MacSweeney Clan who had three territories stretching from Rosgoill in the east to Gweedore in the west. It is first mentioned in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1544 although the four storey keep is probably older. Naturally it has a history as bloody as a Donegal foreland. “The iterative cycle of land,” observes Professor O’Kane Crimmins. Historian Brian de Breffny wrote in 1977, “For many years the ownership of the castle was fought over and disputed incessantly.” Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, was granted custody of the castle by Royal Warranty for a fleeting three years at the turn of the 17th century.

There’s more. Adopting a portmanteau, Brian de Breffny also wrote, “The Government then compelled the Earl to allow Sir Basil Brooke to occupy Doe and its lands. The Earl of Tyrconnell sailed for the Continent from Lough Swilly in 1607, never to return, and Castledoe was once again in Crown hands.”  Beyond the battlemented and buttressed and buffeted bawn, in sight of the haunted keep, sloping down to the water’s edge, is a well kept graveyard. The tombstone set in a wall of the wife of Captain John Sandford who bought Doe Castle in 1614 reads: “Heere Lyeth the bodie of Anne Sanforde Late Wife Vnto Captain John Sanforde Who Desesed The 13 of Jvly Anno Domeni 1621 For Whose Sake This Chapell was Ercted” [lots of sic].

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