Killybegs: A Centre of Maritime and Carpet Making
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
Across Ireland and throughout the world, county Donegal has been a place at the heart of storytelling, lore and trade. Indeed, the island’s scenic north remains a hotspot for tourism and business, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors on a yearly basis. What is largely forgotten, however, is that the small town of Killybegs once held the key to the region’s prosperity.
A Rich Heritage
A drive into Killybegs today reveals a town that has stayed true to its industrial roots: the portside town, thriving with boats and trawlers is still a hotspot for fishing. Ireland’s largest fishing port continues to feed its local community, with seafood restaurants and fishmongers dotted around the coastal hinterland. For fishermen and sailors, modern Killybegs is a paradise.
However, the town of Killybegs once offered more than what we see today. The bustling harbour was once home to Atlantic Dawn, one of the largest fishing vessels in the country, as well as Ireland’s largest fleet of ships. Beyond the world of fishing and maritime trade, Killybegs boasted one of the finest carpet making reputations in the world. Although carpet making was already a long-established tradition in Donegal, the county’s prestige in the trade was pioneered by Donegal Carpets, who were founded by Scottish textile manufacturer Alexander Morton in 1898.
Morton’s entry into carpet making did not begin with Donegal Carpets, however. The entrepreneur originally opened a carpet-crafting house on Ireland’s west coast, incorporating the famous techniques of the Donegal people who had been crafting products with wool for generations. Quickly building a reputation for unrivalled craftsmanship and supreme quality, the company had one of their first large commissions with a contract for the former Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. One of the first examples of a carpet with Celtic designs, the carpet was laid down in their offices at the Cork Exhibition in 1902.
Donegal Carpets went on to champion Celtic designs in carpets. A notable example is a Celtic-ornamented altar carpet which was gifted by Morton to St. Eunan’s Cathedral, designed by Roman painter Signor Oreste Amici, who also painted St. Columba Chapel’s Celtic ornamental painting in 1900. Over the course of the following century, carpets made in Donegal were sought in high societies around the world: examples of the pieces can be found in Dublin Castle, the Royal Pavillion of Brighton, Eltham Palace, the Vatican and even the White House.
The Morton dynasty sold the firm to a large consortium in 1957, who continued to carry the torch under the Donegal Carpets brand. At its peak, the firm operated four large manufacturing houses at one time. However, The Great Depression lead to the closure of three of the facilities, with the last remaining facility shutting its doors in 1987. The 1987 closure saw a mobilisation of the people of Donegal, who petitioned the Irish Government to reopen the factories. The campaign was successful, and by 1997 Donegal Carpets were making carpets yet again for places such as Áras an Uachtaráin and the University of Notre Dame.
Modern Day Killybegs
Nowadays, visitors to Killybegs can explore the county’s carpet making history by visiting the Killybegs International Carpet Making & Fishing Centre, based in the former site of the historic Killybegs Carpet Factory. Home to the largest hand-knotted loom in the world, the museum offers live demonstrations of weaving hand-knotted carpets, as well as a chance to meet and speak to some of the few remaining hand-weavers in Ireland. Get educated on the fine art of hand-knotting and try your hand at the craft in one of the factory’s hand-looms.
The brand of Donegal Carpets continues to be synonymous with fine craftsmanship and superior quality. Indeed, the firm continues to create bespoke pieces in the Killybegs factory, with design collections available in design centres and carpet stores across the world. The unique qualities of excellence poured into every finished product are testament to the county’s prestige in carpet making, with founder Alexander Morton once saying that they “stand like pearls”. Indeed, recent years have seen pieces by Donegal Carpets sell at auction for up to $120,000. The pitch-pine looms seen in the factory were the same used to produce carpets for Queen Victoria over a century ago.
The International Carpet Making & Fishing Centre also offers fascinating insights into Donegal’s extensive fishing and maritime heritage. These insights include interactive audio-visual experiences in a fishing trawler’s wheelhouse, as well as the opportunity to experience the life of a fisherman with the Bridge Simulator, replicating the experience of the ocean through the powers of virtual reality.
Killybegs offers a range of attractions and activities for tourists and local lovers of culture and heritage. To hear more about things to do in Killybegs, visit our Things to Do page.