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Killybegs: A History of the Heart of Donegal

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

Killybegs has a rich history steeped in culture and industry. Considered one of Ireland’s most famous and distinguished fishing ports, it has a natural deep-water harbour that has supplied fish for the whole island of Ireland with their fresh fish being renowned for its taste. It has its annual Killybegs Seafood Festival each year that attracts visitors from all over the world to indulge in its delicacies. Famous for its connections to the early church, the town offers an array of archaeological and historical sites of significance for those predisposed to interests of that nature. It was also a significant employer, having the famous Donegal Carpets operation in the centre of the town. Killybegs fascinating history has put it on the map as a must-see when visiting County Donegal.

Killybegs: An Early History

Killybegs is the modern English translation of a much older name. The Irish name was always ‘Na Cealla Beaga’ which means ‘little cells’. This meaning was taken from the area’s association with the early Church and the monastic settlements that had been build around it. The area is an ancient site, with evidence of twenty ring forts in the vicinity. Dating back thousands of years, the deep inlet of Killybegs has been inhabited since prehistoric times.

On the topic of the early Church, it is thought that Christianity arrived on the shores of Killybegs in the sith century when Saint Colmcille was preaching along the south-west coast of Donegal. Despite the obvious influence of Saint Colmcille, it is another saint that has become synonymous with Donegal - Saint Catherine. Saint Catherine was a fourth-century martyr from Alexandria. Killybegs has the ruins of Saint Catherine’s Church, thought to have been built in the twelfth century and a holy well near the boatyard, close to the shore. A popular spot for bishops of Raphoe to take up their diocese, Kit’s Castle was built by Bishop McMonagle around 1355 and the remains of the tower are left on the hill.

St. Catherine's Well Statue
St. Catherine's Well Statue (Source: Andreas F. Borchert)

Killybegs and The Spanish Armada

Killybegs has had a rich sea history which even saw visits from the Spanish Armada. In 1588, the English Spy Patrick Blane reported the Spanish Armada in the port. While three ships came into the bay, only one remained afloat - the famous Girona. Difficult seas and coastline to navigate, over 1000 men who had been shipwrecked off the Duquesa Santa Ann near Ardara got on the Girona to be taken home. The Girona left Killybegs with 1300 men on board but tragically sank in a storm off the Antrim Coast. From 1300 men, only 9 survived. There is a plaque to commemorate the history of the Spanish Armada’s appearance in Killybegs at the entrance of the town.

While talking about seafarers, Killybegs has had its fair share of dramatic and hostile takeovers, even being attacked by pirates. According to the records of the Annals of the Four Masters, Killybegs was attacked by the renowned Irish pirates, the O’Malley’s in 1513. Sensing the town was vulnerable due to their men fighting elsewhere. Despite this, the townsfolk appear to have come into a stroke of luck. A large storm in the eye of Largy caused the O’Malley fleet to take shelter to avoid shipwreck on the way to Kilcar. According to legend, young locals attacked the pirates killing Owen O’Malley and 120 of his men. The most famous of the O’Malley pirates, Gráinne, managed to escape with her father in another boat.

Spanish Armada shipwreck location
Spanish Armada shipwreck location (Source: John M)

Killybegs and Industry: Donegal Carpets

Killybegs is renowned for its fresh and exciting seafood dishes, with people coming all over the country to enjoy the restaurants’ offerings, but Killybegs was world-famous for one other thing - carpets. Donegal Carpets was a major employer in the town of Killybegs, employing upwards of 80 workers at one point.

Beautiful and well-sought after carpets, Donegal Carpets prized itself on providing stunning, hand-knotted carpets. These carpets, while also used locally, were placed in some of the most prestigious buildings worldwide, including places like Buckingham Palace, the Brighton Pavilion, Aras an Uachtarain, and even the White House! The building has been transformed into a heritage site, having operated as the Maritime and Heritage Centre. Now, it has been renamed the Killybegs International Carpet Making and Fishing Centre to continue to remind and educate visitors of Killybegs incredible contribution to carpet making, as well as its obvious contribution to fishing life in Ireland.

Donegal Carpets
Donegal Carpets (Source: Janspen)

Killybegs: A Fishing History

Killybegs fishing history proceeds it wherever it goes. With its incredible inlet, it holds the title as the largest port town in Ireland. Due to this, many businesses give people the opportunity to have the first-hand experience of fishing in Irish waters. Killybegs Angling Charters hold true to this exciting history by taking on daily sea angling trips. Run by a local of Killybegs, Brian has become part of the rich history of the town, taking visitors around the coastline to experience the incredible fishing opportunities for over thirty years. Offering full-day and half-day trips, Brian takes you around some of the stunning coastlines, including the divine, marine cliffs of Slieve League, the highest marine cliffs in Europe.

Another seafaring option that has been operating for many years as part of the marine history of Killybegs is the Atlantic Coastal Cruises. Run by Killybegs locals, the unforgettable tour takes you right along the Wild Atlantic Way. Offering two stellar tours, the cliff tour and the harbour tour provide two very different insights into the history of Killybegs and its idyllic coastline. For those who enjoy indulging in exploration, hiring boats for the day is possible for private use to explore the Killybegs coastline at your leisure.

If taking a tour, the Atlantic Coastal Cruises offer informative and visual experiences of the area. The in-depth and personal knowledge of the guides is thrilling, as they take you through attractions like Drumanoo Head and Rotten Island Lighthouse. A coastline plentiful with marine life, these tours often are interrupted by the stunning dolphins and basking sharks that populate the coastline.

Killybegs Fishing Boats
Killybegs Fishing Boats (Source: Joseph Mischyshyn)


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