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Letterkenny - Donegal

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Letterkenny (Leitir Ceanainn in Irish) is the largest town in County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, located on the River Swilly, approximately 56 kilometres north of Donegal Town and 32 kilometres west of Derry in Northern Ireland. Its name is an anglicisation of the Irish language name, which, translated, means 'The Hillside of the O'Cannons'.


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Photo Details

  • County: Donegal
  • Town: Letterkenny
  • Scene: The Convent
  • Date: 1920 (estimate)


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  • Read about Letterkenny below


Letterkenny (Leitir Ceanainn in Irish) is the largest town in County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, located on the River Swilly, approximately 56 kilometres north of Donegal Town and 32 kilometres west of Derry in Northern Ireland. Its name is an anglicisation of the Irish language name, which, translated, means 'The Hillside of the O'Cannons'.

Letterkenny had a population of 17,723 (including rural area) at the 2006 census. Despite its size, it is not the administrative centre of Donegal, which is Lifford.

Some prominent buildings in Letterkenny include St. Eunan's Cathedral, St. Eunan's College, the Workhouse (now functioning as the town's museum), and St. Conal's Hospital. Letterkenny Institute of Technology is a higher education institution established in the town since 1971. The town also boasts the longest main street in Ireland


Letterkenny began as a market town in the 17th century (thus starting before the Great Famine) and was the first crossing point of the River Swilly. In the recent past the population of Letterkenny consisted of cattle and sheep grazing on what were then untilled hillside in those very early days when Conwall was the ecclesiastical and seaport centre (2 miles west of Letterkenny). The waters of the Atlantic had not yet reached from the basin of the Swilly whose estuary at that time extended up almost as far as New Mills - proof of this may be found in those alluvial flat-lands between Oldtown and Port Road.

Letterkenny takes its name from the Irish 'Leitirceanainn' ?meaning the 'Hillside of the O'Cannons' ?the O'Cannons being the last of the ancient chieftains of Tir Conaill. Another derivation of the name Letterkenny from the Irish 'Leitir Ceann-Fhoinn' could possibly be the 'Fairheaded Hillside'.

Although the O'Cannons were the last chieftains of Tir Conaill no evidence of forts or castles belonging to the clan exists in or around the Letterkenny district.

Rory O'Cannon, the last chieftain of the O'Cannon clan was killed in 1248. Godfrey O'Donnell succeeded Rory O'Cannon as King of Tir Conaill. He engaged Maurice Fitzgerald, the Norman Lord, in battle at Credan in North Sligo in 1257 in which both received finally fatal wounds. Godfrey retired to a crannog in Lough Beag (Garten Lake). O'Neill of Tyrone taking advantage of Godfrey's fatal illness demanded submission, hostages and pledges from the Cenel Conail since they had no strong chieftain since the wounding of Godfrey. Godfrey summoned his forces and led them himself although he had to be carried on a litter (stretcher). O'Neill and his men were completely defeated here by the Swilly 1258. Godfrey died after the battle as he was being carried down Letterkenny Main Street. He was buried in Conwall Cemetery. A coffin-shaped cross slab marks his grave to this day.

The receding of the waters of the Atlantic eastwards enabled progress - the building of bridges etc., and the town of Letterkenny as we know it today took place. It all began in the wake of the Ulster Plantation 1610-'11 when 1000 acres were granted to a Scotsman Patrick Crawford who then formed a compact community presumably made up of his own friends.

But the honour of formally launching the town is supposed to go to Sir George Marbury, who married Patrick Crawford's widow, - Crawford having died suddenly while on a return visit to his native Scotland. Initially there were about fifty drab habitations possibly sited where the Oldtown is situated today - perhaps that's how the area got it's name as it is the oldest part of the town.

The main streets as we know them today with their traffic congestion, were then no more than pony tracks used by the hill farmers to come to the markets - these were started by Patrick Crawford with only a few animals - a far cry from the busy mart days of the present.

Letterkenny achieved town status in the early 1920s following the partition of Ireland, when the Irish punt replaced the British Pound Sterling as the national currency of Ireland. This led to many Irish banks that had been previously located in the closest city, Derry (now in Northern Ireland), being forced to open branches in Co. Donegal, including in Letterkenny.

'Fastest growing town in Europe?'

It has been and continues to be referred to as the fastest growing town in Europe; however this has never been substantiated. Information from the Central Statistics Office in Ireland and the EU Statistical Office, EuroStat, going as far back as 1977 make no mention of Letterkenny in their reports on the fastest growing towns or cities within either Europe or Ireland. It has been and continues to be referred to as the fastest growing town in Europe; however this has been proven to be false. This is not to say that the town has not experienced rapid expansion in recent years. Between 1996 and 2002 the population of the town and its environs has risen from 11,996 to 15,231. This increase by 27.0 has made Letterkenny one of the fastest growing towns in Ireland, outside the Dublin commuter belt.


Services such as waste disposal/recycling, maintenance of town parks, provision of social housing and traffic management are the remit of a nine member town council, elected by the town's electorate every four years. The make-up of the current town council following the last election was one Fine Gael, four Fianna Fáil, one Green Party, one Sinn Féin, one Independent Fianna Fáil and one Independent.

There has been significant political change in Letterkenny Town Council's composition since the last elections in 2004. Fine Gael lost its only seat when Jimmy Harte resigned from them to join the Independents and Independent Fianna Fáil amalgamated with Fianna Fáil as of 26 July 2006.

Elected Members of Dáil Éireann

Letterkenny is part of the Donegal North East constituency of Dáil Éireann. There are three TDs (Teachta?Dáil) in this constituency, with one, Jim McDaid of Fianna Fáil, living in Letterkenny town environs.

Ancient architecture

Letterkenny in general boasts some good quality architecture, capable of rivalling that of many of Ireland’s towns and cities. Many of the town's most famous buildings were built in the early or even earlier than the 1900s.

These include educational and ecclesiastical buildings. The town’s tallest building is St. Eunan's Cathedral, a neo-gothic Roman Catholic cathedral on the northside of the River Swilly which, alongside the nearby Parochial House, was built in 1901 in victorian style, and the Loreto Convent which was built over 150 years ago.

St. Eunan
St. Eunan's Cathedral dominates the Letterkenny skyline.

Another dominant building in the town is the historic St. Eunan's College which was built as a seminary in 1906, using the money left over after the building of the Cathedral and the Parochial House. The college is a three-storey picturesque castle with four round towers at each corner of the building. The school is named after the Abbot of Iona St. Eunan, a native of Donegal and patron saint of the Diocese of Raphoe. It is an all-male education facility which today houses over 850 students.

Another attractive piece of architecture can be found at Mount Southwell Terrace. This Georgian terrace of red brick was built in 1837 by Lord Southwell. Located at the top of Market Square, just off Castle Street, the terrace contains some of the best examples of a typical Georgian house to be found in Letterkenny.

The Donegal County Museum is housed in the old workhouse and is located on the High Road. It was built in 1843. Each year the museum attracts thousands of tourists, who seek to find out about the history of County Donegal, to the town.

Modern architecture

Letterkenny has continued with its trend for inspiring original and unusual architecture in recent years. Some of the structures to have blossomed are listed below.

The new Letterkenny Town Council Offices were designed by Donegal-based Antoin MacGabhann Architects, though the inspiration clearly came from elsewhere; Tarla MacGabhann spent five years working in Berlin with Daniel Libeskind the diminutive king of Deconstruction, on such projects as the Jewish Museum. Standing at the edge of Letterkenny, it is arguably the most unusual building to be erected in the county for many years. Its most notable feature is its distinct sloping grass roof situated above a broad band of aluka matt cladding although it is also noticeable for its runway-like ramp to the first-floor concourse.


During the Plantation of Ulster, Queen Elizabeth I confiscated the lands around Ulster. The land was divided into estates and rented cheaply to natives of England and Scotland. This was known as the Ulster plantation. The effect of this, and other plantations, was the introduction of new English and Scottish farming methods, with more crop-growing and less cattle farming than before. Despite having a long tradition of emigration that continued up until the early 1990s, Letterkenny has gained cultural diversity over many years, with people immigrating from all over the world, particularly from Poland, Romania, Latvia and various African nations. This is reflected in the recent growth of multi-cultural restaurants and shops, including Chinese, Indian and Thai restaurants, and Italian pizzerias, as well as specialised shops run by and providing goods for Africans, Asians and eastern Europeans.

Pubs and Clubs

Letterkenny's cultural life is vibrant - the town is a popular nightlife location and attracts many revellers, especially at the weekends. The Main Street, originally the retail centre of the town, has become a centre for one of the most popular nightclubs Voodoo, as well as pubs such as The Casbah, Milan, and The Cavern. The Pulse is also a popular nightclub which also holds regular teenage discos that attract a huge attendance. At halloween 2006 Cascada performed there for the teenage disco.


An Grianán Theatre
An Grianán Theatre

There is a large cinema complex in the town. It is located on Canal Street Century Cinemas is an eight-screen cinema with full carparking facilities and a full range of refreshments available in their foyer. An Grianán Theatre, the largest theatre in County Donegal with a seating capacity of 345. It has one of the largest stages in the country. The Letterkenny Arts Centre provides a constant throughput of new blood. Recent additions to the arts infrastructure include modern additions to Letterkenny Library and Arts Centre and the Cristeph Gallery. The new Letterkenny Arts Centre, located behind An Grianán Theatre, is due to open shortly. The town proved it had the capacity to host major festivals by recently playing host to the annual Irish traditional music festival, the Fleadh Cheoil for two consecutive years. Both festivals were organised by Comhaltas Ceolteori Eireann, and its chairman, Paddy Tunney.