Local History by Seán Beattie

Carndonagh, Inishowen, St. Patrick

St. Patrick in Inishowen

St. Patrick in Inishowen

We are unable to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in our normal fashion in 2020, so here are some of my thoughts from my isolated base in Culdaff page from the book of Armagh.

A page from the Book of Armagh,which has notes about the Saint’s journey. 

The hagiography (biography of a saint ) of St. Patrick is considered the best guide to the political geography of Ireland in the pre-Viking Age in relation to the location of kingdoms, dynasties and churches. The principal text was written by a bishop called Tírechán, c. 690, quite a while after the saint had passed away. Tírechán was from Connaught, born somewhere along the Moy River which flows through Ballina and is famous for its salmon. According to this source, the saint travelled around Ireland, visiting Connaught and then heading northwards before returning to the midlands. Two other texts add to the history written by Tírechán: the Book of Armagh c. 808  (in particular, the notes), and the Tripartite Life of St Patrick. These three texts provide us with a view of Ireland before the Vikings lashed our coasts.

Patrick entered Donegal through Barnesmore Gap into the Kingdom of Eoghan (often called the Cenél nÉoghain). The tribe of Éoghan would eventually rule supreme following their victory in one of the most decisive battles ever fought in the county, the Battle of Cloíteach in 789.

Patrick travelled northwards through the Fíd Mór (the Great Wood), which was probably in the area of Manorcunningham, now known as the Laggan, overlooking Lough Swilly.  At this time, the Inishowen peninsula was divided into three kingdoms. Fergus ruled Domnach Mór Maighe Tóchair, i.e. the area around Carndonagh. Tírechán clearly states that Patrick founded a church at Mag Tóchair (Carndonagh). Not all the inhabitants made him welcome but that is a story for another time.

Members of the Donegal Historical Society visiting the Donagh Cross. In this picture, it was situated on the opposite side of the road. Third from right is Rev Art O’Reilly, former President of Carndonagh College. 

In the 1600s, the cult of St. Patrick was very powerful in Inishowen. Hundreds made their way across the peninsula to pray at the Carndonagh Cross, one of Ireland’s greatest Patrician shrines in medieval times.

The cross features in Michael Quigley’s epic poem ‘The Friar’s Curse: A Legend of Inishowen, Or, Dreams of Fancy when the Night was Dark’ in 1870. Quigley emigrated from Inishowen after the Great Famine and worked as  a labourer, later a carpenter,  in America. His 300 page poem references many landmarks and stories from his homeland.

Where Donagh’s granite crosses gray with age,

Stand witnesses of Erin’s faith divine;

Mocking the fierce despoiler’s vandal rage,

Whose wanton fury overturned the shrine?

And broke the stone and blurr’d the sacred line,

The holy legend of the honored dead,

High on the hill above of rude design,

A lofty cairn of stone uprear’d its head,

But for what purpose rais’d tradition nothing said.

‘The Friar’s Curse: A Legend of Inishowen, Or, Dreams of Fancy when the Night was Dark’ – Michael Quigley, Milwaukee, 1870. The book is available from de Burca Rare Books in Dublin. 

The Cross is now under threat and experts who recently examined the Cross have noticed dust fragments at the base which suggest deterioration. The Lands of Eoghan group are currently taking up this matter.

The Donagh Cross under the protective canopy in its new location.

For a full account of Patrick’s visit, see the forthcoming  issue of The Donegal Annual 2020  in which Professor of Celtic, Thomas Charles-Edwards of Oxford University, an acknowledged world authority on Patrick,  will give a very comprehensive account of Patrick in Donegal and his arrival in Inishowen. Subject to conditions, it is now with the printers and will be available in July. To pre-order visit www.donegalhistory.com.

Spelling note – readers often bring spelling oddities to my attention. Please note the form above is pre-twelfth century; changes occurred later. Thanks to Lands of Eoghan, who invited Professor Charles-Edwards here last year, and especially to Max Adams, Colm O’Brien and associates who will return here in 2020 (hopefully) for their tenth visit. 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all readers, on this unique chapter in our history when we are unable to celebrate our Patron’s Day in the usual fashion (17 March 2020)

– Seán Beattie, Ph. D. 


  1. Thomas Cannon

    Many thanks, Seán, for this very interesting note on Early Christian Donegal. Tom


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