Culture, Language, Music & Sport
Due to its location on the periphery of Europe, Donegal has been relatively successful in maintaining old ways through the popular use of the Gaelic language, traditional music and native games. While exceedingly proud of this background, Donegal is also a modern society and in many cases old traditions have been successfully merged with modern genres to form new opportunities, as outlined briefly below.
LANGUAGE - Gaeltacht
The Gaeltacht is an area in County Donegal where the Irish language (Gaelic) is spoken and where the traditions of Irish song, dance and folklore prevail. It comprises different areas of the county including the central mountains of Derryveagh and the scenic Poison Glen. In the southern part of the county, Cill Chartha (Kilcar), Gleann Colm Cille, and Ard a'Ratha (Ardara) are home to craft workshops producing hand-woven Donegal Tweed. Moving north along the craggy coastline and somewhat inland, one comes to the Donegal's Gaeltacht Lar (central Gaeltacht), located between Gweebarra Bay, Gleann Fhinne, and Glendowen. Head further north and you enter the Rosses, Gaoth Dobhair and Cloich Cheann Fhaola, areas of haunting natural beauty. The most northerly point of the Donegal Gaeltacht is located via the Rosguill Peninsula to journey's end at Fanad Head.
The Gaeltacht traditions have proven attractive to tourists with visitors coming each year from all over the world to experience the natural way of life that still exists there, and even to learn the Irish language. One of the most successful Gaeltacht entrepreneurs is Liam Ó Cuinneagáin who runs an enterprise called Oideas Gael: a cultural activity centre with bookstore, music, restaurant, local art exhibitions and daily activities. Oideas Gael offers courses in all aspects of Irish culture including Irish language, dance, music, guided hill-walks with talks on archaeology, nature and folklore. The school is attended annually by a large contingent of international students.
Donegal has a deep well of musical culture and has produced some of Ireland’s best-loved musicians ranging from purely traditional to folk rock, celtic rock, new age and on to modern dance on a world scale.
· The Doherty Family - There are numerous different strands to the history of fiddle-playing in County Donegal. Perhaps the best-known and, in the last half of the twentieth century, most influential has been that of the Doherty family. Hugh Doherty was the first known musician of this family. Born in 1790, he headed an unbroken tradition of fiddlers and pipers in the Doherty family until the death in 1980 of perhaps the best-known Donegal fiddler John Doherty. John, a travelling tinsmith, was known for his extremely precise and fast finger and bow work and vast repertoire: he is considered one of the greatest Irish fiddlers ever recorded. John's older brother, Mickey, was also regarded as one of the great Irish fiddlers.
· Tommy Peoples (1948-) was born in St.Johnston. He learned to play the fiddle at an early age and during the 1960's he was part of the traditional Irish music revival and was a member of the The Green Linnet Ceili Band. He plays in a unique virtuosic Donegal fiddle style and is best known for his work with Paul Brady and Matt Molloy.
· Rory Gallagher (1948-95) was born in Ballyshannon and became one of the world’s most talented blues guitarists and a bandleader known for his charismatic performances and virtuoso guitar playing. He recorded albums throughout the 1970s and ‘80s and sold in excess of 30million albums worldwide. Rory Gallagher died in London on 14 June 1995 at the age of 47. Ballyshannon Town runs a very popular commemorative festival each summer in his honour, attended by music fans from all over the world.
· Clannad is a Donegal band formed in 1970 in Gweedore. The band name derives from the Gaelic 'an Clann as Dobhar' meaning 'the family from the townland of Dobhair'. They made music for over 30 years, bringing fame to their native Gweedore and leading the way onto the world stage for other traditional Donegal musicians. They have won several notable awards throughout their career, including a Grammy, a BAFTA, an Ivor Novello and a Billboard Music award.
· Enya (1961-) born Eithne Ní Bhraonáin in Gweedore, a member of the musically gifted Brennan family, and is Ireland’s best-selling solo artist, her record sales exceeding 75million internationally, and one of the best-selling artists of all time. She has enjoyed steady popularity since the late 1980s and her work has earned her four Grammy awards and an academy award nomination.
· Moya Doherty (1957-) was born in Pettigo and is best known as the producer and co-founder of Riverdance the international theatrical phenomenon that premiered in Dublin in February 1995. She was also a founder of the popular Irish radio station Today FM.
· Altan is a Donegal folk music group. Formed in 1987 in Donegal by Mairéad NíMhaonaigh and her late husband Frankie Kennedy, they brought Donegal’s rich collection of Irish language songs and instrumental styles to an international audience, and remain Ireland’s foremost traditional group with over a million records sold.
· Paul Brady (1947-) born in the small town of Strabane in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, was the son of a Donegal school teacher and took much of his early musical influence from traditional styles in the county. He began his career performing as hotel piano player in Bundoran, Co. Donegal. Initially popular for playing traditional Irish music, he later turned to a more rock-inspired electric style with poignant political lyrics.
· Gaelic Football is derived from an ancient game played by the Irish over thousands of years and is the source of the Austrailian Rules professional football code. Unlike Australia, the game in Ireland has remained strictly amateur, but is a highly competitive community-based sport with teams competing at parish and county level. The game has changed hugely over time and today is a modern fast paced spectacle that attracts attendances of up to 80,000 during the summer championships each year. Donegal has developed a strong Gaelic Football tradition and became All-Ireland champions in 2012 for the second time in the county’s history, largely due to the inspirational leadership of team manager Jim McGuinness. Even in sport Donegal has shown its usual adaptability in weaving old traditions with modern genres - many Gaelic Football players have taken up professional contracts in other sports, and manager Jim McGuinness works with young soccer players at Celtic FC in Scotland while simultaneously coaching the Donegal senior gaelic football team in 2012/13.
· International Soccer - Donegal is the source of quite a few international footballers who have played for various professional soccer clubs at the highest level. Two Donegal natives who played most recently in the English Premiership are Shay Given and Seamus Coleman. Others who were well known internationally in the past and were either born in Donegal or connected through family include Paddy Crerand, Packie Bonner, Ray Houghton, Aidan McGeady and Rory Delap. Between them these players appeared for an assortment of teams including Celtic FC, Manchester Utd., Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle Utd., Aston Villa, West Ham Utd., Fulham, Sunderland, Stoke City and Spartak Moscow.
· Surfing - has gone from strength to strength in recent years on Donegal's numerous blue-flag beaches. Bundoran in south Donegal isn't known as the surf capital of Ireland for nothing, boasting some of the best surf schools in the country. From the world-class reef break known as ‘The Peak’ to the ever reliable ‘Tullan Strand’, it has something to offer every level of surfer. In 1997 Bundoran played host to the European Surfing Championships.
The beach at Rossnowlagh is perfect for beginner and intermediate surfers while more challenging waves can be found in the wilds of Inishowen, Fanad Head, Dunfanaghy, Bloody Foreland and Dungloe.
- Ancient Fishing and Angling Traditions – Killybegs in south Donegal is Ireland’s biggest commercial sea fishing port, while other harbours in the county such as Burtonport and Greencastle also have long-standing traditions in the art of sea fishing.
A by-product of this has been the development of sea angling charters, skippered by men who have learned old skills from their forefathers. Shore angling from piers, rocks and beaches is also very popular with the general population, particularly when the mackerel stocks move inshore each summer.
Old books and records from the 1800s show that Donegal has also long been revered for its wild salmon and trout angling, especially through Ireland’s most famous flytier ‘Rogan of Donegal’ located for many years by the Banks of the Erne in Ballyshannon. Michael Rogan (b.1833) was considered to be the best flytier in Ireland by age 14 - his father James had set up the business in Donegal, which remained in the family into the 1970s. Rogan was so well known and respected that he spent several months of every year in London teaching fly tying at the London Salmon Fishers' Club.
We have included an example below of an old published account of fishing and fly-tying on the Erne River: ‘The Erne, Its Legends and Its Fly Fishing’ by the Reverend Henry Newland, Rector and Vicar of Westbourne, published 1851 in London by Chapman and Hall, Piccadilly. For salmon and trout anglers in particular, this gives an intriguing insight into the development of fly fishing while also painting a vivid picture of the quality and quantity of wild salmon that ran the wonderful Erne River system at that time: the river at Ballyshannon produced 100 imperial tons of wild salmon annually, which in today’s prices is valued at c. €4.5m on the table. It also produced 60 tons of eels annually.